I recently had a watershed moment as a writer when I came across the concept of zoe versus bios in a book by dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp called The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. In this chapter called “Your Creative DNA”, Tharp writes:
I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. These strands are as solidly imprinted in us as the genetic code that determines our height and eye color, except they govern our creative impulses. They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.
Later on, Tharp introduces the concepts of zoe and bios as they are described by Carl Kerenyi in his book Dionysos. They are both Greek words that can be translated as “life”, but they have different meanings. Zoe is the eternal life, the life that is present in all things, “life in general without characterization”. Bios, however, is specific. Bios “accommodates the notion of death, that each life has a beginning, middle, and end.” Tharp then describes what a profound impact these concepts had on understanding her own work and the work of choreographers she admires. She writes about her own work:
On the one hand, there was my ability to create dances about a life force. On the other, there was my occasional urge to break away from this and create dances that tell a specific story. The first kind of dances came naturally to me, the latter required more of an effort. In my heart I am a woman more of zoe than of bios.
I realized that I too, in my heart, am a woman more of zoe than of bios.
By thinking about the concepts of zoe and bios in relation to my poetry, I experienced aha! In my second book-length manuscript of poetry (called “Research on my Twin”), I had been trying to deal with “the autobiographical poem”. I have written lots of purely autobiographical poems, but I seldom feel they turn out well. They are a harder form for me to master. The ones that do succeed, I realized, have a strong element of zoe, or, to express it in a different way: they have mythological elements which are beyond my particular life, my particular experiences.
Since joining the DGAP, I have been grappling with some of my old autobiographical poems. I learned that to revise one to a point that felt satisfying to me, I had to let go of “what really happened” and go beyond the experience as it was, connect it to something larger and more interesting and relevant to myself as a person and as a writer now. I also saw that the whole point of some of my old poems was the experience: the details and my reaction to them at that particular point in time. With relief, I acknowledged that I could never revise those particular poems. Goodbye manuscript!
It is wonderful to figure out why a project will not work and to decide to not spend any more time on it. There are poems of mine, even mainly autobiographical ones, that still feel “alive”, pulsing with potential. I am eager to revise those and to play with them, to find a balance of bios and zoe. The others can serve as markers for me–a kind of journal in poetry–their purpose has already been fulfilled.
tatami mat, Kyoto