Come Here. Go Away. Wait, No, Come Here.

Come Here. Go Away.
Wait, No, Come Here.

I’ve always been suspicious of machines. Unlike my father, who was always ready to look beneath the hood of a car or try his hand (with varying degrees of success) at plumbing, wiring, and all those other traditionally masculine aspects of home maintenance, I was always content, as a child and teenager, to make use of machines when they worked, and seek immediate outside assistance when they didn’t. Affordable home computers – and the word processing programs they contained – came along at just the time (the mid-eighties) when I needed them to, and while I took full advantage of this fact, it was always in a rather grudging, ungracious way. Of the nine or so books I’ve written, not one would have stood a remote chance of existing had I not had a computer to help me write them. Word processing programs, and their miraculous ability to make large chunks of words move here or there on the screen, to make them vanish for a moment and then reappear, changed the act of writing profoundly. Before they came along, writers were called upon to have a considerably greater idea of where they were going when they first put pen to paper or struck the first key on their typewriter. And I rarely knew where I was going. The first sentence of my first book was typed on a computer – a monstrous, multi-cabled affair with a sepia-on-black screen such as one sometimes sees in the background in eighties spy movies – and while that first sentence ended up being the same one on the actual first page of the actual book when it arrived at my door some two years later, most of the sentences and paragraphs that followed it  underwent an almost endless series of changes. Without the fluidity of that computer screen – without my ability to make my words, sentences, and paragraphs go away, then come back, then go away again — I would never have been able to fight my way through to creating a (more or less) coherent narrative expressing a (more or less) coherent set of ideas in that short of a time.
So, of course, it has always gone. Technology kills creativity, the necessity to think and imagine for oneself, the wisdom runs, and with each new technological leap, the more of ourselves we give away, and the weaker our native tools of self-expression become.

And… it’s true, it really is. Machines rob of us of strengths that, without them, we might otherwise have developed in far greater degree all by ourselves. And it works in the opposite direction as well – the direction of the reader, that is. I’ve always known it, and I certainly knew it on the day, a decade or so ago now, when I tapped out the first version of this website on whatever generation of MacBook I had back then. Author’s websites make it easy to find out about whatever writer you happen to be reading, or thinking about reading. If no website pops up, Google will obligingly deliver the next best thing: a cascade of what other people have to say about the author in question, or (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse) articles by the author him or herself. And while all this ancillary information is entirely good if one is buying, say, a vacuum cleaner, in the case of a book or a story or a poem it takes away something as well – the necessity to do a certain kind of work, to make a certain amount of decisions about the text one is reading (Is it any good? Is it worth my time?), without the benefit of knowing what everybody else in the world has had to say on the matter ahead of time. By making the author of a book seem so accessible, so right-there-in-front-of-usthe technologies of instant knowledge available today domesticate that author to a degree, and make of writing itself a sort of concierge service. Writing is mysterious, and – at least to a some degree – reading should be mysterious too. I’ve often picked up books in used bookstores and bought them without knowing anything about the person who wrote them. An old, jacketless volume written by an author one has never heard of yields only what one can glean by a quick flip through its pages. Is the writer of said book alive or dead? Was their life a gay and giddy affair, full of accolades and triumphs, or did they drink themselves to death at an early age, or end up in an asylum, vanish without a trace on a trip to Mexico, or perish in a freak mountain climbing accident? With the advent of the internet all such questions vanish, and while I am the first to admit that I take advantage of it just as much as you do (more, probably), the fact remains that our ability to know so much about the creator of the book we’re reading before we’ve read it has made us weaker judges of the text before us, just as the computer it was typed out with made the writer a weaker creator of it.

Of course, not everybody feels this way. Long, long ago – maybe 1978 or 79 – my stepmother Betty Vreeland, who died in 1985, told me she liked to picture in her head whatever author she was reading at the time (if that author was still alive) might be doing at that exact moment.
“You mean, like, are they brushing their teeth or something?” I asked. Yes, she said, exactly.
