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Posts Tagged ‘Writing

Between Solitude and Loneliness

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solitude-e1529987972633.jpg

Illustration: Antoine Maillard

At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.

Born in 1928, I was an only child. During the Great Depression, there were many of us, and Spring Glen Elementary School was eight grades of children without siblings. From time to time I made a friend during childhood, but friendships never lasted long. Charlie Axel liked making model airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue. So did I, but I was clumsy and dripped cement onto wing paper. His models flew. Later, I collected stamps, and so did Frank Benedict. I got bored with stamps. In seventh and eighth grade, there were girls. I remember lying with Barbara Pope on her bed, fully clothed and apart while her mother looked in at us with anxiety. Most of the time, I liked staying alone after school, sitting in the shadowy living room. My mother was shopping or playing bridge with friends; my father added figures in his office; I daydreamed.

In summer, I left my Connecticut suburb to hay with my grandfather, on this New Hampshire farm. I watched him milk seven Holsteins morning and night. For lunch I made myself an onion sandwich—a thick slice between pieces of Wonder Bread. I’ve told of this sandwich before.

At fifteen, I went to Exeter for the last two years of high school. Exeter was academically difficult and made Harvard easy, but I hated it—five hundred identical boys living two to a room. Solitude was scarce, and I labored to find it. I took long walks alone, smoking cigars. I found myself a rare single room and remained there as much as I could, reading and writing. Saturday night, the rest of the school sat in the basketball arena, deliriously watching a movie. I remained in my room in solitary pleasure.

At college, dormitory suites had single and double bedrooms. For three years, I lived in one bedroom crowded with everything I owned. During my senior year, I managed to secure a single suite: bedroom and sitting room and bath. At Oxford, I had two rooms to myself. Everybody did. Then I had fellowships. Then I wrote books. Finally, to my distaste, I had to look for a job. With my first wife–people married young back then; we were twenty and twenty-three–I settled in Ann Arbor, teaching English literature at the University of Michigan. I loved walking up and down in the lecture hall, talking about Yeats and Joyce or reading aloud the poems of Thomas Hardy and Andrew Marvell. These pleasures were hardly solitary, but at home I spent the day in a tiny attic room, working on poems. My extremely intelligent wife was more mathematical than literary. We lived together and we grew apart. For the only time in my life, I cherished social gatherings: Ann Arbor’s culture of cocktail parties. I found myself looking forward to weekends, to crowded parties that permitted me distance from my marriage. There were two or three such occasions on Friday and more on Saturday, permitting couples to migrate from living room to living room. We flirted, we drank, we chatted–without remembering on Sunday what we said Saturday night.

After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I divorced.

For five years I was alone again, but without the comfort of solitude. I exchanged the miseries of a bad marriage for the miseries of bourbon. I dated a girlfriend who drank two bottles of vodka a day. I dated three or four women a week, occasionally three in a day. My poems slackened and stopped. I tried to think that I lived in happy license. I didn’t.

Jane Kenyon was my student. She was smart, she wrote poems, she was funny and frank in class. I knew she lived in a dormitory near my house, so one night I asked her to housesit while I attended an hour-long meeting. (In Ann Arbor, it was the year of breaking and entering.) When I came home, we went to bed. We enjoyed each other, libertine liberty as much as pleasures of the flesh. Later I asked her to dinner, which in 1970 always included breakfast. We saw each other once a week, still dating others, then twice a week, then three or four times a week, and saw no one else. One night, we spoke of marriage. Quickly we changed the subject, because I was nineteen years older and, if we married, she would be a widow so long. We married in April, 1972. We lived in Ann Arbor three years, and in 1975 left Michigan for New Hampshire. She adored this old family house.

For almost twenty years, I woke before Jane and brought her coffee in bed. When she rose, she walked Gus the dog. Then each of us retreated to a workroom to write, at opposite ends of our two-story house. Mine was the ground floor in front, next to Route 4. Hers was the second floor in the rear, beside Ragged Mountain’s old pasture. In the separation of our double solitude, we each wrote poetry in the morning. We had lunch, eating sandwiches and walking around without speaking to each other. Afterward, we took a twenty-minute nap, gathering energy for the rest of the day, and woke to our daily sex. Afterward I felt like cuddling, but Jane’s climax released her into energy. She hurried from bed to workroom.

For several hours afterward, I went back to work at my desk. Late in the afternoon, I read aloud to Jane for an hour. I read Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” twice, the Old Testament, William Faulkner, more Henry James, seventeenth-century poets. Before supper I drank a beer and glanced at The New Yorker while Jane cooked, sipping a glass of wine. Slowly she made a delicious dinner—maybe veal cutlets with mushroom-and-garlic gravy, maybe summer’s asparagus from the bed across the street—then asked me to carry our plates to the table while she lit the candle. Through dinner we talked about our separate days.

Summer afternoons we spent beside Eagle Pond, on a bite-sized beach among frogs, mink, and beaver. Jane lay in the sun, tanning, while I read books in a canvas sling chair. Every now and then, we would dive into the pond. Sometimes, for an early supper, we broiled sausage on a hibachi. After twenty years of our remarkable marriage, living and writing together in double solitude, Jane died of leukemia at forty-seven, on April 22, 1995.

