Where does writing come from? (part 3)

In the early 1990s I had the wonderful fortune of spending time with Jean Klein, a teacher in the Hindu Advaita tradition. Klein grew up in Czechoslovakia and Vienna between the wars, studied medicine and music in Berlin, then when the Nazis came to power fled to France and Algeria. He left Europe in the early 1950s for India, where he met a teacher and experienced a complete awakening. He returned to Europe and began to teach himself.


The gankyil, a Tibetan Buddhist symbol of nonduality. By Kava09 and authors of File:Korea-Buk-01.jpg, File:Sam Taeguk.svg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time I encountered him, I had little experience or intellectual knowledge of Advaita, Buddhism, or meditation, so my reaction was pretty naïve—not a bad thing, I guess. What I mostly remember was the extraordinary experience of being in his presence. It is amazing to be with someone who has no agenda, no needs, no defenses or barriers, no fears, no expectations, no anger, but only total openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. You can actually see the meaning of that puzzling Buddhist term emptiness. It’s as though the personality is transparent. (At one session, Klein remarked that “the personality is a tool you use when life asks. Then when the situation is over, you lay it down and it’s not there.”)

Advaita sees the entire universe as one undivided reality; its nondualist teaching resembles aspects of Buddhism. Meetings with a teacher take the form of dialogues.

One dialogue I attended took place just before my first book was published in 1992. About to leave for a mini-book tour in California, I alternated between states of expansive excitement and contracted fear. I got up the nerve to ask Klein about this.

He slewed around in his chair to look at me and said, “Ask the question more precisely.”

I explained that I was about to do public speaking and could feel my energy expand because I was happy that people appreciated my work. Then I’d get scared and contract. I didn’t mention that the “work” was a book.

“You want the appreciation,” he said. “You were seeing yourself as a doer.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.

He looked at me and said, “If a man writes a book, he’s not really writing that book.”

I knew instantly that was the heart of the issue. “Well,” I said, “I’ve written a book, and I know I didn’t write that book—but I forget.”

He looked at me a few moments longer—there was immense kindness in his gaze—but said no more, likely because he saw I had gotten it.

And I did, at least in my mind. I’d forgotten the awareness I had had, during the process of writing, that the book was actually coming through me. Instead I saw my self being “the author” and my fear was of that identity being undermined.

My fear didn’t all drop away after that. I remember vividly how petrified I was the first time I sat in a radio broadcast studio waiting for the host’s first question. Yet during that segment, as well as the later interviews and talks I gave, I found myself responding out of a space much like that mysterious source of writing (described in this post and this one). My answers were far more skillful than if they had been formulated purely by my intellect. To put it as Jean Klein had, I wasn’t really answering those questions. The question to ask then is: who was?

Find out more about Jean Klein here and here.




  1. Yes, I think you are right. That kind of letting go is essential, although I’m not sure about the specifics of being in a particular spot. For me it’s not so much about shaping myself to where I am but accepting where I am and letting go of a concept about where I want to be. That’s when the process of ‘shaping’ becomes organic.

  2. This is so succinct and potent, I had to read it twice. The fear of my work’s being judged – by writers, family, teachers, friends, strangers – is powerful enough that even now at 75 years of age, it makes me flinch. And wait with held breath. And feel good if it is “liked.” And brace myself when it is not. This fear is very old. It stops children from exploring and growing intellectually, especially if they have been raised or influenced by a judgmental adult who has made it plain that, try as they might, they and their efforts will never be “up to snuff.” It also is damaging when a powerful adult in our lives tells us that everything we do is wonderful. We know that isn’t true.

    In the late 1970s, when I was first trying to get stories published, and working with the Woman’s Salon in NYC (which itself was judgmental in a way that was new at the time), I was always in a state of fear. It got in the way of writing, and even of thinking. finished one story in ten. I couldn’t get the shape of a book in my head. But about that time, I had a story published in a small, well-respected literary magazine, which gave me the bit of success I needed to off-set failures. It helped me to let go and explore what I was thinking and writing more fully and more consciously. I could finally get rid of the editor in my head long enough to explore. Not too long after that, I recognized something that, expressed in words, is banal. But when I really took it in, became powerfully freeing: Everyone on earth is in some spot on the same continuum: alive, wanting to grow and expand, wanting to create from the depths. We need to connect with the elements that are meaningful to us, just in order to live well for the short time our lives will last. When we can “let go” in this way, work does indeed come as if from itself. This seems to me a version of what Klein said to you. It’s a kind of mental evolution. You’re in a particular spot in your head and you have to shape yourself to that spot in order to work. And then the work seems to do the shaping for you and of you.

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