Inspiration, Travel Writing and L’Esprit Frondeur
Speaker's Corner: What will you do that will be different and worthy of recounting? Jeffrey Tayler on the writer's life.
02.25.10 | 11:16 AM ET
Aspiring writers and journalists eager to quit their day jobs and freelance for a living often approach me and ask for my advice on how to get started. Most understand how tough it is to place a story in a national magazine or publish a book in the United States. You might have an idea of the figures already, but let me give you examples from the magazine for which I’m a correspondent, The Atlantic. The Atlantic receives, per year, 60,000 unsolicited non-fiction manuscripts and queries, 12,000 short stories, and 75,000 poems. Only a fraction of these ever end up published, of course. The ratio of submissions to publications, as I understand it, isn’t much better for book publishers. The point is, it’s tough to break into the business, and quite natural that one seeks an easy way in.
Editors are among the most time-pressed people around, and they seek to work with writers who reliably submit good material, known producers they won’t end up wasting time or money on. This means they tend to be risk-averse. So, if you’ve never been published before, how can you catch their eye? How do you come up with an article query or a book idea that will prompt an editor’s response? Would an agent help you? Do you need an editor’s direct phone line or e-mail so you can follow up your proposal with personal inquiries? Or maybe what you need is an introduction by a writer on the inside of a publishing house or magazine?
These are understandable questions and I’ve been asked them all. But I took an entirely different approach to getting published, and I’ll tell you about it here, because it worked for me, and it involved no humiliation, no networking, no badgering, no previous publications of significance, and not even any formal training as a journalist or writer. My career as a writer sprang from desperation, obsessive reading, and a willingness to take risks—all these plus one thing, an esprit frondeur, a rebellious spirit or mind. I got fed up with my life, and I took action.
This esprit frondeur flowed not from my failing as a writer, because I didn’t set out to be a writer, not at first. My discontent, at least in part, had banal enough roots: In my mid-teens, my parents divorced, and like most children from broken homes, I suffered from the event. I mention this here because motivations to write are personal ones, and we need to be frank about that. Psychotherapy had sparked their separation, and in the 1970s its jargon and nostrums were invading popular culture in the States. Naturally and somewhat immaturely, I blamed this touchy-feely ethos for my unhappiness, finding it as culpable as it was inescapable.
Anyway, by the time I entered my junior year in college, I was miserable with my Stateside life and sought to change it. The notion visited me—and I’m not sure where it came from—that change awaited me abroad, that eternal truths resided in foreign lands. So I set out to escape my world, to vanquish my demons, to remake myself by speaking other languages, reading literature in other languages, traveling in other countries, embarking on grand expeditions, and seducing foreign women. Yes, lust played an important role in motivating my writing life. In short, I aspired to a Byronic escape, and Byron was one of my spiritual mentors. My own failings, grumblings, and flesh-bound desires impelled me to travel abroad and stay there, and, eventually, led me to the writing career I have now. No mere wish to see my words in print could have made me take the risks I took to get the material for my first two books, “Siberian Dawn” and Facing the Congo. For both, I followed my passions—not just physical ones by any means—and passion, in one way or another, has fired every word I’ve written.
Before I delve into passion, I’d like to clarify something fundamental. I take for granted that if you want to be a writer, you’re a wordsmith, a lover of the classics and a connoisseur of literature. Writers must, initially and throughout their lives, be readers first and foremost, and readers not primarily of journalism, but of the classics, both modern and not-so-modern. I also take for granted that aspiring writers know how to compose a proper declarative sentence and don’t misuse words. Reading the classics will help hone your ear, but there are many good books on usage out there and writers should read and digest them and reread them. Inspiration and an esprit frondeur won’t help aspiring writers who don’t know the basics of their craft. No matter what motivates you, no matter what experiences you have and seek to put down on paper, editors buy well-written words, and your writing has to be exceptional if it is to see print.
But back to passions. As I said, I don’t mean only physical ones. I mean passions for subjects that fascinate and thrill you the way a good novel or poem or even movie does. These passions drove me to acquire knowledge and accomplish the things I would write about. Most of all, they focused my energy.
In college I had been studying languages, among other things, and one language in particular captivated me at the time: modern Greek, whose sounds, symbols, and alphabet evoked vivid, almost primal, images for me. Through the study of Greek, before I had ever left the U.S., I developed my own vision of what Greece was. I imagined a bonfire at night in a Peloponnesian village, atop a mountain, with the Aegean Sea shimmering luminous blue in the moonlight far below, and villagers dancing the Syrtaki around this fire, arms linked, legs kicking in cadence. I don’t know where this vision originated, but I was determined to find its real-life counterpart. Most of all, I was determined to live as I never had before, unbridled, free of myself—or such were my thoughts, such was what the vision represented to me. Thus motivated, I threw myself into the study of modern Greek, with tapes and grammars and Greek friends. Then, in the summer before my senior year, in 1982, I flew to Athens and spent two months searching for this bonfire.
