Monthly Archives: February 2013

Danger and Doubt

Does this look like a face that embraces danger to you, or does this look like a face that embraces danger?


I saw Maxine Hong Kingston read and speak Monday night at the John Fowles Center For Creative Writing at Chapman University. (If you’re in SoCal, check out this spring’s awesome Asian-American lineup, which includes Karen Tei Yamashita.)

Kingston was wonderful, all five-foot-nothing of her peeking out from behind the lectern, reading from The Woman Warrior, The Fifth Book of Peace, and I Love A Broad Margin to My Life.

She talked about love as a vital force, about how we may not be able to prevent a war next week or next month or next year, but if we live our lives in love today, we can “save battlefield lives a century from now.” She recalled Viet Cong and American veterans meeting teary-eyed decades after trying to kill one another, and talked about the comfort of Alice Walker’s hands and hugs during protests. She invoked Hua Mulan and Athena and the heroines of Leo Tolstoy in calling upon the strength of women to save the world from war.

All that was wonderful and inspiring and uplifting and vintage Kingston.

And then she said something surprising. In response to a question about influences on Tripmaster Monkey – His Fake Book, a trippy San Fran tale of a sixth-generation Chinese poet named Whittman Ah Sing (it’s rad, you should read it – find it at an Indie Bookstore near you), she talked about the people she grew up with and the people she went to Cal with and knew in the Bay Area then and after. She talked about how cool the men were then, in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, how the new language that was being created to talk about psychedelic experience and political experience and modern experience in general was being coined and spoken by men – they were enfranchised, they were the powerful ones, they were the leaders, they were the creators and receptacles of cool.

That might sound like the beginning of a “feminist” rant, but it wasn’t. She said that the men of the Beat generation, the men coming out of World War II and going into Korea, the half-generation after that, the boys and men facing the draft for Vietnam – during this time, these men produced more good writing than women, because, Kingston said, “[women] weren’t in danger. And you really need danger to write novels.”

No, for all you whose dander is suddenly up, in fact she did not mention the different kinds of “danger” that women endured throughout not only this epoch but for most of human history, nor did she invoke the struggles various other minority groups faced during this time. It was an impromptu response about her life forty, fifty years ago. Maybe she’s reached an age or a stage in which she’s over it, but she didn’t seem upset by the fact that that was the way things were. And we all know that Kingston’s thoughts have been with and her actions on behalf of those marginalized groups for most of her life and career as an author and public figure, so don’t get your PC panties in a knot over her saying that men wrote better novels for a few years because they were in danger. It’s interesting.

Besides, I’m not nearly as interested in the context of that sentiment as I am in the content.

Do we really need danger to write novels?

To write anything?

To DO anything?

There are those who would answer a resounding “absolutely!” but there are also those who would answer an equally emphatic “absolutely not!” I know examples of both. I took classes from Alicia Kozameh, an Argentinian writer of enormous impact who spent part of her three years’ imprisonment in the infamous El Sótano (“the basement”), who said that her mind was never more free than when she was locked up and under perpetual threat of being desaparecida. (This is not to say, by any means, that she would rather be back there, scribbling on dirty napkins in El Sótano, instead of living in LA and teaching at Chapman. I think she’s plenty fond of being out of jail and away from danger — and she’s no less productive.) And check out this story from the NY Times about Murong Xuecun,  a Chinese novelist who’s heavily censored and risking his life to criticize that censorship in his country – novel writing may never be this risky, this dangerous, or this important in the US.

But then there’s John Cheever, for instance, who was rich and wealthy and white and American and pretty much never faced any danger, besides maybe an excess of single-malt Scotch whisky. And let’s be honest, a lot of people in the US and Canada and the UK and Western Europe write from a position of security, if not downright coddled luxury, and a lot of them produce perfectly brilliant, insightful, incisive commentaries on humanity.

There are of course plenty (the majority?) of people who live somewhere in between these two extremes – minorities, immigrants, the poor, the otherwise-dispossessed – and they of course are in varying kinds of danger –  physical danger, danger of cultural extinction, existential danger, whatever – varying amounts of the time.


But what about those of us who aren’t? I’m a middle-class white American with all my fingers and toes. I’ve never felt real discrimination. I’ve never been in danger of being erased or not-considered. I’ve never been overlooked for any other reason than my work or whatever isn’t worth looking at. Aside from a few dicey late-night situations, I’ve never been in any real physical danger, either. I’m registered for the draft, but honestly I probably would’ve found a way to bow outta that in years past if it’d come to it.  (Today would I go willingly? I don’t know.)

