Tuesday, February 19, 2013


.I just finished an interesting book that uses a fictional character, albeit a world famous one, in getting the subject across - the technique of scientific thinking. Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional detective is used as a guide to develop a ‘mastermind’, in a non-fictional work loaded with interesting insight from a Harvard trained psychologist. Her prose is interesting at times but clinical and dense most of the time, possibly because her work started as a PhD thesis and evolved into a book. The author cites several writers whose work I admire like Daniel Pink, Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman- the Nobel Prize winning economist. Her work follows the trendy oeuvre of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Nassim Taleb and the writers of ‘Freakonomics’, intelligent books that dispel common truths and deliver counter-intuitive conclusions, opening a new world with the vision of new eyes, after revealing the ‘real truth’ behind the everyday façade. These works attempt to explain or popularize new theories in economics, cognitive research, psychology, statistics and social science in a hip and modern style with a conscious attempt to avoid academic taint; oftentimes upending the prevailing wisdom


Sherlock Holmes in my mind, typified the rigor of disciplined thinking, of pure logic, like Mr. Spock the Vulcan in Star Trek, transplanted in Victorian England to solve mysterious crimes. But the author goes farther than that, focusing on the idea of attention and stillness, more Eastern in theory than Western, but effective nevertheless. One of her statement is ‘the most powerful mind is a silent mind,’ a sentence that would not be misplaced in a Buddhist sutra or a Zen manuscript, which makes her writing all the more appealing, a mix of the standard Aristotelian logic and the mindfulness teachings of Buddhism. She points out that mindfulness and focus is the key, at the same time encouraging the mind to wander; to increase its stock of knowledge, a contradiction that would exist in any ‘koan’ or Buddhist aphorisms. Hence, Sherlock Holmes is revealed to be a modern version of a ‘mastermind’ that combines the scientific discipline of clear logical thinking and the mindfulness achieved through meditation and focus; recognizable to Eastern mystics or later day practitioners like Eckhart Tolle and Werner Erhard.

Perhaps it is her Russian background, where the east and west comingle, the influence of Europe and the renaissance coupled with the mysticism of Central Asia, where the blood of the Khans and the Moguls mixed with the Caucasian hue of Christian orthodoxy (like a journey to Harvard via Moscow). The concept of a ‘mastermind’ is an interesting idea that can be used for every day problem solving, at work or at any task, in correcting one’s thinking or removing cognitive bias; by improving meditation and mindfulness, thereby increasing productivity and reducing stress – ingredients of a readymade bestseller in the best tradition of DIY. What is the lesson for aspiring writers? I guess it is to create focus when writing, to use creativity and the imagination when creating stories and having the discipline to work (or to write regularly). The sections of her book offer a road toward developing a ‘mastermind’:

1.    Understand Yourself
2.    From Observation to Imagination
3.    Art of Deduction
4.    Science and Art of Self-Knowledge

As one can see in the outline, one does not normally associate these topics to solving crimes or scientific or logical thinking but to self-help works of improving one’s cognition as in psychological therapy. Nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, original and enriching book.

During the weekend, as I rushed to finish reading the book, we watched a marathon 10 hours of Downton Abbey’s Season 3, a wonderful glimpse of English lords and their estates during and after the first world war, just about the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his fictional detective at their peak. Downton Abbey is arguably one of the greatest series ever created, the portrayal of the English upper class is magnificent; not only the story of a certain family but the epitome of refinement and panache of a race of man, when the British Empire ruled the world with their application of clear logical thinking and their appreciation of Shakespeare with his keen understanding of politics and the ruling class (i.e. a glimpse inside their brain attic). To complete the circle, I also watched the classic Laurence Olivier’s film ‘Richard III’ and the Broadway play ‘Hamlet’ directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton, possibly the best Hamlet ever. To balance the whole picture, I am listening to Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ about India during the time of independence from England, an enjoyable book that should rank as a modern classic – a template for aspiring writers on the subject of national identity.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mystical Beatle

Martin Scorsese's documentary on George Harrison opened a door, showing an aspect of Harrison not known by the general public, at least by myself. Although one is aware of his involvement with Hare Krishna and Ravi Shankar, the documentary presents a more detailed picture of his influence in spreading Indian culture. The portrayal that comes out is that Harrison played a larger role in the Beatles than normally thought. It’s intriguing to think that he nudged the Beatles towards a more spiritual side, whereas John Lennon leaned towards art and Paul McCarthy focused on music, Harrison was the soul or spiritual heart of the Beatles. There is an interesting moment in the film where the Beatles where considered more famous than God or Jesus Christ, where young people looked up to them for guidance, and their music started to reflect a more mystical or transcendental side, perhaps nudging the youth towards enlightenment by opening the door to Indian music, philosophy and spiritual growth. I can think of no other group who used their influence, although haphazardly, towards the greater good; at least no other well-known English bands like The Rolling Stones or The Who.


In their late age, the Beatles turned out as well-adjusted human beings, who could have spiraled into a more decadent and hedonistic lifestyle but managed to have normal families and children, notwithstanding the tragic murder of Lennon or attack on Harrison, though not a fault of their own. The Beatles were regular boys, raised in good families who tried, with their music, to make a better world during a turbulent time. Harrison was well-rounded; delving in movies (Monty Python), car racing, staging benefit concerts, promoting Indian music and spiritual transcendence, spreading good cheer with his music, collaborating with other musicians like Ray Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Eric Clapton, something only done with a mature ego. His life is a surprising contrast to Cole Porter, comparing their lives after watching ‘De-Lovely’, a wonderful movie musical staring Kevin Kline. Porter was a musical genius, perhaps similar to Paul McCarthy in his facility with lyrics and tunes, but both seemed light weight when compared to Harrison who searched for a deeper truth. His spiritual growth encouraged him to share his journey to the wider public and to persuade the path is open to all.

