Rivers are nature’s best metaphors. River of life. Blood rivering through our veins. After the flood. Fighting our way upstream. Swept away by the current. So much of our own personal lives can be described through comparisons to the onrushing water, with its eddies and rapids and shallows, that connects the land to the sea.
Maybe it’s because rivers spark something deep in human nature, hearkening back to a time when they were the arteries of human expansion and eventual world domination. Maybe it’s because they still provide life and sustenance today in otherwise unlivable landscapes. But rivers define us. They mark political boundaries. They must be crossed, forded, protected, controlled. And in few places are they more essential to civilization than in the American West.
And no river in the American West, or anywhere in the world, has experienced the transformation that the Klamath River will soon be undergoing. More than a century ago, the river grew divided. Dams were created that separated the upper and lower rivers, severing connectivity, causing ecological upheaval. But this work also created opportunity for agricultural expansion into otherwise un-farmable landscapes, and to generate electricity and slake a thirsty world.
Now, four of the Klamath dams will be removed. The two reaches of the Upper and Lower Klamath will become reunited and free flowing. And I’m just starting a film project to document this process and try to witness this transformation through the people effected: farmers, river guides, restoration experts, engineers, boaters, fishers, tribes and resource managers. And also, there are the faculty and engineering students from Oregon State University, who will have a role in once-in-a-lifetime transformation.
Two rivers, the Upper and Lower Klamath, will soon become one. And two rivers…one dammed and controlled and one wild and free flowing…will exist in several points in history through the same mountainous, dusty and rambling landscapes on the forgotten edges of two states. So I can only imagine what watery metaphors will arise out of this project, and where the stories will lead. But whatever the story, it will involve massive disruption. And with time, care, luck and hard work, it may even lead to renewal.
Learn more about the Klamath River restoration project:
A salmon stream is both the beginning and end of a story. It is the cover-wrap of one of the most epic narratives on the planet. A storyteller can only stand humbled on its banks.
And it is a fitting place to film the final set piece for a film we’re making on the history and future of photo journalism, and its most iconic home, the National Geographic Magazine.
I visited on a pair of days when a daughter-father team were working in the icy current to capture the majesty of the salmon’s return in a single frame.
His career as a storyteller is nearing its end, though not quite, fighting up the shallows for a last run. And hers is just heading out to sea clouded with uncertainty.
Their stories mirror that of the salmon. With drying up funding, a fragmented media landscape and a polluted digital environment, it’s harder than ever to eke out an existence on this planet as a deep storyteller.
But one trait that some humans share with the salmon is a relentless, headlong determination to see the whole thing through to its conclusion, taking that one-in-a-million chance that the progeny will return to the sea so that that the run might somehow continue.
The only certainty is that…as you spend precious hours waiting for a buck or hen to swim up to the camera lens, sitting in the shallows and feeling the long, cold bodies pulsing around you, biting at their reflections on the camera’s dome port…you’re sure find a rare sort of magic.
Perceptive Travel, which has been publishing great travel writing since the internet first came out…or at least for a very long time…published an adapted chapter from my new book. “Lionfish Hunters of Tom Owen’s Caye.” I’m honored to be included.
My daughter drifted up to the fish with her arm extended, gripping the sling-spear near its forked tip. The rubber loop affixed to the butt end and hooked around her thumb was stretched, the contraption loaded with tension. The fish, the size of a cantaloupe, was achingly gorgeous, candy striped and trimmed in ribbons of fins and venomous spines. It hovered with indifference above the grooves of a giant brain coral. Maybe it sensed the novice hunter was an uncertain shot. Maybe it felt secure in its pincushion armor.
But arrogance was its downfall. Bailey released her grip. The spear flew, skewering the fish, which unspooled threads of blood into the water. She’d found her first victim. The other divers pressed their hands together in underwater applause.
We’d come to Belize to kill fish and save corals. One of the most beautiful creatures on the world’s second longest barrier reef also causes the most damage, so Bailey and I had joined a strike team of spear-wielding conservationists on lethal expeditions to deep coral canyons in order to hunt down these lovely fish.
And eat them.
In this way we learned that conservation could be both delicious and fun. Especially when your base of operations is a tiny jewel of an island set in gradients of Caribbean turquoise, fully equipped with a dozen hammocks, a volleyball net, and a professional chef.
I have a battered National Geographic camera bag that I drag through the airport while on an assignment. I’ve been asked by gregarious TSA officers if I worked for the magazine as they inspect my gear after it’s flagged by the scanner, which happens more often than not. I have to sheepishly admit that I’m still only a fan.
Like any good dilettante, I’ve dabbled in photography, whether it’s just stalking birds at the feeder or taking travel snapshots. As a filmmaker, my photo and documentary gear is basically the same. I’ve occasionally been paid for still images or shot some to illustrate my articles or books. I once had a darkroom in a spare bathroom. But I’m aware of my limits and have a long way to go to even achieve basic competence. Photography a distant third behind writing and filmmaking in my list of creative pursuits.
Like most lower-middle-class Midwesterners, I grew up in a house full of National Geographic magazines. For my parents, who didn’t attend college, it was a window into science, nature, international travel and culture. It was a university inside a yellow rectangle. It taught me about composition, visual storytelling and good writing.
Now I am working on a documentary film about a pair of National Geographic photographers, and I’ve been learning much about what makes a great visual storyteller. I’ve been following the careers of Chris Johns, one of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers (and the only one to be come editor in chief of the magazine), and his daughter Louise Johns, who is carving out her own path in the difficult road of surviving as a freelance photographer today. I’m learning that great photography takes dedication, patience, humility, the fine art of being present in a moment and lots and lots of time.
Recently, I was able to spend time at the National Geographic headquarters and archives interviewing staff of the Magazine and the Society and took a peek under the hood of the institution that holds some of the most famous photographs on the planet. Here are a few things I took away:
1. Take a whole lot of photos
Freelance and field photographers at the Geographic work with photo editors. The photographers submit a lot of photos to their editors. In fact most of them are contractually required to submit every single photo that they take. In the old days of 35mm film an average story might take 30,000 pictures, all of them archived in a climate controlled basement chamber. Renee Braden and Sara Manco, NG archivists, gave us a tour. They also dug into the boxes for some of Chris Johns’ old stories. He joined us to look at images and even handwritten notes he hadn’t seen since filing the story decades ago.
A photo editor sorts through each photo and pulls a few hundred “selects,” which are eventually winnowed down by the editorial team to the dozen or so that make the final print story.
Today, in the age of digital, a photographer might make 100,000 pictures or more for a single story. And the photo editor will take time to look at each one to try to find the narrative. If you want to shoot like a Nat Geo photographer, you’re going to have to shoot a lot of photos.
And if you find yourself having to make a lot of pictures to find one that’s worth sharing…don’t worry, you’re in good company. That’s the same thing that the pros do.
2. Photographers aren’t the best judges of their own work
We met with photo editor Susan Welshman, now retired, who has edited both Chris and Louise. Susan told us that photographers aren’t the best judges of their own work and that they often have trouble finding the thread of a story. When she makes a selection of photos, often it becomes a revelation to the photographer just as it will be for the reader.
Chris told us of shooting his first cover for the magazine. It was an unlikely assignment to make a cover image: a story about soybeans. None of the other photographers wanted it for that reason. After some weeks on the project, he turned in his first rolls of film to Susan. Back then, photographers had no LCD screens to instantly review their shots. They had to send their film off to Washington, D.C. and their editor would tell them how they were doing.
For the soybean story, Susan told Chris, “you haven’t got it.” She didn’t see the story yet emerging from the processed film. Nobody wants to hear that their work isn’t measuring up. We artist-types can be sensitive creatures. But Chris responded as he should: he pushed harder, searched deeper. He spent more time exploring the subject from new angles. This led him to documenting geisha culture in Kyoto, where soybeans are often incorporated in the ceremonial use of food. He made a closeup photo of a geisha practicing eating tofu with chopsticks. She had to accomplish this delicate task without getting a trace of lipstick on the tofu or the chopsticks.
That closeup turned into Chris’s first cover. An an atypical image from an unlikely story that only happened because his photo editor pushed him to go farther. It caused a stir, with some readers claiming that it was “too sensual.” It was certainly distinct from the covers from stories of African wildlife for which Chris would become known.
The takeaway: have someone else review your work. Listen to their criticism not with your fragile ego, but to learn. Susan Welshman modestly claims that she has no special talent for photography, and she is unsure why she even got her first job at the Geographic. But this belies the fact that she’s mentored some of the greatest photographers ever to pick up a camera.
3. Shoot fewer photos
Because rules were meant to be broken, there may be a case for shooting fewer photos as well. Susan Welshman told us of Loren McIntyre, who would go on an entire assignment with a single roll of film. That sounds risky, but in an digital era of wantonly blasting away, it’s a good reminder that a decent shot still requires thoughtful, deliberate intent, not just random accident.
We also saw examples in the archives of glass plate photography. Surviving negatives are rare because…well…glass breaks. And it was also delicate work with in the field. Glass is heavy and delicate. You couldn’t bring an endless supply. Exposures took a long time to compose, and you had to use a heavy tripod. So photographers from the late 1800s and early 1900s had to be very careful and intentional. It’s a far cry from the “shoot 100,000 photos” rule.
So, inspired by these tales of restraint, Saskia Madlener, my cinematographer on the project, decided to spend our last evening in Washington filming a limited number of shots. We wanted to make exterior images of the buildings and ambient scenes of the capitol city for an establishing sequence in the film. We decided to make only 18 shots each, taking turns. We rented bicycles and spent the next few hours traveling around the city. It was a fun exercise. I’m not sure if we ended up making better images than if we’d not given ourselves a limit. But it definitely did lend an extra weight to ever shot. Here are a few:
4. You don’t need to have a pedigree to work for National Geographic
This was one of the biggest takeaways. Supporting us on this shoot was Kevin Coalwell, a former student and a up and coming filmmaker. Kevin had recently moved from Oregon to New York City, and so when we needed camera support he jumped at the opportunity to join us and took the train down.
Being a recent graduate and a NYC transplant, he was of course wondering what he might be doing for the rest of his life. Did he make the right choices? How would he find his path into the fiercely competitive field of visual storytelling.
So we asked that question of everyone we interviewed: how did you find your way to National Geographic? And the truth was, it was largely by accident. Sadie Quarrier, the Deputy Director of Photography for the magazine, was a writer and English major who began as an intern at the Geographic. Susan Welshman started out as a news photographer working mainly in black and white before becoming a photo editor for the world’s premiere color photography magazine. Kaitlin Yarnall, the Chief Storytelling Officer for the National Geographic Society, began as a cartographer, having studied geography. Everyone was surprised where their paths had led them. Most of them said that their jobs hand’t been invented yet when they’d graduated.
But for those who want to be a photographer for the Geographic, the path is more daunting as it ever was. And even the route that Chris Johns took in the 70s and 80s…starting out as newspaper photographer, becoming a freelancer and then working on staff at Nat Geo…no longer exists. Newspapers are in decline. There are no more staff photographers at the Magazine. Freelancers have a global competition. The market for digital photography is saturated. Royalty revenues have dropped.
So what should an aspiring photographer do? Kaitlin insists that freelancers now need to be businesspeople. The days of sending photos to an editor and collecting a check are gone. They need to learn how to read contracts carefully and market themselves and their work.
We spoke with Amy Toensing, an establish photographer who has done a number of stories for the Geographic. Amy considers herself a “visual journalist,” not just a photographer. She teaches at the New School and she also makes documentary films to supplement her still photography work. Sadie Quarrier also advised young photographers to both specialize in their subjects, become known for something, but then diversify in skills. Learn to shoot video, use drones and employ camera traps. One might even say that it’s good a bit of a dilettante in this area of media fragmentation.
So these are just a few things I learned from the National Geographic archives. What’s most fun about being a nonfiction storyteller is that you get to poke around in places few others see. To look under the hood of an institution I’ve long revered from afar, is certainly a privilege. To be able to delve into other people’s worlds and experiences, to explore and discover…and to sometimes get paid to do it…is, for me, the main reason to pursue the difficult life of a storyteller.
“At some level, they’re alive, aren’t they?” the chief engineer mused. “That’s why we name them.” Sabrina had been chief on the RV Oceanus for only a few months, but presiding over the final “finished with engines” call from the bridge for a tidy, sturdy trooper of a research vessel was a bittersweet experience. “She’s a good ship. I think she’s got some years left in her.” Sabrina said.
But the Oceanus has been cruising the waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for 45 years, completing scientific missions and gathering data that has led to any number of published papers and new discoveries. But her time had come. Her systems were tired and dated, and the expense of keeping her running began to outweigh the benefit, or so it had been determined.
I had the privilege of joining the researchers for this final cruise to capture stories and document the voyage. We chugged out into churning November swells and proceeded to Heceta Bank near the edge of the continental shelf, one of the most productive areas off the West Coast. And despite being tossed about by high seas, we still were greeted with views of wildlife and a several sublime sunsets.
The experience left me humbled, as always, by the chance to hang out with wicked-smart scientists and students, the incredibly gracious and hardworking crew and the awesome might and fragility of the natural world. When you’re bobbing like a cork inside of 200 feet of steel while the wind and waves lash the portholes, you feel that the sea is boundless. But the data show us otherwise. They tell us that the sea is changing, that the waters are starved of oxygen, that the creatures that inhabit it face unprecedented struggles. If I’m thankful for anything, it’s the chance to stand on the edge of the unknown.
What’s my ticket to this behind-the-scenes glimpse of an opaque world? It’s a bag of camera gear, a subscription to Adobe Premiere and the ability to cobble together a cohesive sentencer or two. While it sometimes feels like stealing, I know I’ll pay it back in long hours in the edit room, in redlines, midnight oil and a lack of any sort of normal routine of a life. I may make a living as a thief of other people’s stories, but it’s a living I’ll never take for granted.
Passed through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley with my daughter on a 2,000 mile drive, part of that peculiar American institution of the college tour road trip. We cut through a corner of the park on a snowy November morning…
…and while I prefer the backcountry to the highway pullouts, and I while know Yellowstone has issues that range from development at its borders to exclusion of native peoples, wildlife conflict and hoards of carbon-guzzling tourists…
…there is still something miraculous and sublime where the edge of the asphalt meets wildness and you can gape at wonders out the car window. Drive-by wilderness as roadside attraction has a sort of magic all its own…
…and as Bailey leaned out to make photos of insouciant bison and a coyote with a game leg and hungry stare, the industrial and primordial ecosystems merged, herds converging—camera-wielding vultures and wooly beasts—in a land of tarmac and steaming meadows poised for the uncertainty of winter.
Anthony Bourdain died three years ago today, and I find myself wondering what the globetrotting raconteur would make of our current historical moment. For more than a year, travel, new experiences and flavors…plus the odd conversations with a stranger… were hard to come by. My storytelling trips were cancelled, vacation plans obliterated and visits with far flung relatives limited to screens. Wandering the wide world breaking bread with friends and strangers seemed to be memories of a lost world.