Now it is April 22, 2016, and Jane has been dead for more than two decades. Earlier this year, at eighty-seven, I grieved for her in a way I had never grieved before. I was sick and thought I was dying. Every day of her dying, I stayed by her side—a year and a half. It was miserable that Jane should die so young, and it was redemptive that I could be with her every hour of every day. Last January I grieved again, this time that she would not sit beside me as I died.

–Donald Hall

 

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Written by MattAndJojang

June 26, 2018 at 12:36 pm

The Joy of Less

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“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.

I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).

When the phone does ring — once a week — I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or “Walden,” the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. “I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.” Living in the future tense never did that for me.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.

If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.

~ Pico Iyer

Written by MattAndJojang

March 7, 2016 at 9:03 pm

Finding Forrester

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Finding Forrester

I realize that the one wish that was granted to me, so late in life, was the gift of friendship.

— From the movie “Finding Forrester”

When was the last time a Hollywood movie portrayed the acts of reading and writing in such a gratifying and fulfilling way that it made you want to read a real book rather than an “airport” bestseller? And when was the last time you saw an interracial mentor-pupil relationship presented as mutually rewarding, and interracial teenage romance depicted without punitive condescension or parental disapproval? Gus Van Sant’s deftly crafted “Finding Forrester” achieves all of the above and more: It provides a platform for Sean Connery to deliver a definitive, career-summation performance as a reclusive, charismatic literary legend. With the right handling, Columbia has a sure winner here, a skillfully written, expertly acted picture whose uplifting plot should score high among viewers across the board.

With the notable exception of “Psycho,” his futile 1998 remake, Van Sant’s technical work continues to improve in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. His work has always shown a fondness for outsiders, but rather than merely depicting them sympathetically, Van Sant places his outcasts in crisis, forcing them to confront their relationship to society and its rules. Two of the filmmaker’s most-used motifs are highlighted in the new film: the moral odyssey of outsiders and the casual randomness of urban life.

Indeed, on the surface, “Finding Forrester” tells a similar story to that of Van Sant’s 1997 Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” with Connery playing the Robin Williams part and black teenager Rob Brown in the Matt Damon role, a gifted kid with a chip on his shoulder. While “Forrester” is critical of conservative educational institutions and tyrant instructors, it doesn’t put down the system itself.

With a touch of “Rear Window” voyeurism, narrative depicts Forrester as a silver-haired eccentric who spends a lot of time at his Bronx apartment window, seemingly observing a bunch of black kids playing ball in a court across the street; later it turns out he’s an avid bird-watcher. Veiled in mystery, the last the world has heard of Forrester was more than 40 years ago, when he was a brilliant Pulitzer-winning novelist. His book, which has since become a cherished classic, is apparently his only literary output.

As the youngsters are aware of Forrester’s invisible presence, their curiosity naturally builds. Sneaking into his apartment to get info about the mythical man, 16-year-old Jamal (Brown) accidentally leaves behind a backpack full of his writing. The next day, the bag appears at the window and, to Jamal’s surprise, his papers have been read and graded by Forrester. An unlikely relationship begins, marked by all the familiar ups and downs of such bonds. Turning point occurs when an exclusive Manhattan prep school recruits Jamal for his basketball talent and his academic achievement, and he seeks Forrester’s help in dealing with the new environment, becomes a reluctant hero and Jamal gradually becomes committed not only to his own writing, but to cracking Forrester’s shell.

Central acts chronicle the flowering of a union that goes beyond the routine teacher-pupil interaction. While lines of authority are clearly maintained, Mike Rich’s graceful script shows how dependent the mentor becomes on the kid, who evolves from an intrigued fan to a loyal student to a social companion, all the while determined to reignite Forrester’s passion for writing before it’s too late. Though earnest and utterly predictable, yarn avoids the traps of the similarly themed “Educating Rita,” in which a working-class hairdresser-wife (Julie Walters) forces a boozy professor (Michael Caine) to become her instructor. “Forrester” doesn’t unfold as a series of calculated setups painted with a broad brush — there are no cutesy scenes like Rita giving her mentor a shampoo. Rich inserts enough narrative subtleties and moral shadings into a friendship that ultimately becomes a surrogate family relationship.

The text is extremely old-fashioned: A crucial scene at school, in which Jamal is reprimanded for his conduct, functions as the equivalent of a courtroom scene, in which an inflexible teacher (F. Murray Abraham) is contrasted with good ones. A bigger mistake is that the filmmakers signal where the tale will ultimately go about a reel before it gets there.

Undoubtedly, it’s the bravura acting that binds viewers to the characters’ shifting emotions from one scene to the next. “Forrester” is very much a chamber piece for two, with more than half the scenes set indoors in Forrester’s cluttered, oversize apartment, inventively textured by production designer Jane Musky to capture the feel of a capacious pre-WWII residence, which later becomes a kind of Never Never Land. What gives pic a much needed outdoor cinematic dimension are the basketball scenes, which are dynamically shot by lenser Harris Savides, and Valdis Oskarsdottir provides modulated editing.

Playing the Salinger-like writer of legendary stature, Connery expertly fills the bill as a man who’s at once ingratiating and infuriating, a recluse who needs to be rescued from misanthropy. The role allows the actor to display his signature humor, a flourish of arrogance balanced by depth. Connery hasn’t only stopped masking his Scottishness, but now integrates it into the plot. But Forrester is by no means a one-man show.

