This was a new year 2016 piece written for Frugal Portland.
It is traditional to begin the new year with a flurry of resolutions you probably won’t keep. Instead of bothering with the charade of self-abnegation, resolve to do more. Portland is a city so rich in charms it is easy to miss all but the most-publicized. Resolve to know Portland better in 2018. Seek inspiration in its beauty, history, creativity and quirk; then blaze your own trail.
The public face of the Oregon Center of the Photographic Arts, Blue Sky Gallery is a space dedicated to cultivating fearless creativity. Nestled in one of the country’s most photogenic cities, it keeps an intense schedule of 20 to 30 exhibitions annually, meaning it rewards repeated visits. Blue Sky Gallery also houses a research library and holds regular artist talks and programs. Browse its walls for inspiration, read our photography tips (pt 1 and 2 ) then go create your own photographic masterpiece.
More than just a park, Hoyt Arboretum is a living research lab that is home to more than 2,000 plant species from around the world, including many endangered species. Sprawled across almost 200 acres in Washington Park, and interwoven with a dozen miles of trails, the Arboretum is the perfect place to rejuvenate and reconnect with nature.
Last year taught us that the unthinkable can become reality in a finger-snap, a lesson history will teach if we’re willing to learn. Nikkei means Japanese emigrants and their descendants, an immigrant group that, like Muslims today, became the scapegoats in a political power struggle. The Legacy Center charts the experiences of Portland’s Japanese community, from its heyday in the early 20th century to the devastation of the post-Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese families. If the contemporary parallels don’t frighten you, they should.
This small museum crammed with hand-crafted boats represents the can-do ethos of Portland better than a dozen lavish public institutions. It is home to the largest collection of Arctic kayak forms in the world: the majority full-sized, functional replicas built by proprietor/curator Harvey Golden. “Perhaps no single object created by genus Homo better represents our ancestors’ ingenuity, survival instinct, and desire for exploration than the canoe,” he writes on the website. The museum itself is proof of what ingenuity and curiosity can create.
Mount Tabor is actually the cinder cone of an extinct volcano. How cool is that? The original park planners had no idea, they just knew its sweeping green hills and lush woods made an ideal urban oasis. In fact, it supplied water to the city for many years. Its reservoirs, no longer in use, are beautiful examples of functional architecture. Its trails, picnic areas, tennis courts and dog park make it an invaluable communal space.
The train tracks that criss-cross Portland are just a remanent of the golden age of railroads. As a major port, the city was also a key depot for major rail lines. The Oregon Rail Heritage Center not only preserves this history, it keeps it alive. ORHC is home to two fully restored engines, making Portland the only city in the U.S. with two operational steam locomotives. A third historic locomotive is undergoing restoration. Other highlights of the collection include maps and exhibitions about local rail yards.
Location: 2250 SE Water Avenue Portland, Oregon 97214
Celebrating the oddball, occult, deviant, and downright peculiar, the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium invites you to join it in keeping Portland weird. The quirky musuem-cum-shop-cum-leftfield-social-scene promises “interactive displays for all six senses”. This includes art, books, “one-of-a-kind-oddities”, toys, gifts and more.
Location: 2234 NW Thurman St. Portland, Oregon 97210
This originally appeared in Trail Runner magazine.
Matt Frazier was an average runner who ate an average, albeit healthy, American diet and had average runner’s aches and pains Then he stopped eating meat for ethical reasons. Chicken and fish went next, and he didn’t miss them much. When he quit eggs and dairy something unexpected happened: Matt found he could run longer and harder than ever. Within a few months of becoming a vegan he ran two 50-mile races, shed some stubborn pounds, and felt fleet and fit. Inquisitive and communicative by nature, Matt started the “No Meat Athlete” blog to share his experiences.
Running on plants has taken Matt places he never imagined. This year he completed his first 100-miler, the Burning River Endurance Run, and published his first book: “No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self”. Co-authored by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, a vegan dietician, ultra-marathoner and endurance cyclist. The book is an engaging guide to plant-based diets for runners, running for vegans, and all interested parties in-between.
Why ‘No Meat’?
Removing meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs from your diet is a major lifestyle change but Frazier cites three compelling reasons to do so: health, the environment, and ethics.
Fitter & Faster
Studies showing that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc are as common as mud in March, but what are the specific benefits to runners? “The most common change I hear about is faster recovery,” says Frazier. “This means less injury because it reduces your chance of over-training and getting hurt. It lets serious runners do more hard workouts.”
Scientists have yet to pinpoint why runners may recover faster on a veggie diet but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say they do, with world-beating vegans like Scott Jurek, Brendan Brazier, and Catra Corbett attesting to the efficacy of plant-powered running. Monique Ryan, MS, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, says the benefit may be down to the anti-inflammatory properties of plant foods. “Exercise increases the level of free radicals in your body, which causes inflammation,” she explains. Anti-oxidants in fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory and protect your body from physiological stress.
Food: Environment & Ethics
Losing yourself in nature is one of the great pleasures of trail running, and eating plants is a great way to protect the environment you love. Raising livestock is a leading cause of deforestation, soil erosion, destruction of grasslands, and water contamination, worldwide, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization research; and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined. Meat is also an inefficient food source. For example, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce a pound of steak.
Animal cruelty is a clear argument for veganism but the human cost of meat is, if anything, greater. Meat-packing is notoriously one of America’s most dangerous jobs. Globally, the demand for meat means two-thirds of arable land is used to grow animal feed versus just eight percent to produce food for direct human consumption. This drives up food prices and put swathes of the world’s population at risk of hunger.
How to Make it Work: Calories – The Burning Issue
You might be surprised to hear that when it comes to food quantity is as important as quality. “Under-fuelling is a common problem,” says Ingrid Skoog, RD, chair of the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) group of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Between intense training, the appetite suppressant effect of exercise, and hectic lives, a lot of runners don’t eat enough.” You can get by on reserves for a while but a consistent calorie deficit puts you at risk of fatigue, excessive weight loss and sub-par training. “Nutrition is non-negotiable,” notes Skoog. “Regardless of the diet you choose, your body’s needs don’t change.”