I was surprised (this is probably why I remember the exchange) by how instantly I found myself disagreeing. For me, even at fifteen, the last thing in the world I wanted to do when reading a book was imagine the person who had written it as a genuine flesh-and-blood person, inhabiting the same world that I was, and doing (give or take) all the same mundane stuff. For me back then, and for me now as well, books are tools for placing myself outside of and above the mundane world. Reading a good book (fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose or whatever else) in the right way can allowed me to switch the gears of my consciousness – to actually inhabit the world in a different manner than I was inhabiting it before I picked up
the book and started reading. It allows me to be able to say, as Sven Birkerts put it in his extraordinary Gutenberg Elegies: “I am still contained in the world, but I don’t feel trapped in it.” So while I make use of our world’s various let’s-find-out-technologies as much as the next person, while I hop over to the internet to find out about a writer just as fast, or faster, than the next person, there is a part of me that wishes all this information weren’t there, and that I had to find out about what I was reading, or thinking about reading, the way I had back in the old days. By taking up the physical object I had in hand, opening it, and reading. All of this came up for me very powerfully some when I first set about producing
the content for this site. I resented the fact that if I was to be, or at least attempt to look like, a serious writer, I kind of had to have the thing. Would Henry Miller have had a website? I asked myself glumly. Would Rilke have given a list of hotlinks to his recent Salon pieces? And so on. Of course, if one indulges in this sort of Great Writers and their Websites fantasy for long enough, one writer’s name eventually pops up and chills one out about thewhole business. That writer, of course, is J. D. Salinger. Given the unlikely but nonetheless possible event that someone would enter my name into a search window, declining to provide some actual material of one’s own to the stack of Google junk that would instantly pop up would be, for all my hand-wringing about Mystery and so forth, sort of churlish. So… in I plunged. As Wikipedia could tell you, I was born in 1962 and grew up
just outside Washington, DC, where my father, the writer Peter Tompkins, lived because it was close to the Library of Congress. In the pre-internet world, the LoC was pretty much the closest approximation to it there was, and I have extremely fond and vivid memories of this vast kingdom of static print, which was less like a simple library than a kind of Egyptian hall of records. From the walls upon walls of card catalog drawers, each with its thousands of laboriously typed index cards, and the subterranean warrens where the books corresponding to these cards were kept, everything about the place argued for the book as sacred object. My father had friends in high places, and one of these friends rigged things so that my father
could not only (with me sometimes in tow) actually enter one of the creaky, accordion-doored elevators that took one down to these stacks and wander among them – something the average ordinary citizen could absolutely not do — but even pull the volumes he wanted off their shelves and take them home with him. While my father was prone to constantly losing things – his eyeglasses, his wallet, his passport – I don’t recall him ever misplacing one of these books. Years later, a few months before my first book was scheduled to come out, my father sent me, without comment, a sheet of paper holding some lines of dot matrix print that I instantly recognized as having come from one of the Library’s printers.  There on its ISBN, its Library Card Catalog Number, and all the various other hermetic bits 1980 (as narrated in my book few years after that, until my father ran out of the money required to pay for it. I’ve written eight or nine full-length books – what I tend to think of as the serious or “real” ones – a few shorter, not-so-serious ones that pop up on Amazon if you enter my name there, and way, way too many internet articles that were in large
part written too fast and with steeply varying levels of personal commitment and editorial interference. Some of these articles are rather bad, but all are basically what one would expect, I suppose, from a well-intentioned writer with limited time and abilities who was always ready to start typing, for better or worse, the minute someone asked him to. To illustrate just how open-minded I’ve been in this regard: the first piece of writing I ever received a bona fide check for was called “My Orgasm in the Ocean,” and appeared, under the pseudonym of Tom Kennis (get it?) in the January 1987 issue of Penthouse Forum. The story – with the original, more tasteful, but apparently insufficiently snappy title “Getting in Deep” – had taken me a good six weeks of a New York summer to write, and detailed the amorous adventures of the protagonist, a scuba instructor on the Island of Bimini in the Bahamas a mysterious Eastern European woman who has just arrived on the islandaboard a vast luxury yacht. Christened Monique, the mystery woman is distinguished by her faultlessly pale skin (How pale? “Pale as the flesh of a bitten pair,” that’s how pale.), and refuses to leave her cabin unless the skies are sufficiently overcast to allow her to retain it.
I’d studied poetry and philosophy while I was at Sarah Lawrence, and I still remember the night when, along with one of my Sarah Lawrence literary chums, I walked into a convenience store just outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, and saw the January issue of Forum on the rack behind the counter. I shelled out six bucks, flipped through the pages, and almost instantly found a two-page spread featuring an artist’s rendering of Monique, every bit as pale as I’d imagined her, locked in watery embrace with my exceedingly handsome, stubble-chinned alter-ego Tom. I was stunned and excited, my friend horrified. After all those long, rarefied evenings discussing the Duino Elegies and The Waste Land, this was what my dream of being a writer had let to?
I saw my friend’s point, of course. This was junk. But looking at those neat columns of print containing my very own (completely fabricated, highly
unbelievable, and painfully wordy) sentences, I fell under the spell of what a boss of mine later on introduced me to as “reach.” Junk or not, these were my sentences, and they existed, now, not just on the page in front of me, but out there in the world, on the pages of uncounted magazine racks behind the counters of untold convenience and cigar stores and truck stops all across the universe. It was in that moment that I realized that not only did I want to become an actual writer; I wanted to become one sufficiently badly that I was ready to say “yes” to pretty much anything that anyone, anywhere, asked me to write, provided that said writing would end up in neat, formatted, published columns. Self-publishing is swell, but I hate it all the same, for it smacks, to me, of self-initiation, and removes, in a single stroke, all of the hurdles, the various and sundry difficulties, through which published sentences used to have to go through before seeing the light of day.I am a great fan of Steven Piersanti’s article “The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing” (, wherein one finds, in fact, a good deal more than ten awful truths, and where one learns that somewhere over two-hundred and sixty books are self-published each hour. And that was way back in 2021. Surely by today the number has passed three-hundred. Technology has, year by year and hurdle by hurdle, lowered every last obstacle to seeing one’s writing from that weird and marvelous distance that the publishing process used to create.