So how can I write novels? What danger did Professor Kingston use to write her books?

Her most well-known is Woman Warrior, so maybe you can guess where she picked her battles.

So we can pick our battles, then? Decide on what danger drives us? Well then, what do I got?

I think what it boils down to is that I’m in danger of becoming an automaton. A listless carbon copy. 

automatonWe all are, really, in our own ways. I don’t talk about it too much because it can sound (and get) a little batty, but at core I totally buy into the risks Wallace outlined in Infinite Jest, and those Huxley did in Brave New World, and Burgess in The Wanting Seed, and dozens of others in their own way.

I’m also, at core, a lazy bastard, and would just as soon lie about all day and every evening flicking through the “news” channels, flipping through the paper, watching B movies and reading Tom Clancy books and sci-fi and fantasy series, and, like water moving downhill, find the path of least resistance through life. I know the attraction of group think, of agreeing with my friends and the masses in general, of avoiding confrontation and debate.

But there’s something about that, some twinge at the back of my mind, that bugs me, that voice that says, “meeehhh, I’m not quite sure that’s how things go, how they should be, that that’s all there is.”

And mostly that’s it. That’s the extent of my insight – a twinge of skepticism.  Time was, I’d deal with that little voice in other ways besides writing – float it off down a river of Bushmills, say – but nowadays, I leave that twinge alone and see where it takes me.

I have little if any real conviction. I’m not a Man of Principle. But I am curious, and I do doubt, if either of those count for anything, which I think they do. I doubt a lot of things, most things even. Doubt is the most common feeling/emotion/reaction to life that I have. Sure, it can border on crippling if you constantly doubt and second-guess yourself or your writing or your purpose in life, but most things are crippling if they’re too intensely focused on oneself. For the most part, kept in its proper proportion, that omnipresent doubt is the greatest motivator in my life.

Doubt gets me off my lazy ass and in front of the keyboard. 

Some Buddhists say that doubt is the better part of faith, primarily because it drives investigation – of the world, of society, of culture and ego and the self and our behavior in response to all of these things – and it is only through such inquiry that we can learn and understand and see through the bullshit. Because in a lot of ways, that’s what life’s all about, right? We all know or feel – some of us all the time, others only every now and again – that there’s some serious bullshit going on, that there’s some game being played without our consent and definitely without our knowing all the rules.

I have a friend who’s going through some dating bullshit right now, and she’s been feeling kinda bad about how she’s been acting here and there, fending off but also buying into accusations that she’s “psycho” or “crazy” or whatever. But she told me yesterday that she had an epiphany and feels better because she “realized it’s not the actions themselves that make me feel bad, it’s that I place myself in this category of women who are by today’s standards, crazy.” She was growing tired of those “psycho” accusations, and in growing tired, started to doubt their validity, and that doubt created the space for this realization to squeak through that at least for the time being is making her reevaluate who she is and how she’s acting and who she listens to and how she lets what she does hear affect her – in short, in some little tiny way, it’s changing her life.

And that’s a profound thing, right? To realize that the games that are going on are not even real games but illusory ones, games created by people who don’t know any better, who don’t even know they’re creating or perpetuating these constructs and expectations that they’re foisting on anyone and everyone that comes into contact with them — to realize that, right up until the moment of realization, we were those people who didn’t know any better.

Have a couple of these types of epiphanies – or satori, as the Japanese would call it – and you begin to suspect that there are a LOT more to be had. You begin to doubt everything. If you let it, this can take over your life, and you’ll either go crazy or join a monastery. Or both.

But if you find a way to funnel the energy created by this kind of realization and doubt, then you’re really onto something. Some people go to church, some people volunteer or do some other kind of service work, some people quit their corporate jobs and start a raw-dairy co-op, some people take up painting or guitar or poetry or surfing or chess. Some people simply absorb it, knock a bit of the sharpness off their edges, act a little softer towards the world, react a little less. It’s like your skin gets thicker and your heart gets tenderer at the very same time.

If that sounds like Trungpa, that’s because it is.