Ruscigno concurs: “One of the biggest factors in good nutrition is getting enough food. People are concerned about protein in vegan diets but if you eat enough total calories it is almost impossible to not get enough protein.” When you cut out meat, dairy and eggs make sure to compensate with calorie-dense plant foods like nuts and nut butters, avocados, and coconut oil.
Micro-nutrients – Less is More
Decades of meat and dairy industry marketing have created the perception that you need meat for iron and dairy for calcium. But animal products are not the only option. A balanced vegan diet provides iron from a range of foods such as whole grains, leafy greens and legumes. Eating mini-portions of protein is actually more efficient than eating a steak, explains Ruscigno, because your body absorbs nutrients better in small doses.
Calcium absorption also improves on a plant-based diet because animal protein increases the amount of calcium you excrete (thus drinking milk is a paradoxical pursuit). Getting calcium from fortified plant milks, leafy greens and legumes means you can eat less total calcium but your body will retain more. Ruth Heidrich, a 78-year-old raw vegan marathoner and Ironman triathlete, who holds a PhD in nutrition and exercise physiology reports her bone density increased on an all-plant diet, despite a family history of osteoporosis.
The one essential supplement for vegans is vitamin B12, which is helps form DNA and red blood cells, and supports brain function. “You need to get some every day,” Ruscigno recommends. You can take a B12 supplement or multi-vitamin, or eat fortified foods like bread, cereal, plant milks and nutritional yeast.
Think Addition, Not Just Subtraction
Vegan or meat-eater, nutrition experts agree that what you add to your diet is more important than what you subtract. Nell Stephenson, a Paleo diet consultant and lifestyle coach who competes in Ironman Triathlons and ultra-marathons, says the key to health is eating more vegetables. “Even with the Paleo diet [which advocates eating meat] you should get 40-50% of your calories from vegetables and fruit. That gives you all the vitamins, minerals and fiber you need and nothing you don’t.”
“Not everyone is going to be a vegan,” says Ruscigno. “But if you eat like one, by consuming more fruit and vegetables, you will gain a lot of the benefits.”
Running on plants can have a powerful, positive effect on your performance and lifestyle as long as you are mindful and properly fuel your training. “Historically, the healthiest societies ate low-meat diets. It’s how we thrive,” says Frazier. “Becoming vegan gave me an indescribable sense of well-being. It felt whole, complete and right. It’s a force for happiness.”
‘No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self’ is published by Fair Winds Press. For more information and Matt’s book tour dates visit www.nomeatathlete.com.
The following profile, written around 2014, was commissioned but wound up not being published.
Late February, Agrotourism Morna, Sant Carles, Ibiza. The succulent smell of roast pork and chicken wafts across the terrace. White plates nestle against the whiter cloth covering a long wooden table shaded by gnarled almond branches. Guests chat over glasses of red wine while their children attack colouring books and bowls of tomato-clad pasta. Dogs romp. Halfway through the starter, proprietor and chef Simon Johnson pops out of the kitchen and realises he needs five more place settings.
A volunteer goes in search of chairs. Someone else conjures a fistful of cutlery. Folks squeeze closer. By the time platters of carved meat and heaping bowls of succulent veg arrive at the table there is space for everyone. More bottles appear. Glasses are raised. Here’s to long lunches with friends, overlooking verdant fields and inhaling the faint honey of almond blossoms.
This idyllic afternoon in the campo belies the winding road that brought Simon to Morna, and his pressured quest to turn a time-worn agrotourismo (the local name for a rustic bed-and-breakfast) into a homey country retreat.
In November the Agro, as it is affectionately known, resembled a cyclone landfall. The pool was half-full of brackish black water. The terraces were strewn with broken furniture, old mattresses, rubbish, and piles of broken concrete. Inside, mildew crept up the white walls and cobwebs laced together the corners of the high ceilings. The garden was mud, weeds and a welter of dead grape vines. Beneath grey winter skies it had a chill air of decay.
Admittedly, all Ibiza tourist accommodation is worse for wear off-season. Two things made Agrotourismo Morna different: 1) its new manager Simon had never run a hotel before and 2) he had no money. Not in the way some perfectly solvent folk claim to have no money, but literally. Simon was broke, impoverished; in the Cockney rhyming slang of his youth, brassic. Nobody, including him, knew exactly how or where he was going to magic up the money and people-power to renovate Morna. Putative business partners flailed and bailed, neighbours eyeballed the scene and wished him luck, the owner of the land chewed his cigar and muttered.
Yet Simon was eerily calm. Cigarette in hand, West Ham matches burbling in the background, he pieced things together. He hosted a curry dinner to raise rent money, haggled for curios at Sant Jordi market, and sourced furniture from Facebook. He bartered home-made Scotch eggs for advertising space. He hired a gardener then sweet-talked him into emptying the pool, one bucket of sludge at a time.
Making do is a talent Simon has cultivated since boyhood. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just got on with it.” Getting on with it may as well be the family motto. “We’re all self-employed,” he muses. “Quite an entrepreneurial bunch.” His grandparents ran pie and mash shops in London’s East End and a greengrocers (“that’s where I got my love of food”). Dyslexia hampered him in academics but he was savvy and good at making friends.
Bonhomie became his ticket to the world. After brief stints working in the stock market and as a chef, in London, Simon took off and spent years in Asia. He made a living selling “a bit of land, anything really” while absorbing the cultures and cuisines. Eventually he settled in Barcelona, still working in sales. He got married and divorced. Made some money. And drank. “I was always a heavy drinker, always doing things I didn’t want to do.” He pauses, foot bouncing, looking for the right words. “You can get to a point drinking or taking drugs, that you don’t actually want to be doing it, but you continue. You don’t understand why, you just have to. It happened a few times and I managed to pull it back, but three years ago I crossed a line.”
