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My Path to Fiction

DON’T FORGET! I’d love to have you on my Emma’s Place Mala. Did you see my blog last week? If you missed it, check it out. Will you help me? It’s easy. Just log onto https://emmasplacesi.org/donate/ . In the message space, please write “Ken’s mala.” If you donate $108, I’m going to burn your name on a bead on my new mala. I’ll wear it everywhere. You will be with me on my journey. I would love that.


My Path to Fiction


I am talking about writing fiction. I am talking about my experience writing a novel, and my surprising discovery — surprising to me, at least; I’m sure others discovered this before me — that writing this novel turned out to be an extraordinary Zen practice.


I will get to that next week but first the story of my path. Can you appreciate how surprised I am that I am writing my first novel at the age of 80, something that I certainly did not expect to do? It wasn’t on my bucket list when I retired a year and a half ago. I haven’t finished the novel, but I’ve finished a first draft and I’ve put in a metaphorical drawer — actually it’s in the cloud — as per the recommendation of my current writing guru, Stephen King. It's over 90,000 words. That’s crazy. Although I had the germ of an idea — the story morphed a lot during the writing process — I wrote the first draft in two and a half months.


In high school and into college, I fancied myself a writer. I wrote a short story which appeared in our high school paper. I still remember the title, “Roller Skating Home on Water.” It was written from the point of view of a girl which impressed some of my classmates. Some of the girls couldn’t believe I’d gotten it right. I fell in love with all of them. I can’t remember anything else about the story. I wrote poems which were published in the college literary magazine. I saved those issues. They’re in the attic somewhere. I wrote plays. A one-act play was performed by the college theater. One of my roommates directed. I think that play is lost. I thought about novels. At one time, I had a list of titles for novels, none of which would ever be written. I became a social worker instead. I wrote grant applications and articles for professional journals. I wrote occasional verses in greeting cards to women I was in love with. No fiction.


Until my midlife crisis. I found my way to Zen, and during my two years at the Soho Zendo, I wrote some short stories. I think I sent some of them out and got rejection slips. I don’t think I showed any of them to my friends, although I was briefly in a writing group. And I began journaling. Journaling was part of my morning practice — throw the pennies, consult the I Ching, do zazen, journal, mostly reflections arising from that morning’s practice and the advice of the Sage — for years. After a while, the penny practice fell off. Zazen and journaling always continued. When I got to Yonkers and Bernie and the Ox Classes with Jishu, the fiction writing faded out. Part of the study with Jishu included writing and sharing reflections on the study.


When I went on the Street with Bernie, I promised a letter to my mala supporters, to share the story of my plunge on which, symbolically, they had accompanied me. I continued this letter writing process. It was my first experience in sharing non-professional writing. After our daughter was born, they became “Letters to Jamie.” I was in my mid-50’s when she was born. My Dad had died in his mid-60’s. I had no idea if I would live long enough to tell my stories to Jamie. I wrote them so that she would have them. It is a great joy in my life that I did live long enough. Morrigan — she changed her name a couple of years ago, which is another story — now has heard my stories, most of them so many times, that she can tell them herself. The Zen writing crowded out the fiction.


A few years later, I stumbled on The Artist’s Way. This is Julia Cameron’s 12-week pathway to the recovery of your creative self. Daily journaling is a key part of the recovery process. It fit for me. But I couldn’t get through the course. Several times, I started out. There are weekly readings and exercises, and a weekly “artist’s date.” I couldn’t get through it. I would get into it a week or two, and then something would happen to distract me. It took years for me to finally do it, working my way through the 12 consecutive weeks. I finished the 12 weeks only days before Bernie gave me transmission. I hadn’t planned that. It just happened. Talk about the magic of the Universe.


And then for 12 years, I was totally immersed in the work of building our network of charter schools. I was channeling Bernie’s social entrepreneurship teaching. It was an amazing ride, and toward the end I had begun to do a blog. I hoped that the blog would bring positive attention to our schools from an audience beyond Staten Island. That was my justification for taking the time to do the writing. It took a while for the blog to take shape, for me to find my voice in a mix of memoir, the lessons of social entrepreneurship, and Zen. And then that phase of my life was over.


