Book review: Walking on Water

author derrick jensen and cover of his book "walking on water"

Because, like you, I'm trapped in my own body with its own quirky patterns and assimilated buffet of experiences, I forget, perhaps like you, perhaps not, that not everyone is like me. That, for instance, there are people who dislike school and reading and even learning.

What is useful, then, is to have someone with better understanding, perspective and experience to unpack the whole "I Hate Learning" thing. What is unbelievably useful is when said person can, in the parlance of George Clinton, tear the roof off the motherfucker in the process, which is just what Derrick Jensen does in his compulsively readable, unapologetically critical book on learning as a radical act, Walking On Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution.

Jensen is a longtime writer and avid, almost zealous learner, both in the traditional sense (he's got two "legit" degrees) and the Emersonian one (he's done stretches as a beekeeper and a writing instructor of men pulling stretches). His belief is that no one hates learning, but almost everyone hates school, and that one follows the other because schools are set up not to help us learn, but to do the opposite: to turn off our brains, the better to turn us into docile implements of the industrial machine. He argues his case well, which is to say, both thoroughly and entertainingly, but the book is about much, much more. It's designed to wake you up from your slumber and reacquaint you with your birthright, that love of learning the teachers tried to bore out of you, as well as to give you the tools to write, write, write what has been locked up in your heart.

If the book soars in one particular place, it is here. Like many books on writing, it presents plenty of what I've come to learn are called "writing prompts," exercises that purport to unstick you long enough to get out of your head and onto the page. (They're not bulleted, so you have to look for them, but they're there.) Mostly what it has, though, are examples of people reclaiming their love of learning by getting in touch with their stories, and of changing their lives in the process. It is writing, and reading, and learning, which are inextricably intertwined with real writing, as revolution, and it is awesome and inspiring to behold.

I should mention that Walking On Water was recommended to me by Michelle Jones, the bundle of energy, heart and inspiration behind TEDxTacoma, who is easily one of my favorite ten people I've met over the past five years (and brother, I've met a LOT of people in these five years). Michelle's signature course at her former place of employment, University of Puget Sound, was called "Passion-Based Leadership;" among other things, she stressed the importance of modeling right behavior and using one's gifts to unbuckle the world from the leech-machine we've attached to it. Which is to say, this is a radical book; it is an Eat the Red Pill kind of book, and there is no going back once you've read it.

I think that's a good thing, and I can't imagine the kind of person who wouldn't love this book to pieces. Or rather, I can, but that's not a person I want to spend any time thinking about. Not right now. Not while there's a revolution to prepare for.

This, then, is my pitch: reading Walking On Water will not make you a better writer. No book will, and that's a big part of Jensen's point. To do it, you've got to do it, as all the great how-to books say, but to do it UP you've got to upend things. You need radical change.

So what this book will do is bring your attention to where you are currently surrendering your attention, and then ask you: Hey! Is this really where you want to be? It will inspire and yes, instruct you with some truly fundamental rules of the road. (Come on: the first five rules of writing are "Don't bore the reader"? That's radical shit, baby.) It will challenge you to examine yourself, and to begin the process of excavating that self, if you haven't already. Hell, it will challenge you to look at just about everything, and while that may initially upset you about a lot of things, it will ultimately help you find the joy in many more.

UPDATE: Just viewed this fantastic 3-minute clip of George Carlin doing a bad-ass, stand-up version of this same message. If you can't deal with a whole book just yet, start here. It's on Facebook, for now (which means you'll need to be logged in to view it.) As the original poster noted, it's a big rip on the Powers That Be, so who knows how long before someone finds some (bullsh*t) reason for taking it down. (Here it is on YouTube, too, again, for now.)


Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.