OAKLAND -- Maxine Hong Kingston writes in her studio at her bright Frank Lloyd Wright-style home in the Oakland hills. An overflow of books, papers and art clutters the shelves. On her desk lies a collection of fountain pens, many of them gifts or heirlooms from her father. They slow down her pace for first drafts and poetry.
At her desk, Kingston watches a live webcam of an osprey nest, thinking about their simple routine compared with people's self-inflicted hurry, while she writes a posthumous novel that follows no literary standard.
"The idea is that I will write freely and publish 100 years after I die," Kingston said. "That way, there's no constraints of having to publish and I can write all types of odd things. Whatever I want. I'm just writing to see what shape new thoughts will take."
Kingston, 73, has always created her own forms. Her best-known book, "The Woman Warrior," turned her into an instant luminary at 36. It was celebrated for its magical realist style and its pioneering of gender and ethnicity. Her work explores the lives of Asian-Americans and immigrants.
Kingston has authored seven books and edited two anthologies, including "China Men" and "The Fifth Book of Peace." She blends myth, folklore and reality, seeing them as layers that together tell a real story.
"I think Maxine is mischievous enough that she doesn't play to orthodoxy," said Al Young, poet laureate of California. "She isn't afraid to imagine things and to work them into her lectures as well as into her creative works in ways that no else seems to be able to do."
Kingston was to receive the National Medal of Arts award Monday from President Barack Obama at the White House. She was also awarded the National Humanities Medal in 1997.
Kingston's literary voice was cited for having "strengthened our understanding of Asian-American identity, helping shape our national conversation about culture, gender and race."
The other winners of the award, the nation's top honor in the arts, have big names -- singer Linda Ronstadt, Broadway composer John Kander, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks.
"My first reaction was I can rest," said Kingston, with her silver-white hair falling over her shoulders. "It's really OK if I take time off from writing."
She retired from teaching at UC Berkeley. Sitting at her table, she talks about her calligraphy and daily haiku before pointing to new paintings of trees in her backyard, where she tends to a vegetable garden while wearing pink Crocs.
Kingston has moved from prose to poetry with a fading desire to labor long scenes and characters. Writing one book could take a decade.
"I mastered the short story form, the essay, the novel, the magical realism way of writing," she said, "and I just had the impulse to return to something that was more basic and true for me."
Kingston wrote poetry when she was a child. Her immigrant parents owned a laundry and a gambling house in Stockton, where people gathered to tell their stories so her literate parents could write their letters.
"My mother, she was constantly telling bedtime stories, myths and legends, operas," Kingston said. "My father was a poet and had classical Chinese poetry memorized."
She married an actor, and her son, Joseph, is a musician in Hawaii.
Earll Kingston returns at noon and kisses his wife on the cheek. The couple met on a blind date set up by friends while studying at UC Berkeley.
"I thought she was real game and real brave because we went rock climbing," he said. "It was a good first date."
He proofreads her drafts using little Post-it notes. They cook vegetarian meals together and are Buddhists. Kingston's pacifism stems from experiencing war secondhand but closely felt.
"The Chinese newspapers were always around. I remember Life magazine and seeing pictures of the bombs, the mushroom cloud," she said. "I was horrified, I was hysterical, I was crying."
World War II soldiers stayed at their home, and she calls her mother a war veteran for serving as a medic when the Japanese bombed Guangzhou.
"It was so ingrained in me that this was wrong," she said.
Kingston was arrested in 2003 for protesting the Iraq War in front of the White House, and for 22 years, she has worked with more than 800 veterans through writing workshops.
"They needed writing, they needed an expression," Kingston said. "It's writing as therapy."
Kingston edited a collection of the writings, "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace," which was published in 2006.
"Max is so much bigger than the pen," said Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, co-author of "Farewell to Manzanar." "She walks the talk. One subject she has written about is peace. Of course 'Woman Warrior' was an incredible book because of its style, revealing so much about Chinese-American life, but she is a woman warrior."
The title, Houston said, represents who Kingston is -- a tiny person who has incredible power in the gentlest way. Kingston, whose high-pitched voice is soft, stands less than 5 feet tall.
Beyond her writing, friends know her for in-line skating across San Francisco and working with the Dalai Lama and Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. For her, the National Medal of Arts affirms that she can stop publishing.
"My work is out there. It could be enough," Kingston said. "I got a medal from Clinton, arrested during Bush and a medal from Obama."