During his sodden slide towards that demarcation Simon decided to move to Ibiza. If you can call it a decision. “Ibiza was a whim. I was drinking a lot and at a loose end. I didn’t really have a reason to do anything.” He arrived and started doing barbecues for a friend’s villa rental business. This blossomed into his own catering company, Cook Ibiza, and let him to slip into a routine of “drinking, earning money and continuing drinking.”
Ibiza didn’t drive him to drink, he is quick to add, but didn’t stop him either. “Wherever I was in the world at that time, I would have been drinking. But it gave me an excuse to shut a door and drink all day. You can disappear here.”
Parties were, paradoxically, an occasion for restraint, something to grin and bear until he could slip away to drink alone. “Don Simon was my poison,” he says, naming the cheap cardboard-carton plonk beloved of teenage holiday-makers. “At my worst I was drinking six or seven litres a day.” Simon struggled to maintain a social façade but that level of intake damages a man’s impulse control. He was arrested on a drunk driving warrant while trying to check into Es Vive and marched out of the self-styled party hotel in handcuffs. He went on a ten-day binge. “People were scared of what I was doing. I was scared. I had to admit I was really in the shit. I’m an alcoholic.”
Agro Morna’s first overnight guests are due in forty hours. The gardener and handyman pump last week’s rainwater out of the pool, bragging like schoolboys about Amsterdam red light district exploits as they work. A painter wanders out of the house, brush in hand, to bum a smoke. An interior designer who has taken on Morna as a labour of love, scurries past with an armload of sodden sheets and jumpers. Her kids shriek over a DVD. A trio of dogs get noisily underfoot. Simon and his cousin appear laden with the spoils of a last-minute shopping expedition. Unspoken questions crackle in the air: Will everything be ready? Can he pull it off? Is this really happening?
Five days later Simon and I perch on a white outdoor sofa marked with only a few paw prints. Simon’s puppy, Potter, lies alert but sedate at our feet. Sun peeks through a smothering sea fog. The pool gleams David Hockney blue. Guests loll on the terrace, savouring a home-cooked lunch. It is as abrupt and unlikely a transformation as the denoument of a fairytale.
Fourteen months earlier, Simon was in a Bedfordshire rehab clinic, doped on Valium, not sure he intended to stay sober. “I was with a lot of people who didn’t want to be there. All they did was plot how they were going to go drinking when they got out.” A counsellor took him aside and asked if he was going to join that gang, or take his life seriously. He’d already lost half a kidney due to drinking. Alcohol would kill him, probably sooner than later.
Simon wanted to get on with things, but how? In rehab counsellors advised him to take a year off work and concentrate on sobriety. But faced with the option of living in a hostel in London or returning to Ibiza, Simon took a chance on the island: “I thought, it’s time to get on with life.” A catering job at Pikes Hotel was a chance test the waters. It went well. He wasn’t tempted to drink. So he took the plunge and moved. “I didn’t have any expectations. I was happy to be back but it was very day-to-day, work-wise, and going to as many AA meetings as I possibly could.”
Alcoholics Anonymous is the world’s most recognisable anti-addiction brand but sticking with the programme in Ibiza has its challenges. Simon faced practical ones, like getting to meetings despite being banned from driving, and psychological ones, like maintaining a semblance of anonymity on a gossipy little island, but he is adamant about its value. “AA is an amazing fellowship. Anyone who’s in any doubt should get into a room. It’s a lifesaver for me.”
Motivated by sobriety and the family ethos of getting on with it, Simon busied himself with Cook Ibiza. Then a friend invited him to see a house near the northern village of Sant Carles. He went along and surprised himself by signing a 10-year lease to renovate and manage Morna. “I wasn’t looking for it,” he says with a shake of the head. “And couldn’t afford it, but there was something welcoming about the place. It was peaceful.”
Simon is voicing a consensus. Everyone who visits, even those who saw the Agro at its scruffiest, falls in love. It has – along with quantifiable Ibiza charms like olive and almond trees, sublime sunsets, and rustic architecture – an intangible allure. People feel at home. Kids and pets thrive. Its first guests paid it the compliment of immediately booking another visit.
Things are, touch wood, going well but Simon approaches each day knowing the future depends on his resolution. “Sobriety hasn’t been easy. I have to focus on staying sober and knowing that if I do good things will happen.”
This means changing old habits and holding himself to a high standard. “The biggest difference in my life now is trying to do the right thing every day, trying to be as honest and clear as possible. I probably get it about fifty percent right at the moment. There’re some bills I haven’t paid. I’ve been late on things, forgotten things. But it doesn’t sit right with me any more if I’m creating enemies or problems. Whereas before, that’s what I’d do.”
What advice would he give himself if he could go back in time a year?
Simon thinks for a long moment: “I wouldn’t know what to change. Every single thing, every mishap has been part of the jigsaw coming into this. I’m very, very lucky.”
These are unpublished, linked flash-fiction pieces. Contain strong language.
The aristocratic houses along Park Circus, above Kelvingrove Park, look like mausoleums and for much of the year must be as cold. A triumph of wealth over pragmatism, they boast lofty ceilings and vast windowpanes unsuited to the bitter climate. They hold themselves frigidly above the street, conscious of their status as monuments to consumption. The builders intended them for men rich enough to afford endless fuel. Now they rise in listed splendour, proud architectural affronts to democracy. I imagine the inhabitants prize their expensive discomfort.
My students are unmoved by the honour of being chosen for special study sessions. The group changes every other week, but they all look alike. The boys are thin, their truculent adolescent faces sharp and pale as wedges of cheese. They wear Nike or Adidas tracksuits and hoodies, or jeans belted below the hips. Despite their collective swagger the boys are careful to not infringe on the scented feminine clusters that form around forbidden iPhones. The girls are coy, aware their power lies in commanding attention. They flutter, fiddling with necklaces and earrings, or combing strands of hair with bright acrylic nails.
None of them take an interest in my lessons. They are obedient and indifferent. I am a novelty, like the star-nosed mole I point out on a trip to the zoo. “Do you like living in Glasgow?” One asks. Another: “Do you have a girlfriend?” These questions are automatic. The products of a lifetime habit of using interrogation to distract authority figures. I tell them I am interested in post-industrial cities, wondering if anyone will ask me what I mean. No one does.
