KEVIN GRIFFIN is a Buddhist teacher and author of several books, including One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, and his latest Buddhism & the Twelve Steps DAILY REFLECTIONS. A longtime Buddhist practitioner and 12 Step participant, he is a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network. Kevin is a husband, father and musician. His sixth book Living Kindness: Metta Practice for the Whole of Our Lives is upcoming from Shambala Publications.
ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?
KEVIN: For fiction, I’m usually inspired by some experience in my own life. My first novel was about a musician on the road, which I had been. I wrote a historical novel about Buddhists in 12th century India for my daughter; that was a way to transmit Buddhism to her and other young people in an entertaining way. I should say that none of my novels have been published (I’ve written five). (If this were a text message, I’d have added “lol.”)
All six of my published books are about Buddhism. Five of them are about the intersection of Buddhism and recovery from addiction. There’s a lot of focus on explaining how you can use Buddhism to work the 12 Steps which are usually interpreted as being Christian. Each of these books has come about in response to a perceived need in the recovery community to cover a particular topic or format. I’ve self-published two books, one a workbook and the other daily reflections. The four others are with major publishers.
ANGELA: What genres do you write in (and why)?
KEVIN: See above. I love writing fiction, so I keep going back to it even though I can’t get published (so far).
ANGELA: When did you start writing (and why)?
KEVIN: After I got sober I went back to school at age 38. I’d been a high school dropout, so I was starting from scratch with English composition at Santa Monica Community College. At the end of that first semester my professor asked me if I’d ever thought about being a writer. I thought he was crazy, but I was flattered. However, I’d been a professional musician my entire adult life and had gone back to school to become a therapist (which a lot of sober people do). I didn’t want to go back into the arts. Nonetheless, he recommended a creative writing teacher, Jim Krusoe, and I signed up for his class the next semester. Jim is something of a legend in LA. He’s guided many people into writing careers. Just while I was in his class over the next two years two people got novels published. Screenwriters routinely studied with him. I immediately fell in love with writing fiction. At the end of that semester Jim ran a writing conference and I was paired up with Kem Nunn, a brilliant California novelist. Kem read a short story I’d written about a musician and suggested I write a novel about a road musician. I was somewhat stunned, and again, flattered. I couldn’t resist. Over the next three years, as I took classes, worked a day job, and continued to play with my band, I wrote that novel, entitled Ghosttown. I took it with me to UC Berkeley when I transferred out of SMC. There I asked Ishmael Reed, a legendary African-American writer, to sign me on for a semester of independent study so I could finish editing the book. Halfway through the semester I went to meet with him, and he told me he was going to give the book to his agent, another “wow!” moment. The agent couldn’t sell the book, but I used it to get into the UC Irvine MFA program. There I wrote another novel called Buzz about a whacked-out drummer. Again, I had a teacher there who believed in me, and again, it didn’t sell. When I graduated, I felt like a failure and an idiot. Here I went back to school to try to take a practical route in my life, and I’d let all the flattery and ego (and passion for writing) lead me astray. I wound up getting a job as a technical writer, which is as far away from novel writing as you can get and still be writing. It wasn’t for another seven years, by which time I’d started teaching meditation, that I got the idea for my first (published) book: One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. It immediately sold and my career took off, both as a teacher and a writer. The lesson for me was that when I was writing fiction, it was about me; my Buddhist books are about helping others.
ANGELA: What are you currently reading?
KEVIN: I usually have a crime novel going. I just finished The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney, a Scottish author. I’m also reading The Sixth Man by the Warriors’ Andre Iguadala—amazing story that gets you into the reality of the NBA. My current writing project is on the Buddhist sutta on mindful breathing. I’m reading several books on that topic: Breathe, You Are Alive by Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness with Breathing by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, and Mindfulness of Breathing by Bhikkhu Analayo. It’s fascinating to see the contrasting teachings coming from these wise and brilliant authorities.
ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?
KEVIN: Not a fair question. I’ll say, Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. It combines crime fiction and California surfing. He’s got a great voice, dark and hard-edged.
ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?
