an interversation with Amina Cain
JW: I’d like to start by asking you about your interest in Zen Buddhism. You spent some time at Tassajara. What attracts you to Buddhism? I mean, not as a writer so much, though we will get to that, but simply as someone in the world.
AC: Yes, three months at Tassajara. I think I am drawn to Zen Buddhism mostly because of how deeply relieving (though sometimes it is also excruciating) it can feel to sit down and face a blank wall during zazen/meditation. As you know, in the Soto Zen tradition, you don’t close your eyes or face out to other people. I like that blank wall. It reminds me that what is in my mind is often projection. It also relaxes me. Outside of that, I’m attracted to Buddhism because of what I’ve learned through it about attachment and suffering. I like that it is a practice that includes reading and study. Or, that the reading and the studying and the talking about it is not complete without the physical practice. And I think that Buddhism can help me die more peacefully when it’s my turn to do so.
JW: Three months is quite a commitment, and it must have deepened your practice significantly. It’s interesting that you like looking at the wall, facing away. Does it feel less distracting, more enclosed to you? When I first began in Chico, it was a shared space with different groups of Buddhists. One night, Soto Zen. Another night, Rinzai. The third night was the Vipassana group, which I gravitated toward and eventually joined, that sangha, though I had tried all three. It is certainly, as you say, a wonderful tool to think of attachment and states of mind, and how one holds onto certain beliefs in things and not others, and how those determinations are made. It can become a kind of tricky distillation, however. Choice becomes a complex ball of uncertain yarn because of the exposure to how “sense” is a made thing, not externally produced. Can you speak about decision-making in general, or you can attach it to your story-writing, if you’d like?
AC: Regarding the wall: I think so, yes. A “container” of sorts. Additionally, I am forever drawn to spaciousness, whether in a text or a geographical place, and the wall feels spacious. Beyond the fact that I am supposed to follow the precepts within Soto Zen, which is more like being in practice with them, a set of guidelines for living, I’m not sure how much I think about decision making as it has to do with my relationship to Buddhism. I mean, I do know what you’re saying, and given the fact that nothing in this world is really very solid, to be in tune with that really does change everything. And yet, I have always been aware of the gap between discussions around Buddhist practice and how I actually live my life. For instance, if I were truly in touch with it perhaps I wouldn’t give in so easily to my ego, but I do, and I haven’t tried to stop it. I write a book, for example, and then I want attention for that book. I want lots and lots of it. Of course, that can be practiced with too. In terms of story-writing, I’m not sure I make many decisions in that realm. This isn’t entirely true, but I do think I write to see what is inside my mind.
JW: There are two things that you have just jogged in my mind. One was a section of “Afraid That I Am Not A Poet,” a poem by Paul Zweig that I haven’t thought of in years, and which ends:
How can I be sane with borrowed faces?
When the fears and pleasures
That tumble my words
Like seasons harvested in love
Are only empty mirrors,
Images floating in a dry sea?
The second point has to do with not doing ego’s bidding (is this another bidding, though?), which is truly a nearly impossible job for humans. Wanting to be seen and heard. As you say. One of my friends, Lissa, will not point to poems of hers here or there on the web, or in print, for this very reason. And, yet, what to do when one’s friends want to see the work? Too, it seems there is unbelievable anxiety underneath it all, the rush of social media, the constant “need” to stay present, exposing oneself, being relevant to the times, against/for, have a position, while the entire edifice is a construct, a fiction, disassembling before it’s even put together. I was wondering, and I may not have stated it clearly enough in the prior question, that given the sensibility of openness, of nonduality, that Buddhism awakens in one, how this may make for troubles in how to edit a story. That is, if it is all rather “the case” or “useful” or “what is necessary,” how do you feel your way around in keeping sentences in, keeping sentences out?
AC: That passage and poem title by Zweig are both pretty great. “How can I be sane with borrowed faces?” I love that. But yes, I post reviews of Creature on social media, and I want people to see them, but then when I get too many compliments I feel a bit nauseous. But I asked for these compliments.
It’s interesting, while something like non-duality has certainly effected how I see the world, and my ideas of expectation, what I want to happen vs. what has happened, and like/dislike, and has to some extent allowed for a certain amount of openness, freedom, disorientation, and relief in my life, I’m not sure if I know how to articulate how my writing process might be in relationship to it. I haven’t actually seen it affect my editing process, for instance, though perhaps it has, and I just don’t know it. Part of this is because I hardly think at all when I write. I mean, of course I do to a certain extent, but I very much “feel” my way through writing/revision (which I see as the same). I follow something more than I make decisions. I am probably the opposite of a conceptual writer. Sometimes I think there is not a conceptual bone in my body. Sentences go out that are cluttering up the story, that are cluttering up its space. It becomes clear to me. They are not meant to be there.
