A Conversation With Michael Pronko Author of Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo
- By Norm Goldman
- Published April 10, 2016
Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, Michael Pronko author of Beauty and Chaos, Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens and his most recent tome, Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo. Michael has also contributed essays to Newsweek Japan, the once great Tokyo Q and Artscape Japan. He has lived, taught and written in Tokyo for eighteen years and is a professor at Meiji Gakuin University teaching American literature, culture, film, music, and art.
Norm: Good day Michael and thanks for participating in our interview.
Michael: Thanks for having me.
Norm: When did you first consider yourself a writer? What keeps you going?
Michael: One time on the train in Tokyo I saw a guy reading one of my articles in Newsweek Japan. I could see my name and the little illustration in his hands. Wow! I thought, he’s reading MY writing! On the train! I must be a writer! I wrote my editor and she said, “So? You thought no one reads it?”
But, just seeing that connection made it real somehow. But that’s just one sense of being a writer, the outward sense. As long as I can remember, I loved to write. After college, I traveled around the world for two years, working when I ran out of money. I kept a journal and when I filled one notebook up, I’d send it back to my parents to save for me. (They never disowned me, so they must never have read them).
That’s another sense of feeling like a writer, just the energy of words from your hand on the page (or screen, now). It’s impetuous and fun, but a bit shapeless and isolated, expressive but not connective. I run on both senses of being a writer and both keep me stoked in different ways.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing and what do you think most characterizes your writing?
Michael: Everyone is in constant dialogue with their past. That can really screw you up, but it can also be a creative tension that is highly productive.
Kansas, where I grew up, is a world, or two, away from Tokyo. But that upbringing, with all of its understandings about the world, is like kindling waiting to be lit. When that upbringing comes in contact with something new, like Tokyo, it creates a spark, and sets up a creative tension. Tapping all that inner confusion really colors my writing.
The seesawing between the weight (good and bad) of the past and the immediate reaction to the present is what characterizes these essays, and a lot of first person writing.
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Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
Michael: I would say I write by paying attention. Children pay attention to everything, since they have not lost their filter. Teachers always say, “Pay attention now,” but what they really mean is pay attention to what we tell you to, and nothing else. So, to write better, I’ve had to re-learn how to pay attention.
And there’s a lot to pay attention to in Tokyo. It’s sensory overload. When I feel something strongly amid that overload, I jot it down. I take that and work around it, into it, over it, with words. I let that sit, sometimes for years, to let my unconscious, which is where intuition resides, do its work. Sometimes, I’ll pull up old notes and have an “Aha!” moment. Other times, I have to work for it.
There are logical parts of the process, but overall, I think it’s pretty sloppy. I guess words have both a logical, tool-like side, but also a musing, intuitive side. I respect both. I rewrite a lot, mainly because there are so many ways to rewrite, once for meaning, again for metaphor, then for coherence, clarity, length. I rewrite as many times as I have time, or energy, for. Thank god for deadlines and word limits, real or self-imagined.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Michael: I read lots and lots of books on writing. Each was a piece of the puzzle, but an isolated piece. The puzzle can only come together in your own head.
I gradually learned to usefully extract what I needed from what I read. And not just from books, but also from “reading” a work of art, a film, the urban space, or even a passing conversation.
An expansive way of reading the world provides creative techniques, inspiration, material and a stronger mindset. I think least useful is listening to the internal censor-critic-superego-judge, which in my case seems like a full bureaucratic department in my mind. Learning to tell that destructive voice to get the hell out of the way is essential, because it can quash all creativity. Learning to love the daily grind of writing is also super-useful.
Norm: How long have you been living in Japan and what made you want to live there?
Michael: Tokyo’s interesting. That’s the main reason. I’ve been here about eighteen years now. I have a job at the university, so I’ll be here until I retire, at least.
Living in Tokyo, I feel like I’m traveling everyday, but also like I’m at home, too. I see confusing, but fascinating things all the time.
Maybe I was a little bored in America, because I often felt like I understood it too well. But that’s rarely a feeling I have in Tokyo. Life here is confusing, upending, and amazing, a constant barrage of reactions. I tell my students my whole life is like studying abroad!
Norm: In your most recent book, Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo you mention you may be very much in Tokyo, however, you would never be of Tokyo, which has never completely normalized for you. Could you elaborate?
Michael: When I was taking notes for this answer sitting on the train, I saw this grade school boy in front of me. He had on a uniform with a green cap and shorts (on a cold day), a huge book bag, a little pull string for his emergency cellphone call system, and he was easy in the crowd.
He was of Tokyo. Me watching him and wondering about him was me being in Tokyo. I let myself think of myself as a “Tokyoite” sometimes, but that’s still different from someone who grew up here, who feels all this is natural.
The essays are written from the point of view of being inbut not of Tokyo. The gap between the two produces insight. Of course, I am sometimes just in Tokyo, falling asleep on the train, teaching class, or out with friends, but writing needs a couple of points of view to work with. I write by being deeply present (in), but not complicit and unreflective (of).
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Michael: I’ve written over two hundred essays about Tokyo over the past fifteen years or so, so they add up. With this collection, I wanted to explain more of the unique, intense experience of Tokyo life, by getting down my reactions more fully. I think I managed that in these essays.
The essays in my other two collections looked more at urban structures and strange customs in a more anthropological, or observational, way. These new essays are more personal, like about the earthquake, and a bit more seasoned. Closer, I guess. I drew on a bit more poetry and a bit more philosophy. These new ones describe less and narrate more. But I still feel like there’s more to write, more goals and intentions left to aim at.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing this book of essays and what was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating the book.
Michael: Some of the essays were originally for magazine columns, so I had a deadline, word limit, overworked editor and Japanese-reading audience.
I enjoyed rewriting the essays without all those things hanging over me. I also rewrote parts of the essays thinking of a non-Japanese, non-Tokyo audience. So, that was fun to rethink how to explain Tokyo to another kind of reader. I was surprised by how much more explanation was needed for someone who has never, for example, eaten fermented squid intestines or been trapped on a super-crowded train too long. I was surprised to learn how complex Tokyo life really is. Those surprising things were a pleasure.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Michael: Keep writing. Ignore setbacks. I think everyone’s experience of life is well worth retelling, in either factual or fictional ways, or a mixture of both. Just being alive on this planet IS a story to be told. But you have to really feel that, and write it down, not just think about it and wonder if it could someday get on paper.
We’re so crushed by the forces of schooling, which tells us that everything will be graded. I say that as a teacher who distrusts grading. In society, so many things are demotivating.
Those demotivating forces, internal and external, just have to be set aside, worked around or kept at bay. When I worry about what others think, even without really knowing what they think, my writing slows down or stops. So, I try to focus less on “Am I good enough?” and more on “How do I get better?” Self-confidence is a really hard thing to get a hold of, but it helps the creative process immensely. It comes from focused practice.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your most recent work, Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo?
Michael: I’m linked in, google-able, facebook-ed and all the rest. Please join my mailing list from my homepage. Here’s a short list of where I virtually exist:
Norm: What is next for Michael Pronko?
Michael: Two detective mysteries set in Tokyo are written and heading toward the next steps. I’ll write two more books of essays, one about Tokyo people I know here, and another on traditional Japanese customs, objects, patterns and practices.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your books, but nobody has?
Michael: Unasked question: What train line do you usually take? Answer: The Chuo Line, it cuts right through the middle of Tokyo.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.