“Did any of your family members work in the shipyards?” I ask once.
A girl looks at me pityingly: “It’s lunchtime, you know.”
They regard the future with suspicion. Like misers, they are averse to even modest speculation. “What do you want to be?” I ask. “If you could visit any country, where would you go?” The girls’ eyes flicker like snake tongues. The boys nudge each other. At first I thought this was a silent protest against my accent, age, and shirt-collar. But my self-consciousness exceeds their curiosity. Glasgow is the universe; I’m a transient alien.
I walk from town early, as the shopkeepers and street-sweepers perform their daily rituals of addition and subtraction on Woodlands Road. Passing taxis throw sheets of water across the pavement. The shop windows contain rickety furniture; mediocre paintings; comic books; or sour-smelling vegetables. A mattress slumps against a parking meter, the legs of a decapitated office chair poke the air next to it.
Alma works in a coffee shop with frosted-glass tables and bookshelves lining the walls. The first time I went in she overheated my cappuccino and, smiling, urged me to try an almond croissant. There was something in that smile I couldn’t place, a kind of play-acting. Calum was her lifeboat. Her eyes held premonition of the end but she hung on, even as the waves ran high towards the rocks. Mornings, he would dash into the shop on his way to work. Jeans sagging with the weight of keys, wrenches, pliers and a spare sprocket; Adidas baseball cap rearing back from his forehead. After he left Alma would stand by the espresso machine, arms crossed, eyes distant. Glasgow’s West End pulsates freely with details of private lives. She made only perfunctory efforts to mask her unease. I would see them walking, her hair brushing his shoulder as she tried to match his stride. Many cappuccinos later, after we become friends, she volunteered information. Her smile hid a terrible need to be heard.
One Friday I asked her what she was doing that night. “I have a spare ticket to a show, would you like to come?”
She said, lightly as she could: “Sure, what time?”
I asked her out most Fridays after that. She was always non-committal. If Calum was there when I passed the café I would go to the cinema. Otherwise, I would go home and shower. By the time I was dressed there would be a message: “Want to get a drink later?”
You walk down half a dozen steps to enter the Drake. On the left a gas-fire, straight ahead amber whisky bottles twinkle in a setting of highly polished cherry. She drank Glenfiddich 15, neat. “It’s Calum’s favourite.” She tried to not mention him but always slipped. Calum. She would mould the word carefully with her lips then glance away, or push the whisky glass back and forth between her middle fingers.
Rupert Street runs perpendicular between Great Western and Woodlands Road. A square tower of yellowish brick rises above the rust-coloured tenements at the junction with Woodlands Road. At the corner is a pub, the pavement marked by coronas of vomit. In weeks of walking this street I can count on my hand the number of times I have passed another human. But detritus hints at life behind the blank windows. Someone has placed a half-drunk bottle of Irn Bru inside a horizontal refrigerator. A bike with one wheel is chained to a lamppost. Cigarette butts cluster on the pavement in front of some doors, tiny piles of dog shit near others. Perhaps the inhabitants are elderly, or just lazy.
I arrived here after my city centre flatmate came home drunk one night and urinated on the television. Calum and I met by chance. If I had thought he would offer me a room I might not have mentioned my housing difficulties, but he did and it seemed foolish to refuse. There are other coffee shops.
Calum and his father Alan live at number 10. Moving in, I slipped on a worn concrete stair and twisted my knee. “Sorry,” Calum said, pushing his hat back. “There’s no point fixing it till the workmen finish. They’ll just fuck it up again.” It was originally a three bedroom flat. His father divided the master bedroom: half for each daughter. This arrangement no longer serves a purpose but Calum and his dad occupy the flat as if the women were still there. The builders have knocked through the wall but Alan is in no rush to reclaim the master bedroom. He urged me to make myself at home and wrestled in a mossy log of a sofa. The springs gouge my back.
I don’t know what Alan does for a living. Sometimes I walk to the kitchen in my shorts, thinking I’m alone, and he’s slumped on the sofa, watching chat shows on mute. He sits up, tugs at the frayed sleeves of his cardigan and smiles nervously, revealing absent teeth. Calum is missing the same premolar, as if they were removed in some atavistic ritual. Their voices are indistinguishable on the phone. Most nights they eat pasta and garlic bread, or chicken and chips from Styrofoam boxes. Since Calum’s mother died they have built a cocoon of habit.
I am a permanent house-guest. To be a lodger you need to be ignored and slight quirks in their domestic rituals betray an awareness of my presence. Alan runs the tap when he uses the toilet. If Calum is home when I return from work he loiters while I heat up soup and butter bread, bragging about cars he’s fixed and girls he’s groped. I know his anecdotes are fiction but something in is eyes make me ashamed of my scepticism.
This article about my trip to the 2012 Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar was written for the Free Word Centre. Recent events there show that freedom is as tenuous as it is precious.
Free Thinking from the Irrawaddy Literature Festival
At the beginning of February 2013, the Irrawaddy Literature Festival drew readers and writers from around the world to the city of Yangon in Myanmar. In a country which has lived under the rule of a repressive military junta for more than half a century, it was a cultural and political landmark that allowed writers to gather, speak and exchange ideas freely for the first time in recent history. Cila Warnke visited the festival to see how a country crippled by censorship is starting to find its voice.
It was, in many respects, a literary festival like any other. There were book signings and a photo exhibition. Puppets for the children and grown-ups drinking lager on the verandah. Book stalls bursting with everything from Beatrix Potter to physics texts. On a sweep of grass between the Inya Lake and the hotel were tents where you could buy journals and newspapers, join charitable organisations or get a bite to eat. There were little differences, though. Buddhist monks in brick-red robes chatted as they sifted through volumes. The food stands offered rice noodle salad sprinkled with pungent dried shrimps. Women and men alike drifted through the heat in the traditional longyi – an ankle-length wrap skirt knotted at the waist.