So it was that I ended up (especially once the internet got going in force) saying “yes” to all kinds of stuff over the years that followed – some of it for the better, some of it for the worse, and some of it (even) for free. The Forum piece was my first and last exercise in that particular genre, however,
and in fact my next published magazine piece was not to show up for another ten years (to the month, as it happened, in the January ’97 issue of Harper’s Magazine.) With a few exceptions, most of what I’ve written, from the good to the bad to the arguably worse-than-bad, falls under the general umbrella of “spiritual” writing. I personally read more books on spiritual topics than on other ones, and on any given day I spend a considerable chunk of time thinking about spiritual matters of one kind or another. But in using this term I’m being, I realize, a bit coy. For in fact, most of the writing and thinking I’ve engaged in over the last four decades has revolved, in one way or another, around Christianity. What it is, what it isn’t, and why it is that I feel myself to be a Christian, even though simply typing this sentence makes me uncomfortable. Why am I uncomfortable stating my Christian inclinations? It is not that I am embarrassed to be a Christian (my many urban/nihilist friends take care of that for me), but because I am not entirely sure what one is.
I am, in this matter, a confused product of a confused time. For a while, decades ago, I imagined that by the time I was “older,” most of this confusion would, as a matter of course, fall away. By the time I was, say, sixty, I would know what I really thought about Christianity and what I really thought about my relation to it. To a certain degree this may actually have happened. At the same time, I remain today in large part what I was at twenty, at thirty, and at forty: a bowl of aspic that, spiritually speaking, still hasn’t fully jelled. I have to say that, professionally speaking, things would probably have worked out a bit better for me if this were not so pulled toward the Christian faith. If all my books were not haunted, as they are, by (to borrow from Wise Blood) that “wild ragged figure” moving from tree to tree in the back of my imagination, I would have wrestled considerably less with figuring out how, exactly, to say the things I wanted to say. We live (this is not news) in a time when all the formerly separate spiritual traditions are crashing into one another, creating a situation in which all the members of all the world’s faiths are being called upon to revise and reposition themselves without compromising their various core integrities. And not only that, but to do so quickly, before what’s left of the planet breaks down and we are thrustback into lives dominated by what Ken Wilber calls “mythic membership” belief That is: we over here are Right in what we believe, and you over there are Wrong. If globalization has done anything positive, it has been in forcing people everywhere to come to terms with the sheer multiplicity of human belief, and the need to ground one’s own beliefs in a bedrock of tolerance for others, rather than knee-jerk denials or blanket condemnations. This re-visioning of our belief systems
needs to take place not just within groups, but individually. For it is, of course, (me/Christianity) are due in very large part to the writings of the extraordinary forces of cheap reductionism and hollow materialism, but always with a sense of plate-glass window, Hart’s ever-grouchy but ever-generous defense of the us, it seems to me, possess a core of certainty. A part that is sure, not shifting; And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good — need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
It is this part of me that has always led me back to Christianity.  Not the cheerful, life-is-good, positive-thinking Christianity of Guideposts Magazine, where I spent close to a decade of my life (but not completely apart from it either). Not the Christianity of the esotericists and initiates, the Cynthia Bourgeaults and the Jacob Needlemans (yet not entirely divorced from them either). It is a Christianity beyond definition, and for which I really wish I had another word entirely, for like “God,” the word “Christianity” has by now been so trampled upon, so flattened by mis-use and over-use, that it is essentially worthless. It is a Christianity that, difficult of precise description thought it may be, tells me a certain number of things without qualification.
It tells me, for example, that every person, every creature, every last scintilla of the cosmos I see around me relates back to, and is invisibly upheld by, a force, a thing, a call-it-what-you-will, that hasalways existed and that, at a definite and agreed-upon point in history, interrupted the story of the world and created a disjunction in it that changed that world forever and for good. It is because of this disjunction, this entirely real entrance into the world of something entirely beyond it, that I am allowed, in my deepest and most confident of selves, to know that nothing is ever lost, that no event has ever unfolded in vain, that (in the words of Nicholas Berdyaev) “personality is indestructible,” and that, in Julian of Norwich’s (again, totally over-used) words, ” It is this and comforts me, and it is everywhere in my writing just as it is in everything else
I think and do.