So I coped by living vicariously through Bourdain’s exploits eating his way around the world. After his death, I’d saved some of the episodes from his final season of Parts Unknown, a sort of drip-feed of vicarious travel to self-medicate through the dull routines of the lockdown.
And now we’re staggering out of our warrens, back out into an America that’s different, strange and still scary. We’re blinking at the sun, the burnt-electric smell of armageddon still in the air: shuttered restaurants and business, hundreds of thousands lost to the virus and ashes from record fires still swirling in eddies on the concrete to remind us that the next climate disaster is around the corner. The crises mounted and instead of drawing us together, it has divided us more than ever. It’s enough to make me wonder if Bourdain’s approach still makes sense. Wandering the land breaking bread with strangers—especially those who live and think differently from you— seems like a quaint luxury. How will we ever bridge the chasm of our differences in this time of social distancing, when hugs and handshakes are still awkward and symbols…say an American flag on a baseball cap or a BLM sign on the lawn…cause us to jump to judgement?
I recently left my little college town bubble and headed southeast into the gloriously rumpled and folded and faulted Nevada fossil country to meet a geologist to talk about extinction, climate change and corals for a book project. I must admit I was a little trepidatious. In the old days, when chasing a story, I would make appointments with experts and also make some unplanned stops to chat up the locals. I’ve found that information flows freely in diners, restaurants and rural taverns. I’d seek out local voices whether in Australia, Bangladesh or rural Colorado. Local people, around the world, who eke out livings from the land they live on, can tell you a lot about a place and what it means to exist there.
But I was heading into the American backcountry where there had been some very vocal anti-masking demonstrations, where public health violations were the norm and also where the pandemic had spread like wildfire. In my lockdown compound I had read the news and judged entire swaths of this country from afar. It’s understandably hard to withhold that judgement: how many had died due to the childish refusal to put a piece of cloth over your face or wash your hands with vigor? I’m thinking of my brother-in-law Jim, who’s a COVID long-hauler with asthma and is still on oxygen six months after contracting the virus. He’s a hard-working, blue-collar technician who spent the pandemic fixing checkout machines. When I learned that he’d contracted the virus, I imagined some obstinate anti-masker in an American eagle freedom shirt smearing his contaminated fingers across a touchscreen in some desert Walmart, bellowing spittle when it broke down and Jim was summoned to fix it. Nowadays Jim gets winded simply getting up from his chair. He may never be able to return to work—because of someone else’s negligence, obstinance or pure mendacity.
So this was what I was thinking as I started my first cross-country drive into the Great American Desert at the end of the pandemic. I was filled with judgement, hesitation and a newfound appreciation of the ugliness of the world. Bourdain believed that, despite all the ugliness, “it is a magnificent planet filled with fascinating and…more often than not…beautiful people.” Does his view still hold water as we shamble out into a new reality?
I’m trying to think so. During the height of the spread of COVID-19, I had dug into Bourdain’s repertoire to come across one of his lesser known books, a slim historical account of one notorious vector of disease called Typhoid Mary. And I found that the approach that Bourdain takes in telling her story, with the empathy and humanity with which he portrays this walking public health violation, was precisely what I needed in my moment of emergence.
* * *
Do you remember where you were when they closed the world? I can imagine myself answering this question someday, perhaps afflicting a grandchild with a repeat telling. For my father’s generation, it was the Kennedy Assassination, a shock in a movie theater when they stopped the projector to deliver the news. He still winces at the recollection. For me, as for many in this pandemic moment, it was a gradual shock.
I was abroad filming a documentary about ecology in the Wolgan Valley of New South Wales, Australia after the devastating bushfires. The trees that rimmed the valley and climbed the sandstone escarpments were blackened and post-apocalyptic, but hopeful new grass had returned to blanket the meadows, as had the kangaroos that now grazed with impunity. Bits of news seeped to our phones through the spotty reception, warning that toilet paper shortages and hoarding of bread flour were now global phenomena. I joked with the crew that we should roll a few of the old ranch trucks in front of The Gap, the only road entering this wild stretch of valley, and hunker down, feasting on the kangaroos until it all passed. I had, by the way, just learned that the marsupials are quite tasty if you prepare them properly. Such culinary discoveries are the soul of travel, something I’ve learned that through experience. And from watching Bourdain.
But it was only at LAX on the trip home that I understood how completely that travel was ending. The flight from Sydney…one of the last…had been empty. Tom Hanks was in isolation, airport workers wore masks and there were now separate queues in arrival for travelers who showed symptoms. It was scary…where would they send you if you showed a temperature?. By the time I made it back home to Oregon, it was real: public health decrees rendered us homebound. Film projects and writing research trips were all canceled. And I joined the rest of the world in limbo to wait out the virus.
* * *
It was what seems like ages ago, during the early nesting phase of the pandemic, that the idea of referencing Bourdain for insight first struck me. Like many, I’d improvised a home office, stacked up unread books and filled the streaming queue with the shows I’d been told to watch but never had. Was it time to read the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov? Or John McPhee’s dictionary-sized, Pulitzer-winning geology book Annals of the Former World? What about finally tackling The Sopranos?
And then the thought occurred, no less epiphanic for being so obvious: now would be the perfect time to catch up on the final episodes of Parts Unknown. These times were made for armchair travel. Since Bourdain’s death, I’d been doling out the last remaining episodes when I most needed them. There was something comforting about his reportage from the most desperate and troubled corners of the world, and the way he charted a course through political despair, tragic history and social strife to find the heart of a place through its food and the people who made and shared it. He would sit across the table from anyone, often an ideological opposite, and find communion through humble repast.
But now the whole world is a troubled corner. I thought that Bourdain might offer a vision of what the world once was, and what it might be on the other side of this storm when we could again roam the earth and break bread. And that’s when I remembered the books. It’s easy to forget that Bourdain was more than a television host. He was a prolific writer. He wrote a dozen titles, many of which I had yet to read. And after a quick search I found the perfect volume to serve as a roadmap of our times. Almost too perfect. It was his work of nonfiction, Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, and it is an excellent guide for looking at others as fellow human beings through a veil of panic and pestilence.
* * *
One only needs to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the beating heart of the Japanese cuisine that Bourdain so loved, to see tourists from all over the world documenting themselves eating strange things on sticks to understand that many of us are, in our own ways, aping Anthony Bourdain. He tapped into something singular about what it means to be a human being on this earth in this age of globalization: the way we wander around grazing on the novel while searching for a lost sense of community. It’s the smile on the face of the woman who hands you the stick of sweat matcha dangos with a nod of thanks. It’s the pleasure of a simple dish prepared lovingly for a few coins and to please a stranger. In a frenetic world where we are losing our roots, it’s the old couple who keep the corner Itzakaya and become your adopted grandparents for an evening, cooking for you with nods and smiles and making this wide, messy word cozy, if only for an evening.
Such are the gifts that travel and food provide us.
With Bourdain, who only discovered this wider world in his mid-forties after a kitchen life on the bottom rung of the middle class, followed by an unexpected publishing success, we were able to watch a grown man evolve in front of the camera and we all began to believe it was possible for us to do the same. We watched his childlike glee over the sudden license to explore curious foods and exotic places as it slowly matured into a world-weary wisdom and a philosophical embrace of all of humanity.
From his years as an executive chef, he’d acquired an arrogant swagger and crude kitchen humor that was at first amusing and often tedious. But there was something beyond his culinary machismo. When you peeled back the layers, you discovered more. It was an empathy, I believe, that came from the fact that below the onionskins of chef, television personality, raconteur and gadfly that emerged because he was, at his heart, a writer.
“There is nothing more foolish than a person who thinks they can make a living writing,” Bourdain once said. Of his kitchen days, he said: “I was in a profession where everyone was a writer or an actor.”
Bourdain was himself one of those wannabe writers. Well before his overnight success in 2000, with an essay plucked from the New Yorker slush pile that turned into the autobiographical bestseller Kitchen Confidential that launched him into the cultural spotlight, he’d published a pair of crime novels that languished largely unread. He’d even financed his book tours out of his own pocket to no avail. He returned to cooking to keep his creditors at bay…barely…until Kitchen Confidential charted a new course for him.
But it wasn’t publishing that transformed his station. It was television celebrity, which eventually blurred his literary roots.
Bourdain was cast as a traveling chef in his first series, A Cook’s Tour, on the Food Network. It would not be the cozy food programming that he’d long lambasted, but something darker, edgier, more raw. Much of it was sensational: eating a still-beating cobra heart or munching on iguana tacos. But he elevated what he did through a nimble facility with words. The essays with which he narrates his final series, Parts Unknown, are clear-eyed, lyrical, honest and often profound. Being a chef provided him with an angle. But being a writer provided him with substance.
He never gave up on his writing. It’s telling that after the success of his first pair of books, he turned to write not to another sensationalized tell-all, but to historical nonfiction about an obscure figure, the story of a poor woman, an immigrant cook plagued by pestilence and her own stubborn denial. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical might be the most empathic book that Bourdain wrote, which is why it is so perfect for this moment in history.
* * *
Mary Mallon, the historical figure at the heart of Bourdain’s book, was an Irish immigrant, a refugee from famine who made a hardscrabble living cooking for the wealthy families of New York in an era of growing divide between rich and poor. She was ultimately accused of spreading sickness and death among her employers, their families and beyond during a time when plagues were a factor of daily life in crowded cities. Then, as now, leveling blame provided a sort of bitter solace, and the panicked masses and bumbling authorities found comfort by naming a scapegoat.
Bourdain was attracted to Mary’s story through their shared professions. She was a fellow cook. “A reasonably capable one,” he notes in his introduction. He writes: “I’m interested in a tormented loner, a woman in a male world, in hostile territory, frequently on the run. And I’m interested in denial—the ways that Mary, and many of us, find to avoid the obvious, the lies we tell ourselves.”
Encapsulated in those remarks is so much of Bourdain’s own life in the years to come. Despite fame and privilege that was the polar opposite of what Mary Mallon experienced, he too trafficked in denial.
It’s impossible to separate the legacy of his life from the circumstances of his death by suicide. He took his own life in an idyllic small town in Alsace-Lorraine, France while filming his last season of Parts Unknown. It was a shock. Unfathomable. He was doing what he loved, and what so many of his fans wished that they could do. “Half-the men I know want to be you,” CBC journalist Wendy Mesley opens her final interview with him, “and half the women, too…has it really been that exciting, or has it really been hard work…awful?”
“No, I’m really having a good time,” Bourdain responds after a moment of hesitation that is, in hindsight, quite telling.
Maybe, like Mary Mallon, Bourdain was also “a tormented loner.” Maybe he actively sought to lose himself in “hostile territory.” Maybe like Mallon he was also afflicted by denial. Maybe some of Bourdain’s extraordinary empathy for Mary Mallon would stem from his own inner discord.
There is a moment in an episode of Parts Unknown that was famously removed from circulation after his death where he spills a glimpse of his inner troubles to an Argentinian therapist: “I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to travel the world, meet interesting people. And still I’m not happy.”
* * *
While Bourdain was often hard on his own shortcomings, he exhibits enormous compassion toward Mary Mallon. He admires her and expresses sympathy with the desperation of her plight and her treatment at the hands of health authorities and the press. In one hilarious sequence he even relishes her brazen defiance as she eludes the police, climbing ladders and slipping out windows until they have to wrestle her from an outhouse to bring her in for testing. He identifies with Mallon, “cook to cook.” Flawed human to flawed human.
But he doesn’t let her off the hook.
Mallon left a trail of infections across the landscape of turn-of-the-century New York. The harm she caused is impossible to dispute, and Bourdain doesn’t try. Nor does he offer excuses. While at first her denial of her own status as a spreader of disease may have been plausible, later in her life, after release from a bleak island sanatorium on condition she give up her work as a cook, she still eventually made the callus decision to return to her trade.
There were understandable reasons for this. There weren’t many options for a single woman. Cooking kept her out of abject poverty. It provided her sense of self-worth. But that does not excuse her choices.
“The woman knew,” he writes, after she recklessly took up a job cooking at a maternity hospital under an assumed name. “She just didn’t care. They’d taken everything from her. She had no reason to love anyone, not the doctors, not the public, not her employers. Not the people for whom she now cooked.”
How could Bourdain reconcile this recklessness? After all, he made his reputation with a book that exposed the unhygienic underbelly of the restaurant industry. He famously advised readers to judge restaurants not on the execution of cuisine but the cleanliness of bathrooms.
As a fellow cook, he could see the world through her eyes. “It’s just that cooks, who work in isolated, hot, airless spaces, under tremendous pressure, lose perspective, they lose sight of who they’re actually cooking for.” Bourdain doesn’t forgive. But he strives to understand her despair and bitterness.
It’s this empathy that we need right now. Bourdain was able to look across class and gender divides into a previous century at a figure responsible for numerous outbreaks of a horrible disease that, in the end, she willfully spread. But he didn’t see a monster. He saw another frightened, desperate human being.
As we emerge into this new world engulfed in pandemic, we have to look at our fellow humans with that same empathy. I traveled to Nevada through small, ramshackle desert towns, some dwellings shabbier than what I’ve seen in the poorer sections of developing countries around the world, many of them obstinately flying flags perpetuating Trump’s big lie of election theft. It was tempting to turn to judgement. Judging by the random yard signs and demonstrated antipathy toward lingering mask requirements, this was a land of gun-toting anti-maskers and vaccine skeptics. There’s an entire political movement of Typhoid Marys. This was a test. Could I apply the empathic lessons from Bourdain’s book to the politically riven late-pandemic world?
* * *
As I packed to head into the American hinterlands to learn about the geology that undergirds the vast and soaring spaces of the Western Desert, I stopped at the local Bi-Mart, a no-brand discount store you find in many smaller towns in the Northwest. As I searched for camping fuel, I spotted a baseball cap with a distressed American flag in an endcap bin. I walked past it and scoffed. I imagined it might be worn by one of the mob who had stormed the Oregon capitol or Congress on January 6th. They’d claimed to be defending freedom…a freedom that apparently consisted of their right to project virus-laden spittle on my brother-in-law, carry assault weapons into democratic institutions or erase the votes of American citizens for being black, brown or from large cities.
I loaded up with camping supplies and raman noodles and was on my way to the cash register when I paused. What about that American flag cap had set me on a seeth? It wasn’t that long ago when the label “American” had meant something different to me. As a kid, I’d painted my bedroom furniture red, white and blue in a fit of patriotism. American, for me, once connoted farm boys who stormed Normandy beaches to rid a foreign land of the scourge of right-wing fascism. It was the people, black and white, who marched across the bridge in Selma. American was the Berlin speeches of JFK and, begrudgingly, Ronald Regan. It’s the flag of Rosa Parks and Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Teddy Rooseveldt’s Yellowstone and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. American, was our vast country, long-distance drives and changing landscapes, rows of corn, grassy plains with billowing clouds and the towering ranges of Western mountains. And maybe most of all, American, used to make me think of Woodie Guthrie and the song which all kids once sang, This Land is Your Land. From prairies to redwoods and the New York Islands.