Amazingly, with no previous experience, Brown stands up to Connery, and in some scenes even matches him with his inner strength and stillness. Anna Paquin plays a student who fosters a flirtatious friendship with Jamal, while “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon pops up for a late-in-the-game cameo.

— Emanuel Levy

Written by MattAndJojang

October 13, 2015 at 7:26 pm

Scrivener: The Writing Software For Writers

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Scrivener Mug

The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why use another writing software? Isn’t a word processor, like Microsoft Word, sufficient?

I, myself, have been using Microsoft Word for almost 25 years now for my writing… until 3 weeks ago.

While I was surfing the web, I read about Scrivener in a blog post. I was impressed, especially because many published authors recommended it. I downloaded the trial version, played around with it, and liked what I saw. In fact, it is without exaggeration that I say that I fell in love with Scrivener! A few days later I bought it. (Actually, I asked my wife, Jojang, to give it to me as my birthday present).

Scrivener Interface

Scrivener Interface

We can’t deny that word processors have revolutionized the way we write. But they have one major limitation: they assume that we work in a linear fashion. Basically, they assume that when we write, we know how our document will begin and end. Also, they assume that we will start from the beginning and continue through to the end. This may well be the case for short-form writing. But for long-form writing (novels, dissertations, manuals, legal briefs, research papers, essays, screenplays, etc.) — this is not the most effective way to go about it.

Enter Scrivener. Unlike your typical word processor, it makes writing, especially long-form writing, a much more manageable and enjoyable task.

How?

By assuming that many of us write in a creative, non-linear fashion. For one thing, it doesn’t require us to know how our text will begin or end. For another, it doesn’t require us to write from beginning to end. In fact, we can start from anywhere we like. And here lies the power of Scrivener: we can divide our text into small manageable sections, and arrange and rearrange them as often as we like to, without leaving Scrivener. In the words of Erez Zuckerman, technology writer for PCWorld:

Scrivener revolves around a single concept: No matter how massive a text is, it’s invariably made up of smaller parts. A chapter isn’t as scary to write as a whole book; a single paragraph is even more approachable.

Here’s how it works.

Scrivener Corkboard Mode

Scrivener Corkboard Mode

Scrivener uses the “corkboard” metaphor to give a bird’s-eye view of what you’ve written. Each section of your document has an index card attached to it. Among other things, you can write a synopsis and monitor the status of each index card.

In the corkboard mode, you can rearrange the index cards around. This makes it easier to organize your text. Needless to say, each index card is associated with a written text, which can be created by using Scrivener’s built-in editor. Double-clicking the small rectangle at the left-hand corner of the index card will drill down to the text associated with it.

Scrivener Outliner Mode

Scrivener Outliner Mode

Personally, I don’t use Scrivener’s corkboard that much. If you’re like me, you’ll like the outliner mode for organizing your document. The concept is the same to that of the corkboard. Only this time, instead of moving around your index cards, you work with your outline to rearrange the sections of your document. Also, by double-clicking each outline heading you can drill down to the text associated with it.

Scrivener Binder

Scrivener Binder

The binder in Scrivener is what keeps all the parts of your document together. (You can find them in the section of your binder titled “Draft”). Entries in your binder are linked to the index cards or outline headings. What’s more, a feature that I love in Scrivener is a section in the binder appropriately titled “Research,” where you can put all your research material – documents, web pages, images, audio, video, etc. There’s no need anymore to switch between multiple applications to refer to your research files.

We’ve only covered the basics and barely scratched the surface. Scrivener still has a lot of features, and it can sometimes feel like an overwhelmingly complex writing software. But don’t let it overwhelm you. If you keep in mind the basics, you can be up and running in less than an hour, especially if you watch this introductory tutorial video, which covers all the main features of Scrivener:

Scrivener Basics: An Introduction to Scrivener

By the way, Scrivener is available for both Mac and Windows computers.

— Matt

Official Website:

Literature and Latte

Reviews:

The New York Times

Our redeemer is Scrivener… software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product… The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk… Scrivener, then, is one of us, at home in the writer’s jumpy emotional and procedural universe.
—Virginia Hefferman

PCPRO

A brilliant, flexible package for serious writers, which helps manage the creative process from start to finish; it’s great value too.
—Tom Arah

MacWorld

I’ve dumped Microsoft Word in favour of a hit cult app called Scrivener… Scrivener is a shrewd collection of tools that everyone will appreciate equally, but exploit differently. It’s the perfect word processor for people like me, who write weekly and monthly columns for a variety of publications and websites. To a pal of mine, it’s the perfect word processor for writing a very complicated science-fiction novel in which a large cast engages in complicated schedules and agendas that all have to be tracked and coordinated with each other through the story. To another, it’s the perfect tool for writing comic-book scripts. You see, Scrivener isn’t an oddball niche ‘alternative’ product. It’s poised to start a genuine revolution.
—Andy Ihnatko

Organizing Creativity

[Scrivener] is simply an awesome, awesome, really awesome program. No kidding, I wrote ‘Organizing Creativity’ with it, which was over 400 pages long, had 138,105 words and 785,500 characters, and it was still very easy to find the thread or specific spots where I wanted to change something… when it comes to actual writing, Scrivener is just the reigning and undefeated champion.
—Daniel Wessel

 

 

Written by MattAndJojang

July 7, 2014 at 4:25 pm

How To Think Like A Writer

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Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Writing isn’t easy. In fact, it can be painfully difficult. Why? Because it’s thinking, but on paper. “To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David McCullough.

