Now, more than ever, the world needs books like This Is How It Always Is, a warm, funny and deeply moving new novel about gender identity, by my good friend Laurie Frankel. The novel tells the story of Claude, the youngest boy in a family of five sons, who, at the age of five, announces that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. Claude’s extraordinary family tries to figure out how best to support their bright, funny and beautiful little boy as he slowly transforms into a bright, funny and beautiful little girl named Poppy, while Poppy tries to grow up in a world that is not quite ready to welcome her.

As has recently become painfully clear, we live in a world that is not ready to welcome many of us, especially those of us who do not conform to its dominant ideological “norms.” Laurie’s book encourages us to look beyond these binary, either/or identities—boy/girl, black/white, us/them—and to embrace and defend the vast all-inclusive spectrum of the in-between, where most of us live.

Laurie writes with great compassion and courage, not to mention great humor! She is an inspiration. We all need friends like her. So read this book. Be inspired. Take back the world.

On Zen Nuns & Novelists

Setouchi Jakucho in her garden in Kyoto. Photo by Jeremie Souteyrat

"Usually people who do bad things make good writers. I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting."

~Jakucho Setouchi, novelist-turned-Buddhist nun

Jakucho Setouchi is one of my heroes, and she made this comment during an interview with Reuters back in 2008, when she was eighty five years old. Here are some of the reasons why I admire her.

She was born in 1922 in Tokushima prefecture. She married and had a child, and then in her mid-twenties, she fell in love with one of her husband's students. She left her husband, lost custody of her daughter, and started writing novels. She wrote about the affair, and later about her relationship with a married man, breaking ground by freely describing sex from a woman's point of view. She was quickly labelled a pornographer by the mostly male Japanese literati, and the publisher of her second novel described her as "a writer who thinks with her womb." Responding to this, Setouchi said, "I was very excited about releasing the book, so I was shocked and flabbergasted when I saw the advertisement copy. Most upsetting was that some male critics reviewed the book and said I must have written it while masturbating."

She fought back and continued to write, but as her success grew, she started to lose what she called her power of judgement. Without hearing the Japanese, it's impossible to know exactly what she meant by the word "judgement," but I can't help feeling she might have been referring to a kind of breakdown of moral or ethical discernment in regard to her fiction, her self, and her voice in the world. She went into psychotherapy, which was very unusual in Japan at the time, and a decade later, at the age of 51, she shaved her head and took vows as a Tendai Buddhist nun, explaining that while she was willing to give up writing completely, she knew that were she to continue, she would need a backbone.


And continue she did. In 1998, she wrote a best-selling modern translation of the classical novel The Tale of Genji, focussing on the experiences of the women characters instead of the prince, and in 2006, she received the Japanese Order of Culture. Now, at the age of 90, she's still writing novels and plays and essays, giving hugely popular public talks, and working a political activist. She's best known for her opposition to the death penalty and to the Gulf Wars and she went to Iraq to distribute medicine. Most recently, at the age of 90, she staged a hunger strike to protest the reopening of Japan's nuclear facilities in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Jakucho was an inspiration for the character of Old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being, and she was an inspiration to me when I was thinking about ordination, too. The comment she made about needing a backbone in order to continue writing resonated strongly, and I wrote about it in an essay for the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine, exploring the ever-changing relationship—sometimes harmonious and most often confounding—between my two beloved practices of writing and Zen.

I would like to meet Setouchi Jakucho, but I don't think she would like my novels. In another interview she said, "The most important thing to write about in novels is love affairs. Corporations and politics -- none of that is interesting." I disagree with her on this point, although maybe I could convince her to change her mind. She seems willing to admit when she's wrong. In talking about her decision to become a nun, she said that she had no regrets about her ordination, but she might have gotten the timing wrong. "I'm glad I did it, but it was a little bit early. It was a bit of a waste. I had no idea I was going to live so long. I thought it would be 25 years at most."

London Interactive


Just got back a short five-day visit to London, where I went to support the launch of the UK edition of A Tale for the Time Being. Canongate, my wonderful UK publisher, is doing the most amazing, cutting-edge stuff with the publication and generating all sorts of buzz in the London book world.

