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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

Maxine Hong Kingston: Physical Writing Process

Updated: Jun 24, 2018

"Instead of a woman warrior with a sword, I could create one with a pen who would be just as dramatic." - Maxine Hong Kingston

From Drawings to Words Across a Multitude of Drafts

Maxine Hong Kingston is such an accomplished writer that she has been awarded by two presidents. She's best known for her book The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, but I tend to associate her with the novel Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. While we might not classify her as part of the Beat Generation per se, she was quite close both in chronology and location (San Francisco), and Tripmaster Monkey is her take on the Beat Generation, which provides readers with a fresh perspective.  As Jimmy Fazzino writes in World Beats, "Kingston has also written what I consider to be the quintessential work of post-Beat writing: the 1989 novel Tripmaster Monkey. In this novel Kingston talks back, but lovingly, to the Beats. Her novel critiques certain blind spots in Beat writing dealing with race, gender, and ethnicity, but at the same time, her novel redeems the Beats by recognizing and then transforming their transgressive, liberatory spirit to suit the author's purposes. Kingston's protagonist is Wittman Ah Sing, a fifth-generation Chinese American and belated beatnik who wrestles with the ghost of Kerouac in 1960s San Francisco as he attempts to find his voice and make his way in life. The title,Tripmaster Monkey refers in part to Sun Wukong, the monkey king (or monkey god)."

This photo of Kingston working at her computer is from the 1990 documentary Maxine Hong Kingston: Talking Story. This must have been her writing setup around the time she was writingTripmaster Monkey. However, she usually starts on paper, and not necessarily with words. When she was young, Kingston wanted to be an artist before she got into writing, so traces of that remain with her. When she's facing the blank page to begin telling a new story, she'll often start with images. She'll sketch doodles and pictures until they begin to form into words. As E.D. Huntley explains in Maxine Hong Kingston: A Critical Companion, "Kingston does not write from an outline; instead, she conjures up visual images that she afterwards 'translates' into her luminous prose. She had once wanted to have a career as an artist, and she still frequently begins the creative process by drawing and sketching ideas, producing visual representations of her thoughts."

"I draw a blob and then I have a little arrow and it goes to this other's like a doodle." - Maxine Hong Kingston

By all accounts, Kingston writes a huge number of drafts. She wholeheartedly believes in the power of the writing process, and the discovery it brings. As Betty Ming Liu explains, She rewrote her memoir at least 15 times, from beginning to end — every single time. If no one published it, she planned to xerox the manuscript and save it. Maybe someone would discover it 1,000 years from now, she told us." 

Kingston is able to discover to stories she wants to tell and the characters she wants to depict as she continually revises her drafts. She says that at the beginning she doesn't know where she's going, and by the end, she is surprised by the conclusion. In the book Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, she explains, "As I described people, I found that I understood them more and more because I gave them so much attention. I even began to see things from their point of view, why they did some of the things they did. And then I thought, 'These are loving portraits.' So by the time I got through--and this would take about ten drafts--I thought, 'What I've written isn't a lot of embarrassing gossip. I've made a piece of harmony in the world.' And then I thought, 'Yeah, now it's ready to publish.' / What I'm hoping by saying this is that you will realize it's OK to write about the very worst people in your family and worst feelings that you might have about your loved ones. The writing process and the form itself will guide you to what it all means. And then inside of you resolution take places, and you are at peace with all of that. And what you publish is showing human beings how life took place, and how life and love and positive things came out of the negative." I'd love to see some of her preliminary sketches or her manuscripts in various states of revision, but it doesn't look like that will happen until I have a chance to visit the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library and view their collection of her papers

An Activist for Peace

Before we part, I mentioned above that Kingston was awarded by two presidents. For her entire life, Kingston has been an anti-war activist. She was arrested outside of the White House for protesting the Iraq War. Unlike poet Adrienne Rich, who was theonly person to decline the National Medal of Arts, stating presciently that ''democracy in this country has been in decline,'' Kingston accepted the two occasions presidents honored her with medals. However, she had some surprising words for President Clinton when she met him in person. As reported in The Guardian

She astonished the draft-dodging president with a message from Vietnam war veterans. "They said, 'Tell Bill Clinton we're proud of him; he was right and brave not to go to Vietnam'." "But I thought they felt I'm a son of a bitch," he replied.  Their forgiveness surprised Kingston too, aware of the bitterness of many veterans towards the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Yet these men had taken part in the 1990s in her war veterans' writing workshops.

The power of the pen is a motif throughout Kingston's work. She explains in Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston, "And in my stories the pen is always problematical. It's always on the verge of not winning. But I think maybe the frustration I feel is that writers have the power to change the world only a little bit at a time. We conquer a reader at a time. We change the atmosphere of the world, and we change moods here and there, whereas the people who have the guns and the bombs have so much direct power. We're using images and moods against the bombs. If only the word had as much power."

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