On impulse, I jumped out of line at the cash register to retrieve the cap. I’d be fucked, I thought, if I’m going to let those morons who stormed the capitol redefine that flag from me. They could keep their Confederate stars and bars, but the Woodie Guthrie flag was mine. It would be the banner for my journey back 200 million years into the North American past. I’d be digging for fossils on that most American of inventions: the vast swaths of public lands that paint the American west with possibility. This land is your land. This land is my land.
* * *
When I rolled into Mina, Nevada, I was hot, dusty, tired and hungry. I’d be meeting geologists in the field the next day, but there were no hotels, restaurants or campsites in sight. The only business was a bar with darkened windows and a porch full of bearded desert rats, a big American flag painted on the side of the building, plus several Trump 2024 bumper stickers on the trucks in the lot for good measure. I hesitated. Here was an establishment filled with people I’d prejudged, and who would have likely prejudged me if they knew I was about to hang out in the hills interviewing a couple university professors for a book I was writing about climate change. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about these people and that we would have nothing in common.
But I was wrong.
I channeled my inner Bourdain and I pulled on my Woody Guthrie stars and stripes cap and I pushed my way through the door. There was a cluster of men huddled in the dark room and a young woman behind the bar. They all turned to size me up with blank expressions.
As I climbed on a stool, the owner emerged from the back. He was a large, bearded fellow, and he wore a similar cap to mine. He’d added a couple of pins to his: one a gem-encrusted cross and the other an assault rifle. But the flag was the same thirteen stripes and blue field with its fifty stars. Here, at least, was something we shared: a respect for a symbol. Perhaps for different reasons, but a respect all the same.
I ordered a beer. I asked directions for a place to camp, and one of the men walked me outside to trace the best route up the mountains with his finger silhouetted against the sunset. Back inside, I struck up a conversation with a miner and we talked about rock strata…his knowledge about the geological history of Nevada was, if anything, deeper than that of the professors I’d meet the following day. I ignored the “Trump 2024 Revenge Tour” poster behind the bar and the talk of being caught across the border in California with an assault rifle in the back seat or complaints about Ford going all-electric. When I posed one too many questions and was asked if I was a journalist, I demurred and said I was a “science writer,” which seemed less offensive to them. We then changed subjects and discussed the makes and models of our similar Jeeps and where was the best spot to camp in Dunlop Canyon. The cook fired up the deep fryer and we ordered wings and tots and as we partook of our greasy communion, I learned about the local custom of truck racing on the dry lake beds and the rules of long-distance, off-road poker, a game to while away the lonely hours in these parched lands a couple hundred miles from the nearest city.
As I stood to leave, the owner called over to me to ask if I needed water or anything else before I headed up into the hills for the night. “Whatever you need, we’ll fix you up,” he said. I shook my head and doffed my Woody Guthrie cap.
“Don’t be a stranger,” the bartendress called to me.
I climbed in the Jeep and tweaked the head of the bobble-head, surfing Obama figure that was glued to the dashboard and drove up into the high country, grateful for my new friends.
* * *
As with the essays that Bourdain narrates as bookends to episodes of Parts Unknown, his voice comes through most clearly in Typhoid Mary via the prologue and epilogue. And it is in the book’s final paragraphs where the author exhibits his greatest act of compassion.
In the final passage, Bourdain visits Mary Mallon’s grave. And there he presents her with a gift. He takes a powerful object out of his bag, an iconic symbol of his life, something that represents his whole identity: his chef’s knife. It’s an expensive totem and any cook’s most prized possession. He buries the knife in the ground below Mary’s headstone, forever fusing his fate with that of this complicated woman, a fellow cook, a loner, a notorious celebrity, a spreader of disease, a bitter, callous creature and a poor immigrant just trying to survive.
With his closing gesture, Bourdain charts a way forward for the rest of us. If we can emulate the empathy he has for Mary Mallon, embracing the complexities, the good and the bad within her, and if we can look at others…and ourselves…with the same compassion—then we can slowly begin to remake a world where strangers can once again come together in communion over a simple dish, some morsel on a stick passed hand to hand amidst the chaos of a crowded market, a basket of greasy tots in the desert.
If we try, we can look past the politics, the fear, the rage and anger and again recognize each other as a common species. The survival of our species depends on this. This is something that I learned as a kid singing Woody Guthrie songs. It’s something I learned from Anthony Bourdain and Mary Mallon. And it’s something I learned from a man in an American flag cap who offered me water in the desert. This is the kind of world where we can emerge from a pandemic. And that’s the kind of world where Anthony Bourdain still matters.
After six months of COVID and social distancing, staring at the same four walls of my newly rearranged and then re-cluttered home office, I’ve learned how lucky I am to live in a place where wilderness is a short drive away. We all need our “panic hole,” as Jim Harrison termed it…a wild space inside a thicket into which we could crawl and disappear to lick our wounds and heal our souls.
In the early days of the quarantine and the governor’s lockdown, all of my panic holes were off-limits. The beaches of Oregon were closed, even though you rarely come within ten yards of another surfer or dogwalker or clamdigger. Fishing was suspended. The 10,000 acre research forest at the edge of town was even locked down tight even though there’s lots of elbow room in 10,000 acres. I get it. I’m not complaining. And I understand that a drive to the coast usually means a trip to a gas station, maybe risking a drive-through coffee, each contact point weighed with potential to spread the virus. Lives have been lost on a person’s decision to not wear a mask, wash hands or attend a birthday party with the sniffles. It’s best to be safe. The virus was new, and state-level policy is a blunt instrument.
But then as infections in our state subsided and restrictions relaxed and we were given new freedoms despite the fact that the virus was still slowly grinding through the Greatest Generation and frontline workers and meatpackers, feeding off the frivolity of pool partiers and the tantrums of anti-maskers, capitalizing on our unjust systems to target communities of color and on our indifference to rage like a brushfires through the nursing homes where we stack our elderly like forgotten bundles of kindling.
And with the relaxing, came the ability to leave home. Not to congregate. Not to go to church or class or the (permanently cancelled) John Prine concert, but to fish and hike and wander in the open air where risk of spreading infection was deemed low. And that’s when I truly realized how lucky we are to live in a state where wilderness is at our doorstep and we have so much vast country to roam without the fear of close contact with an infected stranger. I feel for those cooped up in cities, locked in apartments. Without wild places, I would have been lost this summer. And, I suppose, this is why the journey of nearly 50 years on this big blue and green and brown rock has led me to this spot on the globe. For me the wild places are filled with the fuel for my soul. It’s where I find solace, comfort, spirituality. And probably most important for the work I do, the source of the stories I hope to tell.
The first place I visited that was outside my orbit of home-to-grocerystore-to-dogwalking-trail in the early days of COVID was to the south fork of the Alsea River where I found that, while the rest of us have been locked in side, the timber industry had been busy logging some old growth along my favorite stretch of cutthroat trout stream that I’d fished for a decade. I was enraged. Despairing. But immediately I found a story: who logged it? Why? Why did it happen when it did? Who authorized it? I took notes for an investigative essay and filed it away for future consideration.
Then next weekend I returned to the coast to surf when I spotted a pair of seal pups playing in the break, bobbing in the water and diving, popping up on one side of me and then the other. Likely laughing at my clumsy paddling and all-too-brief boardwork as I was bowled over by the next not-so-very-big wave. I filed that image away, too, for a future story or maybe a poem or a song.
After months of being locked mostly inside, the outside was now open to me again, and the ideas were starting to flow. I hadn’t realized how deeply the pandemic and lockdown had affected me and frustrated my creativity until I was again let out of the cage. My senses came to life. My prose improved. My editing. My camerawork. All of the skills that had become stagnant when travel and rambling weren’t accessible to me.
I went to Mount Jefferson and Mary’s Peak to think about the meaning of high places. And then on a trip to the most remote part of our state, the Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert, where you’re two hours from gas and you should bring your own water, my mind was blown and consciousness expanded by the astonishing geography of this largely peopleless place.
And it was here, maybe, on the vast white table of the dry lakebed, standing next to the car and watching the heat shimmer on the horizon like a distant and elusive lake, the silence so complete that it was a force in and of itself, quite dust devils spinning twists of pale earth into funnels the size of the massive Doug Firs of my home country, that I think I found the next big story.
As I stood in the vast pale plain at sunrise, such a visual place, I knew there had to be a feature film there, something shaped by the geography of that miraculous desert at the base of the five-thousand-foot cliffs of the Steens Mountain, something about how the backside of that mountain rises like a gradual ramp to those dramatic cliffs, and how all that silence and dust and stone and sky can work together to shape a narrative.
When I came home from that trip, refreshed by the disconnection from the umbilicus of cell phone data and that dizzying geography spinning in my head, I hatched and idea with a long-time filmmaking partner. In five minutes of describing the terrain, we’d hammered out a story and then twenty-four hours later I have an outline of a script. Story ideas are ephemeral things, and who knows if we’ll ride this one to the finish line.
For me, travel is essential for ideas. Without wandering there’s no way to harvest stories. It’s just how I work. It’s how I gather the narrative sparks I need. And at the beginning of the pandemic, locked in my house, I was inspired, like so many others, to tackle that next big project, to start something new. Someone more clever than me joked on social media that their pandemic began with aspirations to write a play and get ripped abs. And her end-of-pandemic plan was to start smoking. I was feeling that way as well.
Until the Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert.
And now, with the images and sensations of those wild places in my head, I’m back and clear and better than I was before. Even as the swamp of email returns and the pettiness and numbness of the dull routine returns, I’ve now got some new fuel for the fire, and for a little while I feel normal again. My prose is less insipid. I stare at the walls of my office and now I see into the memory of the landscapes I experienced in Eastern Oregon, and the stories they inspired.
The world is a big place, mysterious and wonderful and delicate. And I’m better for having seen some more of it.
Maggie is the best trail dog because when you’re in the woods with her she wanders with a specific sense of aimlessness that is instructive for writers. For a dog, a walk in the woods is high art. She follows the twin muses of her nose and curiosity. She engages in prolonged tangents during headlong romps into the temperate rainforest near our home in Oregon, chasing after the cackle of a far-off raven, taking an extended wallow in greasy mud smeared with wild turkey scat and splashing in cold, clear pools welling before the entrance to culverts.
The ballet of a suburban dog let loose in the woods is something magical to behold. It’s a like a scripted sort of chaos. And her ramblings always lead us somewhere, even if it’s just back to the car. It’s the perfect antidote to a sticky literary situation. Walking with Maggie reinforces the old saw that the journey is the destination.
It was a dry Sunday afternoon, a rare gift in February in the rainy side of Oregon, when I took Maggie into the woods to check out the mud and the water and fret about my latest creative concerns. Some people favor wildflowers, spring breezes or wafts of pine sap, but I don’t mind a cool, drippy, muddy day where damp strands of the lichens known as old man’s beard glow in pale green luminescence beneath the overcast sky, the forest cemetery-quiet, the only sound the trickle of the growing rivulets alongside the road gathering strength to carry a week’s worth of rain off to the Pacific.
My concern was this: I’d recently begun chasing the fragment of an image that wanted to be a story that now aspired to be a novel. “Uh oh,” I thought. “Here we go.” This is always a dangerous point for a writer. It’s a good way to loose a big chunk of your life.
I’d made a few halfhearted feints at this novel over the years, though I’d always managed to escape after only a few pages. But now it was picking up momentum, the current growing like those roadside rivulets, gathering a power of its own. It was frightening. I was afraid of being swept along by it, losing my next three to seven years of my life obsessing over something that had begun almost by accident. Would it be worth all those lost hours, days, weeks, years in the end? I considered all of the reading, cooking or fishing I could with that time instead.
So to avoid facing these big questions, I decided it was time to flee to the woods with Maggie. She’s our eight-year-old Vizsla-Labrador mix, a mutt with plenty of experience in literary procrastination. She can smell the woods long before we approach the parking lot and she quivers with excitement as we near the trailhead. You can almost hear the song of her vibrating tendons. It’s like Itzhak Perlman tuning a Stratovarious.
Jim Harrison wrote often, in both his verse and prose, of his hobby of taking to the woods to follow rivers to their sources. This was a perfect day for such an activity as the foothills were oozing the stuff that makes streams. Harrison begins his poem “March Walk” with this line: “I was walking because I wasn’t upstairs sitting.” We can’t ask him, because he’s now gone, but I’m fairly sure he was chasing rivers uphill to avoid sitting in his own upstairs office and staring at the blank page. “What a way to make a living!” Harrison later laments (or rejoices) in that same poem. Ah, the vocation of writing. Is it even a living at all? How many of us actually pay our mortgages with poems, stories and novels? Most of us teach, sell insurance, make macchiatos or leach off of our partners to secure our health insurance.
Harrison wrote often of the therapy and technique of walking, a tactic many writers have employed over the centuries to solve or avoid problems with their work. I’ve looked to walking so many times to address issues with writing that sometimes I think that this is my true vocation. I’m a walker who sometimes writes, rather than a writer who mostly walks around. Both activities pay about the same.
Thoreau also viewed walking as a sort of job in itself. “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession,” he wrote in his famous essay, Walking. He considered aimless wandering “a noble art.”
I sometimes walk obsessively when writing. I once flew down to El Paso for a weekend and then walked across the border to Ciudad Juarez, ostensibly to research a novel about a string of murders occurring there. I spent two days walking through parks, alleys, markets, neighborhoods and the downtown streets until my feet were blistered. I saw so many things that I found striking and I finally had to stop and sit on a bench in a plaza to write notes. Then I headed back to the border just after sunset.
I never finished the book, but I sometimes go back to read the notes. I guess the good thing about walking to on behalf of a novel is that, if you don’t finish the novel, you still have the memory of the images gathered along the way.
“I’m a fan of the big walk,” screenwriter Mike Rich once told me in an interview. A walk has become part of his daily writing routine. Rich, who penned such sports-themed screenplays as Secretariat and The Rookie after writing his breakout film Finding Forester is one of those writers who’s managed to cobble together the sort of dream life that ruins it for the rest of us. He lives on the top of a hill outside Portland, Oregon where he has easy access to woods, country lanes and vineyards. He works from home, on his own terms. His passion and his day gig are intertwined. He loves sports. He loves movies. He writes movies about sports. He also loves writing. He writes all day.
Rich described his routine to me. He starts his day with “one of sixteen cup of coffee,” and then he wrangles with cursor, screen and legal pad before resorting to shoe leather tactics: “I love to get out and I will walk for three to four miles. And that’s writing…that’s part of the writing process.”
Back to my Sunday afternoon. Maybe that’s what I was doing. Perhaps it wasn’t procrastination after all. Maybe walking in the woods is part of the creative process: I wasn’t walking away from this incipient novel in fear, but actually digging in for the long slog it is going to take over the next several years of my life. I did a quick calculation of all the hours I will be spending on this project. If paid out at the minimum wage, I’d be able to buy a new car. Or maybe three.