Hardcover_UKThe hardcover is a beautiful, deconstructed book with an exposed spine (how I love that metaphor!), which is like a work of art, and the paperback edition has a fully interactive cover. Yes, that's right. A fully interactive cover that you operate with an app called Blippar. You download the app onto your smart phone or tablet, hold your device over the cover, and it comes to life! The red hinomaru peels back and reveals a moving montage and then offers links to areas where you can read excerpts and learn more about the book.

Canongate is releasing all the editions, the hardcover, paperback, ebook and audio book, simultaneously, and they've given me my very own TV channel, too. Amazing!

IMG_0459During the five days in London, I did interviews for BBC's Nightwaves (online now), the Guardian Books podcast (yet to come), and The National (yet to come). I taught a class in "How to Live More Consciously" (aka How to Be a Better Time Being) at Alain de Botton's School of Life, and had a wonderful conversation on stage with author Mary Loudon at the Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre. And finally, Canongate held a lovely luncheon with the team who has worked so hard on the publication, and I was thrilled to meet authors Philip Pullman and Steven Hall, who took time away from their writing to come celebrate with us. I was moved and honored.

The highlight of the trip was meeting people: the wonderful Canongate editors and designers and marketing and publicity teams; the brilliant authors; the broadcasters and journalists; and most of all, the readers, who took precious time away from their busy lives to come out and to support a book. A book! In this day and age, how amazing is that?


I had a little time to spare, so I went to the British Museum, and as I studied the engravings on fully interactive Rosetta Stone—the real stone, not the language-learning software, which came up #1 in my Google search ranking, listed as "Official Rosetta Stone®"—I couldn't help but marvel at...what? At the power of our ancient desire to communicate. At the ever-evolving nature of text and our expectation of what it can and ought to do. At its increasingly ephemeral nature.

Because even if the Official Rosetta Stone® is #1 in Google ranking now, the real stone has survived for more than two thousand years and will probably outlast both the software and the computers we need to fully interact with it. And this is okay, because humans will always want to talk to each other, and we will always find ways of learning each other's languages and communicating our stories. Whether we're chiseling stone or programming pixels, it's just our nature to be fully interactive.


Nothing is Wasted

Here's an article I wrote for the March issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine about turning problems into art.

When you’re a writer or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and it’s the artist’s job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude might sound a bit cold and calculating, but it’s not. Quite the opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and to transform our suffering into something meaningful.

<read more...>

The theme of the March issue is Life Is Tough, which is also the title of the feature article by Norman Fischer about transforming difficult situations into beneficial ones. The essay is based on his wonderful new book, which I'm reading now, entitled Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Lojong refers to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist mind-training methodology, described in The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind, by the twelfth century master Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. The seven points of mind training, each contains several pithy slogans, which are like taglines or exhortations to guide your practice.

In his article, Norman talks about the six Lojong slogans that pertain to transforming difficulty, but in the book, he goes into greater detail about all seven points and fifty-nine slogans, and offers ways of practicing with them. They are all very useful, very beautiful, and far more practical than writing novels.

Here's a list of some of my favorite slogans:

  • See everything as a dream.
  • Do good, avoid evil, appreciate your lunacy, pray for help.
  • Be grateful to everyone.
  • Trust your own eyes.
  • Don't be a phony.
  • Abandon hope.
  • Don't poison yourself.
  • Don't be so predictable.
  • Don't go so fast.
  • Don't be tricky.
  • Be wholehearted.
  • Don't expect applause.

These are the ones I'm going to be practicing when I'm on book tour next month...

The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

My friend Sarah Sentilles tagged me to participate in The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors, a blog chain, a meme, a community, an ever-emergent and aggregating non-event that’s wending it’s way around the Internet. It’s authors tagging authors to answer ten questions about the book they’re working on. And it’s a nice way to acknowledge and bootstrap your writer friends.

Sarah Sentilles is a wonderful writer, feminist theologian, and the author of Breaking Up With God, a magnificent, funny, intelligent and heartfelt book about God, institutional religion and personal faith. Thank you, Sarah, for tagging me!

