The Writing Life

(Derek Shapton)
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By Pico Iyer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Arriving in Japan 23 years ago, on holiday from my job writing for Time magazine in New York, I knew just how I would master the alien and impenetrable island: by treating it as an assignment. I read all the current books on Japan. I mastered all the standard ideas and explanations. I dutifully spent my two weeks in the country seeing the temples of Kyoto, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima and (ingeniously, I thought) the newly opened Disneyland in Tokyo (cleaner, more compact, more all-American even than my favorite theme park in Anaheim). I took notes, voluminous notes, on a magazine called Lemon and a video arcade called "We'll Talk." I scribbled down the notices seen in tiny Japanese inns -- "Please have friendly relations with foreign people at meals" -- and even wove in an account I'd read of Bruce Springsteen's recent tour ("Kyoto?" said a member of his band. "It was just like New Jersey.").

I couldn't speak any Japanese, but that was no problem, I decided: I would just capture the country through baseball. A strikeout is (or so I thought) a strikeout in any language. Japan can be the most obliging and efficient of countries, very anxious that no foreigner come away disappointed, and so, sure enough, I saw what I wanted to see: mysterious local heroes who wrote the Zen word for "spirit" or "patience" when asked for an autograph; massed figures in the black-and-white stripes of their Hanshin Tigers, at once strikingly lyrical and yet ready (so I decided) for war; aged Major League stars come to make money in their retirement who -- I knew -- had to symbolize Japan's equivocal relations with the West.

My first days in Japan generated probably 200 pages of notes and 40 pages of finished, handwritten prose, saturated with detail and irony and, I was sure, the definitive wisdom of a 28-year-old journalist, on what linked the silent rock gardens of Kyoto to, in fact, Tomorrowland in Tokyo Disneyland (this all went into my first book).

And yet beneath all the motion and excitement, something had caught inside me in Japan, and it was perhaps (I see now) all that I couldn't explain, everything that I couldn't put into tidy boxes and pinwheeling sentences. I had walked around a temple near the airport at Narita, during a morning layover, waiting for my flight back to New York, and something in the mild October sunshine, the gathered quiet, the shelteredness of the scene, took me back, unanswerably, to boyhood and England: Japan made me feel more at home than I'd been in a life of traveling the globe.

So I quit my job in New York and decided to come over for a year, to try out the premonition. I would do what every other earnest foreigner did in Japan in those days, join a Zen temple and study the nature of nothingness. I would sit in front of the rock gardens and pen haiku, with the autumn moon rising above a rustic teahouse, and put myself into the very scenes I'd savored in the novels of Kawabata, the woodcuts of Hiroshige. I'd also -- since now I'd left my job and published a book (about my travels in Japan and nine other Asian countries) -- make it a longer assignment: whatever happened in my year in Japan I would annotate, and whatever came of all this, I would turn into a book.

Within a week of arriving in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto, I found, of course, that it was nothing like the pretty pictures I'd been admiring in New York. There was work involved, cooking and cleaning and raking and sweeping. The hours of meditation were part of a strict military drill that included bowing and scraping, and not sleeping for days. It wasn't an aesthetic domain at all; it looked, in fact, suspiciously like real life. I slipped out of the temple into a foreigners' guest-house, fell in love with a Japanese woman and decided that her story would be my book and my way of understanding impermanence and egolessness: by evoking the changing relations of Japanese women (or one woman at least) as the country left its traditions behind without quite finding anything to replace them.

That book (The Lady and the Monk) found some friends and readers, as my first book (brilliantly titled by my editor, Video Night in Kathmandu) had done. But as books have a habit of doing, it threw off any number of unintended consequences. I now had a strong attachment in Japan (that lady). A part of me relished living thousands of miles from any life I knew. I could write my books to support myself -- I'd been writing essays for Time while sleeping on a tatami mat in my temple -- but there was something else in the country that tugged at me and tugged at me, and it was something I hadn't quite got down in 338 pages of antic episodes, sonorous essays and -- again -- pages of chatter and analysis.

I came back to Japan, perhaps for good, and found myself in a two-room apartment, completely Western, in an entirely Western neighborhood, far from temple or shrine or aromatic backstreet or lanterned inn. Japan was now dry cleaning and tax receipts and taps that suddenly went kaputt; nothing remarkable at all. I still had to work for my living -- novels on Cuba and Iran, heavy tomes on globalism and the wars of our planetary neighborhood -- but Japan now became my backdrop, not my subject. After all, I'd already written down everything I knew about the place.

Yet as the years began to pass, something strange began to happen. I wrote about Yemen and Bolivia and Ethiopia and Haiti, while sitting at my tiny desk in Japan. I tossed off books and daily articles and letters to myself and to my friends, about every subject I could think of (except Japan). And yet all I was really writing about, underneath the surface and in the spaces, was the new country that had become home, and the reasons (its genius for silence and for thinking about others, its habit of self-erasure) that had brought me there.

My sentences grew shorter and shorter, and more and more empty, till they looked a bit like that room where I'd slept in the temple. My pages became so quiet you had to lean in to hear them, and, as with any good Japanese, completely unstriking, and neutral on the surface. I grew less and less interested in explanations, because the mere moment seemed enough in itself; where I'd written 40 pages after my first two weeks here, and then 338 pages after a year, now I found I could barely write a postcard about Japan, if you'd asked me. Image had taken the place of idea.

Perhaps the greatest beauty of the writing life is that it offers you concrete evidence of all your changes; the pages you write are like those charts nurses place at the end of your bed to map your progress. Whatever you need to know about yourself is there, if only you know how to read it. And as time went on, I started to realize something most unexpected: I was turning Japanese.

I barely spoke the language, and I had no official role in its society; I lived at my desk, in my head, as I had done in New York. But less and less of what I was writing was visible on the surface, as if it were all being pushed down to that more intriguing realm where nothing is talked about, because it's known.

I have just finished a small book on the XIVth Dalai Lama and the vision of a larger self he's taking around the world. And as I wrote it, I began to realize that, without intending to, I was describing something essential about my new home, something I could never have guessed at in my "definitive" work of many years ago. Its love of autumn, the dazzling blue skies that play off the turning leaves, the coming of the dark. Its people's habit of looking at what's not there. Its skill at attention and not making very much at all of the dramas and losses that course through our lives.

Then I noticed something else: I was describing, at least a little, the person I was becoming, the person the country was fashioning out of me. No names of soft drinks or quotes about Springsteen, just an attentive silence where I thought my self ought to be, and a reflection of my adopted home. Writing tells you everything you need to know about yourself and the world you live in, in part by making you immaterial or even mute. You think you're describing something outside yourself, but -- as every photographer knows -- every portrait you make is, in some way, a self-portrait. I didn't have to write about Japan now; it was streaming into every sentence, the polite ghost in the corner who says very little but asks what you want and then disappears again into the dark. *

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