In the weekend, I read the graphic novels ‘Cleveland’ by Harvey Pekar and ‘I See the Promised Land’ about the life of Martin Luther King. MLK and Harrison were both revolutionaries as both sought change, to try and make the world a better place. I had watched documentaries and movies about MLK, heard his speeches but the graphic novel gave more detailed insight than any previous work on MLK I encountered. The ‘comics’ provided the background of MLK’s struggle, the politics of the civil rights movement, the application of Gandhi’s non-violence tactics to fight segregation, the clear usage of techniques as against oratory which was my first impression of MLK, as a preacher not the wily strategist of a Mahatma. But the application of Gandhi’s principles of ‘satyagraha’ was key (plus the clever use of media), like a strategy applied by a guerilla leader, contrary to the violent methods employed by the Black Panthers and Malcolm X and culminated in riots in New York and California. The link in both Harrison and MLK was the influence of India; the political philosophy of Gandhi and the spiritual transcendentalism of Maharishi Yogi, applying the lessons from an ancient continent. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau would be proud.

Again I procrastinated during the weekend, rushing to read books, magazines and watching movies, despite the high quality of the shows, neglecting again to work on my book. I had determined my problem: lack of will and voice, lost in an identity crisis until I realized what’s to be done, resolving to save money by not attending the writing course and, instead, plunge right ahead in the work. But I ‘speed read’ the book ‘How to Build an Android,’ a silly but interesting non-fiction book, and will read another on writing and on Sherlock Holmes. I am like St. Francis, who knew about his path to saint hood but wanted a few more decadent moments before accepting his spiritual life. Lord, please allow me just a few more weeks to read silly magazines, books and movies before embarking into a writing life. But the goal is no longer being a ‘dilettante’ following the Western ideal but having criteria to assess best use of time. Future efforts must answer the following questions: will it help write a book? Will it validate identity? Will it create an authentic life true to the goal?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Writer’s Identity

There is a clear link between the writer’s identity and his creative fiction. The authors, who spoke in the literary upcountry series, write proudly of their uniqueness; confirm their roots as Hispanic writers, or African American or Southern writers who live in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains; their unique voice punctuating their works and, thereby, achieving a certain individuality and power, enriching their prose. I missed this aspect, mixing all those creative voices in a swirl, neglecting to pay notice to the ‘identity’ of the writer. For instance, Graham Greene is the consummate Englishman; this identity gives his work a unique voice, the perspective of the erudite European. I am reading Salman Rushdie who comes out as an Englishman with his facility in the English language but one hears the voice of the sophisticated Indian from the Asian subcontinent. Similarly, echoes of the Texas outback in Cormac McCarthy or upper class New York WASP in J.D. Salinger or the Brooklyn Jew in Philip Roth. I did not realize how empowering one’s identity brings to the creative writer.

For my part, in a culture mixed by Spanish Catholic colonialism and American progressive re-engineering, one is often confused; thinking he is influenced by both European old worldliness and Yankee new world naiveté and ‘can do spirit’, neglecting the buried Malay or Chinese heritage, in a country adrift in the crossroads of oceanic travel. Perhaps Indian writers did not have this problem, strengthened by an ancient civilization albeit with a strong layer of English colonial imperialism. The question of identity is not as prevalent in India as in the Philippines, though both occupied by foreign powers but the islands plagued more by differing foreign winds; cut-off from the great Asian mainland, thereby foregoing the great influence of Buddhism, Chinese culture (but with sprinklings of Chinatown), Malay and Islamic thought (with pockets in the Muslim South) and instead transplanting the Western Christian ideal (more Catholic than Protestant) in these dispersed Pacific islands. In some ways, the country is more culturally aligned to Latin America (albeit without the Spanish language) than any country in Asia.

Therefore, the problem of writing is a problem of identity; one does not have a voice that could enrich his prose. This is the lesson one learns when reading Junot Diaz, whose prose echoes his Latin American roots or Ha Jin with his Chinese background. This is the fundamental problem, not a question of writing craft but in developing one’s voice; one cannot write without a foundation of identity. But there are writers who can transcend their identity like Kazuo Ishiguro, who foregoes his Japanese identity to write a classic of English life in his book ‘Remains of the Day,’ but he is an exception. If one does not know his identity, the resulting prose is weak and inauthentic. Jose Rizal wrote long ago that one will become like the wind, forever floating about if one does not have the anchor of his identity. Perhaps this is the root of the problem, one’s voracious curiosity, forever borrowing books or watching movies in an attempt to assimilate into a Western consciousness; perhaps ashamed to acknowledge one’s roots as one tries to assimilate in the great melting pot. In a sense, my generation grew up in American culture with the steady diet of Hollywood movies and television.

Hence, this is the final puzzle, where one finally admits his identity, focuses on developing his voice (also an inevitable consequence of public speaking in Toastmaster). It is no longer the learning of the writing craft though still important but the cultivation of one’s story. And what is the story of my generation? Living abroad, travelling for work around the world, living in different cultures, ashamed of our country’s hardship and troubles, perhaps for some, living illegally in foreign lands. Perhaps it is also a modern story, the expatriate in a global society with the English language as the passport for assimilation in distant countries, a representative of a colonized race, forcibly fed salvation via the lord Jesus Christ, or democracy via Governor Generals, the Guardia Civil and the Army of Occupation. Perhaps it’s also a story of heroism as one tries to find his identity against the colonial rule of memory, where the descendants of a conquered race rise up today and trying to forget the humiliation of the past.