Okay, on the the ten questions:

1. What is your working title of your book (or story)?

A Tale for the Time Being is the final title, but it took me a long time to find it. I wish I could say that I came up with it myself, but I can’t. My husband thought of it. I had several not-so-good titles—actually, they were pretty awful—and I was racking my brains, combing through dictionaries, the thesaurus and Bartlett’s for inspiration, scribbling long lists of words and evocative phrases, following Oliver around the house and reading my lists  out loud, while he listened, politely, wincing as the ideas got worse and worse. Occasionally he would venture to make a suggestion, which I would quickly dismiss. Weeks passed. Then finally, one night, when he was taking a bath, he called out, “I’ve got your title.”

Something in the way he said this made me pay attention. I went to the door and opened it. He was lying in the tub, reading the latest issue of New Scientist magazine. “What is it?” I asked.

“A Tale for the Time Being,” he said. “That’s your title,” and then he went back to reading his magazine. He was right. I couldn’t believe it. I repeated it a couple of times, then went upstairs to email my editor, who agreed. Everyone agreed. It was the title.

Later, when I asked him how he’d come up with it, he shrugged and said it was self-defense.

2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A semi-fictional novelist named Ruth, living on a remote island in Desolation Sound, discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a troubled Japanese teenager washed up on the beach, and assuming it’s debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, sets out to discover all she can about the fate of the mysterious schoolgirl named Nao.

Ugh, not a very elegant sentence, I’m afraid.

3. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Many places, but Zen Master Dōgen is a good place to start. Dōgen was a 13th century Zen teacher who wrote several essays on the subject of time, and I happened to be studying these when Oliver sent me the link to an article about Japanese maid cafés. (He’s always sending me useful links, including one to a New Yorker article on quantum computing, which ended up in the book.) Soon I was immersed in the world of Japanese cosplay, manga, animé and pop culture, and from there, I became interested in the problem of bullying and teen suicide in Japan. At the same time, I was reading about kamikaze fighters during World War II, thinking about 9/11, watching the war on Iraq unfold, and living my life on a remote island with my husband and my cat. And cooking soup. And then the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit and the nuclear reactors at Fukushima melted down. Somehow all these factors, and more, came together and the novel was born. Inspiration is a convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky, you A) notice, and B) appreciate, and C) incorporate and turn into something new.

4. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Books are time beings, too. I started writing the first draft in 2006 and worked on it for two years. In 2008, I decided it was hopeless and I abandoned it. In 2010, on a whim, I started working on it again and finished a draft in early 2011. So that makes three years, so far. Then I was in the process of submitting the manuscript when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Overnight Japan was a different place, and the world was different, too, and the novel I’d written was no longer relevant, and so I withdrew it. I spent several months thinking about what to do, and then in May I threw half of the manuscript away and started to write again, and a year later, I finished. So excluding the two years when it sat untouched on my computer hard drive, and including the editing time, I’d say it took about five years, but I don’t think it’s really accurate either, because some of the material I can trace back to 1999, and even earlier.

5. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think I answered the what part of this question, above, so I will focus on the who. My novelist friends inspire me to write so I can continue to hang out with them and talk shop. And in particular, Karen Joy Fowler inspired me to finish this book. She read the first fifty pages of the rewrite and called them “audacious,” which was the best affirmation I could have hoped for.

Of course writers I don’t know, but whom I admire, inspire me to write books, too: Jane Austin, Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Setouchi Jakucho, David Mitchell...the list goes on and on.

My husband, Oliver, inspires me to write books. He has a very interesting mind and sees the world in ways that astonish me.

Readers inspire me to write. Without readers, books don't exist.

6. What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction? Mainstream fiction? Speculative fiction? Philosophy?

7. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh, boy. It’s not a genre book, so I don’t know. People tell me that there are some parallels between A Tale for the Time Being and Murakami’s newest novel 1Q84, but I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know. I’m waiting to read it until mine is published.

8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s represented by an agency and will be published by Viking Penguin in the US and Canongate in the UK. It’ll be coming out on March 12, 2013, which also happens to be my birthday.

9. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have absolutely no idea.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

It’s funny! I mean, it’s also serious and has a lot of serious and tragical things in it, including bullying, suicide, war, philosophy, and quantum mechanics, to name just a few, but it’s also funny. So don’t get scared off by all the heavy stuff. If you cry, I promise you will laugh a lot, too.

Okay, now, here is when I get to tag some of my wonderful writer friends.

  • Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, who has written one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, We are all completely beside ourselves, which will be published in May of this year. Karen will post her answer here.
  • Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of Hiroshima in the Morning and Why She Left Us, who is working on a wondrous new novel, which I’ve had the privilege of reading in an early draft! She will post her answers here.
  • Laurie Frankel, who I hope will write about her new book, Goodbye For Now, a remarkable love story about a software engineer who invents a way for people to email their dead loved ones. which will be coming out in paperback soon. She will post her answers here.




How to Re-Occupy Your Mind - writing workshop

This writing and meditation workshop is a benefit for the very cool 826 Seattle, a nonprofit space traveler & literacy drop-in center, and the Seattle chapter of novelist Dave Eggers' 826 National network of writing and tutoring centers. 826 Seattle sponsors an adult workshop series, entitled How to Write Like I Do, as a benefit for the kids' programs, and okay, the hubristic title kind of makes me wince, but I promise that in How to Re-Occupy Your Mind I will not make you write like I do. Instead, I will help you write like you do, only better. Here's the workshop description:

So, you love to write, only these days all you ever seem to write are texts and email. You don't have time, and even if you did, you no longer have the ability to focus. Sound familiar? It's time to intervene. In this workshop you will receive practical training designed to re-focus your writer's mind through meditation and to bring an awakened creativity to the page.

The other very cool thing about 826 Seattle is that it's also houses the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., so if you want to pick up a dark hole starter kit, or stock up on uncertainty  (essential for writers) or some replacement quarks, or a t-shirt or hoodie, plan to come early, because the shop closes at 6:00pm, when all good astronauts should be in bed.

Vortext! a 3-day writing workshop at Hedgebrook

Vortext is a very special three day women's writing workshop that I'm going to be leading, along with Dorothy Allison, Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth George, Jane Hamilton, and Gail Tsukiyama on June 1 - 3, at Hedgebrook. This is an outstanding line-up of writers, and the only problem is that I'm teaching, too, so I can't  sign up and participate in the the other teachers' sessions. However, I'm honored to be included, and it promises to be an amazing three days of writing, learning, lectures, open mikes, conversations and community. I know space is limited, and it's really a once in a lifetime opportunity, so please sign up!

Writing Sesshin: a guided writing and meditation retreat @ Hollyhock

The word "sesshin" in Japanese means "touching the mind" or "touching the heart."  Sesshin is a special time in the Zen Buddhist calendar, when monastics step away from their everyday schedule and dedicate full days to meditation practice. As writers, we need these same periods of retreat and intensive practice to deepen and clarify our expression on the page. This sesshin will help participating writers touch the mind and heart of their writing practice. We will divide our time between guided meditation and writing exercises, discussions of craft, individual writing practice, supportive group work, and individual meetings with me about work-in-progress. Writers will leave with practices that will help sustain meditation and writing in everyday life. I've been wanting to do this kind of retreat for a long time, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Here's some information about Hollyhock:

An internationally renowned centre for learning and well-being, Hollyhock impacts personal, professional and social development through over 100 programs, and when space allows offers visitors a fantastic British Columbia island holiday, where you’ll enjoy wonderful Cortes Island accommodation.

Our spectacular natural setting on Cortes Island is an ideal backdrop for transformative experiences. We are linked intrinsically to our ecology, assisting us in providing a comfortable and safe environment where people can deeply connect with others, gain creative insights, and renew hope that a better world is possible.

Hollyhock is Canada’s leading educational retreat centre with over 28 years experience, but you can also think of us as a “refuge for your soul”, a place that allows you access to what matters, or simply time to rest, play and achieve wellness in BC.

For more information and to register, please check out the Hollyhock website.

Re-training the Writer's Mind @ Taos Writers Conference

This summer I'll be teaching Re-training the Writer's Mind at the Taos Writers Conference. I haven't visited Taos for many years, and I'm really looking forward to it! Here's a link to a version of the workshop that I taught at Hedgebrook. The content will be similar, a five-day workshop with a focus on developing meditation and writing practices that inspire and support us as writers. But the Taos workshop will be part of a conference, rather than a retreat, so participants will be able to engage in a wealth of other writerly activities, too, including roundtables, readings, workshops, as well networking and just hanging out. And I'm really happy because my dear friend, novelist, and editor, Carole DeSanti, will be there, too, and offering a weekend workshop of her own. (More on Carole's workshop and her new novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. to come!)