by Leonard Bishop, Author of Dare to Be A Great Writer
Physical cowards are always sensitive to immediate danger.
It is now dangerous to teach writing in San Francisco and Berkeley. For the first time in my many years of teaching, the students were not afraid of me. While I instructed on the functional methods of using writing techniques, they stared at me. Cold eyes, steady eyes, inscrutable eyes watching me. The eyes were telling me, “Don’t make a mistake or you’ve had it.” I kept instructing, hoping they did not suspect my fear.
It was only when an elderly woman came into the class on Saturday afternoon that I realize why I did not intimidate them. She was wearing white cotton slacks. Her gray hair was pulled back and tied behind her neck with a white cloth. At the threshold of the room she stepped out of cotton slippers with thin soles. Two other students, a fragile teenager and a chubby male, stood up and they bowed to each other.
“Dear Lord,” I thought. “They are into martial arts and self-defense. Their hands, once used for typewriting, have become deadly weapons. If I drop a participle or misuse an adjective, they’ll flip me out the window.” Of course, of course, I should’ve known. San Francisco and Berkeley have become violent cities. The streets are moderately safe only for those who could defend themselves.
They sat before me, so serene they seem to sleep. They were in a state of metaphysical balance and mystic spirituality. Part of my discomfort came from realizing they were concentrated on listening to me. I could not declare outrageous contradictions and back them up with more outrageous contradictions. Students who actually listen to instructors are frightening.
On Sunday, a “Meet the Author\Instructor” reception was given. Celia, dressed in a fashion that was Berkeley-chic and Kansas-wholesome, was beautiful to look upon. Someone handed me a bottle of beer with an “easy-open” cap. I moaned and groaned and could not twist it. A seventy-year-old student stepped over and took it from me. He was lithe, toned in muscle, not a creak or tremble in him. Suddenly, a gut-ripping shout burst through his beard, “Haaiyaah!” And snap, the bottle was opened, cap crushed. He bowed to me, saying, “Uncenteredness is debilitating disharmony.”
The modern “pioneer spirit” is being replaced by the “new wave” of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese techniques of self-disciplined and self-defense. You are not only required to train in Sai, Tonfa, Nunchaku, the spear, the broadsword, and three section staff–you are also persuaded to meditate, to unite your mind with “cosmic oneness” and become mind-less. There is not good or evil, there is only Is and You, who isn’t.
The next day I wanted to be directly critical, “You students are not writing enough. Stories and novels are not written by writers who are distracted from their commitment. You had better be you and not someone who is not.” I kept silent. For all my interesting compulsions, not one of them is a”death-wish.” These people were into Tae Kwon Do, Tai Chi Chuan, Tai Chi Chi Kung, Akido with Ki, Tai Chi Chuan/Chen Style from mainland China, and two students were studying the African-Brazilian Capoeira. Even now, I’m afraid to state the names of the students. I might misspell them and they’ll beep-beep out cosmic messages to Manhattan where these schools of tranquil mayhem are beginning to open.
Where is the era of “the writer?” Did Scott Fitzgerald stand before his desk, doing breath, balance, back, and stretching exercises before writing? No. He wrote the American way. He gulped his ration of booze and staggered to work. Eudora Welty never indulged herself learning intercepting\strikes, hand switching, footwork mobility, before developing her velour prose to create fluid characterizations.
Finally, before the classes were over, I did do something courageous. A young student, wispy of build but with callous on the edge of his hands, stood up and bowed to me. “Mr. Bishop,” he said, as calm as a morning pond. “Your aggression against literary agents and publishers reveals a dissonant note in the harmony of your offering.” That did it. My restraints, sponsored by a deep cowardice, were torn. I stood up and paced about the room, my voice loud and blunt.
“The streets aren’t safe for you people, right? You want to protect yourselves so you can keep writing, right? Okay. Don’t just protect your bodies and let your mind get ripped-off with cultic ceremonies and rites. There are plenty of rape prevention and self-defense centers that you could turn you into warriors without infecting you with exotic persuasions. They’ll teach you street-smarts and how to handle armed assailants. You’ll learn how to turn common items into weapons when you need them. Car keys, combs, belts, rolled newspapers, toothpicks and clothes pins if you carry them. I’ll back any committed writer’s concentration against some WuShu master who is on the high plateau of meditation. Don’t blow five years becoming some Jeet Kune Do black belters, and do instead write three fine novels.”
I waited for them to charge at me. I saw myself battered and oozy mush and clumps of gray hair. They were silent. I look for Celia, but she had left earlier. The drone of my raspy voice had driven her shopping. They did not look at me. I returned to my chair and picked up a manuscript. “All right–I said my piece–let’s get back to work.” Someone sighed, another student coughed. Their synthetic composure had lessened and their interest in writing slowly increased.
I was not wrong, I was not right. I was only centered in my own form of spiritual unity and universal utility. Do everything you can to keep your life safe, but don’t let the methods of survival become your way of life. None of these martial arts disciplines teach individual-for-individual, day\after\day love. I am biased, I suppose, and narrow of vision–probably stolid and just uninterestingly earthy. But coming to a state of Not Becoming can’t be as warm and loving as being because you are.
©Copyright Leonard Bishop
(first published Sunday, July 28, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)