In the cool interior of the Cold War-era hotel (a gift to the government of Myanmar from Nikita Kruschev) other, subtler, differences became apparent. Prior to the event, co-organiser Giles Fitzherbert voiced his hope that the festival would “open a window that has been half-shut for so long… [and] help turn Burma from an inward looking country into an outward looking country.” This sense of purpose was the thread that linked panel discussions about library usage, memoirs, debates about literary developments, and conversations about how a nation successfully transitions from censorship and repression to freedom of thought.
Democratic political reform has given Myanmar new hope after nearly fifty years under an ugly-minded military junta, but achieving openness is a complex, multi-faceted task . At the Irrawaddy Literary Festival four things emerged as preconditions to lasting change: political freedom, education, economics and international cooperation.
One of the liveliest speakers at the festival was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, which tells of life during China’s Cultural Revolution. Though many of her anecdotes were hilarious (she told of accosting sailors in bars to practice her English – “You can imagine what they were thinking!”) but the bones of her tale are tragic. She was exiled at age 16; her father was forced to burn his beloved library; she was denied education. In the darkest days of Mao’s war on intellectuals there was no reason to hope. It was only when the violence eased and Mao reopened the universities that she was able to study, winning a scholarship to study in Britain.
As Chang’s story vividly illustrates, without political freedom there can be no intellectual or literary liberty. Jean Seaton, director of The Orwell Prize, spoke of being “blessed to live in peace and freedom” – a sentiment shared by the event’s other Western attendees. For those of us accustomed to freedom of expression, censorship is unimaginable. But for many of the authors at the festival it is the only reality they know. The Myanmar government lifted censorship in 2012, meaning that for the first time in 50 years writers and journalists did not have to submit their work for approval prior to publication. In January 2013 the censorship board was disbanded.
That the government could, with the stroke of a pen, abolish this long-standing apparatus of oppression is both heartening and cautionary. What can be done can be undone, and Myanmar writers acknowledged that a true end to censorship lies in the future. “We used to say, ‘the censor has moved into our head with his chair and desk, and lives there,’” said Pe Myint, author of more than 40 books. Silencing their internal censors is a struggle that every writer will face in the coming years. Myint also raised the prospect of tacit or post-publication censorship, even if the letter of the law remains on the side of press freedom.
The late dictator Ne Win banned the teaching of English in the 1960s. He eventually rescinded his ban but not before a generation or two grew up without learning a word. This makes it almost impossible to communicate with ordinary Myanmar.
On the first day of the festival we set off for Inya Lake, armed with a map clearly marked with our destination. Our taxi driver didn’t speak or understand English, but he examined it, nodded and we set off through the sticky morning smog. After twenty minutes, he pulled up in front of a hotel and gestured hopefully. It wasn’t Inya Lake. Another consultation with the map and off we went again. After some quality time in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous traffic jams we arrived at another hotel. Also not Inya Lake. I was fizzing with frustration at this point. Finally, after another turn around the centre of town and several stops for directions wefinally reached our destination. Only later did it occur to me that the English place names on our map were probably as incomprehensible to our driver as Myanmar script is to me.
This was just the first of dozens of encounters, inciting varying levels of frustration, that hammered home the importance of a lingua franca. The woeful state of English language skills is the most obvious manifestation of Myanmar’s overall educational deficit. One of the military junta’s favourite repression tactics was closing the universities. Students were sent to rural areas, or assigned home studies, to supress political action. Writing in The Irrawaddy, Denis D. Gray notes that “Burma is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment.” Another journalist I met remarked there are probably no more than five psychologists in the whole country.
There was much discussion at the literary festival about how to overcome these barriers. Local libraries, such as those attached to the United Nations and the American Centre, are working hard with limited resources. They offer books, journals and space where people can come and use computers. Perhaps more importantly, they give training in how to use libraries and computers. Thant Thaw Kaung, who helps create village libraries, noted that, as in the West, TV, mobile phones and the internet compete for people’s time and attention. In his words, “we have to support the reading habit.”
Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival. Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival.
Dr. Thant Myant-U, author of the superb Myanmar history The River of Lost Footsteps, spoke at the festival in his capacity as founder and director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which aims to preserve the city’s unique Colonial architecture, as well as promote much-needed improvements to planning and infrastructure. Yangon’s crumbling buildings and surreal pavements testify to decades when the military rulers exploited the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and poured up to a quarter of the national budget into arms.
Neglecting the basic needs of their cities and citizens had a predicitable impact on education and welfare, too. Alex Mackenzie, of the British Council, said that poorer children often leave education after primary school to work, a fact attested to by the city’s hordes of awfully young waiters, shop assistants and street vendors. Human infrastructure, even more than the buildings, is crying out for proper investment and planning. Clearly there will not be any improvement in education until the economic barriers are removed, which means legislating school attendance and funding child welfare. Broad, systemtic changes have to come from the goverment but private initiative has a role to play as well. Aung San Suu Kyi and the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, announced two scholarships and presented prizes to the winners of an essay contest.
It is easy to look at a patchily-developed country with a rocky history and conclude it needs the wealth and wisdom of the West. After a fortnight in Myanmar, I’m not convinced that they need us more than we need them. Yes, foreign investment is good for the economy, and will hopefully aid development and raise living standards, but it would be arrogant to think of ourselves as benfactors. As Alex Mackenzie put it: “Myanmar doesn’t need things, it needs the exchange of ideas.”
Myanmar is tough and self-sufficient. Many of its citizens have endured suffering we can only imagine. They are under no illusions about who they are or their place in the world, and they are not looking for charity. The literary festival was more than half funded by local businesses, and organisers Jane Heyn and Giles Fitzherbert, as well as patron Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed the hope that future festivals will be run entirely by local organisations.
This is a modest ambition. Despite its political, educational and economic challenges, Myanmar has an air of resiliance. The mere fact that just two years into its transition to democracy it is almost impossible to imagine the previous repression shows a laudable refusal to wallow. The literary festival is a product of this new freedom. It is also testament to hope for the future. According to Daw Suu Kyi, “literature is not just for fun, or to pass the time. It is a learning process.”