And these are the things that drive me to write. I think they drive a lot of writers to write. Investigative journalists doubt the story, doubt the press release, doubt the party line, doubt the soundbites. Sports writers doubt their ability to do what they’re writing about – okay, mostly they know all about their inability to do it – and that creates awe. (Or they doubt Mark McGwire’s ability to hit 70 home runs, and that creates a story…)

And I think writers of fiction write about their doubts about the nature of reality, about culture and society and love and friendship and history and our place in it. We doubt that our current explanations for those things are sufficient – most people know humanity in general’s explanations are woefully inadequate – and we think there may be better explanations, and we work out and test those explanations in story form.

And the danger (here’s the circle) to NOT doing that, to not investigating/interrogating/inquiring those twinges of skepticism, to not chasing down my doubts, is a slow slide into permanent and perpetual acquiescence. I’ve chosen writing as the thing, my form of not going gentle into that good night, and if I don’t write, I don’t do anything, and I probably sink into my couch watching some version of the Infinite Jest “samizdat.”

…Perhaps, though, it’s all (and I mean ALL) just a desire to not fade away, and it’s as much ego as anything, and what I’m really afraid of is being inconsequential — I want to make my mark. I want to prove that I was here, that I understand, that I see through…

Which is a doubt. Which will require some thought. Which is my point.


What’s your danger?

What’s your doubt?

What drives you to do the things that you do?

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Promiscuity Amongst the Stacks

I know that got your attention.



Especially if you went to a college with a massive subterranean library that housed floor after floor of narrow aisles of teetering bookcases overflowing with archaic tomes that people rarely used.

These Ecoean / Borgesian libraries are the gathering fields of knowledge, both rarely-updated-Wikipedia-in-print type knowledge, and good old fashioned carnal knowledge. Doing it in the stacks was one of the college experiences you didn’t want to not tick off the Unofficial College Experiences To-Do List.

But, alas, I’m not here to talk about sex. At least not today.

I’m talking the way I used to read. I’m not sure “promiscuous” is quite the right word, because I wasn’t indiscriminate about the books I took home with me, picked up on a Friday and spent the weekend with, fell in passionate but short-lived love with, devoured in bed, stayed up all night with on the couch, clutched at in the reclined front seat of my car, and passed out under after too much whisky.

No, I had my standards, alright: Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway,  Faulkner, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Foucault, Beckett, Joyce, Kant, Freud, Mailer, Proust, Bellow, Updike, Salinger, all the dead and dying white men you could think of (and just enough Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Bishop to impress some feminist-leaning dates). I was very consciously working my way through a very traditional conception of a Western literary/philosophical canon. It was an elite group, in my mind. Well-connected types. $5k a night types.

But still, really, I read for notches on my belt. I couldn’t shut up about what I’d read, either – not so much about their contents or implications or characteristics that made them unique from one another, but simply that I’d read it. I bragged about reading a couple novels at once, about how tired I was from staying up all night to finish off some slim, well-structured, kind of kinky South American novel, how my mind was being blown by this succession of Russians I was into, how I was breaking the bank to support this constant flow of new, strange books. I built cheap, crappy bookshelves and displayed my conquests in them for everyone to see. As Dylan sang to Mr. Jones (and though I didn’t know it, to me, too), I was “very well read, it [was] well known.”

And like a stereotypical male jerk, I forgot about them as soon as I was done with them. Those bookshelves may as well have been full of uncut pages a la Gatsby for how much what was on those pages meant to me (no wonder I liked ole Jay so much back then).

I’d remember their names and their general physical characteristics, like their size and weight and the feel of their paper in my hands, but about their interiority I’d retain almost nothing. For the most part, I’d absorbed almost nothing. I wasn’t interested in what was inside, beyond what it felt like in the moment and what it could do for me and my image afterwards. I went through some of the best literature ever written like so many B movies – a cheap thrill to get my mind off things. At the time, of course, I thought having read a lot of books made you great at reading. I thought I was being attentive, that I was engaged in something profound. I thought that quantity meant something – to me, yes, but especially to others. I thought if I got to some magic, unknown number of books read, I’d feel like I was alright. As if once I’d read everything of importance there was to read, I could, through osmosis or simply enough repetition, create that kind of magic myself. I thought that if everyone else knew how much I’d read, they’d be awed, and that awe would translate into something meaningful. I was operating under the assumption that someone else’s awe would make me a good writer.

And I was an effective narcissist. I had just enough natural talent – polished with charm and oiled with the fear of the shame of being found out – to come up with flashy arguments for well-researched papers to make decent grades. I acted the earnest student – I was an earnest student – and very openly fell in earnest-student love with my teachers. When I pushed things too far, I would cobble together what fleeting memories I had of  those week-long flings and one-night-stands, leverage that love to the hilt, and stay in good standing.