The Universe was calling me to the next phase although I had little idea what that could be. One day, retirement was 5 to 10 years in the future. And then the next day, on Dee’s birthday, as we had dinner outdoors on the porch of the Madison Beach Hotel — it was mid-November but COVID was still very much in the air, and we sat outdoors among gas heaters — suddenly, I was done. I would retire at the end of June 2022.


I was planning to write when I retired. I would continue the blog. In my last year and a half of ICS, I had written a book draft which I called The Zen of Charter Schools, essentially an amalgam of my blogs. Roshi Chris Panos had shared it with a friend in the publishing business who thought it was actually two books, a how-to-do-it and a Zen memoir. He thought it would have a much better chance divided into two books. I thought those two books were likely retirement projects.


Shortly into retirement, Roshi Eve Marko challenged me to step up my blogging. Until then my blogs were appearing every two weeks. Eve thought I needed to get this up to at least once a week if I wanted to build audience. I was scared but I did it and have kept it up. I kept working on the memoir which is finding shape around the ten Zen Paramitas. My working title for it is The Zen Imperfections.


I lost interest in the how-to-do-it. The farther away I got from the schools, the less I wanted to go back. But my friend Ed Wiseman kept after me to write that book. He saw potential. Ed is a talented film maker. I was excited by his vision. Serendipitously, Rabbi David Curiel was talking with me about collaboration, how he was looking to do more collaboration in his life. What a great idea. I told Ed, I would do the how-to-do-it if he would collaborate. Ed agreed. Ed came up with a working title, Zero to 45 Million: Learn from My Mistakes. Ed’s taken all my how-to-do-it material, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of shape his cinematic eye will bring to the story of how we build our network of charter schools. Ed’s busy with so many other projects. We’ll see what kind of shape he can give to it if he can find the time.

Meanwhile, David and I continue to kick the can of collaboration down the road. Maybe someday, we’ll do a book together.


For years, I have been intrigued by the possibility of presenting some of the stories which Martin Buber brought to the world as The Tales of the Hasidim. David and I have a working title, Baal Shem Zen, and we’re continuing to talk about the project and to read Hasidic tales together.


During this time, I was also collecting pieces for a fourth project, a different kind of Zen memoir which plays with the importance of names, chosen and given, in my life. In case you haven’t noticed, there was no thought of fiction in my retirement plans or projects.


Until nine months into retirement. Then I had a noticing. There were drafts of blogs that couldn’t be published. Dee is in charge of the veto process. “No way,” she’ll say, “you can’t publish this,” usually because there are stories in the blog which expose too much of other people’s lives. There was pain here. I really liked some of these blogs — they had gone into a file labeled “unpublishable,” – and it hurt that no one outside our immediate family would ever see them. It was then that the Universe one morning while I was sitting on my cushion came up with the suggestion that stories that could not be told as memoir might be told as fiction. Jill Patel encouraged me to give it a try. For the first time in 30 years, I wrote a short story and then another and then another. The first two are wending their way through The New Yorker rejection process. Although Jill had liked the first two stories and encouraged their submission, the third story disappointed her. She had no interest in the main female character.


When I thought about it, I understood her disinterest. I had no interest in this person either. She was not really a person. I had fictionalized a story I’d heard from a friend. One of the people in his story interested me. The other didn’t. So, in my short story, I’d left the second character blank. This character — I’ll call her “Maggie” because that’s who she eventually became — was just an empty place holder, a non-Maggie. Maggie hadn’t yet been invented. Then I pictured someone else in that role, someone who I had been briefly close to but had not seen or spoken to in fifty years. Then the character and the story came alive for me in a new way. And at the same time, an idea for a story twist appeared from nowhere, a completely imaginary event which would transform the life of my main character. I was intrigued by the twist although the twist would take this beyond a short story. Without hesitation, I abandoned the short-story rewrite for what would become the novel.


As I said before, it’s in the drawer now, percolating or fermenting or whatever it is that books do during this process — maybe it’s incubation — and in the meantime, I have been following Stevie’s advice and plunging into a completely different project, actually finishing the first draft of Zen Imperfections — that’s now in the cloud oven alongside the novel — and I’ve been thinking about fiction writing as Zen practice. We’ll get to that in next week’s blog.


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