If there is a lesson to draw from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival it is that this process takes place in surprising ways, under even the toughest of circumstances, and as long as it does there is always hope for the future.
This feature appeared in Real Travel magazine sometime in the Noughties.
As far as England is concerned there are two Ibizas – both equally unfit for ordinary, human habitation. The first is Ibiza Uncovered territory: a Gomorrah of boorish binge-drinkers, off their heads on E or X or K or Y, stumbling from one swiftly-forgotten grope or vomitous party to the next. The other is an achingly pristine, white-walled, hippie-lux haven replete with infinity pools, yoga retreats and yachts dripping with rich, honey-coloured celeb aristocracy.
A summer visitor to Ibiza for several years now, I’ve always felt there is more to the island than meets the eye – or makes the pages of British broadsheets. With work in crisis mode and my ex-boyfriend swanning around town with his new love I need an excuse to get away. This, I promise myself, will be a reconnaissance mission. No clubbing, crazy nights or other clichés, but a chance to discover an authentic Ibiza.
First, though, I have to find my hotel. Which is somewhere in the centre of the concentric swirl of cobbled streets that make up Dalt Vila, the medieval fortress at the heart of the Ibiza Town. With only faint starlight overhead and a few skulking cats for company I feel eerily removed from the 21st century as I trudge past whitewashed walls picked out with brightly painted wooden doorways and wrought-iron balconies. By the time I hone in on my destination, the El Corsario, I am grateful for sensible shoes and a regular fitness regime. The reception area was clearly once an open courtyard – the floor is alluringly patterned stone and arched stairways beckon upwards. Three flights later I am welcomed by Nadiha, who shows me to my room and kindly insists on leaving her mobile number “in case you need anything.” Perched on a four-poster bed in the simple, homey room, with the lights of the town and marina twinkling beneath me it is hard to imagine I could need anything else.
My friend Dan is staying on the opposite side of town at the swish Art Deco Ocean Drive hotel (which would be easily visible from my aerie, if I had a pair of binoculars) so we meet halfway to get dinner. Contrary to rumour there are plenty of bars and restaurants open, “off season” or not, and we end up in El Zaguan, a reassuringly busy, smoky, neighbourhood hang out in the centre of town. Forget menus: this is an authentic tapas joint – glass cases on the bar are filled with everything from seafood-stuffed pimentos, to anchovies, to thick slices of Iberian sausage, to delicious local cheeses, all neatly skewered with toothpicks. We grab plates and stock up before realising there is also a stream of hot goodies (battered prawns, croquettes, spicy chicken wings, empanadas) being circulated by the wait staff. A bottle of red wine, a delectable salad and 24 tapas later (they tot up the toothpick count on your bill, so you can judge just how greedy you’ve been) we roll out the door in search of a nightcap.
One of our waiters suggests Teatro Pereyra, a five minute walk away. Sliding through the red velvet curtains we can’t help but grin. The place drips high-camp class. “Shall we get a bottle of wine?” Dan suggests, innocently. Time turns as warm and squishy as the velvet furniture as we plow through a good rioja. Another bottle arrives at our table, unbidden, and we crack into it while a band (Pereyra has hosted live music ever night for 20 years), led by a vocalist who looks like a hardboiled Teutonic version of Sting, belts out Prince covers. By the end of the evening not even the bill and the realisation the wine we’ve been cavalierly guzzling is €50 a pop can shake us out of our cosy, boozy fuzz.
The following midday we reconvene at Croissant Show, a Francophile café at the foot of Dalt Vila, wearing our hangovers with pride. I’ve blown my budget and Dan’s wondering aloud if he can finagle his share of the vino on expenses, but we can’t help giggling about it. A recovery brunch of huevos hervidos (boiled eggs with toast soldiers) is a snip at €2.65 and Andrea, the voluble proprietor (and owner of the finest handlebar ‘tache I’ve ever seen) suggests we try Vichy Catalan. Not, as I first guessed, an obscure form of government, but mineral-laden fizzy spring water that’s been drunk as a tonic in the region for 800-odd years. It soothes our headaches and inadvertently puts us on the path to unravelling one of the intricacies of travel in Ibiza: a little matter of language.
I can’t work out how the nearby Calle de Virgen (in summer, the fabulously hectic heart of Ibiza’s gay scene) has become Carrer de Mare de Deu. Catalan, it turns out, is the key to more than hangover cures. Ibiza, like the other Balearic Islands, is historically Catalan (as are the neighbouring mainland provinces of Valencia and Catalonia). Suppressed during Franco’s rule in favour of Castilian (Spanish), Catalan has been restored to official language status (though Castilian and English are universally spoken). Schools now teach in Catalan and in the course of the last couple of years all road signs, street names and the like have been changed, which explains the baffling changeover. Apparently, if you ask to go to Sant Josep and your taxi driver offers to take you to San Jose you shouldn’t panic, it’s the same place.
Curiosity piqued I head into Dalt Vila in search of more culture. Simply walking around the fortress is an education. Plaques dotted around the walls explain key historical features in Spanish, English and Catalan, like the 24-pound cannon (named for the weight of their ammunition) which gaze blankly towards evergreen hills. Opposite, the sea sweeps towards the horizon, broken by the low, dim line of neighbouring Formentera (collectively, the two islands are called the Pitiüses – a reference to their ubiquitous pine trees). Half-hypnotised by the spring sun and the murmur of waves below it is hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here. However, the impressive fortifications at my feet and a round tower lying on a tip of land in the distance tell another tale.
Despite being tiny (barely 40km from top to bottom) Ibiza has been a magnet for empires, pirates and a vast array of exiles for centuries. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Catalans and Spaniards have all variously claimed the island made highly desirable by Ses Salinas, the natural salt pans that lie at its southern tip. Now a World Heritage nature reserve and home to over 200 species of birds, as well as rare mammals, Salinas attracts the beautiful people to its beach in summer. This time of year, though, you can hop on a bus in town and half an hour later be wandering through rolling meadows and along the jagged shoreline in peace and perfect isolation.