I’d written the first image for this novel on a trip through Germany seven years ago. It was just a fragment then, ignorant of its future as the seed of a wannabe novel. We were driving from Paris to Berlin to visit relatives, and we stopped in the town of Eisenach in the former GDR. Even though the Berlin Wall was gone nearly as long as it had stood by the time we stopped in Eisenach, I still felt the lingering presence of the former East Germany in that old, gritty steel town in the Thuringen Forest. I took a morning walk before the others awoke and made notes about a scene as I strolled along a ridgeline above town. The scene I wrote featured a portrait of an old man sitting on a park bench feeding birds with crumbs from yesterday’s breakfast rolls. He held his hand palm up so steadily that birds would land on it. He was patient. And then suddenly, as one large, grizzled sparrow pecked at the crumbs, chasing the other birds away from the fleshy perch, the old man snapped his fingers closed, catlike, crushing the sparrow. He could feel it’s airy bones crackle in his grasp. Suddenly this old man had a dangerous past. Who was he? How had he arrived on that park bench in the reunified Germany? I was curious to know. I made some notes in my journal and promptly forgot about it for six or seven years.
But now here we are all these years later and that scene has exploded in my head. It’s joined together with other scenes and suddenly the rivulets are forming streams and then streams are merging to form rivers, and I feel like I now I might be swept out into the bay and the pulled by the current out to sea past the bar with no navigational aids and little idea where I am heading. It’s a worrisome feeling.
But that’s when I noticed my dog Maggie sniffing at a small rivulet alongside the logging road. All morning as we hiked up into the Coast Range I studied the rain and snowmelt forming pools, puddles and little nascent streams. And all those small riffles and trickles and seeps seemed so random, so aimless.
As we hiked down the backside of the mountain, though, I was starting to sense a sort of plan to the way the water was working. Grade and gravity doing their thing. Maggie chased the riffles and sniffed at the spillways and plunged into pools as we moved inexorably downhill. And the riffles, and seeps and leaks began to merge. They formed little waterfalls and deep runs in gouged channels. They pooled up alongside the road and then a brook was born. The lower we got, the more little rivulets joined the brook until it became a full-fledged stream. Walking downhill was like watching the birth of a river. Maybe this little forest stream would become the surging Alsea or swollen Yaquina, and ultimately the Pacific Ocean herself.
Maggie’s little stump tail wagged with joy like a tuning fork vibrating at the notes played by the rushing water. I think she was trying to show me the logic in the pull of all these little currents, teaching me to trust gravity, and to find solace and pleasure in the journey, to take side trips and excursions into the ferns to chase a ground squirrel or a flock of young turkey, but then circle back to the flow and trust that it would carry us where we needed to go.
I slowly decided, during the course of that walk, that I have to just see where this image jotted down at random in a notebook all those years ago will take me. Maybe this is the right novel, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’ll be worthy of publication or maybe not. Maybe the economics of it will pencil out. Probably they wont. But then we writers tend to be a coy lot when it comes to money, so it’s likely nobody would know or care anyway.
And then maybe, too, there are larger forces at work beneath that image written down in my journal, and instead of fighting gravity I should just let the tug and pull of them be my guide.
For a dog like Maggie, a walk is a form of creative expression. Dogs, not burdened by opposable thumbs and all the trouble they get us into, are usually satisfied with the basics. They sniff a pile of dung. They race off after a crow, their necks craned skyward. They plunge with abandon into a thicket of ferns. They nose into the musky mystery in the rotted-out hollow of a log. All of it is a sort of game, not a vocation. Life isn’t about rows and columns in a spreadsheet no matter how desperately our culture wants us to think so. What’s a poem worth? What’s an image of an old man sitting on a park bench in the former East Germany worth? What’s a novel worth? What’s the price of a walk in the woods?
Somewhere near the end of the walk, Maggie reigns in her headlong feints and flurries into the forest and falls into line next to me on the logging road at a trot. My philosopher dog looks up at me, panting, asking me these very questions as she catches her breath. We’re silent awhile; the only sounds are the crunch of my boots and the click of her nails on the gravel. After some time she looks up at me. Our eyes meet.
“So, you going to write that book?” she asks.
“I suppose,” I say.
“Good.” She nods.
Then she freezes. A young jake-turkey has gobbled somewhere in the distance, practicing for the upcoming mating season. Her ears twitch. Both of us can picture him prancing and fanning out his tail like a teenage boy flexing in the mirror. Maggie’s tired, but this image is too much for her. She darts off after the sound. I hear the crash and grunt as she tears through the brush and the ferns. I can no longer see her, but I know her tongue is lolling, her black lips pulled back into a dog smile, her head, heart and imagination filled with the chaos and wonder of it all.
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I never planned to go to Japan. It wasn’t an accident, just somebody else’s idea. That somebody else was my daughter.
I’m in the fortunate position of writing and making films and media for a living. And sometimes I get to travel to wonderful places and tell stories about interesting people. I fall in love with each new place and its inhabitants, and I always return with a story or two.
“Can I come,” my daughter used to say whenever I shared news my upcoming travels around the dinner table. This started about the time she was eight and our vacations to visit family in Germany were opening her eyes to this wide and wonderful world.
“Someday,” I’d reply.
Well, that was half her lifetime ago. I was fast running out of ‘somedays.’ She was suddenly about to turn 16 and I realized once she got her drivers license the last thing she’d want to do was hang out with her old man. So I told her for her birthday she could pick a place on the globe and we’d go. And she picked Japan. She’s into architecture and design, and the Japanese certainly do those things very well.
In truth, all I knew about Japan was the clichés. I had to admit that it wasn’t in my list of top 5 places I was itching to visit next. I’m not sure why. But we were working from my daughter’s list, not mine, so away we went.
And after 10 days, I fell for the country and its people and culture. I can’t wait to go back so I can be reprimanded for not removing my shoes, and so I can soak in the barrage of “hellos” when I enter a store or restaurant and then sail out again on a sea of “thank yous” with friendly waves and nods. I want to ring the gong at the temples tucked in every corner and silently stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the people-packed metro without feeling overcrowded. I want to fall in love with the old couple who owns one of the neighborhood itzakaya restaurants that seemed to be on every corner. I want to have my mind twisted by the fanciful architecture of modern steel and glass right next to a quiet street of traditional wood structures. I want to bow and smile, to browse and shop, to stroll along the garish neon streets and the quiet, leafy corners of ancient oases of the innumerable shrines.
My eyes were opened to Japan and a new world flooded in.
And I owe it all to my curious kid and her spirit of adventure.
Sometimes travel means being surprised to learn that you love a place that you never expected to see. Rick Steves wrote that, “travel is the last great form of legal adventure.” Charles Darwin took, basically, one big trip that lasted 5 years when he was in his 20s, and it fueled a lifetime of intellectual curiosity so that he was able to spend the next 50 years of his life rewriting the world as we understood it. Travel is transformative. Unlike money and stuff, travel is one thing that will last your entire life. A chapter that can never be unwritten. A trip is a tattoo on your soul. Travel is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to one another, and in this case it wasn’t a gift that I gave to my kid, but one that she gave to me.
So if you ever get a chance, one place you may want to go is to Japan.
I sometimes hesitate to admit that I miss the Wall, that I feel a longing for something so awful. But back then you knew where you stood. There was a double wall of concrete with razor wire and mines in the middle, and on one side stood the good guys, bad guys on the other. Clean demarcations are always easier to grasp: walls are comforting tools of gross oversimplification in a complicated age. And the part of my life that I lived within that myth of the healthy marriage between West Berlin and the United States—surrounded by a wall that encircled and constricted but couldn’t quite strangle a tiny island of freedom deep within the cold heart of a totalitarian empire—harbored a sort of innocent faith my country, the loss of which I mourn more each day.
When the wall stood, America was both friendly and tough. My little blue passport with the eagle clutching her olive branch in one talon (but watch out: a thicket of sharpened arrows in the other) provided me the unearned privilege of swift entry into foreign lands and deference from their inhabitants. In those heady days I didn’t have to think about all the bad things we had done. Sure there was four hundred years of slavery, blankets with smallpox, Jim Crow, Vietnam and Iran Contra: but look…the wall! I was half-German, half-American, and the wall had redeemed both sides of the equation, and when in doubt I only needed to shuffle to the top of the scaffolding to peer over the graffiti-smeared concrete and gaze at the bleak, sooty Stalinist housing blocks of East Berlin, like a diorama of deprivation, where guard towers sprouted like the fungus of failed communism out of the cloud of two-cycle engine exhaust, guards ready to shoot down members of their own tribe for merely chasing the forbidden fruits of capitalism.
Back then America was seen as a benefactor and friend to Europe. We were the source of the Marshall Plan and the somewhat flawed but loving big brother in the NATO club. We believed in a united and peaceful Europe, one that was prosperous and economically dependent upon us, and we were willing dance on the edge of war to help make it so. Back then I could watch fireworks without guilt and my parents still loved each other and the world wanted the blue jeans and maple syrup that we smuggled abroad in our suitcases and doled out to family like little badges of freedom that signaled the wonders of modern capital.
There is one moment I recall that that represents those old days best: it was a summer afternoon in the early 80s and fragments of sunlight filtered through a broadleaf canopy, falling onto cobblestones. I was a kid wandering the sidewalks in a green and peaceful corner of southwest Berlin. Diesel cars rumbled past on the cobbles. The efficient S-Bahn hissed to a stop at the nearby station. In the distance came the pock-pock-pock of Russian troops conducting live-fire drills somewhere on the eastern side of the wall.
An old German fellow with a cane and felt hat tap-stepped in my direction and when we met he drew up on the sidewalk and began speaking to me. He’d pegged me for American. Maybe it was the tee shirt I wore sporting Old Glory. My German was pidgin at best, but we managed to have a conversation, and I remember that went something like this:
“Well, young man, how do you speak such good German?”
“My mother is German.”
“And your father?”
“He was in the U.S. Air Force and they met here in Berlin.”
“Ahh, the American Air Force,” he mused, nodding, pleased, even reverent. “Tell your father ‘thank you.’”
He wandered away, his cane plinking on the cobbles.
On the surface the old man’s affection seem misplaced. He had certainly experienced the “Battle of Berlin,” the Americans rained forty-six million pounds of ordinance on the city. The death toll was in the tens of thousands. Nearly two million people were displaced, including my mother, who as a small child rode the train outside the city to live with her grandparents in their farmhouse during the worst of the onslaught.
It’s estimated the fiery deluge created more than 30 cubic meters of rubble for every inhabitant. After the war, much of this rubble was piled into a manmade geological feature known as Teufelsberg or “Devil’s Mountain,” looming 240 feet above the surrounding city. As a child I’d visit this bizarre gift of American air power, a mountain made from the bones of their destroyed city.
PERHAPS THE MOST SUCCESSFUL four words uttered by an American president in any speech were John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He botched the German pronunciation even beneath the added slather of New England accent. But it didn’t matter. It delighted the crowd sprawling before the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, numbering close to half a million. These were people who’d lost a war, faced starvation and poverty, and the shame and the horror of the Holocaust and their role in it. And these are people who understood their precarious position as the caged canary hanging from a limb over the creosote pit of communism.
The speaker was a dashing young president who peppered his remarks with Latin phrases of the philosophers, a man who spoke of hope and truth and solidarity while General Clay, the stoic hero of reconstruction and the Berlin Airlift, stood at his shoulder. Listening to that speech today or watching the newsreel footage provides a stark lesson in how far the power and eloquence of presidential discourse has plummeted.
This defiant speech was the most daring and powerful expression of the Cold War. While Ronald Reagan famously exhorted the reformer Mikhail Gorbechev to “tear down this wall,” he was delivering the coup de grace over the prone form of an expiring enemy. But in 1963, that enemy was at the height of its power and aggression. Kennedy’s speech sent electric ripples through the crowd of normally taciturn Berliners. Here was an eloquent young man who also happened to be the most powerful elected leader in the world. And he was claiming to be one of them.
Perhaps the old man who had thanked me for my father’s service had been there, in that audience.
My mother certainly was. She was twenty-one, and from her vantage point Kennedy was a small speck on the scaffolding, his voice canned by the loudspeakers. But the roaring of the cheers was enough to sweep her along in the adulation. She was an assistant to a pharmacist, and her shop had closed for the speech. She was already a Kennedy fan. An aspiring artist with dreams of a life beyond the provincial former capitol, she’d made a pencil drawing of the president’s portrait, copied from a newspaper photo that she kept pinned on her wall.
My mother’s ambition was to escape her walled city by any means possible. She’d tried a short-lived stint as a street artist in Paris, missing the Montmartre’s heydays of the Belle Epoch by seventy years. Then she worked as an au pair in Switzerland, finding no freedom in indentured servitude. She returned home in a fit of pragmatism and started a career as an assistant apotheker.
She was drawn to Kennedy and all things American not because of his politics, but because she found him handsome. She also found the young, uniformed American servicemen cool, casual and refreshing when compared to the stoic and humorless Berliners of the generation that had survived the war.
For me, the most consequential aspect of Kennedy’s speech is that my mother’s opinion of the benign occupation of the Americans was elevated enough that less than a year later she would marry to an American airman on those very same city hall steps and be whisked away to the United States, making her escape of Berlin at long last. My sister and I were to become products of that Cold War union.
It wasn’t Kennedy’s words alone that had cemented special relationship between West Berliners and the Americans. The U.S. had helped them weather the deprivations of defeat. In June of 1948, the German economy was on the verge of collapse. Soviet influence was growing. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania had already fallen under their control. In Berlin people were already rationed fewer than 1,000 calories per day, sentenced to slow starvation. When the allies created a separate currency in the west to shore up the economy, the Soviets responded by cutting off all road and rail transport to the former capitol. It seemed the only options for President Truman were military force or suffering the humiliating defeat of abandoning West Berlin to the communists.
But at the behest of General Lucius Clay, who would later stand on the Schöneberg steps during Kennedy’s speech, Truman chose a bold act in defiance of Soviet aggression. The Berlin Airlift kept the western half of city on life support through a Prussian winter, making more than 270,000 flights and delivering more than two million tons of goods. At the height of the operation, a plane landed every forty-five seconds pumping lifeblood to the city through airy arteries. The Soviets eventually gave up their blockade. West Berlin was saved, and her citizens never forgot. When the old man thanked me for my father’s service, this memory was certain more fresh than the bombings.
When my father served in the Air Force in the 1960s, he was stationed at Tempelhof. It’s an imposing structure, one of the world’s first modern airports. The main terminal was designed by Nazi architects as a testament to their imperial aspirations. Its rigid lines and limestone facade speak to an austere, cold-hearted sort of grandeur.
Tempelhof’s role has evolved over the years: from showpiece Nazi airport to American air base to civic exhibition hall. Its runways now comprise Berlin’s largest public park after citizens voted to protect this priceless real estate in the heart of the city from development. Today, its buildings house startups, theaters and thousands of refugees from across the Middle East and Africa.