JW: I am interested in what this process feels like to you, this “It becomes clear to me” that you mention. Something takes precedence in the piece? And, so, when other things don’t connect with the “main” they fall away? Perhaps it is something you do so quickly, as you are an experienced writer, that it is reflexive, nearly like explaining to someone how one drives a car. Again, though, I am interested in what is clutter and what is the story.
AC: Well, it’s true that it’s a very intuitive process, which does make it harder to talk about, but I will say that when things fall away it’s probably for many different reasons. It’s not so much that they don’t connect to the main, just that their presence gets in the way of certain relationships forming (even between objects). I’ve started to think that a lot of what I do when I write fiction is to simply set things next to each other to see what it reveals.
JW: There is a consistent length to your stories, 5 to 8 pages. Both in Creature and your previous collection, I Go To Some Hollow. Would you talk about that a bit? Why do you think that is so?
AC: That’s a good question. I’m not really sure. It may be that it’s become a kind of form for me, that length, and that I’ve seen it as a container to work within. As with other aspects of my process, I can usually feel when a story is finished, when those relationships I just mentioned have been made and there is space around them. That said, I think I have at times also been restless, ready to move on to the next story. In the last year that’s changed, however. Now I have the feeling of wanting to rest in something for a long time, years, which is why I have started writing (trying to write) a novel.
JW: I do want to get to the restlessness you mention, because it feels a part of the structuring methodology within the stories as well, even while there is an omnipresent calm, a waywardness, but what are some of the difficulties, if there are some, that you are encountering while writing the novel, some elements that you wouldn’t experience writing the stories?
AC: Trying to write a novel is this whole other thing for me, quite challenging. Working from a place of uncertainty while beginning a story has always felt okay because after a certain amount of time laboring, the story does begin to take its shape. Of course the same can be true in beginning a longer text as well, but for me it has taken a great amount of time for any shape to emerge at all, and this shapelessness can be a difficult place in which to stay present. So far, it’s as though I’ve been writing through and through and through—horizontally—never knowing if what I write will be a part of the novel once it’s complete. Only recently have I felt some verticality, some sense of burrowing down. Luckily, I am in it for the long haul. I’ve been in the space of the short story enough now that I want to experience something else. For the first time, I crave the immersion that must happen when you work on a single work of fiction for a very long while.
JW: I can appreciate how the novel form will prove to be challenging, given the length, and how far the arcs can be because of it. How much will a reader sit for before a return to a prior element? Can it just unroll endlessly like a carpet? And so on. As I have mentioned to you previously, the story “Words Come To Me,” in Creature, has fascinated me. I’ve read it probably seven times now. I was struck this time through with the tone of it. I couldn’t put my finger on it before. But there’s a flatness of register, very much like a person experiences in dreams. That is, the most disturbing content can pass by without so much as an outcry from the narrator. It just floats by. Specifically, to use an example, on page 75, where your narrator relates seeing the other servant beaten, and says: “I stood in the window looking out at you for a long time. Finally it got dark, and then I couldn’t see you anymore.” It seems rather shocking that this is just witnessed, and nothing done about it. Can you talk about the tone here, which I feel is a key ingredient to this story and a large amount of your others, this withholding of affect, and/or a kind of wandering away?
AC: I think I have often only let myself go towards certain subjects or fictional moments with a certain … not distance, necessarily, but space, perhaps. More recently, I’ve been letting myself move a bit closer, to see what that is like. Most of the time I’m not interested in high drama, but I am interested in edges, and in how to be in relationship to those edges. But also, that idea I brought up of setting things next to each other in a story to see what that will reveal. Tone next to event is part of that too. And then, beyond that, and maybe connecting back to meditation, is the idea of simply being present for something that happens. In “Words Come To Me,” the narrator and other “servants” have almost no agency, until they escape/leave that house. When one of them is beaten there is nothing for the other to do but be that witness, accompanying the other through it somehow.