Rejuvenated, I rejoin Dan in town. A DJ, he can’t bring himself to visit Ibiza without dipping into its infamous nightlife. Though most of the large clubs are shut until May a small party scene is still thriving, if the posters dotted around are any indication. There is a techno night on at DC10, a club near the airport, and as he says, “it’d be wrong not to go.” First we stop by Lo Cura, a local dive in the best sense of the word. Everyone in this tiny boozer seems to know each other and in no time we’ve been sucked into a maelstrom of conversation. We finally arrive at DC10 at the very Spanish hour of 3AM. The heavy, white walls of the club seal in the sound of thumping kick drums and rumbling basslines; it’s like walking into a washing machine on spin cycle. Sweaty dancers gyrate around us, intent on the music. Two handsome men ooze over and strike up a conversation. “Don’t worry, we’re gay,” they assure us, leaving Dan and I wondering who’s being chatted up by whom. The no-frills atmosphere couldn’t be any more different from Teatro Pereyra, but the combination of music, vodka and high-spirited company has a similar, dizzying effect.
“Why does this always happen in Ibiza?” Dan asks wanly the next day. He’s on his way to the airport. I’m trying to get to grips with the idea of a cycle trip I’ve arranged with Ruth and Kev – a British couple based in tranquil Santa Eularia (the island’s third-largest town) who run fitness holidays and have offered to expose me to a healthier side of island life with a bike tour. Happily, they agree to reschedule for tomorrow and I stagger zombie-like through town in search of refuge. My email addiction is rearing its head, along with a double-strength hangover, so I’m insanely grateful when I happen on Chill Café. As befits an island of immigrants Ibiza is riddled with cheap, functional locutorios (internet cafés) but this one eschews plastic furniture and vending machines in favour of homemade baked goods and comfy benches where you can recover and reconnect. A cup of green tea, a huge chocolate chip cookie and a quick browse on Facebook later I feel almost human again.
Convinced a walk will finish the transformation I set off around the marina and stroll past luxurious yachts and chic bars to the Botafoch lighthouse at the end. From here, there are magnificent vistas of Dalt Vila and I perch on the rocks to watch the waves break beneath me. Watching the water turn from deep turquoise to fizzing pale green to pure, creamy spume and back is deeply cleansing. Wandering back to the centre of town I spend an enjoyable hour poking around the Fira D’Artesania, an annual arts and crafts fair. Carmen, a gregarious jeweller shows me how she makes dainty glass necklaces, then sends me to her mother’s stall opposite to pick up a lovely pottery vase. Mother and daughter hail from Buenos Aires originally but, as I’m starting to realise, everyone in Ibiza comes from somewhere else.
Over dinner at the Marino hotel and bar I ask Miguel, the proprietor and one of the few native Ibicencos I’ve met, why this is. “Because you can do whatever you want here. As long as you respect Ibiza, you can do anything,” he says with a smile. He is a paragon of hospitality and keeps my glass topped up with vino payes (the local red wine) as he tells me about the changes he’s seen since his father built the hotel in the 60s. Mostly, he says (British tabloid nonsense notwithstanding) they have been for the better, the tourism boom giving the islanders a completely new way of life. Jose, perched next to me at the bar, tells me his father grew up labouring on a small farm. A generation later and their family own one of the oldest hotels in this quarter, the Gran Sol.
The next morning I pick up a mountain bike and a few words of advice from Miguel at Mr Bike, (“Spanish drivers son locos,” he tells me, encouragingly) and meet Ruth and Kev to go in search of an even more distant past. Our destination is Es Broll, a natural spring between Sant Antoni and Sant Rafael that for centuries provided nearby villagers with water. Its antiquity is attested to by a well-preserved series of stone irrigation trenches that date from Moorish times. After roaming through the emerald oasis of Es Broll (and cursing myself for having forgotten my camera) we double back and head to Sant Rafael. This tiny village has a beautiful church whose courtyard offers magnificent views towards Ibiza Town and the sea. It is also home to two of the island’s swankiest eateries – El Ayoun and L’Elephant – but we eschew glamour in favour of shandies at a roadside café, before heading back to town. Kev and Ruth, gracious to a fault, insist on my accompanying them back to Santa Eularia, where they take me for a stroll around the beautiful church before welcoming me in for a home-cooked meal.
Sipping a glass of rose with my two new friends I can’t bear to think of leaving. In just a few days I’ve been indulged with music, history, art, nature, sunshine, sea views and boundless hospitality. Small wonder travellers from every corner of the world come to Ibiza and never return home. Perhaps I’ll join them.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Ibiza Noir. Available here.
Lou ducked instinctively as a jet lumbered through the syrupy air, landing gear down, scarred white belly near enough to touch. As he did, an upward-flying elbow glanced off his chin. He straightened and put a hand to his jaw as a thicket of tattooed arms rose to hail the passing plane. Whoooo! Vamos! Ibiiiizaaaa! Exhaust caught in Lou’s throat as he tried to join the cheer. Spluttering, he set down his canvas bag and wiped his eyes.
He had been standing on the same patch of gravel for over an hour, listening to a single bass note thunder from a small white building next-door to a vegetable patch. “Best party on the island,” the bartender told him the night before. “The last great day rave. Full of nutters that’d put Bedlam in its heyday to shame. Pure madness, mate, if that’s your thing.”
Lou stared at the cerulean sky and shivered with the heat. He didn’t know if this was his thing, but he was willing to try. The bus from Ibiza Town didn’t stop outside the club, though. It took him almost an hour to walk back to join the restless horde of party-kids waiting to be admitted to this inconspicuous techno temple.
