Santa Fe, New Mexico
What is your relationship to your authentic self?
As far as I can tell, having a self is like swimming or walking. What would it mean to authentically walk? I’m more likely to imagine myself in terms of intention and virtue. Maybe that’s not as compelling as authenticity, but for me it’s more useful. It keeps me out of trouble and I get more done.
On the other hand, there are some inner objects and states of being that I assess in terms of authenticity. Is this hunger real; is it authentic? Or am I just craving another bowl of ice cream? Was that person actually engaged with me, or was he reproducing an emotion not authentically his own? I once read a book of poems by Paul Auster. I couldn’t believe how bad they were (seemed to be) and kept asking myself, is he kidding or is this authentic? If these are genuinely works of literature, what experience am I missing that would let me appreciate them?
Which brings me back to where I began. Someone once said that there is no such thing as a bad poem; there are poems and there are failed attempts at poetry. There are selves and there are persons who fail to be selves? Probably not. So I’ll stick with authentic appetites, emotions, poems and let my non-authenticatable self go.
How does being a practicing Buddhist play into your writing life?
If I didn’t have a practice I wouldn’t be writing a novel and I’d probably still be trying to cure my neuroses with psychology. I began to get past my writer’s block when I read Natalie Goldberg’s books (Writing Down the Bones and Long Quiet Highway are my favorites) but didn’t really get free of it until I started sitting on a cushion and going on retreat and learned to let my mind alone—most of the time. Now my practice helps me hold the awareness that writing is not distinct from every other aspect of my life; it’s a practice, too. Mainly what I’m trying to do, in my writing and all the time, is to be happy among other happy beings.
Do you have a sense of calling?
More like, I have a sense of having been condemned from childhood to wish with all my heart that I could do something superbly that I don’t do very well at all and would probably be happier not doing. I used to wish I were a painter—utterly fantastical. Now I wish I were a dressmaker or an embroiderer. Instead, I keep writing. It won’t let me go.
This is not victim mentality or an addiction. I feel as if I see most clearly when I’m reading a poem or a novel and it’s really working on me. All of life should be that clear seeing, which means all my thoughts, words, deeds should be the poem, essay, novel of clear seeing. Or as if when I’m meditating or walking around in my daily way and things-as-they-are spill through my mind like rivers, the only possible wholesome response is to keep the rivers flowing. It happens that the water I’ve got is words.
I guess that qualifies as a calling.
How does money relate to it?
I don’t have a lot of money partly because I don’t want it and partly because I write. I work but I don’t have a career because I’ve always wanted to reserve the major portion of my attention for an inner life, for writing even when I’m not writing. From every point of view this is foolish. I should either just work or just write.
But what’s new? This is the perpetual dilemma of the artist/writer and especially for those of us with modest talent, who if we had burned hot when we were very young would probably have lost our ways. I feel lucky to be more or less balanced, to be marginal, financially at risk and always afraid but intensely aware, and finally to have a productive writing practice.
What work are you doing now for money? Do you think you can live off just the writing you are most passionate about? Does that matter to you?
I work for a micro nonprofit and a small business, both with a focus on regenerative ecologies and economies. Among a lot of purely administrative and data management tasks, I write grant proposals and promotional materials and do lots of editing. I can’t live off my own writing because I’m not entrepreneurial. This only matters to me because I’m aware how short life is and that, with the jobs and everything that goes with having not very much money, I won’t be able write a lot before I die. But so? This, too, is a practice.
Do I sound like a tape loop, all this talk about practice? I really work to maintain balance and equanimity, and when I slide, I suffer. That makes the discipline worth it. And I’m sixty. I’ve slid so many times, I’m pretty thoroughly conditioned to keep trying.
What role does discipline play in your writing?
I like the whole notion of discipline, I like the word. It means instruction, and my old Webster’s defines it as training that perfects. Writing is a discipline that will perfect me. Art and literature are disciplines with the potential to perfect us all. But once more my framework is Buddhism, in which the only perfection is compassion and happiness and the practices that lead to happiness for all beings.
I also believe that punishment is never productive. A cruel discipline can never perfect its victim and will send the victimizer to hell.
Briefly describe your writing practice.
My inner exhortations: Write every day and on the myriad days you can’t, walk around for at least an hour or two lost in your visions and vocabularies. Be your characters at all times. Listen. Trust your intuition. Never plot. Give up on the details. Give up on logic. Jump out of the airplane. When you’re stuck, pay attention to your dreams. Above all else be brave.
As for the nitty-gritty: I write “outside” myself. When I’m composing, I’m nowhere. It’s all happening on the page, in the unfurling of the sentences.
I start by reading someone else’s work until I can’t bear the pressure to open the laptop. Then I read whatever I’ve written most recently or I write down what I’ve been carrying around in my head. I don’t resist the impulse to edit because editing is where I’m most creative. At last, when I must give in to the urge to make something up, I hand the keyboard over to the character. There is always a character, even when I’m not writing a story, because I want someone other than me to be responsible for the voice and the ideas. Otherwise it’s just me, it’s not art.
Yeah, I know this is dreaming—it all comes out of me. Pretending otherwise is the trick I use to open a door in my mind.
What hopes do you have for your novel and how do these hopes connect back to the essence of your calling?
I hope my novel will find a way to its readership. I hope that writing the second draft will be so intensely pleasurable that I’ll lose all inhibition and burn hot enough to cut through every one of my literary and material impediments. These two hopes seem to be the one aspiration of my calling. If only I can match my river of words at least approximately to the rivers of things as they are—then surely I will have captured the light of being well enough to attract a reader.
When do you expect to be finished with your novel?
February 3, 2:37pm. Just kidding.
First draft by September 1 (I’m very close). Second draft before the end of 2014. After that, it depends on my first readers.
Have you had any outstanding dreams, intuitive experiences or synchronicity related to your calling?
My dreams, which often seem stunted and ugly to me and to my dream ego, are usually reliable sources of solutions to problems in my writing. Also, it was a miraculous synchronicity that I went to the right college and got to go twice, and it was pure luck that at exactly the key moment a friend dropped into my life and said, “Write a novel about…”
What categories of books do you keep in your home?
Poetry, essays and memoires, literary biographies, lit crit, philosophy, Dharma, art. Not so many novels, for some reason. Dictionaries. In English with a smattering of French.
Paper or digital? (How do books in their physical form affect you?)
Both! I recently learned to read on an e-reader. Wow. Words unmoored from pages. A whole new sense of how I orient myself within texts. An insight into how tightly I’m bound by narrative, how strongly I resist it, and what a headache I’ve developed over the course of my reading life. Also an intuition that release is possible. And a theory that maybe paper pages—those beautiful, sensual frames—belong to lyrical poetry and poetic narratives, art books, artist’s books, magazines, and some technical writing. Essays, novels, a lot of poetry, most journalism, and everything else could, maybe should be afloat in space? I’m longing to test this but life is short.
What is your favorite vegetable?
What’s your favorite tea?
Spearmint, loose leaf. Not a tea, I know, but what I drink every day. Otherwise anything my friends Ben and Joe serve me in a tiny teacup.