Many great writers, including Joan Didion and Don DeLillo, have said that their purpose for putting words on paper is to find clarity with their thoughts, and have described the process of writing as one of becoming familiar with their own minds.

“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in a 1958 letter. “For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order.”

If you’re a writer, then you’re likely both devoted to your craft and eternally frustrated by it — and even the most talented writers could use guidance from the greats on how to hone their powers of thinking and get those creative juices flowing. Take a cue from the likes of Henry Miller, Zadie Smith and William Faulkner to get into your “writer’s mind” and produce your best work.

Here are some tips, tricks, quirks and habits of great writers that might inspire you to think like a writer — and to develop a writing practice that optimizes your creativity.

Study the greats.

Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway’s novels in full, just to absorb the words — he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.

Observe everything.

Marina Keegan, a brilliant young writer, died tragically just five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale University. Her final essay for The Yale Daily News, “The Opposite Of Loneliness,” went viral and attracted over 1 million views the week after it was published.

In her too-short career, Keegan mastered the art of observation — perhaps a writer’s greatest asset. Keegan wrote in her application to a first-person writing class at Yale:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

Daydream.

Daydreaming may get a bad rap — but it can help connect you to what you think and feel, the source of all good (and bad) writing. As Joan Didion once pondered, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”

Write from your own truth.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez advised young writers, based on his own experience, to write what they know.

“If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told,” García Márquez said. “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

Make writing your top priority.

Henry Miller wrote in his 10 commandments for writing that the serious writer must put his craft above all else.

“Write first and always,” advises Miller. “Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”

Find your creative inspiration, wherever it may be.

Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.”

But for the writing to come, you may have to nudge it along by finding a consistent source of inspiration. Stein says her best ideas came to her while she was driving around in her car looking at cows. She would write for only 30 minutes a day, driving around a farm and stopping at different cows until she found the one that most fit her mood.

Know what you’re getting yourself into.

Want to live the writer’s life? Great. But make sure you’re not just infatuated with an imagined ideal of your artsy existence. Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Find space for solitude.

Zadie Smith wrote in a list of rules for writers, “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.”

Particularly, Smith noted, the place where you write must be one of solitude. “Protect the time and space in which you write,” Smith writes. “Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

Psychoanalyze yourself.

If you’re stumped for writing material or unsure of whether you have enough life experience to draw from, try taking a little walk down memory lane. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.

When a writing assignment or grand idea is sitting in front of you waiting to be put into words, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the scope of the undertaking. But like any great work of fiction or non-fiction, there’s only one way for it to be done: One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

In her book of advice on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains that writers have to learn to take their projects one baby step at a time. The Traveling Mercies author writes:

My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

And with your novel-in-progress or next big feature? Take it bird by bird.

Compete against only yourself.

William Faulkner described the artist as a “creature driven by demons,” perpetually dissatisfied with his own work. While this dissatisfaction is to a certain degree inevitable (and productive), it can be kept in check by refusing to compare your work to that of others.

“[The writer] must never be satisfied with what he does,” Faulker told The Paris Review in 1956. “It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

Just do it.

Stephen King knows a thing or two about being a prolific writer. And it pretty much all boils down to this: “Read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

And do it with joy.

As Joyce Carol Oates advised in rules number 1 and 10 on her list of rules for writers (disseminated via Twitter), “Write your heart out.”

Amen to that.

Carolyn Gregoire

Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing

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Peter Matthiessen (Photo: Damon Winter/New Tork Times)

Peter Matthiessen (Photo: Damon Winter/New Tork Times)

This article was published online and printed in the New York Times Magazine before Mr. Matthiessen died on Saturday April 5.

Out the Montauk Highway, south toward the water, then a quick right before the beach and you’re there, at the Sagaponack house where the author and Zen teacher Peter Matthiessen has lived for the last 60 years. The home used to be the garage and outbuildings of a larger estate, and there is an improvised, of-the-earth sprawl to the place. One side of the main house is grown over with ivy, and under the portico, in between two piles of chopped firewood, an immense finback whale skull balances on blocks. Just to the left of the front door sits a tree stump covered stupalike with shells and other found objects. After I ring the doorbell and rap a few times on the glass, Matthiessen emerges from his living room and waves me in.

He has spent much of his career going back in time — up to ancient villages in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, out to the vast plains of Africa in search of the roots of man — but now time has caught up to him. He’s 86, and for the last 15 months he has been countering leukemia with courses of chemotherapy. You can still see the intensity in his long, serious face and clear blue eyes, but there is an unexpected softness to him as he pads back toward the living room in an old sweater and stockinged feet. His latest novel, “In Paradise,” is being promoted by his publisher as his “final word,” but Matthiessen doesn’t want to talk about the book or his career in those terms. He has no desire for sympathy points. Though he did not want to dwell on it, he acknowledged that his medical situation was “precarious,” and a few weeks after our two days together his health would decline to the point that he had to be admitted to a hospital, with family standing by. It gave our conversations the feeling of stolen time.

