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, Robert Detman: The Real Risk is Writing

Robert Detman bio photoWriting anything worthwhile is an invitation to risk. Besides being largely subjective, risk is many faceted. Risk may be taking on the mantle of a writer, and foregoing a stable career. It can also be thought of as the effort you take to draw a reader in, or it may be what you are willing to do to your characters. Risk can also mean stretching oneself and tackling unfamiliar, outright uncomfortable, genres. But are any of these really risking all that much?

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2016, guest editor and inveterate birder Jonathan Franzen explains how the writers in the collection have risked in their essays, and that this became the basis for his selection. Franzen writes: “[…] The risk I feel most grateful to a writer for taking: shame. As Arthur Miller once said, ‘The best work that anybody ever writes is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.’ […] Your material feels too hot, too shameful, to even think about? Therefore you must write about it.” Risk is fundamental to the writing process.

The writer faces potential humiliation for putting their thought into words. I occasionally feel a jolt of anxiety when I think too deeply about what thoughts I’ve put into words, though over time I’ve developed a thick skin. Once I reveal myself on the page, I try to move on. I sometimes confront the anguish of letting work get published and then finding typos, but I’m more likely to embarrass myself by failing to catch a clunker of a sentence, and then hope it goes unnoticed. I am always grateful to editors who ask about my intent before committing my words to print.

A rush to publish has probably caused its share of shame for writers. The writer never knows how her work is going to be received, and this is always the hump to overcome in submitting work. A lot of writers probably see writing in general as risky–which might explain why many don’t write beyond the comfort of a familiar genre. Some writers won’t send their work out to the world, and though fear of rejection is the typical reason, it may be that they are afraid that what they’ve written will be misconstrued. Every time I send work out, I wonder, “Will these editors think I’m crazy?”

Writing is a private act that one makes public, which then becomes a transaction with possibly countless unknown readers. Having an opinion and crafting an argument could be seen as hazardous, particularly if you live under a repressive government. But for many of us, it simply means we invoke the ire of those who might disagree with us. The anonymity of the internet’s comment streams seems to have made this possibility rampant; otherwise, it is foolish to be overly concerned with the reactions of trolls. There is the danger of alienating someone by writing about them in a memoir, and revealing their secrets. And there is the possibility of offending someone by your subject matter and how you deal with it. This last item is a risk that the writer takes every day.

Recently, there has been a call for “trigger warnings” on some works of literature at college campuses, to warn unsuspecting readers of a potential post-traumatic stress disorder reaction. Seeing how literature has been around for hundreds of years without the equivalent of an FDA label, this notion of endangerment seems oddly concocted out of a hyper-aware desire to not offend. This political correctness on steroids subtly wants to imply that writing about an event is akin to a writer perpetrating it.

A misconception about writing–often by those who aren’t writers–is that the writer exposes herself with every utterance, revealing her darkest secrets. But rarely does this occur. On the other hand, many of the essays in the Best Of American Essays 2016 have the feel of voyeuristic confessions. One essayist, Katherine E. Standefer, in the essay, “In Praise of Contempt,” writes of sexual emancipation at the hands of a man she does not like. Laura Kipnis, in “Sexual Paranoia”, details her attempts to challenge college campus harassment policies. In Richard M. Lange’s “Of Human Carnage,” the writer explores his witnessing a suicide, and an unwillingness to become further involved in the investigation. Many of the essays have clever shock value. Still, having written, published and had their work selected for the Best Of American Essays, I wonder if these writers believe they have risked in the way Franzen sees it. Perhaps our sense of risk lessens in proportion to the publicity of our work.

Writing about an event in my past, I could put someone I once knew in a compromising situation, by naming them in relation to this event. This person, I could argue, might deserve the attention I give them; on the other hand, is it really my right to expose someone, even if I think they deserve it?

I recently wrote a memoir about a period in college when I experienced a harrowing bout of depression. I initially felt uneasy submitting this to journals, but perhaps my piece might offer solace to someone who has gone through something similar (though maybe it would only trigger PTSD). Time and distance from the material made it easier to write the essay, but I had to consider repercussions. Though I altered names to avoid implicating some acquaintances, the story is about my own battle, and I can bear whatever outcome it entails. Writing this piece was oddly cathartic, by the way–the thrill of the risk?–though it might have been less problematic to write it as fiction.

One person’s risk is another’s voyeurism, particularly if one seeks the attention. But to be a writer is to demand attention, and writing about oneself puts the writer in welcome company. Even at a reading where the audience laughs at an awkward passage possibly not intended for a laugh, at least the writer was heard (in lieu of being read). For the most part, the writing community is supportive–after all, we’ve all risked attempting to be writers.

Whatever writing project you take on, it is really only yourself you are imperiling, and at that, you may be the only one who perceives the risk. Maybe the most valid claim is that, if you believe your writing is taking a risk, then it probably is. Ultimately, taking a risk in writing is what makes it worth the effort.