Friday, May 6, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON ON BIOGRAPHY AND BRIGHT MOMENTS
In coming, nothing is gained; in going, nothing is lost. Those are words I have heard at Zen memorial services...life and death are events in time with no self attached to them." Posted by Barbara O'Brien on About.com Guide, May 2, 2011.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks "Is anyone working on a biography about you?" I'm happy to say, "No." And I hope no one ever wastes their precious time doing that.
I've always enjoyed reading biographies of fiction writers, because I've learned much from them. But I see my own life as quiet, disciplined, boring---and that's exactly way I want to keep it. I've always preferred to restrict Drama to the pages of my stories and keep it out of my everyday existence; and I do love and identify with the way some people call our president "No Drama Obama."
In my teens when I first studied Taoism, I was powerfully impressed by the image in that philosophy of passing through life and "leaving no footprints." We find a similar idea in Buddhism---Shakyamuni was never himself depicted visually during the early days of Buddhism, but instead was simply represented by his footsteps on the Path (or the Way, as a Taoist would say), or so I've read. In other words, we're all just pilgrims passing through this plane. Basically, my life has always been devoted to work and family. That's not the stuff that makes for an exciting, page-turning reading experience.
However, if someone did squander their time on earth writing a biography of me, and wanted to know what the "defining" moments of my life were, I'd have to say there were a few. One was when I sold my first six illustrations for the catalog of a Magic Product Company in Chicago when I was 17-years-old, and finally got paid for doing art. (I still have one of the dollars from that assignment framed under glass and on my study wall; there were many times when I was broke and hungry and tempted to spend it, but I'm glad I didn't.)
There is also what I consider to be my "rite-of-passage" as a young man on the night of my first rank test at Chi Tao Chuan of the Monastery in 1967 when I earned a double-promotion, primarily for my sparring. (Our teacher felt my instinctive fighting style resembled Pau Kua.) I spent a month every night in the basement of my dorm drilling the moves I knew I we would be tested on, for example throwing 45 punches to the front, back and side in 10 seconds---the guys in the dorm used to time me with a stopwatch when I demonstrated that. And it seemed we sparred forever on the night we were tested---one against one, and three against one---all of us pushed to exhaustion. Then beyond exhaustion. I thought I'd be killed in that very rough kwoon in the days before safety rules and regulations existed widely in American martial art schools. (Knockouts were common; one student killed a man on the streets of Chicago after only two weeks of studying there, which is why I decided that was the place for me.) I didn't care about pain because I wanted to study this. And that was the night I learned to "let go" the fear of death or injury---or the fear of anything else in this world.
Two other milestones would be the night I met my wife on a hot summer evening in 1968 and a voice in my head said, "This is It, you don't have to look anymore," then the day of our marriage two years later. I count the days our children were born as two "peak experiences."
Also the day the president of SUNY-Stony Brook handed me my Ph.D. in Philosophy, the attaining of which had been my dream since I was 18-years-old. And finally, of course, there was the night I received the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, and had the opportunity to read a tribute to Ralph Ellison, who was at the ceremony with his wife Fanny.
You don't need a biography for those peak moments; you can do them all in one essay or a short story.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 3:37 AM