Though Matthiessen is not as well known as some other names of his generation, you would be hard-pressed to find a greater life in American letters over the last half-century. He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and fiction, but it’s not just the writing: Born into the East Coast establishment, Matthiessen ran from it, and in the running became a novelist, a C.I.A. agent, a founder of The Paris Review, author of more than 30 books, a naturalist, an activist and a master in one of the most respected lineages in Zen. As early as 1978, he was already being referred to, in a review in The New York Times, as a “throwback,” because he has always seemed to be of a different, earlier era, with universal, spiritual and essentially timeless concerns.

These concerns are evident throughout his house. In the living room, on the wall behind the piano, is a set of photographs from an expedition Matthiessen undertook to New Guinea with Michael Rockefeller in 1961, a trip that Matthiessen would turn into “Under the Mountain Wall” (1962). As we stood in front of the images — tribal boys throwing spears through a hoop hurled aloft, warriors approaching one another in aggression — Matthiessen mentioned that a recent book by the journalist Carl Hoffman confirmed his suspicions that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by Asmat warriors on a later expedition. It was a reminder of the extremity of his serial travels. On the other side of the room, behind a well-stocked bar, is a small study, where Matthiessen showed me two framed photographs: on the left, two slender young men in bathing suits; on the right, an aged Matthiessen holding a wooden box in his hands. “That’s me and Bill Styron on a dock in Italy,” he said. “We were drunk. That was right before I left the C.I.A.” Then, pointing at the other: “And that’s me with Bill’s ashes.”

Matthiessen’s family is descended from Friesian whalers; he notes, with some pride, that one of his ancestors is name-checked in “Moby-Dick.” He was sent to St. Bernard’s, Greenwich Country Day School, Hotchkiss and Yale, and you can feel all of that breeding in his mannerisms and speech, as much as he might later have tried to forsake it. Yet despite the privilege, Matthiessen has referred in his work to an unspecified rage and pain that he felt as a young man, which led him to rebel against authority throughout his adolescence and then to experiment later with psychedelic drugs and meditation.

“I was so angry,” he told me. “I was constantly in a contest — not a contest, but with my father.” We were sitting in his living room, flanking a picture window that looks out over the yard. Matthiessen’s father, Erard, was a successful architect who later in life became interested in conservation. “He was a wonderful man, and I ended up devoted to him, but it wasn’t so good,” Matthiessen said. “I was always in trouble, constantly in trouble. I was combating the world.”

After graduating from Yale in 1950, Matthiessen became engaged to Patsy Southgate, a Smith graduate whose father had been the chief of protocol in Roosevelt’s White House. Southgate was famously attractive and energetic; The Times, in her obituary in 1998, noted without irony that she was “renowned as the most beautiful woman in Paris.” Matthiessen made what he calls “an utter shambles” of their engagement party that summer, behaving so badly that “people still talk about it,” and then he left the next morning on a birding expedition without saying sorry or goodbye. “I was being sucked into the system before I was ready,” he said. “I hadn’t had the adventures, the travel.”

Southgate called off the engagement, but he eventually won her back — “She was worth fighting for” — in part by securing a job with the C.I.A. that would send them both back to Paris. “I didn’t know anything when I went over there,” he said of his posting. “In those days, it was considered a patriotic act, to spy for your country. People were scared of the Cold War. You can’t blame them — everybody brandishing nukes. And here I am, a young Yalie, I’m always in the club drinking martinis, what did I know from politics?” It’s his standard explanation for how it happened, and though it imputes a high degree of naïveté to an already fiercely intelligent and independent young person, in its way it seems true enough. The C.I.A. wasn’t yet what it would become. “I’d started a first novel, and I had no way to pay for it,” Matthiessen said. “I was being urged to do something for my country, which appealed to my patriotic thing. I thought it was an ideal situation. And they also told me I would hardly have to do any work at all, that I would have plenty of time for my own.”

He was assigned to keep his eye on communist “enemies,” who were, he said, “out on the street corners peddling L’Humanité,” the party newspaper. In his spare time, he worked on his fiction. There was a healthy community of American expatriate writers in Paris in the early ’50s, just as there was after World War I, among them Terry Southern, Doc Humes and William Styron, who had early success with his first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness.” Matthiessen befriended them, and out of several late-night conversations with Humes came the idea for a new literary magazine. Matthiessen wasn’t sure that Humes was up to the task of running it, so he called his childhood friend George Plimpton, who was then at Cambridge. Plimpton soon arrived in Paris and became the first editor of The Paris Review, a position he would hold for 50 years.

Matthiessen has been frank about his motivation for starting the magazine. As he told Nelson Aldrich Jr., for “George, Being George,” an oral history of Plimpton: “I needed more cover for my nefarious activities, the worst of which was the unpleasant task of checking on certain Americans in Paris to see what they were up to. My cover, officially, was my first novel, but my contact man . . . had said, ‘Anything else you can do while you’re here?’ I could now say, ‘Well, yes, I’m an editor on a magazine.’ ” When Matthiessen eventually decided years later to tell Plimpton the truth, Plimpton was “shocked and very angry, understandably so,” Matthiessen told Aldrich. “Who, after all, wants to hear that the ‘love of his life,’ as he himself would call it, had been conceived as a cover for another man’s secret activities?”

