A Reflection on Reading & Writing
When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.
~Laozu, The Dao de Qing
I went to Beijing Teachers College, in China, almost forty years ago. 1981 or 1982. I was not a particularly good student, but I loved living in China—when China was a much more rural country than now. There were few cars on the streets of Beijing and only one high rise building, the Beijing Hotel—that dwarfed the skyline at almost ten stories high—where the few foreigners, business seekers and reporters in the city lived and stayed and drank and dissipated their days and nights away—or so it seemed to me. The Chinese people, aside from the communist party elite, were invariably poor, but incessantly gracious, and few seemed unhappy. One night while visiting a Zhang Hong Nian, a poet, artist and friend of mine, I asked how, in the face of such daily hardship, the average Chinese person maintained their dignity and sense of humor.
His answer surprised me. “Because China is so old—so very old compared to your America. We Chinese experience history in stretches of thousands of years. We have lived in the dark, and we have lived in the light, but America has barely a few centuries of history, so you do not yet have an equal balance between Yin [darkness] and Yang [light].” He went on to poke fun at our American individualism and our unquenchable thirst for wealth and happiness, while he searched more for acceptance, stability and tranquility—even while in his paintings he captured and exposed the hard reality of life in China.
This was almost too much to wrap my pea-sized brain around, but I loved the notion of a universe guided by a balance between forces where things only exist because something else exists: good/bad, up/down, high/low, light/dark...
And then I thought, “Reading and writing? … they cannot exist without the other!” I was quite proud of myself. It was probably the first philosophical thought I ever dwelled on for more than thirty seconds, but it was the power of reading and writing—of engaging both reading and writing simultaneously that transformed my life.
At that time, my imbalance tilted towards reading rather than writing. Reading was easier; it didn’t require much thought, and it was (and still is) pretty damn enjoyable. Writing, however, was a mixed bag. I had zero confidence as a writer, yet I wrote a lot more than the average person, and aside from a few friends, I never shared my writing with anyone for many years. I wrote for reasons I’ll never know. It is only recently that I have started to share my writing with a larger audience—like you:)
The weird thing is I don’t read as much anymore. I write much more than I read. Maybe it is because I read so much earlier in life, and I am just now starting to balance the Yin and Yang of my literary life. Maybe the limitations of time squeeze my day into priorities and reading is not always one of them. Sometimes I wonder if we need books as much as we used to need them... I know it is an anathema to question the power of books, for writing—actually putting words to a page—was a transformative invention, and books are probably the most important invention of mankind.
Followed closely by the rubber worm.
Books are an invention—a tangible tool that has served a distinct purpose for centuries. Books are how we learned our way out of darkness and ignorance. Books carried our stories and our religions and our histories; books taught us how to build, create, and even understand the universe. But now we get words through so many other inventions. We watch TV and the news and movies and dumb reality shows and YouTube how-to videos; we make our own videos and chat with words and listen to NPR and sports radio, and we are inundated with advertisements and warnings and outrageous opinions as we click away at the staggering number of options on our screens. By most metrics, we are more engaged with words than in any other age or time.
But are they good words? Are they enduring words? Are they worth the exchange of life given over to them?
Books are still the best invention, and reading good books is still the greatest pastime. There are, however, no new books without new writers, and there are no “good” new books without thoughtful, brave, insightful writers who dig deep into the bowels of the human condition and train our eyes to see further with stunning clarity and power.
So books win, while writers rule in the tenuous balance of literary dependency. The forces of light and darkness keep each other alive.
I have no fame as a writer, and my audience is mainly students intent on escaping alive from my clutches. I know they will be gone soon, so I write to them and for them and because of them as if they are all characters in the Great Novel of Fitz’s Life. And they are. I have an obligation to create a literary balance in their lives. I need to snag them in the snare of my classroom and pass along some ripening fruits of wisdom—but just long enough to fill their primitive gullets—and then set them free, lest my bias, baseness and bigotry tip the balance of their universe.
They are kids with hearts and minds as deep, complex, searching and real as any of us berating adults. We give them school and they respond with diligence and duty. They live for sense and purpose, and we give them a litany of facts. They want freedom, and we cage them within walls and expect them to claw their way out. They want affirmation, and we give them exams and assessments. They want their own words, and we tell them to edit and revise...
I say give them their words and let them go play on the field of the empty page. Give them books, and let them go read without the sword of Damocles hovering over their unkempt heads. Shout from the sidelines, but don’t diminish the joy of the game--the game that is their lives and the heart of their infinitely perfect mind and soul and being. Let them seek and find and create their own balance of Yin and Yang, not our conception of balance in our own lives.
Yes. They will struggle and preserve. They will succeed and fail. There will be happiness and sorrow, hurt and healing, love and loss, and fear and courage.
Give them a world of words and trust.
And take a deep breath...