Anyway, over the last several years, my approach to reading has begun to change. I was hesitant to admit, when I first began to suspect it in my mid-twenties, that I’d mistreated so many good books, disrespected so many good writers. What did it say about me that I’d wham-bam-thank-you-ma’ammed my way through The Brothers K and In Search of Lost Time? It meant I was a shallow jerk, obviously. A fact which a lot of people, I imagine, were on to long before it ever occurred to me…

But, thank Godot, I’m beyond that now, or starting-to-get. I still have the temptation to tear through novels and Read It All, but the motivation for doing so is changing. I know now that no amount of reading is going to make me a Great Author. It might help me with my writing, but it’s not going to do it for me. It’s not going to substitute for learning how I write. There are, of course, innumerable lessons to be learned, and the more I write, the more I realize this, and the slower I read. I have less time to read the more I write, yes, but I also take longer per page. It’s as if the perfectly obvious idea, usually as subtle as a flying mallet, finally hit me and I realized that these books were labors of love and genius, and that in fact I had to pay attention if I wanted to learn from them. And so over the last three or four years, it seems like I’m just discovering how to read. I dislike that expression, “I know less now than I did XX years ago” (if that’s true, what have you been doing with yourself?), but the sense of it is apropos.

And it’s extremely exciting. Looking back on my teens and early twenties, when I was so sure I already knew all there was to know and just needed to ingest more quantities of it, I see a closed-off, static, rigid mind. I remember being discontent, I remember that feeling of inadequacy and spite that under-girded my arrogance and my desperate, pathetic attempts at mattering – to myself, to everyone, to anyone. And now it’s as if the whole world is opening up, and there are so many good books and there are so many possibilities.

It’s a shame that I more or less missed out on all those books I tore through back then, because I’ll never have time to reread them all. Some of this ability to “understand” literature (whatever that really means) has been somewhat retroactive and I’ve realized things about Anna Karenina and Don Quixote upon recalling them that I wasn’t aware of at 16 and 20, but most of the stuff from back then is gone from my memory bank. But I also realize no one cares whether I’ve read all those books or not.  When I remember that nobody cares – and not just about what books I might or might not have had occasion to read – I’m a lot better off. Then I can do the thing, whatever it is, for the sake of doing it. Nobody cares that I ran X miles, or surfed at X beach, or met such-and-such author at X coffee shop, or meditate X minutes a day, or work out X times a week, or write X words, or take my girlfriend to X for dinner, or go to Y with my friends for kicks.

Nobody cares!

And when nobody cares, I care a lot more about doing the thing than having done it. And I become more interested in what other people are doing – not to care or compare what others have done, but because if they’re doing it, it might be worth doing myself. And then I’m just a little tiny part of this big ole interesting world trying to add some color to the mosaic, instead of an insignificant nothing existing painfully outside of it and waiting impatiently to get on top of it by hook or by crook.

And that, for the time being at least, is my secret to life.

It occurs to me that a lot of this is probably a simple result of growing up and getting a little older and getting a little more perspective on myself and the world around me. I read everything now – well, not everything, I still have no-50-Shades-type standards, but Grunberg, Soroush, Thiong’o and McGuane made up my last book order – and the wider I read, the more beautiful and wonderful and approachable the world seems. And while I may not get back to all the books I read back then – especially the philosophers (spare me the Germans especially, these days) – perhaps I’ll reread some of them. Come to think of it, Faulkner read Don Quixote “every year, as some do the Bible.” He said, “the books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes.” What a testament to the richness of these books, right, that Faulkner eschewed contemporaries to revisit only them? How wonderful to know that those old friends and lovers, to whom I gave pieces of myself without even knowing it, whose memories sometimes jar me from sleep and leave me to stare heartsick and nostalgic at the dark ceiling – how wonderful to know that all I have to do to taste that particular flavor of perfection once again, or to sample some as-yet-unknown promise of untold rapture, is to rise from bed and tiptoe across the room to the bookcase and slip out a book – a book that, these days, is sure to reassure me that all of life’s secrets and all the assurances I’ll ever need that life is just as it’s supposed to be are here and now, in the ground beneath my feet, in the pen in my hand, waiting for me in that warm bed that I stole out of for a little bit of cold, old comfort.

To which books do you “return as you do to old friends”? Or do you prefer to always read something new?

What’s your current secret to life?

***hat-tip for thepic***