Matthiessen’s double life in Paris would come to an end in 1953. He began to be disillusioned by the C.I.A., which in his estimation was filled mostly with Ivy League stuffed shirts who didn’t know or care anything about the poor people whom the communists were trying to reach. He was also repelled by the anticommunist witch hunts taking place in the United States. The environment as a whole “pushed me leftward,” as he put it. He has said that his stint as a spy was the only of his life’s adventures that he regrets.

After quitting the C.I.A., Matthiessen returned to America with Patsy and soon settled in Sagaponack, where he would supplement his writing income with commercial fishing. He described those early years on Long Island as the happiest of his life, “when I was writing but also doing hard physical labor.” He referenced a line from Turgenev a few times, from the suicide note of a character named Nejdanov: “I could not simplify myself.” “That really struck home,” Matthiessen said. “I knew exactly what he means.” He paused and then whispered it again. “ ‘I could not simplify myself,’ ” and then he added, “That’s always been my goal.”

Over the next 15 years, Matthiessen would produce four novels — including “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (1965)his first commercial success — and six books of nonfiction, most based on his far-flung expeditions, from New Guinea to the remote forests of South America. He and Southgate divorced in 1956, and in 1963 he married the writer Deborah Love, a spiritual seeker as he was. He’d already taken ayahuasca in the South American wilderness, an episode he transmutes memorably into fiction in “At Play,” and with Love, he would turn to other psychedelic drugs and a bizarre LSD-driven form of therapy. In August 1968, returning from a seven-month trip to Africa that would become a part of “The Tree Where Man Was Born” (1972), Matthiessen arrived at home to find three Japanese Zen masters standing in his driveway. They were visiting Love, who had become a Zen student while Matthiessen was away on expeditions. He likes to joke that they took one look at him, saw how deluded he was, then immediately felt sorry for his wife. A year or so later, one of those teachers, the enigmatic and charismatic Soen Nakagawa, would accept him as a student.

Matthiessen’s turn to Zen was directly responsible for the two best books he has written (and maybe three, if you count “The Tree Where Man Was Born,” which he finished after becoming a student). “The Snow Leopard” (1978), Matthiessen’s account of his journey high into the Himalayas, and the finely wrought, poetic novel “Far Tortuga” (1975), represent the height of his craft as a writer. “The Snow Leopard” is almost entirely about Zen, and “Far Tortuga,” plainly Matthiessen’s favorite book, grew out of his practice in a different way. “It was the most exhilarating book I’ve ever written,” he told an interviewer for The Paris Review in 1999. “More than anything I’ve done, perhaps, ‘Far Tortuga’ was influenced by Zen training. The grit and feel of this present moment, moment after moment, opening out into the oceanic wonder of the sea and sky.”

Such talk can be hard to parse, which is why Matthiessen usually avoids it. “I don’t love talking about Zen,” he told me. “Somebody says, ‘So what is Zen, anyway?’ Often with a note of hidden hostility. And you try to explain, and then it’s, ‘Oh, crap, what am I saying?’ ” He laughed and then mimed shooting his own head off. But as the Zen master Dainin Katagiri once said, “You have to say something.” So: The heart of Zen is the practice of zazen — seated, silent meditation — which is based predominantly on bringing your attention to the present moment (often via concentrating on your breath) and then doing your best to keep it there. The extension of that practice to life off the cushion is fairly straightforward: When you’re listening, really listen; when you’re eating, just eat. Pay attention to what you’re doing. There are more advanced practices, of course, and the particular tradition that Matthiessen studied in his early days was a rigorous form called Rinzai, which is noted for its intense focus on kensho, or sudden enlightenment.

Starting when he was 43, Matthiessen spent a full week several times a year in sesshin, a retreat in which he and other students sat zazen for as many as 14 hours a day. He was extraordinarily devoted. Something about the intensity and formality and even the pain of Zen appealed to him. (The cross-legged positions are painful for everybody, and an oft-recycled quote holds that “pain in the legs is the taste of zazen.”) In regular interviews with the teacher, called dokusan, the student is able to test his understanding, and there is a confrontational element that also fits with Matthiessen’s nature. The structures — robes, chanting, bowing, long periods of silence — can seem rigid and foreign, but in some ways they are like the theoretical musical structures that underlie jazz. They are there to fall back on, and to make you free.

In late 1971, less than a year after Matthiessen started practicing, Love fell ill. After meditating all day on a Saturday, Matthiessen returned home and saw, immediately, in a way that she didn’t yet know herself, that his wife was dying. As he wrote in “The Snow Leopard”: “The certainty of this clairvoyance was so shocking that I had to feign emergency and push rudely into the bathroom, to get hold of myself so that I could speak.” The next day they ended up opposite each other for the daylong meditation, and as they finished a particular chant, Matthiessen had this experience: “The silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part. . . . I felt ‘good,’ like a ‘good child,’ entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes.”