But when my father lived there on the second floor of the terminal, he was a low-ranking airman who bunked in comparative luxury as he worked maintaining runway radio equipment. Tempelhof was a posh posting, with a bar, bowling alley and basketball court available to the airmen. Out the window of his room, he could look out at a three-fingered stone sculpture in the Platz der Luftbrücke or “Air Bridge Place,” the curved of the stone edifice matching the building’s austere lines. The gratitude embodied in that homely concrete tribute to the Airlift certainly projected itself into those, like my father, who wore the uniform of the American military. As a small boy, I used to sift through the boxes in his closet, pulling on the dusty uniform jacket and sliding his dress cap over my head, the hat brim slipping over my ears and my scalp poking into the soft material of the top, hoping to absorb a little of that magic.
By the early 1960s, West Berlin was settling into its role as a Cold War outpost. The Americans brought with them a sort of nonchalance that belied the fact that they were all staring across the razor wire and concrete wall at the enemy. After more than a decade of the Marshall Plan and the fabled “Wirtschaftswunder” or “economic miracle” that had swept the West German Rhineland, transforming it into an economic engine, the western half of Berlin was polished into a jewel of social democracy with a helpful dose of subsidized capital expressly designed to glitter within full view of the guard towers, a giant thumb in the eye of communist austerity of East Berlin.
The Kurfursten Damm, or KuDamm for short, is a broad boulevard that still sweeps toward the former East Berlin like a giant middle finger of capitalism. From the eastern side you could look down on this sparkling street at night and see the luxury department store Kaufhaus des Westens, KaDeWe for short, which translates into Gallery of the West. There were nightclubs that affected a sort of kitschy ribaldry, hearkening back to their heyday in the 20s and 30s. The Resi Bar had telephones at numbered booths arranged around an atrium where American servicemen could proposition German women awkwardly through the language barrier. Another venue featured multiple levels, each with a different band, plus a giant slide that allowed Cold War clubbers to slip from one floor of music to another. By now everyone in Berlin had grown used to the idea of nuclear destruction, and they adopted a sort of hurricane party insouciance, slipping down the long slide together like children at Disneyland. At the Rex Casino on Clayallee, a street named for the hero of the Airlift, my father spotted an underfed woman with a mane of blond hair wrapped into a glittering 1960s helmet and he was smitten. He asked her to dance. He told her that he was new to Berlin and didn’t know a soul. It’s no mystery what drew him to her: his early photos of her crouching by a pond to feed ducks in the Tiergarten park or demurely leaning on a balcony rail with the city skyline in the background show a woman who might have been a model if she hadn’t grown up in the provincial military outpost that the former capital had become.
My father wasn’t what you might consider a good catch. He was a low-ranking airman with friendly disposition and a sense of adventure who had grown up dirt poor on a hardscrabble produce farm outside Chicago. He and his brothers had to shoulder the work after their father passed away early, crawling across every last inch of their forty acres alongside their mother to keep the farm afloat. He’d been educated in a one-room schoolhouse and when he dropped out of college after one year for lack of money, the Air Force was waiting. By the time he reached Berlin he was earning $50 per week. He didn’t have a whole lot to offer. But he had that uniform. The wings on the lapel pin would symbolize another chance for my mother to escape Berlin. And he did come from that far away place that had helped transform the KuDamm from a field of rubble into the lively heart of the shining half of a once-great city. And for a lot of West Berliners, like my mother, that seemed enough.
Few if any cities have CHANGED as dramatically as Berlin has since the end of the Second World War. It was bombed, divided, rebuilt in the image of two separate ideologies, reunified and then rebuilt again. Its shape-shifting cultural landscape saw its dazzling, hedonistic nightlife thrive in the waning years of the Weimar Republic replaced by the cold, depraved cradle of fascist ambition during the Third Reich. Then it morphed into the chessboard of the Cold War, and after restoration it again assumed the mantle of cultural and political capitol of the most powerful country in the European Union.
But despite the city’s mercurial history, little has changed about the Berlin I have known over the past forty-five years. As a boy I explored the leafy quarter of Zehlendorf in a peaceful district where my aunt and uncle have lived for four decades. I didn’t quite grasp the significance of the fact that these unchanging cobbled streets and shaded footpaths were just a morning walk from the trinity of locations that shaped the horror and madness of the of the 20th Century.
A stroll in one direction takes you to a forest path where the Berlin Wall once stood. A brisk walk in the other direction and you’ll reach Cecelianhof, a Teutonic mud and beam manor that looks like an overgrown cottage from a Brothers Grimm tale and the site of a plot no less twisted: the Potsdam Conference, where the Allies divided Germany into four zones of occupation, laying the fault lines of the Cold War.
And then take a lakeside ramble in yet another direction and you arrive at a stone villa that squats like a mausoleum on the shore. It’s called Am Grossen Wannsee and it hosted the meeting where Nazi leaders laid the plans for the Holocaust. Now it serves as a museum and memorial to the unfathomable depths of human depravity.
And while I gradually began to grasp the historic gravity of the sites surrounding Zehlendorf, little has changed within the bubble of this sheltered neighborhood. My aunt and uncle still share the same flat they’ve rented for decades. They are ageless in their habits. They still drink coffee on their balcony each morning along with fresh rolls fetched from the baker’s near the train station. They offer the same singsong greetings as neighbors pass by or roll up their shutters to the morning.
But the pincers of past and present are squeezing their way into even this small idyllic bubble of memory.
On a recent visit, while I strolled to the baker’s to fetch morning rolls, I came across a pair of Stolpersteine, or “tripping stones.” These are small memorials, gilded cobbles embedded into the walkway outside the houses of victims of the Holocaust. It is a public art project that’s spread throughout German cities, and it suddenly provided me with a new lens through which to view Zelendorf. The stones were laid outside a house I’d passed dozens of times before. “Here lived Hedwig Harrwitz, born 1865, deported 10.9.42, murdered in Auschwitz.” Next to it is another stone that memorializes Hedwig’s husband. The stones achieved their intended affect. This quiet corner of Berlin was finally beginning to remember its sinister past. With a simple downward glance, Zehlendorf had changed for me forever.
When I returned from the baker’s that morning, I found a newspaper my uncle had laid on the balcony table next to the materials out of a classic German breakfast: plates of cheese, butter, marmalade, schmaltz (a spread of rendered pig fat), jam, soft-boiled eggs, sliced cucumbers and some thin shavings of pork sausage. Above the fold on the front page of the newspaper was a Warhol-style grid of portraits of the current American president wearing a range of unflattering expressions: vain, baffled, puffing, accusatory, disgusted. The headline read, “Er ist Verruckt?,” which translates into the question “He is crazy?” In the body of the article, a series of psychologists weighed in on Donald Trump’s mental state. The conclusion seems to be that no, he’s not crazy. Just mendacious, fearful and not very bright.
Contempt for the American president or his policies is nothing new in Berlin. There was little love lost for George W. Bush and his injudicious plunge into the Iraq conflagration. A crowd that rivaled the attendance of Kennedy’s 1963 speech assembled in Berlin in February of 2013 to protest the looming war, this only a couple years after they’d assembled en mass to mourn the 9-11 attacks. Even Kennedy was viewed scornfully as a “boy scout” by the stiff, dignified Chancellor Konrad Adenaur, though he was still a staunch Cold War ally. Students in West Berlin staged massive protests against the Vietnam War in 1968, chanting the name of Ho Chi Minh as they trotted down the KuDamm with placards equating U.S. policy with Nazis. But in the past, these animosities alternated with adulation for America, or at least the symbolic promise of the American idea. There was Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech in 1989. And though he was also greeted with protestors, his words are remembered fondly. “Every man is a German separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look up on a scar,” he said in solidarity.
And there was the adoring crowd of 200,000 who greeted then-candidate Barack Obama in July of 2008, numbers that might incite envy in the current president had he the capacity to face a reality not shaped by ego or the morning talk show toadies. In that speech, Obama offered his own take on barrier removal, saying, “the walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.”
Today, these words of American presidents seem products of an alternate reality. Now German newspapers quote Trump’s stuttering invective as headlines: “The Germans Are Bad, Very Bad.”
Trump has lambasted, insulted and questioned the loyalty of NATO allies. He has cozied up to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and praised brutal dictator Kim Jong Un’s “beautiful” letters. And at the same time he has heavily criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel, refusing to shake hands or look her in the eye. The marriage of convenience between Germany and America seems to have reached its end.
THIS IS AN AUSPICIOUS YEAR. The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago. It’s been gone longer than it stood. And NATO turned 70 in April. A recent report by the Harvard Kennedy School called NATO, “the single most important contributor to security, stability and peace in Europe and North America.”
But Donald Trump is no fan of the organization, and he shocked the other 28 members when he threatened to withdraw the United States over claims that other treaty countries weren’t paying their fair share for mutual defense, with his ire especially directed at wealthy Germany. Never mind the fact that Germany is NATO’s second-largest supplier of troops, or that it is the first stopover for U.S. soldiers wounded in the Middle Eastern conflicts.
Like many of his boasts or threats, Trump’s NATO attacks have so far proven hollow, though there is plenty of speculation that the damage to American leadership is irreparable. One has to wonder what utterance will be the breaking point. NATO won’t die on a battlefield. Words will be its undoing.
My parents’ marriage lasted close to forty years, beating the wall’s tenure by more than a decade. Concrete and razor wire is no more permanent than the unspoken constellation of compromises that hold together a relationship of any size. There are treaty signings, vows, handshakes, ceremonies, public affirmations and the like, but in the end it all comes down to that special feeling between two parties and when the magic wears off there’s little you can do to restore it. All the old clichés apply: they grew apart; they become two different people; it was time to start over. My parents represented a collection of contrasts—urban and rural, occupier and occupied, passive and active, European and American—and after the decades, perhaps the sum total of these differences gained mass while the luster of the young man in the uniform and the photo of the young woman in the Tiergarten began to fade.
Watching my parents’ lives split from half a continent away was not unlike watching the relationship between Berlin and Washington splinter on the world stage, the main contrasts being that the former was sadder yet more amicable and diplomatic. What is clear, though, is the power of words. Words are weapons of ideological and emotional warfare that can shatter relationships whether they are geopolitical or interpersonal, and I watched as even the smallest phrase uttered decades ago resurfaced as evidence of the original fault lines of my parents’ flagging union.
And as I watch the words used now in U.S.-German relations, it’s hard to see such language as anything less than relationship destroying and bone deep. It is a failing marriage writ large. Trump employs the paranoid ramblings of a jealous husband lambasting his young trophy wife: our NATO allies are “screwing us,” taking advantage of United States only for our money and offering nothing in return. The dissolution of the marriage plays out in quotes and headlines: an NPR story is titled, “Washington has become much rougher: Germany is still recalibrating.” The chancellor of Germany responds: “We are not prisoners.” Berlin, which was once cradled in the loving arms of American military power, is becoming a different person. “The times in which we could fully count on others are somewhat over,” Merkel said. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Words matter. Words, in many ways, are more permanent and insurmountable than walls and borders.
The power of language in contrast to historic fragility of structures of stone and steel makes walls no less monumental or destructive. Between 140 and 250 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall during its twenty-seven years. But the impotence of the wall is even more tangible when you consider the estimated 5,000 East Berliners who succeeded in crossing to the west.
Walls don’t work.
Now in the States there’s talk of a southern border even more insurmountable than the Berlin Wall. But should it happen, it will be no more permanent or effective than its Cold War counterpart. Contrary to claims of open borders, anyone who’s visited the U.S. frontier with Mexico knows that it’s already a highly developed and militarized barrier, and the crossing is lethal. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency reports that seven thousand migrants have died crossing the southern border between the years 1998 and 2017.
Yet despite the fatalities, far more people have crossed successfully to find work and build better lives in quiet dignity despite the shadow of illegitimacy. This is another testament to the enormity of the human spirit and the impotence of artificial barriers.
Perhaps the collapse of the Berlin Wall and now the implosion of U.S. –German relations will mean a new direction for Germany. It is a nation that is politically, geographically and economically poised to fill some of the vacuum of world leadership created by a retreating America. Perhaps by studying how the United States both succeeded and failed in its aspiration to fashion a new world in its own image, the Germans have lessons to apply. They’ve already taken a position of global leadership on the climate change crisis and they’re engaged in their own grand migrant experiment after temporarily opening their borders to more than a million refugees, positions that have drawn scorn from detractors in Washington and at home.
What I miss most about the Berlin Wall, the collapse of which feels so fresh for me despite the thirty years that have passed, is that it stood as an elaborate, living symbol of the failure to crush the human spirit. It stood as evidence of the limits of authoritarianism. It stood as a reminder of the ultimate folly in the attempt to divide people, to contain them, to restrain them from their aspirations.
All parties viewed the wall as a symbol of barbarity. “We come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it’s our duty to speak in this place of freedom,” these words spoken by Reagan, but they may as well have been uttered by Obama, Bush or Kennedy—though certainly not the current president.
I miss winning the war. I miss the stories of the grandeur of capitalism: tales of Boris Yeltsin weeping after his entourage visited a grocery store in Clear Lake, Texas where he was overwhelmed by the sight of the bounty of the free market, our frozen dessert aisles alone more vast than spare pickings and endless food lines in Russia. Later he would write, “For the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people.”
I miss being the good guys. I miss the casual and somewhat naïve American servicemen begging a dance with a swagger that comes from the uniform of a superpower. I miss the “boy scout” president who said he was a Berliner just like all those grim-faced war survivors.
I miss the marriage where the two parties generally loved one another and forgave the unsightly blemishes, the imperfections and past indiscretions because they knew that, in the end, they were better off together.
I miss climbing the scaffolding to gaze across dog runs and razor wire at the less fortunate.
I miss a world I understood, two countries I believed in, an enemy that was wrong and, in the end, contrite and repentant.
I miss Boris Yeltsin admiring popsicles and my family in Berlin placing orders for blue jeans and maple syrup.
I miss the feel of my father’s military cap slipping down over my ears while hoping that I might someday grow into it.
Berlin inside the wall was a fantasyland where the nightclubs had slides and you could hear the sound of the enemy shooting on the other side of the wall, but you were unafraid. It was a place where my American father could pull on his uniform and cross into East Berlin and joke with the enemy, sharing cigarettes with Russian soldiers, though my German mother was unable to visit her dying grandmother.
Berlin was my rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. It was my childhood fable. It was the story where America was the good guy, where the ideologies were clear and you knew on which side you stood. Berlin was my favorite tall tale made from the bones and rubble of memory. And even now, at just the right time of day, I can close my eyes and stare back through the years to where the Wall once stood, and I can pretend that all of those stories were true.
Few artists have produced work that feels as urgently American to me in the way that Santiago Uceda’s does. He’s got a brash, expressionist style with bold inky lines and that blends of cultures and landscapes tracing his life journey from Peru to California and up to the Pacific Northwest. To me his work embodies the ambitious restlessness of all of us with immigrant roots. Go west and reinvent yourself. Shatter traditions, break rules and color outside the lines to create something new out of the open canvas made from the cultural jambalaya that is the soul of this country.