Heat waves shimmered above the dirt parking lot and bolts of fierce light reflected from the cars. Were tattoos a form of heat-proofing? Lou wondered. Sweat was running off him like snow-melt but everyone else looked perversely cool. His initial sense of comfortable anonymity was gone. He was too tall, too dark – even in a crowd of Spanish and Italians – and above all too plain. Everywhere he looked were pierced lips, tongues, eyebrows, and cheekbones. Jewels glittered in girls’ cleavage and accented their wrists. Men in denim cut-offs and skin-tight tees flaunted bulging muscles. Scraps of cloth stretched over silicone globes on the chests of women who would otherwise pass for underfed boys. The ubiquitous sunglasses with enormous, bug-eye lenses made him feel like he was trapped in a swarm of colourful flies.
Some people were dancing in place, kicking up puffs of dust. He had a feeling they would continue, music or not. Others alternated gulps of neat whiskey and warm coke from the bottle. Nobody made any effort to conceal the wraps passing from hand to hand, or the mounds of powder being inhaled off credit cards and hotel keys. The girl beside him was so pale she looked albino but her arm was solid black from shoulder to elbow apart from an artful smattering of stars. It was the first negative tattoo he had seen. He’d also never seen a hoop as big as the one hanging from her septum. Her boyfriend had silver studs through his cheeks; his left calf and right arm were covered in tribal ink.
Lou shaded his face with his hands, wishing he had water, or a hat. The heat was making him light-headed. How much longer can it be? A long horn-blast sounded, as if in answer to his question. The bodies around him kept moving, eyes obscured, heads tilted up to the sun or down to the ground. Only Lou looked around to see green-and-white jeeps marked “Guardia Civil” bearing down like a fighter squadron. Officers in forest green jumpsuits and caps leapt out, shouting in Spanish. They wore white latex gloves and worked methodically, checking IDs, patting pockets, running hands up legs and down arms, pulling people aside as they found stashes of pills and powder.
Six years in the navy had taught Lou how to deal with this type of authority: keep your eyes down, follow orders,don’t give them a reason to notice you. He reached inside his bag. Time stopped. His heart beat on his ribs, looking for a way out. Sidling backwards, he found an empty patch of ground and dropped to his knees. Inshallah, let it be here. Subtly as he could, Lou groped through his seaman’s bag, feeling neatly folded tee-shirts, combat trousers, a frayed khaki jumper. He slid his fingers inside the pockets of a waterproof and fumbled with his shaving kit, feeling a disposable razor, a bar of soap wrapped in a rag, and assorted coins, but no passport or wallet.
Someone shouted as he walked away but Lou didn’t look back. Without a passport he couldn’t get in the club, or on a plane; he couldn’t even book a hotel room.
There was an abandoned newspaper on the bus shelter bench. Leafing through, Lou stopped on a back page. He knew enough Spanish to read the headline: 14 migrants drown when boat sinks off Alicante. A photo showed bodies laid out like a row of parcels. One face was visible: boyish, with dark, curly hair, a Roman nose, and high cheekbones. Lou ran a hand over his regulation military cut. It was growing fast, the natural curl coming back. He looked at the picture again. Apprehension balled his stomach like a fist. Normally if you lost your passport you went to the police. But the rules were different when you were a young Muslim man. He didn’t look like someone they would help. He looked like someone they might let die.
A bus arrived and halted with a huff of pneumatic brakes. Lou found an empty seat amidst a group of bongo-toting hippies and wedged his bag between his feet. Not that it mattered now. Where did it happen? Trundling along the motorway past billboards advertising “Cream @ Amnesia”, “Privilege: The World’s Biggest Club”, and “Pacha Ibiza” he mentally retraced his steps. The marina. A walk through town. Beer in some basement dive bar. Giving coins to a wandering violinist. Returning to the harbour and ascending to the walled old town. Following a narrow road on the seaward side till he reached a cluster of fragrant pines. Lying beneath the trees catching glimpses of starlight between breeze-blown branches.
He had woken with the sun, which rose from the sea beyond the city. Birds twittered over the softer whirr of insects. After brushing off the pine needles he shouldered his bag and walked the few minutes to Plaça del Parc where he breakfasted on black coffee and a buttered baguette. Then he caught a bus to San An and walked the beach all the way to the end of Sunset Strip. His next stop was an internet café: “Merde.” Someone must have been watching as he took out his wallet and the plastic folder with his passport, discharge papers and other documents. He didn’t remember the name of the place, only the smell of sweat and stale smoke; he probably wouldn’t even recognise it.
This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.
Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…
“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.
There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”
With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:
“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first. And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.
Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”
Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”
That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”
Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”
You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”
Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”
Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.
You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”
This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.
After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…
How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?
It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.
When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?
The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.
What memory aids do you use?
I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.
How can writers elicit those memories?
The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.
Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?
You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.
I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.
How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?
Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.
Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.
In Focus: Writing exercise using objects
I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.
To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.
I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.
Gradually, my writing moved beyond all music, all the time. There is a heart of darkness in Ibiza’s club world; the shadows got long. It was time to look at things differently. This piece was written for Tiny Buddha. You can read the full article here.
“Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey and you can’t carry everything with you.Only the usable baggage.” ~Ha Jin
You’ve probably heard of the fear of missing out but what about the fear of letting go?
My father was volatile and mentally unstable. Criticism was his preferred method of communication. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away and became an expert at deflecting personal questions.
Without realizing it, I carried this habit into adulthood, avoiding any talk about my feelings or turning them into a joke. When a friend finally called me on it, the shock of self-recognition quickly turned to resistance. This is who I am, I thought. Why should I change?
I plodded on, working as hard as ever to keep my fortress intact. It wasn’t making me happy yet I wasn’t ready to change.
As I struggled with my desire to cling to hurtful memories and self-defeating behaviors, it dawned on me that I was afraid to let go because defensiveness was part of my identity.
The problem wasn’t that I had baggage—everyone has baggage—but that it had come to define me. I didn’t know who I would be without it. At that point it hit me: I had to dig deep, discover the person I wanted to be, and then act on it.
After I identified that I was holding on to the past because it seemed too important to jettison, I discovered that letting go is harder than it sounds. Relaxing a long-held belief isn’t a one-day, one-week, or even a one-year process. However, it is possible.