Later, Matthiessen’s teacher would confirm that this moment represented an opening for him, a glimpse of kensho. More important, the clarity achieved would see him through the death of his wife from cancer several months later, helping him find the right words to say in the right moments, without recrimination and self-doubt. It would also lead him to accept an offer, in the wake of Love’s death, to accompany the field biologist George Schaller to the Himalayas as a kind of pilgrimage, which would result in the ecstatic jewel of a book that is “The Snow Leopard.”

As he ascended into the Himalayas, he felt as if he were walking into a myth, up into the mountains and back in time. “If I can’t get a good book out of this,” he remembers thinking to himself, “I ought to be shot.” In the daily journals that comprise the book, he combines penetratingly clear descriptions of the peaks around him with memories of his wife and his pursuit of mystical experience. Somehow — the work of several years of hard editing, among other things — the various strands of Matthiessen’s journey cohere into a kind of fable, in which the potential for clarity and insight struggles to fly free of the past and the people that he (we) can’t ever really let go of. “For fame, for craft, for our enlightenment,” a reviewer wrote in The New York Times when the book was released, Matthiessen and Schaller “did us the old-fashioned honor of risking their lives.”

You might think that winning two National Book Awards for the same book (for “contemporary thought” and nonfiction) would be supremely satisfying, but for Matthiessen, it wasn’t. “ ‘The Snow Leopard,’ he now sees it as a bit of an albatross,” Matthiessen’s third wife, Maria, told me after I visited him in Sagaponack. “People think of him as a nonfiction writer, but he thinks of himself as a fiction writer who wrote these other books.” Asked to “define yourself” — in the first question of the famed “Art of Fiction” interview series in The Paris Review — Matthiessen said: “I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. . . . I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction.”

“Peter comes from a very distinctive generation of men who take seriously the matter of writing American fiction,” says Elisabeth Sifton, Matthiessen’s editor at Viking Press for “The Snow Leopard” and several other books. “For him, that’s primum. That’s something I’ve never fully accepted. Because the nonfiction is so stupendous.”

In the late 1960s, The New Yorker sent Matthiessen to Grand Cayman to sail on an old schooner in search of green turtles along the Miskito Bank off Nicaragua. He eventually turned in an article, but he felt that a novel would better express the truth of what he’d seen. He spent the next eight years experimenting with the right way to tell the story, and the book that resulted, “Far Tortuga,” is radical in nearly every way. Matthiessen uses blank space, pages of dialogue without quotation marks or attribution, pictographs, hand-drawn illustrations and, perhaps most striking for a writer who loves to draw comparisons in his work, only one or two similes in the entire book. “The trouble with metaphors and similes is they bring the author into it,” Matthiessen told me, “and I was trying to stay out of it.” The elimination of the ego is a standard part of Zen training, as is the admonition to keep things simple and free of adornment. “A roach out from underneath the cook shack with its antenna up, that was so striking and strange and beautiful that you don’t need ‘like a radio antenna’ or something like that,” he said. “You just don’t. The thing itself is so good.”

Robert Stone, writing in The Times, said that “the author’s joy in [the dialect] is so infectious and his ear for it so sure that its music comes to permeate the reader’s consciousness as thoroughly as the wonderful descriptions.” Thomas Pynchon would write, “Matthiessen at his best — a masterfully spun yarn, a little otherworldly, a dreamlike momentum . . . full of music and strong haunting visuals.”

Others hated it. Matthiessen still remembers the review from The Village Voice, “two pages destroying the book, or trying to”; people thought it was too experimental, too difficult, and it never sold as he hoped. Even Matthiessen’s own editor at Random House, Joe Fox — who also edited Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison and John Irving, among others — never fully supported the book. The week before Fox died, in 1995, 20 years after “Far Tortuga” was released, Matthiessen and his wife invited Fox to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. When dinner was over, as Matthiessen was walking Fox out to his car, they got into a heated argument about how Random House had mishandled the book, an argument that continued even after Matthiessen called to apologize once Fox returned home. It was the last conversation the two men would ever have. Even as I sat with him, nearly 40 years after the publication of “Far Tortuga,” the intensity of his feeling was striking. “Those books are so long ago,” I said, in reference to “Far Tortuga” and “The Snow Leopard,” “but they still seem vivid to you now.” Very quietly, very sincerely, he said, “Yes.” When I added that “Far Tortuga” must be a highlight of his career, Matthiessen, for all of the egolessness of the book’s authorial style, was quick to correct me: “Well, no. ‘Far Tortuga’ got no awards, whatsoever.”

Matthiesen would finally be recognized for his fiction in 2008, with the publication of “Shadow Country,” a sprawling 892-page epic that brought him the National Book Award at the age of 81. The book is a dark mix of many of Matthiessen’s themes — the heedless degradation of the environment and native peoples by modern life and capitalism, the blindness of people to their own behavior and the conflicts that result. As the poet W. S. Merwin noted, “It is the quintessence of his lifelong concerns, and a great legacy.” But you get the sense that the National Book Award, like his father’s eventual begrudging approval after years of estrangement, perhaps came a little too late.