Uceda’s work shows the clear influence of pre-Colombian and Incan art. He spent his childhood in his native Peru before moving to the States with his family in middle school. Once he arrived in Southern California as a teenager, he absorbed stylistic elements from the surf and skate culture there, as well as a sense of folk art from the Mexican community, especially Día de Muertos imagery. Once he moved north to Oregon, he dove into the iconography of the Pacific Northwest, where a sort of fecund, mossy, drippiness steeped his work with towering pines and folkloric mythology from Sasquatches to salmon worked its way into his repertoire. He recently completed a cycle of images, one for each of the 50 states, that drew on state symbols, animals and regional characteristics. Flipping through Uceda’s work is like taking a great American road trip.
But what struck me the most in my recent interview with Uceda is the fact that, despite while I might see an urgent Americanness, he’s often felt like an outsider here. When he first arrived from Peru, he settled in conservative Orange County where some of the wealthy white kids made him feel like a second class citizen. “I remember thinking, ‘who the fuck to you think you are? Yeah, you’re a white kid, but how does that make you better than me?’,” Uceda said. And then, as now, Uceda used his art to channel his distinct voice in response.
Those high school feelings were rekindled with the election of Donald Trump and the way the current president talks about immigrants and people of color. Uceda had never been a political artist, but some of his latest work is fueled by a bold fury at the way the American Dream has been shattered. “My way of adding to the conversation is through visuals,” Uceda said.
If Trump’s election and the ensuing white nationalism embodied by the corrupt real estate mogul and his xenophobic followers pushed Uceda’s art in new directions, it’s his steady gig as art director at a Eugene, Oregon tech company that provided the stability and discipline that allowed him to strike out in new directions with his personal work. Uceda held a range of creative jobs through the years, often taking on commercial illustration projects where he was required to please clients rather than his own aesthetic sensibilities. But now having a steady job that requires enough creativity to keep him interested, but that also draws a clear line between his personal creative work, seems to have provided him with an ideal balance. The regular schedule and paycheck also provides the stability he needs as a single dad with two boys in school, so that he needs to be disciplined with free time that only comes after dinner, homework and time with the kids at night. Despite this disciplined routine, Uceda describes his style as “messy, rough and unpolished.” He used to worry that illustration clients wouldn’t appreciate these natural qualities of his work. “But I’m finally at the point where, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my style, my voice, take it or leave it,'” he said.
A retrospective of his sketchbook work was recently held at Sparrow Studios and Revolution Design Group in Eugene. For Uceda, the exhibit felt a little like baring his soul. His topics in his sketch work often include personal challenges and documentation of his struggles with mental health. In the past he was hesitant to showcase vulnerabilities in this way, but as he’s grown as an artist he’s become more willing to be transparent. “Lately I’ve been trying to care less about this and give less fucks about stuff as I’m getting older,” Uceda said. And his work has seemed to soar as a result. And the packed opening of this screening this past September gave evidence as crowds responded to his work and lined up to buy sketches from old journals that he once thought would never see the light of day.
Uceda’s passion is illustration, making a mess with chalk and ink, cutting stencils into his sketchbook pages to make random compositions with the illustrations underneath. But he’s also a versatile dilettante, unafraid to dabble in digital, motion graphics, animation, stop motion, video editing and sound design. Some of his online work is a lucidly chaotic mix of all of these abilities. But once you’ve spent time with his art, you can always find the distinctive thumbprint of his style, whether it’s a sketch or an online animation or a two-story mural, and in those bold lines and colors you can also see the telltale signature of the journey he’s made during his own quest to find the American Dream that may elude all of us during these chaotic times.
It’s hard to say where stories come from. It’s a sort of archaeological game that we tend to play if we’ve ever taken a literature class and made the wildly speculative assumption that such origins exist. The online journal Failbetter.com published my novella @SharkGirl79 earlier today, so I guess if there’s a moment to spend on this speculation, it may as well be this one.
@SharkGirl79 is the story of a brilliant young scientist who sacrifices her career and reputation to save a remote coral atoll somewhere in the vast, blue Pacific. It takes place mostly over the course of one day when she goes diving with a photographer from a noted science and geography publication and gets into a deadly situation involving sharks, corals and a leaky oxygen tank. On one level, visible to me only in hindsight, it’s a commentary on the patriarchal culture that still exists among the old guard in the scientific world. It’s about stereotypes and how advocacy or activism on behalf of science is dismissed, especially by those who like to hide out in ivory towers, plus anyone else who doesn’t like what the data show. On the other level, though, it’s just an adventure story. And then, ultimately, it’s the story about a daughter and her father, and that’s the thing I probably like the most about it.
The first (and maybe only) longish piece of prose I read entirely in one sitting was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. That story or short novel is what I like to call “gateway literature.” It’s as rich in language and layers as anything, but it’s approachable by anyone, even a kid growing up in a union household where none of the preceding generations had gone to college. When I was growing up, our house was filled with books…mostly Readers Digest condensed anthologies, plus every National Geographic published between 1964 and 1992 when the old man cancelled the subscription because he was, “finally tired of reading another article about ants.” The Old Man and the Sea was different from just about everything else I’d read before it, probably because it was as gripping as the fantasy and adventure novels I’d read in the past but I found so much more there, too. It was more accessible on the surface than the other tattered classics that English teachers tend to send you home to read. I’m guessing that was largely due to the sharks. But then after I’d finished reading it, it also made me think about things like fate, courage, poverty and faraway places. It stayed with me, lingering on the palette longer that the rest. In hindsight, it feels like my story @SharkGirl79 might be a kind of homage to that lingering sensation left by Hemingway’s novella, a story that follows a similar timeframe and shape but that deals with current issues, where old Santiago has been swapped for a young scientist. But there are still sharks, and hopefully a similar sense of adventure and a bit of an iceberg below the surface to give it a little weight.
The obvious answer of where this story came from is that it arrived on the doorstep of my subconscious sometime during the four years I spent filming Saving Atlantis with co-director/producer Justin Smith. For a solid period of time I immersed myself, both literally and figuratively, into the world of coral science. I had the incredible opportunity to visit research projects around the world, to dive on reefs and to explore the world of coral research. I probably earned the equivalent of at least an associates degree in the subject and then promptly forgot it. But along the way I read countless papers and collected thousands of details, some of which made their way into this story and other novellas in my collection in progress, Beneath the Skin of the World. Scientists of all stripes have become heroes to me ever since my day gig telling research stories first put me into regular contact with them, so it only was a matter of time before one became the hero of some of my fiction as well.
“Let us weep at the grandeur of rebellious women.”
The scientist in this story, Gabby Peacock, wasn’t initially the protagonist. There’s a frumpy writer who appears in the first scene, and I was planning to tell this whole story from his perspective. But he soon boarded a plane and slipped out of the plot with little fanfare…who knows how these things happen…and I stuck with Gabby. Her point of view was the most fascinating, especially when I began to discover the complex relationship she had with her father.
Some of the things in this story borrow from actual events or situations, and the rest is all made up. I actually overheard the main plot point, about an overeager photographer chumming the water for sharks while a researcher worked below, during a conversation at a research station one evening in the outdoor kitchen after someone had opened a bottle of rum. The details are vague in my memory, and quite different from what happened in this story, but that’s the fun thing about fiction. Windows and doors open up while you’re writing and you can decide which ones you climb through. You can just make things up to fill in the gaps…something that’s frowned upon in my day job a writer and nonfiction storyteller. Making things up is also not acceptable in my administrative and budgeting work.
Something else I recall overhearing at a research station during cocktail hour at sunset (some research stations can feel like a summer camp for extremely erudite and workaholic adults) was one male researcher talking to another male researcher about a third, non-present male researcher who was extremely savvy with and vociferous on social media. The subject in question had managed to earn a lot of publicity for his research and raised awareness for the policy problems to which the data pointed. One of the fellows bitterly referred to the social media guru as a, “media whore.” Whether it was jealousy or contempt, I’m not sure, but I always wondered why advocacy is intermingled with such patriarchal bias and misogyny. I guess that I had to create Gabby to try to figure this out.
She’s not based on anyone I know in real life, though I’ve met a lot of people with her admirable qualities. Since I’m looking for origins, though, I think I have to look to old Santiago from the Hemingway novella, adding a dash of Spencer Tracy from the film version and then a little bit of Concha, a cow dog from a Jim Harrison poem. In Harrison’s poem, Concha is the alpha female of a pack of cow dogs on an Arizona ranch. She is stridently independent, leading the other dogs off into adventures that harry the cattle and startle the horses. And for this reason, she’s exiled to a ranch in Mexico where they need a, “crazed bitch who’s kick ass with range bulls.” To me, that’s a good metaphor of a male-dominated system that is uncomfortable with female protagonists. Of course, it’s a poem written by a white dude, just like my novella, so take it for what it’s worth.
There’s one line in that poem in particular, though, that I think is the true heart of this character of Gabby and thus the whole story: “Let us weep at the grandeur of rebellious women.” This line arises often in my mind these days, having a teenage daughter stalking the house. She’s going to inherit a broken world someday, a planet we’ve messed up, so she deserves the opportunity to express righteous fury.
The best thing about publishing a story or book is that, after dozens of drafts and endless tinkering and revision, you’re done. It is what it is and you never have to read it again or even try to make sense of what you were trying to say. That’s now the domain of the readers. They can read a few lines or the whole thing and have their own opinions and either forget it and remember it as they like. I hope readers find some satisfaction in the story. I hope it makes them angry at the world, at systems and institutions that have royally fucked up the planet and belittled people who try to fix it. But I also hope it makes readers a little bit hopeful, too, that there are people like Gabby out there fighting against great odds until their final breath to save the things that they love. I hope readers think about the fact that our species, and especially our generation, has wiped out half of the world’s coral reefs for the sake of banal convenience and luxury, like driving to Wal-Mart or flying to Bali or charging our cell phones. I hope we’re at a tipping point where humans in positions of privilege and power will start to take this rapidly unfolding ecological disaster of the Anthropocene seriously. And finally, I hope that somehow, somewhere someone sits down and reads this story all the way through in one sitting and then closes the page (or browser) and feels just a tiny bit like I did when I finished that Hemingway novella all those years ago. If my story achieves any or all of the above with just one reader, then it will have been worth the effort.
A great thing about graduate writing programs is that they can sometimes approximate a salon. If you’re lucky, you wind up with a cohort of incipient creatives and you can cobble together, for a time, your very own Algonquin Round Table, your Paris of the 20’s or maybe Denver in the 50s. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t round up some writer friends and try to build a similar environment without the tuition. We’re a social species and we thrive on community, even while we’re pursuing intensely personal and solitary activities like writing fiction.
But in the end we all wind up alone and at the keyboard. In Part II of this series, I described how the Steeple Chase Exercise works in a classroom, but that’s not very helpful for us after graduation. Nor is it useful for those who don’t buy into the idea of workshops or MFA programs.
There are advantages to group workshops. For one thing, an experienced instructor can often spot a point of view that’s working particularly well in your work and call your attention to it. In some workshops, you have the chance to hear your own work read aloud, which is always enlightening. Instructor Shawn Shiflett says, “usually the light bulb doesn’t go on [for the student]…you have to point it out. They’re surprised when they hear it out loud.”
But there’s no reason you can’t run your own steeple chase exercise on your own. Every time I feel the story going flat, I try out some of my favorite shifts. If you’re stuck on a project and you need a nudge, I’ve included this handy set of cards to help you out. Print, cut, shuffle and drop them into a hat. When you get stuck, draw a card, make a shift, write a few pages, then draw another card and shift again. This is especially helpful for me when I’m facing a blank screen with a pulsing of the cursor mocking my torpor.
These cards are just for starters, but there’s no reason you can’t make up your own shift. The novelist Ward Just, whom I consider the best living (and little known) political novelist, talks about how shifting the gender of a character can launch a narrative forward: “It’s amazing what you can do. It gives you a whole new outlook on what he’s up to when all of the sudden he’s a she,” he said in an interview.
“It’s amazing what you can do to a character when you change the gender.”
All too often we forget the freedom inherent in the act of writing fiction. We find ourselves adhering to an idea on page 100 merely because that’s how we first happened to write it on page 7, forgetting that we have the power to easily change anything we want. The Steeple Chase Exercise forces us to face that almost daunting amount of liberty we actually do have with with fiction, but do it with the training wheels provided by a structured activity.
Shifting points of view and leaping into other prose forms has always been a natural part of writing. Shawn Shiflett, who has taught countless Steeple Chase classes, uses the technique often. He told me how shifting from the point of view of his main character to that of a high-level overall storyteller helped him navigate a stuck scene while writing his novel Hey, Liberal! He said, “I wound up deleting most of it in the end, but it got me where I needed to be.”
I’ve already mentioned Dostoyevski’s unsuccessful first draft of Crime and Punishment told from Raskolnikov’s first-person point of view. He switched to the third-person for the next draft and wrote a classic. A point-of-view shift in the other direction is what turned Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha into a massive bestseller. His first draft was roundly rejected by agents and editors. “My mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator,” Golden said. When he shifted to the first-person point of view of the main character, Sayuri, the story took off.
More examples abound. Consider Fitzgerald’s choice to tell the story of Jay Gatsby from the point of view of the less-exciting Midwestern outsider, Nick Carraway. Many of us might be tempted to explore the first-person point of view of Gatsby himself, the dynamic protagonist. But Fitzgerald’s choice allows us to channel some of Carraway’s awe while also seeing through his naiveté into Gatsby’s seductive huckster veneer. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye seamlessly blends shifts to a third-person overall narrator’s point of view with first-person perspective of Claudia McTeer, who observes the main character of Pecola Breedlove much in the same way Carraway watches Gatsby.
I could go on. There are at least a million and a half fantastic examples. But I’ll wrap up with an anecdote I know well.
My novel Vintage is the story of washed-up restaurant critic and newspaper columnist Bruno Tannenbaum who discovers the secret to a lost vintage of wine stolen by the Nazis. He sets of on a global quest to find that wine in hopes of writing a bestseller and resurrecting his career and failed marriage.
What first drew me to the character of Bruno was his bombastic voice. I originally began the novel by writing a few newspaper columns in his voice. He was a sort of Dear Abby who would fix his readers’ relationship problems with prescriptions of recipes and wine parings, using food to patch things up when love has gone awry. The conceit was that his own personal life was something of a disaster. He was separated from his wife, estranged from his children, struggling with writer’s block and was a borderline alcoholic. But boy could he write some fancy prose.
I soon found that Bruno’s boorish first-person voice was too dense, meandering and flamboyant to move the story along. I kept getting sidetracked. Or rather Bruno did. So after a filling up a few yellow legal pads with a plot that was quickly heading nowhere, I took a step back, switched to the keyboard and rewrote the entire story.
But this time I wrote it all as a screenplay.
