How does your Buddhist practice affect or inspire your writing?
I feel that sitting meditation and writing are very much akin. When I try to explain to writer friends what meditation is like, I say, “It’s just like writing, except that you don’t do the writing.” And years ago, before I’d ever heard of Buddhism, I used to sit quietly in my chair for fifteen minutes or so before I began writing every day, letting my mind settle. I actually called it “sitting practice,” though I’d never heard that term.I feel that my life as a writer has been a long process, over forty years now, of learning not to do the writing, but to let it happen. The first time I wrote a novel, in my early twenties, I wrote out an elaborate plan for it first. I was terrified that I’d work for months and then get stuck in the middle. But with Jake Fades, and with my latest novel, I’ve sit down to write every morning with no idea what would happen in the book that day. I’ve found it’s better to write that way, to let the book unfold like life. And somehow meditation, just sitting and trusting in mind, has helped me learn that.
I actually think that writing was my first spiritual practice (though I would never have called it that when I was younger), and the only one I had for many years. It was through writing that I accessed the deep part of myself that we see in meditation. For that reason I was a compulsive writer; I felt I had to do it, and had to succeed at it, to justify all the time I was spending. Now that I have meditation as a practice, I no longer have the same desperation about writing. I like to do it, but don’t have to. It makes the whole activity much lighter, and more enjoyable.
Could you tell me a little about the Buddhist practice that you have now?
I sit zazen every morning, mostly at home but two mornings a week at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, where my teacher is Taitaku Pat Phelan. We have an all-day sitting about once a month, and two sesshins a year, one in December and one in May. I also usually go back to Massachusetts for one retreat a year at the Insight Meditation Society, with Larry Rosenberg. I began Buddhist practice with him in 1991 at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.
Buddhism is about being present in the moment and accepting reality for what it is. How do you reconcile that with writing fiction—with writing about things that are imaginary
I think that all religion, all spirituality, is ultimately about being present in the moment and accepting reality for what it is. That is the great experience that inspired all the great religious teachers and that they tried to communicate to their followers. It seems like such a simple thing, yet we find it so hard to do. We drift away and, instead of embracing reality, tell ourselves stories about it. If you look at what people are doing with much of their time, they’re making up stories about reality. Telling themselves the story of their lives, instead of living their lives.
And yet I would have to say that the storytelling impulse is as basic and human as anything I can think of. When human beings invented language, they began telling stories, of things that happened to them, things that happened to other people. Religious teachers told stories, and tell them still. Jesus told them; the Buddha told them. A story can never capture reality; it’s a pale thing in comparison. And yet human beings love stories, telling them and hearing them. I often say to writing students, go into any bar, any restaurant, and you see groups of people sitting there telling stories. When you aspire to be a narrative writer, you’re not aspiring to something lofty. It’s one of the most basic human activities.
In my own life as a writer I have done a great deal of what is called narrative non-fiction, writing about my own life. It was a way I studied myself, and learned a great deal about who I was, what Buddhism calls my conditioning. I did therapy, I wrote in journals, and I wrote narratives about the material that came up. All those activities went together. But the longer you write, and the longer you sit, the more you realize what a vast thing this “reality” is, and how many facets it has. You realize how complicated human experience is, and how many perspectives it has. You begin to get quite uncomfortable recording even a very simple experience and saying it is “true.” True to what? To a very limited human perspective. John Edgar Wideman, whom I regard as a great writer, once published a collection of stories called All Stories Are True, and I understand what he meant, and I agree with him. But you could just as easily say All Stories Are False. Even an autobiography that tries to stick quite closely to verifiable facts is fiction. It’s a made up narrative. It doesn’t accord with reality. No story could.
In that way, I now feel more comfortable writing fiction, making up a story that is clearly not my own, not trying to be true to some experience I’ve had. After Jake Fades was published I did an interview down here on public television with a man who knew something about my life and career, and he was trying to get me to say that Hank, the narrator, was really me. He said, “You have a son that age, you have a teacher.” And he knew I’d written a lot about sex, and that that was a big issue with Hank. But I just started to laugh. Of course Hank’s issues are my issues; I’ve always written about what interests me. But that clearly is not my life. I’m married, and I live in North Carolina, and I work at Duke. I’m not a priest.
I feel as if I can write about myself better when I don’t try to write about my own life. As Auden said, the truest poetry is the most feigning.
What do you think about what’s happening in the world of Buddhist publishing?
I think that Buddhist publishing is at an interesting and difficult moment right now, just because the market has expanded so much. For a while it seemed that publishers were just bringing out one book after another about practice, and to a certain extent that’s justified, because practice is a vast subject and no one can really capture it, it’s always helpful to read a new take on it. On the other hand, enough is enough. How many books on practice do we really need? And for me, I have to say, I keep going back to the first books that taught me, and that always seem new, every time I pick them up.:Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Opening the Hand of Thought, and Trungpa’s early books.
In that way I think publishers need to move away from writing that is specifically on practice and expand into other subjects, which is what I see them doing. When my daughter in law had a baby recently, and wanted a book on mindful child rearing, I asked my editor at Shambhala, and he had several to suggest. Our practice should permeate every facet of existence, and in that way it’s legitimate to write about anything. There’s a Buddhist take on everything. I think that’s what the Buddhist publishers are doing, and that’s been the general direction of the Shambhala Sun, from what I’ve seen.
And what do you think about the world of Buddhist fiction?
The subject of Buddhist fiction is harder to put your finger on. I wanted to write Jake Fades when I realized that a Zen teacher and student represented one of the great age old paradigms, of the enlightened guy and his dumb sidekick, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. And of course a part of that story is that the sidekick may not be so dumb after all. Sometimes Don Quixote needs to listen to Sancho. But I didn’t consciously sit down to write “Buddhist fiction.” I wouldn’t know how to do that. I don’t know what it is
It’s like the whole subject of Christian fiction. I guess that’s a popular genre these days, I’ve seen a section in Borders with that heading, but I’m not thinking of those books. I’m thinking of the great literary writers, someone like Graham Greene. People call him a Catholic novelist, but was that Catholic fiction? Was it all Catholic fiction? And what about somebody like Evelyn Waugh. In his own way he was more Catholic than Greene, who was a convert. But I don’t think you’d call Vile Bodies a Catholic novel. At least the church wouldn’t.
I often go to the movies with my wife and we came out saying, “That was very Buddhist,” when that may not have been the writer’s intention at all. The dharma is just the truth about life, after all, and if a work of art reflects truth, it should reflect the dharma. I think that “Buddhist” writers should write about what they’re interested in, and we should just call it fiction, and leave the qualifier off. Like Jim Harrison, for instance. I see various reflections of Buddhist practice in his work, but people don’t think of him as a Buddhist writer (and he definitely isn’t a monk). So of course publishers should publish books that are in line with their values. But I don’t think they should limit themselves to “Buddhist fiction.” Whatever that is.