Creative Transformations

By Maxine Hong Kingston
[Courtesy of Scott Morrison]

Celebrated U.S.-based writer Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior and China Men has been conducting writing workshops for veterans of war since 1991. The book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, published by Koa Books in 2006, which she edited, is a compilation of writing by participants in the workshops.

SGI Quarterly: Can you describe the veterans' writing workshops? You combine writing with Buddhist meditation?

Maxine Hong Kingston: I found it was very important for people who have returned from war to face the breaking of the precept "Thou shalt not kill." When I presented the precepts to them, so many people faced for the first time the killing that they witnessed or did when they were in war. This was not psychology, not just art or storytelling, but the facing of a religious commandment. It's a universal moral principle. Then people are able to work with their conscience, and out of this came the most powerful writing. Whether we know it or not, each of us has Buddha nature, which will not let us get away with hurting others.

SGIQ: Is it always the case that the people who participate can create something from their experiences?

MHK: There are people who come and then go away and I never see them again. But the people that stay with this program, and also people who maybe came a few times and then I run across them years later, those people have all changed for the better. Good things have happened in their lives. Most of them have been able to express themselves in an artistic way. I think one wonderful thing is how many people have found partners. So many of them, when I first met them, they would be such isolated people and so wounded, then as the years go by, I see them with a partner.

SGIQ: Is it always good to encourage people to do this kind of soul-searching process, even on their own, or is it best if this happens in a group setting?

MHK: I think that artistic expression is always good for everybody. In our groups, we are writing together, meditating together, and all this time we are forming a community. I think that forming a community is vital to safety, to returning from terrible situations, as it is making a home to come back to. I don't think setting out on an enterprise all by yourself is very healthy. I know there is the tradition of the solitary artist, and I myself have been a solitary artist for many years. While it's good to have solitude and to be independent and to experiment, there also has to be a time when there is the forming of a community.

You know I wrote all the details of each one of those things that happened. A lot of things are very confusing on the battlefield. And you have questions, I can think of one in particular that I most had a doubt about whether I had done the right thing or not. And the writing--it was the music that was in the line that sort of put an order to things that both answered the questions, yes I think I did the right thing and it was impossible to do more than I did.

Ted Sexauer, Vietnam veteran

SGIQ: I read that you ask people to write not just in a private way, but to write for other people. It's almost a kind of dialogue, not a monologue.

MHK: Yes, exactly. They perform these public acts of writing. They are not writing diaries. I see the diary as a private, secret, hidden thing. We're writing amongst one another, and we are communicating with the other people in the room. There are writing practices in which we say, "Make it a letter to one other person." At the beginning, I did not promise them that they would be published. I didn't want people to think of reward but to write for the sake of writing itself. In the workshop, there are times when we're silent and writing, and then I invoke the bodhisattva of compassionate listening, and then we all listen to one another.

photo "Operation Homecoming" writers' workshops created by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts are another example of using writing to help military personnel process their experiences of war  [The Boeing Company]

Most of these veterans came home from the Vietnam War. The newspapers and historians will write up that war as history, but when a soldier comes home and he or she writes their own story, then he's telling history and making history and not leaving it up to someone else, because this person is an eyewitness, so it's a citizenly duty to come home and tell that story.

SGIQ: No one who sits down and reads your book could send anyone to war.

MHK: War doesn't improve any situation. You talk about people reading and it changes them. . . . When one writes a story or tells a story, we change, because to tell a story, we take all kinds of conflict and terriblenesses and we process them, and as we bring order to chaos by writing about it, then a wonderful transformation takes place. You have a terrible event and then you can write a beautiful story. Reconciliation and understanding of different points of view, all of those things happen in a story. I feel that after I finish writing a story I become a different person, and I hope that when someone reads a story, they also change.

I believe in the power of art, the power of meditation. Writing is so much like meditation. There is the silence and there is the going deeper and facing reality. All of that happens in writing and in meditation. The only difference is that when you're writing, you just take notes!

So writing became a container that could hold all my pain. It was a vessel, and I could just keep putting more pain in that vessel, and writing could hold it all. Writing didn't tell me to get over it, get better, get married again. Writing just said give me, give me more of your pain, I'm here to receive it, and it was such a gift to find writing.

Pauline Laurent, Vietnam widow

SGIQ: I find it inspiring that your approach implies that all people are artists.

MHK: We all have creative urges. All children are like that, and somehow it gets knocked out of people and they get depressed. The creativity stops.

SGIQ: You lost your home and a precious manuscript in a fire. Is it because you experienced that loss and depression yourself that you were able to understand the veterans' suffering?

MHK: A metaphor came to me during the fire, that I saw the burned land as looking like a battlefield. Many people have told me that is what a battlefield looks like after a firefight, so I can understand that aspect. Also two of my brothers were in the Vietnam War.

There are some people from the present war coming and joining us. I feel all these people are still struggling. I don't think it will ever be over. People come back with post-traumatic stress disorder and they are able to handle it or things are better, but I think the struggle will always be there.

photo Maxine with the veterans writing workshop, Sebastopol, California, March 2006  [Scott Morrison]