About a week ago I did a little “language exchange” with a friend of mine at a cafe in Shimokitazawa. Actually it was the same exact cafe where I met my podcast friend for coffee a few weeks before that. I don’t know why I keep returning to this one cafe out of the many dozens that shimokita has. It’s a really tiny cafe too, with just 4 little circular tables that can barely fit 2 trays of coffee and coffee accoutrements. But it’s bright and pleasant-looking and the staff is always very smiley and the banana bread is really good. Anyway none of this is part of the story.
I’ve known this friend for about 3 years now, but he spent 2 of those years in London and the past 9 months or so living in Akita (a northern prefecture of Japan where he’s from). So I guess we only lived in Tokyo at the same time for the first 3 months of our friendship. He was the first Japanese person my best friend and I met in our early days at the Ruby Room. He was the first one to talk to us and carefully induct us into their cool hat-wearing society when we sidled hesitantly into the great circular booth of the Ruby Room “throne room” that one Tuesday years ago (incidentally, I don’t know why I always call that circular alcove the “throne room” in my head when there’s obviously no thrones or even pictures of thrones– but somehow the gilded mirrors and picture frames hanging around the curved walls and the pervasive red after-glow in the semi-darkness remind me of the grandeur of a throne room). The reason we’re still friends when 11/12 of our friendship timeline has been spent living in different cities or countries is because without fail he always makes sure to look me and my best friend up whenever he’s back in Tokyo. And even when living in London he somehow came back at least a few times a year.
When his 2-year London visa ran out last May he moved home to Akita to contemplate his next step. So after a decade living on his own and the past two years making his way through the intoxicating chaos of a foreign country he had always loved from afar, he found himself back in his parent’s house, back in his inaka childhood home, with most of his friends scattered and those remaining, while familiar and friendly and happy to have him back, even further away from him in thought and feeling and life experience. And he came up with a very interesting way to drive himself forward through what could have been a very stifling and retarding period of his life: he started making art.
His family owns some kind of manufacturing business in Akita that includes a massive warehouse. So he sectioned off an unused corner of this huge, high-ceilinged space and made himself a little makeshift art studio. When I saw him last week it was because he was back in Tokyo wrapping up his first-ever art show at a gallery cafe in Setagaya.
Anyway this should give you a proper impression of my eccentric and stubbornly creative Japanese friend. We opened our catch-up coffee masquerading as a “language exchange” with the Japanese portion, per my request, and, after warning him most earnestly before our meeting that he should have very modest expectations of my Japanese speaking ability nowadays after months of relative disuse, about 5 minutes in he steered the conversation to William Burroughs.
What I remember about William Burroughs is that he’s a Beatnik writer who wrote a novel called “Naked Lunch” that has this vague impression of raunchiness in my memory. He’s indecipherably random and not classic enough to have earned himself a space in the Beatnik portion of my dad’s bookshelf where I found Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” so I had to search for him in a bookstore in New York City, but I never managed to make it far through his writing.
I recited some version of the above to my friend in Japanese and he began to explain to me Burroughs’ 書き方 (kakikata, “way of writing”). According to my friend, Burroughs would write out a sentence to his liking, then cut up each of the individual words and rearrange them 出鱈目に (detarameni, randomly) to produce a totally new sentence that had never been conceived of before by a writer. When he said this I kind of looked at him skeptically and almost exaggeratedly unimpressed and said something like, “Doesn’t that make his writing kind of meaningless?” We went back and forth on this for a few minutes before I had the sense to just pull up the beginning of “Naked Lunch.” Here’s how it starts:
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…”
Now, first of all, this is an amazing sentence. It’s amazing because it’s a perfectly accurately constructed English sentence with a completely palpable tone and feeling, even an almost-decipherable purpose, and yet it makes almost no sense at all. Even if Burrough’s 書き方 isn’t exactly as my friend describes it (but especially if it is) Burroughs is obviously very brilliant. That was my first and immediate conclusion, and it opened up a problem I’ve had with writing since I was about 15 years old.
I used to love writing poetry when I was really little. I still remember line-for-line my first “published” poem that I wrote when I was 6 called “The Magic of May” that was put on the cover of our elementary school’s newsletter or some silly thing, much to my parents’ exquisite delight.
When I was about 15 I did a creative writing summer course at Columbia University and I wrote a poem that I probably called “The Wall.” I don’t remember any of its lines, but I remember the “subject” or at least what was running through my head when I wrote the poem. I was just then working through adopting the classic rock music taste that my dad had been subtly inculcating in my sister and me our entire lives and I was up to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” The weekend before one of my classes I watched the 1982 movie “Pink Floyd: The Wall,” which is based on the album and written by Roger Waters. To be honest, I don’t remember much about this movie now. I just remember this intense, this maddeningly powerful sensation of isolation. All the lyrics from the album’s songs that make casual references to a “wall” suddenly lit up with meaning in this one terrifying image: a lost, lunatic man sitting in the middle of nowhere painstakingly carrying brick by brick igloo-style around him as he built up the “wall” that was going to shield him from the world.
This image snapped against my brain like a whip and I started writing, trying to capture and shape it into a rough sketch I could trace out of the lines of my poem. It was a short poem and in my mind it conjured up a rough outline of that image of the isolated lunatic man and his hopeless labor.
When I handed the poem in to my teacher and copies were passed around to the rest of the class for my reading, none of them, the teacher especially, had any idea what this poem was about. I mean, on one hand, obviously they didn’t. There was no direct reference to the movie or music– there’s no way they would have made a connection between my poem and “The Wall,” and in my mind that wasn’t even necessary or my intention. But my teacher was trying to explain that the poem, in its disconnected words and apparent randomness evoked nothing and it was meaningless.
And in that class he introduced a new understanding of writing to me. At the time, this groundbreaking lesson didn’t seem needlessly restrictive because it didn’t even feel like it was subject to scrutiny. Actually it felt enlightening to me. In my impressionable 15-year-old head the world was full of absolute truths, like this new one, and it was the task of a curious learner to collect them from all of the different sources where they lived: books, essays, knowledgable adults, brilliant TV shows, etc.
This was his lesson to me that forever changed the way I thought about writing:
Writing can’t just be a rolling out of disjointed words selected because they hovered near me and in their shape and sound connected themselves inexplicably with those dusty elusive thoughts I was trying to give form to in the real space outside of my head. The meaning can’t slink through the sentence like an invisible inky coil that’s either only visible to me or is imagined by me or both. Writing like that is meaningless. Only if you can carry along the reader so you’re standing on either end of the translucent language plane seeing more or less the same picture from either side, refracted but still traceable to some common underlying source, does the writing have any “meaning.”
I guess this lesson has been rolling around the back of my head as an unsolved “problem” with writing for the past ten years. And it wasn’t until this conversation with my Japanese friend about William Burroughs, and especially when I re-read the opening of “Naked Lunch,” that I really considered that the definition of meaningful writing might be more forgiving than my teacher believed.