Just off to the side of the main house, at the end of a wooden walk, is an old stable that Matthiessen and several Zen students converted into a zendo, or meditation hall. Matthiessen has led a small community of Zen practitioners here since 1990, when his American Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman, gave him permission to teach. It’s a humble space, with two rows of black meditation cushions and an altar at one end. On the Saturday of our second interview, I attended morning service in the zendo with about 15 people who had come from far and near to chant and sit zazen together. After the service ended, one of Matthiessen’s senior students walked me over to the house.

Matthiessen and I sat in his office in the back, talking about “In Paradise,” his new novel. “It was a very odd book and a very difficult book for me to do,” he said. I wondered why, at this stage in his life, he had stuck with it. His legacy is secure, and he has said in numerous places that he thinks most writers don’t know when to quit, that very few do quality work after they get beyond a certain age. “I couldn’t walk away from it,” he said. He stopped for a moment. “It was such a powerful experience, and I just couldn’t walk away from it. I tried.”

The experience was a retreat at Auschwitz in 1996, led by Glassman, who appears in the novel under the transparent designation of “Ben Lama.” The retreatants, who came from all over the globe, sat in meditation on the train platforms in Birkenau where people had been sorted and selected for death. In the evenings, after the sittings, everybody would gather to talk about the day’s experiences. One night, there was a spontaneous outburst of dancing, which was deeply moving for some and outrageous to others. “How does that happen?” Matthiessen asked me rhetorically, posing the question of the novel. He referred back to the novel’s epigraph, a poem by Anna Akhmatova that wonders, when we are surrounded by so much death, “Why then do we not despair?” Matthiessen looked at me, eyes dancing, beating on his leg in time as he said, “Something, something, something,” unable to name the mysterious life force that allows us to rejoice even at Auschwitz. “That fascinates me.”

On another night during the retreat, Matthiessen stood up to speak. “It was a very charged atmosphere,” Glassman told me, “and he was very passionate when he was talking. He got up and said — I remember so distinctly — that man is basically an evil being.” As Matthiessen remembers it, “I just got up and made a generality that if we think the Germans are unique in this regard, we’re crazy. We’re all capable of this, if the right buttons are pressed. Our countries have all done it. Man has been a murderer forever.” But then he cautioned me to take the drama out of it. “It was no great manifesto up there. I just wanted to say, ‘Come on, we’re all in this together.’ ”

The novel that emerged from Matthiessen’s experiences at Auschwitz is short and stark, narrated by a middle-aged academic named Olin Clements who blunders his way through the entire book. The settings are Krakow and Auschwitz; what little nature there is in the book is bleak, windy and covered in snow. “I felt like I was cold and damp the entire time I was reading the book,” said Becky Saletan, Matthiessen’s editor at Riverhead Books — maybe not the greatest recommendation for the reading experience, yet exactly how Matthiessen wants you to feel. The book is a continuous unresolved argument, between retreatants and inside the mind of the narrator. The few moments of uplift, like the spontaneous outbreak of dancing, are quickly splintered by disagreement.

Olin is not unusual as a fictional character for Matthiessen; many of his subjects are strangers to themselves, acting for reasons they don’t understand, out of some vague impulse to find a “home” that is more an idea than a place they can ever actually return to. In his own life, Matthiessen found a home in Zen. As he writes in “The Snow Leopard”: “In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness, and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homegoing is the purpose of my practice.” And yet, in “In Paradise,” Matthiessen takes even that consolation away. The evil that Olin encounters at Auschwitz is so terrifying that spiritual practice can’t mitigate it. Olin reflects on Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and then decides to show it to one of the retreat leaders — who responds with a Buddhist bromide about eliminating “all self-lacerating partial truths while good and evil fall away.” It is correct doctrine, but Matthiessen makes it sound like claptrap. Of spiritual practice in general, with which he has a casual and conflicted relationship, Olin wonders: “How long would such delicate attainments have withstood the death camp’s horrors?” It is another way of asking the question we all ask of ourselves: How would I have fared?

The book is grim, but Matthiessen isn’t. Earlier that morning, I watched as he said goodbye to a guest who stayed over the previous night. They were business associates, friendly but maybe not friends, and as the guest was at the door, he good-naturedly offered optimistic advice about radical experimental measures that Matthiessen might take. Matthiessen smiled and said: “I don’t want to hang on to life quite that hard. It’s part of my Zen training.” In preparing for our interviews, having read “In Paradise,” I wondered whether the Buddhist teachings were providing him any more consolation than they did the characters in his book. I hoped so. “The Buddha says that all suffering comes from clinging,” Matthiessen said. “I don’t want to cling. I’ve had a good life, you know. Lots of adventures. It’s had some dark parts, too, but mainly I’ve had a pretty good run of it, and I don’t want to cling too hard. I have no complaints.”

The characters in “In Paradise” cling too hard and are full of complaints, which is one reason that the book doesn’t feel like any kind of “final word.” The novel lacks the beautiful and affirming moments so much more present in Matthiessen’s nonfiction, moments more beautiful even than the dancing at Auschwitz, because they don’t come with the same complications. When Matthiessen was happy, as a writer and as a traveler, he always let us in on it; most often, he found that happiness in reverence of the natural world and in a hard-won, if fleeting, acceptance of his own uncertain place in it. “Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content,” he writes in “The Tree Where Man Was Born.” “The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”

— Jeff Himmelman

Written by MattAndJojang

April 6, 2014 at 7:43 pm