KEVIN: I don’t really think in these terms. Having been a musician, someone who just picked up a guitar and played, I approach writing somewhat the same way. I sit down and start writing. I’ve often used narrative in my Buddhist books to bring different examples alive. I suppose that is a “technique,” but as a fiction writer, it’s just part of writing. Nonetheless, the thing I do that some Buddhist writers don’t is draw from my own life to illustrate my points.
ANGELA: What is your writing process?
KEVIN: When I’m working on a book (which is a lot of the time), I get up, shower, meditate, eat, and go to my office. I will typically read part or all of what I wrote last, and just pick up from there. Sometimes my meditation beforehand becomes a time when ideas percolate. But ideas can percolate at any time.
As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of my process is showing up. That’s something you learn in AA (if you didn’t learn it before). I know that if I just keep showing up day after day, eventually there will be enough words to fill a book. People get the idea that writing a book is about having this whole thing in your head that you sort of download onto the page. They think that must be really hard and requires some special genius. I don’t worry about having the whole book in my head, just the next sentence. Each sentence leads to the next sentence. Just follow the threads. If you think too far ahead or try to figure everything out, you short circuit the writing process.
All of this is to say that I try not to be over controlling about what comes out as I’m writing. I actually don’t think writing comes out of thinking. If you think too much, you block the creative flow. For me, again as a musician, it’s more like jamming on my guitar; also similar to being an athlete. In both those cases you perform in the moment. Although you prepare for the moment, when it comes you just have to be present and trust that your preparation and inherent wisdom and training will manifest in something worthwhile. After it comes out you can take a look and see if it is worth keeping.
ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?
KEVIN: Typically, I write about four to five days a week. Because the project I’m working on now takes a lot of research, there tend to be fewer days of writing and more days of reading and letting the ideas tumble around in my head.
I rarely write for more than two hours at a time. There are only a couple hours in the day when my mind is at its sharpest (which I think is true for everyone). I have to be in flow when I write; I don’t try to think a lot about what I’m doing, just let the ideas come. For that to happen, my energy has to be strong and my mind sharp and clear. The only exception is when I’m editing or copy-editing. Then I might spend more time.
ANGELA: Where do you do most of your writing (and why)?
KEVIN: Usually in my office. I’ve written all my books there.
With the pandemic I’ve gotten a little tired of my office, so sometimes I wander out to the family room or the living room if my wife is out. With our daughter grown and out of the house, there are more spaces I can use.
ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?
KEVIN: I often have some ideas for possible books. Right now, I’m writing one book by myself, and also collaborating on two other (possible) books with friends. Sometimes I get an idea and try it out or reflect on it for a while and realize I don’t want to or can’t write it. I also get ideas that I don’t think anyone will buy, and I pretty much only write books that I think I can sell (except my fiction, which nobody buys).
ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?
KEVIN: No. But I do often have something in mind.
The last two novels I wrote were kind of palette cleansers between Buddhist books.
ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?
KEVIN: I don’t believe in writer’s block. In fact, I don’t really know what it is. If I have something I want to write about, I write. But I, unlike a lot of writers, don’t have very high standards. When I write something I tend to like it, at least at first. Later on I might see its failings, but at first my narcissism tends to spellbind me. The same with music; I get spellbound by my musical ideas. I fall in love with them. Later I might think they’re crap, but, at first, they’re my babies. That quality helps me to write pretty effortlessly. I know people who are criticizing themselves as they write, so I guess those are the people who get blocked. That sounds like a horrible experience. I just think writing is fun. I know that I’m lucky for that.
I’ll add that it’s quite possible that the reason my fiction hasn’t been published is that I’m not that good a writer. For Buddhist books, you don’t have to be a literary writer. You just have to be able to write clear texts (and of course, you have to know something on the subject). I’m a very straightforward writer, not flowery or using lots of metaphors. That works in spiritual books.
ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer?
KEVIN: Maybe how hard it is to publish a novel. But if I’d have known that I might not have done it, and I learned a lot from all the failed writing that I think applies to my writing today.
When I was promoting my first book and had to read from it in public, I started to notice a particular flaw in my writing. (I’m not telling you what it was, so don’t ask.) I used that awareness in writing—and mainly in editing—my subsequent books. It’s important to watch for your ticks. I recently noticed that I was overusing the word “connected.”
Interview conducted in June 2022.