Of course I never found it. But I did come across Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek,” in a bookstore on a dusty side street in sun-splashed Corinth, and that novel alone justified my study of Greek. The lusty carpe diem espoused by Zorba and the Buddhist musings of his boss formed the rudiments of my own philosophy of life, they changed my life. My Greek vocabulary was limited at the time, but with a Greek-English dictionary and patience, I read and reread the book, memorizing entire passages. There was an auxiliary benefit: In modern Greek I found a plethora of Turkish words, and Turkish, which I would start studying two or three years later, led me to Arabic, to the Middle East and North Africa, to a stint with the Peace Corps in Morocco, and later, to writing two books on the Islamic world, plus many stories.
One note about reading and language skills: If you’re serious about a work of literature, read it in the original. Not only will you spare yoursef the translator’s inevitable errors, but you’ll acquire language skills you can’t get from textbooks. If you’re writing about subjects abroad, mastery of languages is crucial to your credibility. You won’t be credible as a writer about France if you have mediocre French; you can’t hope to convey anything noteworthy about Egypt with phrasebook Arabic. You can’t necessarily trust an interpreter; you need the personal feel for a subject that knowing the language gives you. Reading literature in the original is a key way to advance yourself as a writer.
But back to reading. I might never have become a writer had I not read “Zorba.” After that, other books and short stories steered the course of my life. “Liberty or Death,” also by Kazantzakis, was the next such book; it recounted the story of Kazantzakis’ father and his heroism in Crete under Turkish occupation. When I read it, I needed heroes. “The Death of Ivan Il’ich,” by Tolstoy, was the short story that taught me about the brevity of life and the need to act at once; the protagonist finds himself on his deathbed, and only then realizes that he has wasted his life by following social convention, never doing what he wants. Yasar Kemal’s “Memed, My Hawk,” whose hero takes to the mountains of Turkey to fight oppression, offered a message of personal liberation that inspired me to quit my job with the Peace Corps and set out to cross Siberia—the resulting journey became the subject of my first book, “Siberian Dawn.” I wrote in the prologue to “Facing the Congo” about the works by V.S. Naipaul and Henry Morton Stanley that gave me the idea of traveling up the Congo River. The Congo expedition led to my first break as a writer, the publication of “Vessel of Last Resort” in The Atlantic Monthly. My second published piece there was a modified excerpt from “Siberian Dawn.” Those two stories got my career started, and for the past nine or 10 years, I have made my living from writing alone.
So, the books I was reading inspired me, but I should clarify that most of all they gave me options, they showed me different ways of living, they offered escape plans from the life I knew. The question for me was not, then, how does one read to write, but how does one read to live? I conceived early on the conviction that one should lead one’s life as if one were the protagonist of an epic novel, with the outcome predetermined and chapter after chapter of edifying, traumatic and exhilarating events to be suffered through. Since the end is known in advance, one must try to experience as much as possible in the brief time allotted.
How can we do this? If you had 99 lives, what would you do with them? With the one life you have, what will you do that will be different and exciting, worthy of recounting in print? If you’re short on ideas, as I was, let the protagonists of novels and short stories show you how to live; let the great writers, with their imagined plots and characters, introduce you to new paths in real life. I don’t necessarily mean milquetoast paths, easy ways out. So, if you’ve read “A Bend in the River,” let Salim the Indian trader, who came up from the coast to open a shop on the Congo River, show you what you can do when you have nowhere else to go. Let Georges Duroy, the pitiless hero of Maupassant’s “Bel-Ami,” show you what you can do if you arrive penniless in Paris. “The Sheltering Sky” might serve as your guide to Morocco, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” to the U.S. The point is that great writers and their works can provide blueprints for changes in our lives. They can teach us about how many possible ways ahead there are, both good and bad. And bad is not as bad as all that. Remember, for a writer, adversity makes good subject material.
The protagonist of “The Death of Ivan Il’ich” died moaning, in agony, overcome with the realization that he had wasted his days on earth following social conventions. He lacked l’esprit frondeur, and he paid for it. Conventions now are hardly less pervasive than they were in Tolstoy’s day; we’re pressured to start a career, build our résumé, earn a certain amount of money, and so forth. But remember: None of us gets out of here alive. So don’t fear risks. Rebel. Be bold, try hard, and embrace adversity; let both success and failure provide you with unique material for your writing, let them give you a life different enough to be worth writing about.
This leads me to my last point about getting started as a writer: Do something first, good or bad, successful or not, and write it up before approaching an editor. The best introduction to an editor is your own written work, published or not. I traveled across Siberia on my own money before ever approaching an editor; I wrote my first book, “Siberian Dawn,” without knowing a single editor, with no idea of how to get it published. I had to risk my life on the Congo before selling my first magazine story. If the rebel spirit dwells within you, you won’t wait for an invitation, you’ll invade and take no hostages.
Let your passions guide you. They are unique. Follow them, and follow them boldly. Let them subsume you. Let them lead you to a subject you can master by living it, a subject only you can write about. Before approaching an editor, in short, take risks and write. There is a life-affirming freedom in doing so.
When my spirit fails me, and it still does, at times, I find myself remembering the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ tombstone, in a cemetery high above Heraklion, on Crete:
I hope for nothing
I fear nothing
I am free
Freedom has been the greatest reward of my career, and I owe a good part of it to the writers I’ve told you about today.
(From a talk delivered at the Paris American Academy.)