I’d written screenplays before, personally and professionally, and I love the rigid structure of the form. One page equals roughly one minute of screen time, so a typical film gets 90 to 120 pages, and that’s it. Plus the industry is in love with the three-act structure, so you’re forced to riff off of that framework, or at least begin with it. In a screenplay you can’t get lost in descriptions because directors and producers frown on thick blocks of prose. Also, long, winding, interior monologues are impossible in screenplay form. Add to that the fact that you’re forced to make your dialog crackle, and you have a whole new way of looking at a story.
So I wrote and rewrote the screenplay, plugging holes and figuring out where the plot needed to go. In the end I even thought that it might make a good movie. It still might.
But I ultimately knew that Bruno’s story belonged in prose. So I rewrote the entire thing again, but this time I used the screenplay as a sort of outline and I employed the third-person point of view. Much of Vintage is still from Bruno’s perspective, but with enough distance to keep things moving forward.
A fun side note is that I did save some of Bruno’s original first-person columns and I used them as brief chapter introductions. A number of readers told me that they loved these vignettes, some even saying that they were their favorite parts the book. And other some writer types found Bruno’s writing pompous and offensive. One journalist, who gave the book a positive review overall, confided to me: “Gosh, that Bruno is such a bad writer!”
I can definitely say that the permission to shift and leap through forms and points of view granted to me by the Steeple Chase workshops allowed me to turn the whole process of writing Vintage into one big point-of-view exercise. I doubt it would have finished the book otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have written something publishable. And what’s more, the exploratory process made writing that book a whole lot of fun.
The Steeple Chase is a great activity for reminding us that writing should be an exercise in play and discovery. Instructor Randy Albers has this to say about it:
“If you have a very rigid idea of story, and you just try to get from A to Z, you’re not going to trust discovery. You’re going to have to muscle the movement forward. You could miss a stronger story that may be coming from the side. And it will kill the enjoyment of writing.”
As an admitted dilettante, “enjoyment” is the whole reason to write in the first place. This exercise is something that helps me maintain a playful approach that prevents writing from becoming drudgery.
So there you have it. That’s the best thing I learned in graduate school. If you haven’t yet, check out part I and part II of this series. The Steeple Chase is a fantastic exercise for stuck stories and a good way to look at narrative in a new way.
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So now that you’ve been nudged toward action by The Steeple Chase – part I, and you’ve selected your languishing narrative from a stack of moldering stories, you’re ready to pull on your boots and saddle up old Bessie and ride this equestrian metaphor over the gates or into the ground or, better yet, off into the sunset with a finished manuscript tucked in the saddlebags next to a blanket, a celebratory bottle of Meursault, a wheel of drippy-ripe Époisses and a box of assorted party crackers.
Okay, enough of that.
Before we get started, here’s a little history: Randy Albers, one of my writing professors at Columbia* recalls the provenance of the exercise. A pair of decades back, John Schultz, founder of the fiction writing program there, walked into a faculty meeting with the idea of semester-long experiment that forced writers to take an unfinished narrative through a series of twelve steps. He provided a list of the steps and left it up to the instructors to adapt as they saw fit. Randy, who liked the exercise but bristled at the notion of a twelve-step program for writers, trimmed it to eleven and rebranded the “steps” as “leaps” in to more fully embrace the horse jumping metaphor.
The idea is to take a single narrative through an obstacle course of shifts and changes, each one designed to playfully tease the story forward and infuse the writing process with a sense of discovery and surprise. This idea of writing as playing is central to the whole notion of dilettantism, which is probably why I love this exercise.
“John’s goal was to throw the students off balance and see what could shake the story. So many students are stuck in the way they think it has to be told.”
Shawn Shiflett, writing professor and author of Hey Liberal!
John was an innovator when it comes to writing instruction. The fiction program was born out of the tumult of the 60’s (John authored two books on the notorious ’68 Democratic Convention). The program’s upstart social spirit and nontraditional approach reached well into the late ’90s when I attended. Columbia still had an open admissions policy at the time, which meant that the classes were a mix of graduate students and undergrads from a broad range backgrounds. I imagine it was decidedly less stuffy than the more “selective” MFA programs of the time. It had a diverse, working class and blue-collar feel. I sat beside telephone linemen and bus drivers and kids who were, like me, the first generation in their families…often the first in their entire neighborhoods…to attend college. But I digress, as I’m wont to do. So let me just sum up by saying that this is an exercise born in an eclectic literary laboratory infused with the experimental cultural spirt of the 1960s.
Here’s how the Steeple Chase worked in the classroom.
You start off by rewriting the opening few pages of your chosen story (or a complete narrative movement excerpted from a longer work), working in the point of view and voice you’d originally imagined for the piece. Once you’re a few pages in, the instructor calls for a shift.
The first shift is a simple point-of-view shift. Switch from first person to third person or vice versa.
Instructor Shawn Shiflett, who has taught this workshop for years, says that, “finding the right point of view is 90 percent of the problem. Then the story starts to write itself.”
You may think you’ve already discovered the best point of view for your story, but what if you’re wrong? Dostoyevski wrote the first draft of Crime and Punishment in first person and he found the result disastrous, so he rewrote the entire novel in the third person. This exercise, when it works, can get you on the right track sooner.
When you make your shift, just leap into the new point of view and the voice it brings. No need for fancy transitions or tidy labels or chapter headings. Just continue the story, asking yourself “what happens next?” Write another two to three pages in the shifted point of view, and then it’s time to shift again.
Now is when the shifting gets interesting. Most instructors used a prescribed list of steps, occasionally throwing a curveball. It might look something like:
Start rewriting with the originally imagined point of view
Switch point of view (first to third or third to first)
Continue as a model-telling or how-it-happens instance **
Switch to the point of view of the least-likely character
Switch prose forms (a diary, a letter, a story within a story, a folktale)
Continue in the overall storyteller’s voice and point of view ***
Tell the story through a dialogue form (drama, screenplay, script, etc.)
Parody another author’s style
Switch to a point of view that you are now drawn to after the switches so far
Switch to a heightened, exaggerated reality: a dream, surreal, magical realism
Choose a point of view/voice for a character (or literary voice or style) that is the opposite of your own
Take whatever shift from the above list that is producing the most vivid, strongest writing, and rewrite the entire movement in that form and point of view; it’s okay to even carry multiple shifts into the rewrite
In class, we’d do a couple shifts per week. I don’t want to make things complicated, but if you do a little math, and if you’re writing 2-3 pages per shift, then you’ll wind up with 22 to 33 pages by the end of step 11. That’s a length suited to a short story. But it’s not just about a single, complete story. It’s a great way to play around with narrative in a longer work, taking an excerpt that has some kind of arc and running it through these obstacles to see what happens.
The main point of the exercise is to tease out the best way of telling the story. John Shultz wrote in Writing from Start to Finish that “There’s a right, unique variation of point-of-view for every piece of writing.” While the Steeple Chase exercise isn’t described in that book, he does provide an outline for a point-of-view exercise:
“Start a point-of-view shifts exercise by emphasizing the storyteller-essayist’s overall point-of-view, then switch to a character’s vantage point or internal point-of-view (the character who most immediately attracts your attention), then switch from first person to third person or third to first, then switch to a person whose point-of-view you would be unlikely to take (someone you would not feel sympathetic with), then to a form and point-of-view shift such as a monolog, a script, or other form that attracts your attention. Keep the narrative moving through all of these shifts.“
Shawn saw this exercise work for students in his workshops who were searching for the right point of view. “When it hits, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s like you’re dealing with a whole different writer.” He found the “opposites” and “dream” shifts to be especially productive.
But while the exercise is grounded in point of view, that’s not all there is to it. Randy Albers insists its also about exploration. “That sense of discovery is so important in getting across to fresher language. That’s what makes writing fun. Otherwise it’s drudgery,” he says.
“We’re drawn to story by its sense of play and discovery.”
Play and fun are words that get us back to the whole point of this blog, which is that this is what creative work should be about. Being a professional is all well and good, but if there’s no sense playful discovery, then I’d argue that you’re better off approaching your work with the spirit of an amateur or a dilettante. Do the work because you love the process.
The prescribed “steps” or “leaps” of the Steeple Chase process may seem daunting, but in reality this formula just formalize what a lot of writers do already. Using a letter form is part of a long tradition of epistolary stories and novels. Point-of-view shifts were the bread and butter of Faulkner’s inventive narratives.
I just picked up Amor Towles’ bestselling novel A Gentleman in Moscow. It starts with a poem by the main character and shifts to the transcript of a tribunal before slipping into the third-person point of view, mostly from the main character’s perspective, that dominates the rest of the narrative (with healthy doses of the overall storyteller’s voice mixed in as well).
If you do this exercise, you’ll start seeing these forms and shifts in good writing everywhere. They’ll become an intuitive part of your writing and rewriting process, and you’ll find yourself taking leaps automatically, whenever you face a stalled narrative. Sometimes these shifts will encourage rewriting in a certain voice or point of view. Sometimes they’ll become part of the story themselves. And other times they’ll open up a window that you’ll decide to climb through in the spirit of discovery, taking the narrative in a direction you never would have imagined otherwise.
In part III of this series, posting in a week or two, I’ll go into some techniques for adapting this classroom exercise to your own process, and I’ll give a few examples for how it’s worked for me over the years.
* When I refer to “Columbia,” I mean Columbia College Chicago. Folks from outside the Windy City always, for some reason, assume that I’m referring to a certain other Columbia back east when I fail to use the full name. That is also a fine institution.
** A description of the model-telling form could occupy an entire series of posts, but here’s an attempt at a short summary. In Writing from Start to Finish, John Schultz writes that, “the model-telling is an image or narrative of the pattern of how something usually happens.” It establishes a, “pattern of repeated experience.” They often use present tense and second person (On Tuesdays you visit the pier with Granny…) but not always. It often uses the conditional, or “would” (Every Tuesday, Victor would slip thorough the gap in the fence…). Model-tellings establish a pattern, and when such patterns are broken, that’s when stories often happen.
*** The concept of the overall storyteller point of view could likewise occupy volumes, but think of this as the high-level narrator’s voice, the omniscient point of view that can slip deftly from one character to the other, can offer outside perspective and that can tie a story into the historical context that’s happening around the narrative. It’s not exactly the author’s voice, but it can have the author’s voice backed into it. It’s more Toni Morrison than Raymond Carver.
**** I had to refresh my basic grammar to keep my first-person point of view from my point-of-view shifts to first person. But the basic Chicago Manual of Style rules for hyphenation say that when point of view or first person are nouns, no hyphens needed, but when they’re working together as adjectives, hyphenate those suckers.
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I’m going to share the best thing I learned in graduate school. It’s an exercise called the Steeple Chase and and it’s tailor-made for dilettantes. It’s a literary tactic to jumpstart a stalled narrative, and all it requires is the capricious attention span that is the hallmark of amateurs everywhere and a penchant for dabbling in different literary forms.
There’s a debate that’s been raging for quite some time on the efficacy of MFA programs. Some people think they’re a powerful force for shaping the future of the literary tradition and others think they’re a massive waste of money. I feel good about my MFA experience. It did cost about as much as a luxury car, but I also wrote a whole lot, figured a few things out and made some friends and mentors who I’m still in touch with twenty years later. Even luxury cars don’t last that long. I don’t think I would have published my novel Vintagewithout the things I learned in grad school, this exercise in particular.
But that being said you certainly don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a successful writer. Most of the best writers I know don’t have advanced writing degrees, and some of the MFA grads I’ve met regret their time in academia, where certain genres were eschewed and some workshops encourage nasty competition by design. So it’s a personal choice. But no matter your preference, you can use this exercise…all for free! (Though you could join my email list if you’re feeling grateful.)
I first experienced the Steeple Chase exercise as a semester-long activity that was the foundation of the advanced fiction workshops I took at Columbia College Chicago. I had the good fortune of going through the process there with the late, legendary Betty Shiflett that sly and brilliant story wizard who seemed to have the ability to trick you into becoming a better writer despite your myriad flaws and inhibitions. But I’ve since learned that there’s no magic involved, just a lot of work and some practical processes that build your fundamental storytelling skills, and the Steeple Chase is precisely such a process.
I’ve since adapted the Steeple Chase to my own process and I tend to do it naturally now, without even thinking about it. I’m going to offer some suggestions for how you can do this as a solo activity to reanimate your own stalled narratives, and I’m even going to throw in a fancy set of official Dilettante playing cards to help out. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
The Steeple Chase is an exercise that solves literary problems. It gets you unstuck from sticky story situations and it breathes fresh air into stale narratives. This will be a three-part series of posts, and next I’ll be giving you an overview of how it works in a classroom setting, along with some context and history from instructors who use this exercise in their workshops. Then finally I’ll give you some idea on how the process has evolved for me once I left those workshops behind. After all, most of us who tack toward the dilettante end of the artistic spectrum are working solo in the margins of our days and lives.
The Steeple Chase principles can be applied to the film world and also to the visual arts, and I’ve also found that the concepts help me in my documentary work as well. And I’ll address those things in posts down the road. But for now I’ll be concentrating mostly on writing.
So let’s get started.
Has this ever happened to you:
You’re writing a story, novel or screenplay. It’s long or short. But it started with an image or idea that hits you like a lightning. You’re smitten as the fragment blossomed into a full-fledged narrative. This is it…the one you’d been waiting for all of your life! You can’t wait to write it. You scribble notes on index cards. You stop in the middle of a crosswalk to email yourself ideas. You steal minutes away from your lover, children, day job or all of the above to scribble in a notebook. You wake up early, stay up late or arise in the middle of the night to pin sticky notes to your monitor. It’s going great. Magnificent. Brilliantly.
But then, all of a sudden…
You wake up one morning and this idea, this incipient narrative that was one so compelling is a deflated, lifeless, unorganized holy mess of cliches and insipid prose. You can’t remember what was once so compelling about it. Eventually, you stick it in a drawer or drag it into a folder way down in the bowls of your computer where it will languish and eventually fade into memory.
Sound familiar? If this has ever happened to a project of yours, it’s time to dust that sucker off and prepare put it through its equestrian paces. That failed work, that imploded narrative, that lost literary soul…that’s the story you need for a proper Steeple Chase exercise.
One of the big secrets of writing that I eventually learned long after graduate school is that every story is like this. Every project eventually feels dead and lifeless. Writing has a truly tidal movement, swinging from breathless inspiration to a churning slog. A Steeple Chase is just a formalized way of braking through this routine problem. But for now, when selecting a work to run through this exercise, don’t automatically go for your current project, stalled though it may be…look for something that is completely stuck, a story or section of a novel on which you’ve already given up hope.
Anything come to mind?
If so, buckle up and scoot your chair up to the old Remington Rand and get ready to ride that sucker over the gates or puddles or stone walls, or whatever it is that those equestrians in this metaphor actually do in their high boots and funny little hats.
