Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.

Guest Post, Doug Cornett: Shut Up and Walk

Portland skylineI teach 11th grade English at a high school located in downtown Portland, Oregon. I see my students every day, and as you might imagine, I have my ups and downs. Some days, when the lesson plan is solid and I’m properly caffeinated, I feel like I’m nailing it. The conversation is great, kids are forming opinions and getting passionate about the subject matter, and any minute my trophy will arrive for teacher of the year. But other times, I can’t help but wonder why somebody hasn’t come along and yanked me off the stage already.

I do a lot of talking to the students, and in turn the students do a lot of talking with me and with each other. Mostly, we talk about literature and writing. Stuff like tone, character, plot structure, symbolism, the works. How we feel about the characters. How we feel about the author. How we suspect the author might want us to feel about the characters. I really do love it, and I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to have these conversations all the time with people who are engaged and informed and excited to learn.

But when it comes to writing, there’s a limit to the value of talking. At a certain point, I truly believe, you have to shut up and listen, and not just to other people, but to the world itself.

So on one particular afternoon, when I saw that the conversation was dragging, the eyelids were getting heavy, and the post-lunch yawns were on the creep, I decided that it was no longer time to yap. It was time to take a walk, as a class, around the neighborhood.

Before we set out, I laid down the rules. No talking. No cell phones. Avoid forms of nonverbal communication with each other (e.g. poking, tripping, massaging, mouthing curse words, etc.). We were going to shut up and walk, taking note of anything that we might come across. This, I hoped, was going to be an important lesson on writing.

A few nightmare scenarios ran through my mind just as we set out. The sky might suddenly open up and cast down rain, hail, lightning, brimstone, etc. upon us, sending my tightly organized and mindful class into a frenzied, save-your-own-ass stampede. One of the many disenfranchised individuals camping on the street might decide it’s the right time to take issue with my face. A student might get so absorbed in the present moment that she wanders into the middle of traffic. Or, more realistically, the whole thing will feel weird and just…kind of silly.

But there we were, walking out of the school building and onto the busy sidewalk. We made our way through the city streets silently, a slow-moving mass emitting no sounds except maybe the rhythmic pads and clicks of our shoes against the pavement. On the first block, we carried with us a kind of shrugging sheepishness; we’d pass by people and greet their puzzled expressions with half-smiles, all too aware of our unusual noiselessness. This was a new thing, to simply observe without the distraction of conversation or the filter of a Spotify playlist or podcast in our earbuds. It felt awkward.

Gradually, we settled into it. It’s a totally bizarre and worthwhile feeling to move in a silent group. You feel calm, reflective, but also sort of badass. Based on their quizzical expressions, the people we passed by on the street were unnerved by us. How often do you see a group of 20 teenagers just walking? Not talking, not looking at their phones. Just walking. Were we some kind of cult?

As we waited for the walk signal at an intersection, a blue BMW with tinted windows boomed and rattled past us. From its slightly cracked windows blasted UB40’s “Red, Red Wine.” The car’s presence was enormous. We resisted the immediate urges to laugh, dance, sing along, or scoff. Instead, we just watched as it trundled down the avenue, rippling its effects across the afternoon.

When you’re doing nothing but observing, every movement in the world becomes a story, and every image becomes a composition: construction workers framed by the cubic bones of an unfinished apartment building; the catch and release of cars at a four-way intersection; the violent hock-hock-spit of a red-faced jogger. And, to me at least, an ineffable humor becomes apparent. From a detached eye, the disparate elements of an urban street corner can come together in a cosmic and gentle punchline.

Now, in full disclosure, I have no idea what my students felt about this exercise. I kind of lost track of time, and when we finally arrived back to the classroom the period was just ending. I dismissed the students with a thank you and a nod. Maybe some of them were wondering why we just wasted fifteen minutes of class time. Maybe some of them were just happy to get outside for a little bit. But I prefer to think that a few of them, at least, were genuinely moved by the experience. Maybe they saw the same old neighborhood with a completely new perspective. And that is as good a place as any to begin writing.

Featured Art for Issue 9: Jonathan Faber

Jonathan Faber

We had the opportunity of featuring six of Jonathan Faber’s paintings in our newly-released Issue 9. Jonathan’s award-winning work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout New York and Texas including the Austin Museum of Art, the David Shelton Gallery, and the Galveston Arts Center.

His work fuses the beauty of both abstract and realistic environments. Jonathan describes his new collection as “being involved within the paradox of memory and observation – seeking out subjects that co-exist between the expansive and the intimate, the recognizable and the ambiguous.” He explains that “they manifest from memories of places or things observed, lived with, or passed through.”

Jonathan draws inspiration from the houses and backyards from where he grew up: “Many things inspire me but my most recent subjects are connected to domestic objects and landscape settings. Other sources of mine examine conversations, things I’ve read, and things I’ve listened to. These associations tend to lean more into the abstract spectrum.”

He has received awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 2011, the Joan Mitchell Foundation in 2003, and has been nominated three times for the Arthouse Texas Prize. Faber finds creating art is about the journey and the discovery: “To me the transformative process of making paintings doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an ultimate goal. I find it’s much more exciting, productive and ambitious to try to solve problems and take risks. So goals for me tend to suggest an ending where I am more interested and concerned with discovery and where that may lead.”

This new collection takes on a slightly different tone than some of his previous work: “I think about past work as being in two camps — graduate school and post graduate school. Graduate school was about trying on a lot of different hats and mimicking for better/for worse some of my past heroes, such as Gerhardt Richter for example. Post graduate I found myself introducing a broader range of invented vocabularies and moving more or less in a linear direction from one painting to another, responding to the discoveries made in each painting. Now I look at what I make as a hybrid of many interests with a better handle on orchestrating and decoding the rules of representation.”

For those looking to hone their talents, Jonathan suggests new artists “work hard at their practice. Stay engaged with your art community so people know who you are and what you’re up to. Very few artists can live off their own work. Most artists need a second job to support themselves. It’s very important to be honest and admit to yourself what kind of artist you are.”

Being an active part of the art community is essential: “Go to every art event you can and get to know the right people in that art community. If you are the type of artist who doesn’t enjoy the social aspects of asserting oneself in this way then you will need another job like teaching a painting class or working in a design field. Just relying on the quality of your work and the purity of your spirit/conscience rarely puts enough food on the table to maintain a robust artistic practice.”

Jonathan Faber currently works part-time as an Assistant Professor at Southwestern University Georgetown in Texas and is a Lecturer at the University of Texas in his hometown of Austin. You can see Jonathan Faber’s work in Issue 9 and on his website.