JW: Yes, meditation. This is partly why I asked about Zen Buddhism in the first question, because the meditative practice itself seems a governing structurer to your story worlds. Energies, contents, identities, all in flux, moving, phasing in, phasing out. And, the sense that you mention here, the waiting to see what it is like. As for the servant narrator, it just seemed odd that nothing more emotionally connective was said, not that it needed to be, but it moves one out of what one might say in real life. “I felt badly that you were getting beaten.” It takes one out of rather “normative” emotional patterns, and things pass by. This can be unsettling, humorous, calming. I am reminded of something the filmmaker David Lynch (another meditator) said about holding the scene/shot past what seemed a “normal” amount of time, so that it opens up the space into new areas. It pushes the audience past some kind of initial discomfort, to an interesting anxiety, and perhaps then into an amusing and unknown register. Likewise a poetry teacher and a friend of mine, Michael Burkard, would talk about humor in poems this way: to wait just a bit past the first feeling of humor, or to not be so quick with it, so that some other unknown world comes in, which one may be fearful of. I think he felt that many kinds of humor are reflexive and drop in sometimes to hide other possibilities. He is not a scold, in this way, or intolerant of humor—he can be very funny—but I always appreciated that insight. And I’m reminded of this, because you’ve mentioned to me that some readers don’t always hear the humor in your stories, and I wonder if you want something Michael wanted: to not have it so obvious, to make the scene or moment multidimensional.
AC: Yes, a single moment obviously holds so many different things, so why not let a scene in a story reflect that. And even in terms of fiction in general, I do think that each element should be doing more than one thing. Description should not simply be utilitarian, for instance, there to simply tell the reader what is in a room.
But in terms of the humor in my stories, it’s not that I want or don’t want it to do something, it just emerges and there it is. And because the stories are not necessarily outwardly humorous from the beginning, it might take the reader by surprise. When I read the stories out loud, it’s often in a deadpan way, and I think that too shapes how the listener gets to the humor, or first experiences it. Anyway, I very much don’t want to overdetermine anything in a narrative, and so that waiting Michael Burkard talks about makes a lot of sense to me. It also makes sense to me that David Lynch said what he did about holding a shot. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, by the way.
JW: In the high majority of the stories in Creature, the narrator is a writer or a teacher, and/or someone who reads, a reader. These also describe your own life. Can you talk about that decision to have the narrators somewhat mirror your own circumstances, though the fictions may verge dramatically? Beyond writing, though, it seems like more time is devoted to reading in the book. In “There’s an Excess,” the narrator says “I read all the time now.” In “I Will Force This,” the narrator says, “Maybe I’m only a reader.” In other stories, the narrators are shown to be reading. There’s a quietude implicit in reading, but also of abandoning a world for another. Hiding out, perhaps. Can you talk to this as well?
AC: A big part of that mirroring is that I tend to explore in writing what I am exploring in life and sometimes that process allows me to get closer to something. These two explorations often diverge from each other, however. For instance, the narrator in “I Will Force This” reflects that maybe she isn’t actually a writer, and the narrator in “Words Come To Me” says that she doesn’t write stories, and I connect very much to being a writer and to writing stories. I like going into those inversions. And, it’s almost as if I can’t resist a space I spend a lot of time in, like the space of reading, as you bring up. There is something in it (reading) for me to think through. In the novel I’m trying now to write, the space of yoga is starting to enter. In class, in that physicality, I want to also get close to it in writing, to be in communication with it in another way.
JW: Your work, I think, argues for a rather mystical world, beyond language’s ability to describe. Your work situates the reader in the empty spaces, the grasping places, where so much of life is experienced, and so often given short shrift, or unapproached altogether, in the majority of literature. It’s what I love the most about your work, and why I continue to come back to it. Things are not so resolved in your work. We are always in the middle of something, between middles. Does this ring true to you?
AC: Yes, definitely. As we go through the day, there’s the outer life of what gets said, expressed, acted upon, but then there’s the inner life, what is felt and thought that rarely comes out, and is often repressed in a strange silence. For me, it’s almost necessary to at least write that life, to give it shape, and at times also act on or express it in my own day. It becomes a kind of relief. And in terms of resolution, when is anything ever resolved? One resolution leads to another uncertainty. It is never ending, this cycle. We are always in the middle.
Additional Amina Cain:
Stories from Creature at:
Little Red Leaves
With Renee Gladman at Bomb
With Veronica Gonzalez-Peña at The Conversant
Amina Cain is the author of Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues, 2009). She lives and works in Los Angeles.