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Over the course of this project I will dig into the details of dilettantism and how useful it is for artists. Much like the word amateur, there’s a certain pejorative quality to the word dilettante. Dilettantism is often dismissed as the mere dabbling of someone not economically dependent on their creative work, or someone who is not that serious about it. I would argue that a breezy or playful quality is, in itself, a useful approach for anyone tackling creative arts. Creative types can be far too serious for their own good, and most of this is just due to an overactive ego. It was Jim Harrison who once said that “writers as a type tend to suffer greatly, but then so do miners.”
So enter dilettantism, an antidote to the cliche of the suffering artist. Let’s take a look at the definition and then break it down into three key elements:
The act of behaving like a dilettante, of being an amateur or “dabbler”, sometimes in the arts. Also the act of enjoying the arts, being a connoisseur.
Certain words from this definition jump out at me: dabbler, enjoying, connoisseur. These are all good things. These are all things you would do for reasons other than money. They are playful. They’re fun.
And I would argue that the creative process should be playful. It should be enjoyable. Otherwise, why in the hell do it? You may daydream of being a professional writer or artist who derives a fabulous income…or at least enough money to eke out a living…from your creative work. We all do at times, but the economics of the artistic pursuits are absolutely brutal. I’ll dig into articles and surveys like this one soon enough when I start talking more about the money. But the upshot is that the odds are against your making much money from your creative work, and much of this is due not to your talent or work ethic, but due to factors that are largely out of your control.
So if you take the money out of the equation, why do it? Why pursue something that’s as incredibly difficult as crafting an intricate story out of 100,000 painstakingly typed words that you rearrange in draft after draft or spending hours brushing pigments onto a canvas in an attempt to manufacture a pleasing or challenging image when it’s so much simpler to make a photo with your phone and slap a filter on it?
Any creative person will tell you that you make stuff because you have to. You don’t have a choice. It’s a faucet you can’t turn off. I know any number of writer-types who’ve worked for decades without publishing anything, hacking away at some project while swearing the whole time that they’re going to quit, and soon. I’ve done it myself.
But we don’t quit, do we?
Why is that? It’s because it’s fun. We may pretend to be serious. We may treat our writing or art as therapy that deals with massive, important or painful subjects. But in the end it is fun. It is endlessly satisfying to fill a blank page with words arranged in an order as they’ve never been before because they have our own personal stamp on them. The sound of dragging a pencil across vellum is like music. Music is, well, like music. Sitting alone in your room with a guitar and stumbling upon a new combination of notes that grabs you by the collar and shakes you is tremendously satisfying.
Creativity is fun. that’s why kids do it. But somewhere along the way we grow up and begin to believe that only things that have a price tag on them are worth anything. We forget that making art is fun. And that’s something that the dilettante, the dabbler freed from economic necessity, understands well.
In the definition of dilettantism the word arts is plural for a reason. And that is a key to unlocking creative potential. We tend to categorize ourselves into groups. There are filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, writers, and each of these categorize can be broken down into smaller groups: documentarians, narrative filmmakers, poets, novelists, painters, printmakers and so on.
But too much specialization can a bad thing. Eric Barker lays this out nicely in a recent blog post about the perils of too much specialization in young children. Here he quotes from the book Range:
“Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation.”
David Epstein, Range
While this applies to scientists, I think it can also impact artists who focus their creative pursuits too narrowly. Having avocations makes you better at everything you do.
Sure you want to focus on your chosen craft. But I believe in arts in the plural. Historically we didn’t have this problem of hyper specialization. Many of the early botanists or explorers were exquisite painters, sketchers, writers or all of the above. Alexander Von Humboldt, that brilliant proto-scientist and famous dilettante who discovered the concept of climate change in the 1700s was also a bestselling author of his day. And his work was meticulously illustrated. His fans read him as breathlessly as Dickens.
One skill can feed another. Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic, her treatise on creativity, tells the story of how her dabbling in gardening led to the plot of her sweeping novel The Signature of All Things. Had she considered herself too serious of an artist to waste time on a pursuit for which she had little predisposition or talent…namely gardening…the book would not have happened.
Werner Herzog famously says (ad nauseam) that filmmakers should, and I quote, “read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read you’ll never be filmmaker.” Notice, he doesn’t say anything about cameras.
Specialization is dangerous. It leads to things like repetitive motion stress injuries and just making you a narrow person who’s not so fun to talk to.
Dabbling in other disciplines, especially those for which you’ve developed less talent, can also increase your capacity for awe at the talent of others who are masters of that craft. Which leads me to the next area of interest when it comes to dilettantism:
I’d like to highlight one more word in the definition of dilettantism: connoisseur. I think all too many of us who consider ourselves writers, filmmakers and artists get so wrapped up in our own work and projects that we forget to love the medium itself. A true dilettante spends as much (or more) time enjoying the arts as she does in creating them. I’ve gone years without reading more than a few books and all the while I was working my day gig to pay the bills and hacking away at novels that I hoped would change the world (or at least guild my paltry checking account).
I once stumbled across President Obama’s annual reading list on social media and I thought that if the busiest person in the world could find time for books, then I should be able to as well. That was, of course, back when we lived in an alternate universe where we liked presidents who were busy, who read things and who thought deeply. I’ve always had trouble taking people who don’t read seriously, and then in my hypocrisy I realized that I had all but stopped reading seriously myself.
So I set an annual book target and upped my daily page count, and suddenly I found that I was not only able to keep up with my creative work, but I was also becoming a more productive and better at it. I now try to read the classics I’ve missed, pick up new page-turners and beach reads or dig into voices that are different from my own: anything I can get my hands on, basically. Reading aggressively and enjoying the process is making me better at what I do, both in my creative work and on my day job.
Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art.
And the same goes for dabbling in the other arts. I try to watch films as a fan, not just as a critic or someone eyeing the competition. Whenever I can I stop in art galleries and museums. I sketch landscapes (albeit poorly) and all around work at being a fan of other people’s work. If you’re not a connoisseur of your chosen creative discipline (and the other creative pursuits that circle around it like satellites), you’ll lose your edge.
The unencumbered bliss of merely being a fan is something we can lose if we become too serious about our work. Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art. And embracing dilettantism is a perfect antidote to those narrowing forces.
Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive a note every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is a breezy, spiritual homage to creativity that is filled with advice you already know (but is worth hearing again) plus a few enjoyably eccentric notions on how creativity works.
Max Joseph’s fun short doc about bookstores offers some advice on increasing your page count and generally celebrates falling in love with books again.
If you’re interested reading more on the dilettantism vs specialization debate, Eric Barker read David Epstein’s book Range so that you don’t have to, and sums it up nicely in this post.
I’m a writer and a photographer and a filmmaker. I can say that now without visibly cringing and with only a minor internal flareup of the old imposter syndrome. Because, like many who devote a major chunk of their existence to the creative pursuits, I’ve always wondered what makes a real artist. Somehow along the way, maybe because of the social pressure of living in a capitalist society or even just a working class sense of pragmatism, I arrived at the notion that realartists are those who earn enough money to at least pay the mortgage, groceries and health insurance through their work.
I’ve earned a bit of money for my creative work over the years, but not nearly enough to pay more than a month or two of the rent, and that doesn’t include the water bill and tucking anything away for the kiddo’s college fund. I once spent an advance check on a family vacation. I used the money left over after selling a screenplay option (and after legal fees) to buy a video camera. But I’ve never paid my bills with my art. Does that make me a fraud?
This bothered me for a long time. Even after a few publications, awards, film festivals and international distribution for some of my films, this sense that I was not as serious about my work as real artists would not go away. After all, I still have a day job as a media producer. It’s creative work that I even enjoy most days. But for some reason, I always suspected that my personal work was just some quaint hobby. I feared that people wouldn’t think I was serious. Or worse yet, I was a “dabbler” or its slightly more elegant French counterpart: the “dilettante.”
“This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s actually the ideal.”
I eventually learned that all those writers whom I so admired as they were paraded across the stage on book tours or in my MFA program mostly had day jobs, too (that that they rarely, if ever, spoke about), primarily teaching. I learned that the author bios on most novels are selectively edited: “Abigail is a copyeditor who lives on a farm in New England with her husband, children and three lamas and she drives forty minutes round trip to the office in New Haven where she spends most of her day editing a medical journal after waking at four a.m. to get some of her creative work finished before getting the kids ready for school.”
The more artists, writers and filmmakers I’ve met, the more examples I have collected of people doing amazing creative work in the margins of their lives, and the more it has challenged the self-imposed notion that amateurism is an inferior form of creativity. I’ve even interviewed several accomplished, full-time artists, musicians and writers who achieved the all the financial and critical success you could hope for, and then promptly plunged into other creative disciplines to start from scratch. There’s the Emmy winning musician who started painting, a romance novelist who went into politics or a poet laureate who starts doing watercolors. Specialization is indeed dull when compared with the freedom to dabble in whatever calls you at that moment.
This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s the ideal. If you look up the word amateur, you’ll find the word passion in the definition. The same is not true of the word professional. Do artists and writers with day jobs, on the main, possess any less talented than the bestsellers interviewed by Terry Gross? Not in any way that I can see. I’ve met a lot of other filmmakers at festivals who shoot weddings to pay rent or do corporate work as their bread and butter. I learned that the Maysels Brothers, who created some of the greatest documentary films of American direct cinema movement, ran a business making “industrials” to pay the bills for the entirety of their filmmaking careers.
“I’ve become less impressed by how muchmoney a very few artists make from their work than I am by how littlemost of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.”
I’ve tried to stop sweating the definitions of amateur and professional. I’ve tried to eliminate the fear of being labeled a dilettante and instead embrace the idea. I’ve done a lot of research, read books on creativity, interviewed artists and writers, both unknown and world famous, and I’ve come to understand that economics are a poor judge of talent, and that the systems established to monetize the creative arts–galleries, Hollywood, the publishing industry–are uneven, imperfect, random (though hardly malign or evil) and certainly not the best arbiters of creative merit.
With this blog I hope to dive into all of these issues: what makes an artist, how does the money work, where do you find creative energy, how to focus on your own process rather than judging yourself or others, what is the definition of success, how do you balance your creative work with your day job and can you (or should you) make them one in the same? Because the vast majority of artists in this world deal with these issues every day, some better than others. This is my attempt to flip the script as I find that I’ve become less impressed by how much moneya very few artists make from their work than I am by how littlemost of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.
After putting my stake in the ground at the age of eight with the fearlessness of a child and declaring myself a writer, promptly scribbling a knockoff of the first seven pages of The Hobbit with a fat pencil, and then working diligently on the craft for the next thirty-some odd years with only occasional recognition through publication and infrequent remuneration before finally publishing something with one of the “big five,” I still, like many artists, don’t quite feel like I’ve earned that title. But this blog is my ongoing effort to convince myself (and maybe a few others) that I have.
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I expected to travel to Bangladesh to portray stories of climate victims. I expected to see a graphic illustration of a nation that is dealing with climate change problems that they had no hand in creating. I expected to see frustration and maybe even righteous fury. But instead, I found hope, grit and determination.
When I visited recently with co-director/producer Justin Smith as we shot footage for our Second Warning film project, we did see poor people. We did meet climate refugees. But they’re certainly not victims. And while they may be frustrated that their country is on the front lines of climate change, their frustration with the developed world is overshadowed by their optimistic determination not just to survive, but to thrive.
Bangladeshis refer with affection to their country’s natural resources. They’re a “riverine country,” home to hundreds of major rivers and the world’s largest river delta. They’re also home to the world’s largest mangrove forest and the longest stretch of natural beach on earth. But all these geographic features belie the fact that the whole country lies only a few meters above sea level. It’s also the most densely populated place on earth. So with sea-level rise, unpredictable river flow due to dams and glacial meltwater in the Himalayas, storms of increasing frequency and ferocity, they’re ground zero for dealing with the impacts of climate change and access to fresh water. It’s a country with a massive population wedged into a land mass the size of Iowa. While they might have a wealth of resources, they have to slice these assets very thinly to share them with their 180 million fellow citizens.
During our trip to film some of these phenomena for the documentary, we didn’t find a passive people waiting for outside help. They’ve been busy in recent decades. Once plagued by cyclones that left hundreds of thousands dead in past decades, they’ve now have a warning system that’s the envy of the world. Despite millions being in the path of storms, the climate change-intensified events today result only dozens of casualties, not thousands. One researcher pointed out to us that the United States is much more poorly prepared for climate change-fueled storms, as evidenced by the tragic casualties of Katrina, not to mention more recently in Puerto Rico, Florida and North Carolina.
It’s true that refugees are forced out of the southern parts of Bangladesh by the elements. But when they leave, they head to crowded Dhaka, where the slums aren’t just warehouses of misery, but stopover points with intact family and community networks designed to foster those determined to lift themselves out of poverty. Many fail. Many just barely eke out a living. But others claw their way forward. Gritty concrete high rise buildings sprout out of the surrounding Dhaka streets like nematodes rising out of the mud of the tidal Sundarbans forests of the south. The ragged tops are covered with fingers of rebar indicating the intention to build more floors, showing that Bangladesh is a work in progress.
This work features the fastest growing economy in Asia. And many are determined to ensure that their growth remains sustainable. They don’t aspire to become a climate change contributing nation. But the choking smog of the world’s most densely populated major city indicates that they have their work cut out for them.
One researcher told us that the country’s massive population isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength. The human potential is astounding. People are poor. I saw sights of misery. But they’re also young and well connected. The cell phone coverage is much better than back home in Oregon. And in truth, I’ve also seen plenty of misery, poverty, homelessness and hopelessness at home. And what’s missing from my own country is the infections sense of resilience and optimism that you find in Bangladesh coupled with its legendary hospitality. Oh, and the food on the sub-continent is superior, too. In so many categories, Bangladesh has an edge.
So there is much hope here. Saleemul Huq, a member of the IPCC and a leading climate scientist based in Dhaka, told us that Bangladesh is going to be an exporter of resilience in the face of the new realities of climate change. Today you can’t turn around without bumping into a multinational NGO determined to save Bangladeshis. We all seem to think that they need our help. And in truth, if we do our part to curb our addiction to fossil fuels, it could mean a lot less misery for this country. But someday soon they are the ones who will be teaching the rest of the world how to survive the new realities of a warming planet.
Do films actually matter? I spend a lot of time wringing my hands over this question, especially since I’ve committed so much of my life to making them. We all want to know that our work has meaning. A recent trip to Colombia to screen Saving Atlantis around South America’s northernmost country put this question to the test.
We filmed portions of Saving Atlantis, our documentary about the decline of the world’s coral reefs and the people fighting to save them, in Colombia in 2016. The scenes we shot there focused on a reef called Varadero, which is unusual in that it exists in cloudy water near Cartagena Bay, a place where few scientists expected to find a flourishing reef. But soon after discovering this reef, it was threatened by the dredging of a new shipping channel.
The goal of our return trip to Colombia was simple: show the film in five locations in seven days across the country, ranging from the massive capital city to tiny island villages, and to spread the word about the fate of the world’s corals and of Varadero in particular.
Could our feature documentary…a passion project pulled together by a ragtag team over the course of four years working on the fringes of our day jobs and personal lives…make an impact in a country half a world away?