Writerland, Chapter 21: Finding a Story That is “Something Bigger Than Yourself”

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

Tanya Luhrmann is the most curious person I know and I have always wanted to understand her gift of wonderment. Writers, especially journalists like me, like to think of ourselves as curious people whose work is a way of pursuing that impulse to know. But like most journalists, I am prone to reject too quickly, to see the limits of a line of inquiry before I have even asked a question.

Perhaps we are burdened by an unfortunate lesson of youth: curiosity is not cool. The cool people did not display eagerness or curiosity. Instead, they were the quickest to say, no. As in, did you like that song/movie/person?

No. No. Definitely no.

My wife has known Tanya since high school and still recalls the first time they met, in a science lab, where Tanya could barely mask her excitement about the plants she was observing. From such moments brilliant careers are born.

Tanya is one of America’s most eminent anthropologists. She is a University Professor at Stanford, the rare academic whose work has taken the leap to mainstream audiences, an author whose reputation is such that her work was the subject of a recent piece in The New Yorker. Her focus has long been on religion – her early research took her to a witches’ coven in London and to the Zoroastrians in Mumbai – in such books as When God Talks Back and her latest, How God Becomes Real, examining how faith and the practice of prayer can alter consciousness and perception.  

I wrote to ask about what I took to be the singular joy she feels in discovery. Tanya, however, surprised me. I had assumed she might offer a template for seeing things as she did. But something else was on her mind, the sense that for many years she had been seeing her work in a way that did not always enhance the gift of her curiosity but impede it.

“The funny thing is that I have harangued myself for failing to write in the proper way. My first trade/crossover editor really thought I could have a literary career. She wanted me to write and write and write. But I had the sense after Of Two Minds that I had said what I had to say—about psychiatry, at any rate,” she wrote. “Something profound changed with my next book, When God Talks Back.”

She continued, “Before then I thought of my writing as pouring forth ideas. The work was in some sense about me, about what I thought and concluded. That I had written down all the thinking I could do. It was remarkably solipsistic vision, as if a book was an opinion piece, at length.”

Tanya was being entirely too hard on herself; she is not in the least solipsistic; her work is about looking with wonder and openness at lives that so many find profoundly alien. Besides, writing is often at its most riveting when authors find stories that, as Norman Maclean put it, tell them about themselves. The problem was not self-absorption. Rather, it was a dilemma that afflicts so many writers: the desire to write “the proper way.” Writers have a keen understanding of what will be judged as good and will do what is necessary to have people think well of their work. The danger is in trying so hard to get it right that we come to believe that success comes only when we are perfect.

Years ago, my wife introduced me to her formidable boss, an editor as sharp as he was intimidating in a smartest-kid-in-class kind of way. He had read a magazine piece that I was especially proud of. He liked it, I think. He said, “It was almost perfect.” I exhaled. Then he said, “too almost perfect.” He turned and walked away, leaving me to wonder how I could have somehow not quite gotten it right even though it appeared as if I had.

Tanya was sounding like someone who had lost her way, only to rediscover it when she set out on a new journey, a new adventure. “I started to think about my work more like a detective story. And everything changed. I started thinking about what I wrote as part of a conversation, as a contribution to knowledge that grew like leaves on a forest floor, and I suddenly burst with ideas and ambitions and things I wanted to write down and record. I still wanted to write books that would last and inspire people and be read for years and years. But they no longer needed to be perfect gems.

“What still lingers for me is why I didn’t have that sense that I could be literary when my fancy editor took me out to lunch. We talked about a book I might write on a man who played a short but important role in my last chapter of that book. I had interviewed this man with schizophrenia in depth. In fact, he had said to me: you are too busy to interview me as much as I want, just give me a recorder and some microcassettes (those were the days) and I will talk to you when you are not here. At some point he handed over a hundred recordings he had made in the middle of the night, reflections on despair, hope, life. Now to be clear, he made many of them without his teeth, so when I tell you I did not know what to do with them it is also true that some of them were untranscribable. But it is a deeper truth that I did not think that just telling the story was enough.

“For me, simply witnessing has never been enough. I wanted to tell a story that added to what we know in the world—and the misery of being psychotic and homeless has never, in its own right, been enough for me. I am not proud of this. At this stage in my career, I look at John Berger’s A Fortunate Man, and think that if I could write something like that I would be so very proud. That book is the story of a country doctor who starts his career with the idea that he will be a hero, like a surgeon, cutting out the cancer and so saving his patient, and ends with the idea that what is asked of him is that he listen. That he be mute witness to the human effort to live life decently despite what it is to be human.

“Now, I love that book. But back when I was at lunch with my fancy editor and we were discussing what I should write next, it was not enough. I did not see the point of writing another book that described how awful it was to be poor and crazy. I did not see what being a witness would bring the world. You might say, I did not believe enough in myself—and you would be right. But I also wanted to make something outside of myself that others could stand on. And I thought that the story of being poor and psychotic was moving—but not intellectually interesting. I did not see what it could build.”

She went back to what she had always done: finding out one thing and then another and another.  

“So for the last twenty years I have done stupid stuff. I have sought to figure out an answer to questions that are not about moving the emotions, but knowing things other people don’t. I have spent hours and hours looking at plots and transcripts and silly questionnaires. Hours spent doing things that have nothing to do with writing—but which give me something to write about. I think that if I had been more confident when I sat at lunch with my editor, I would have seen that she thought that being John Berger was just fine, and that I could be a more contemporary John Berger, and I would have done that.

“But I never would have felt I had to figure something out, and I never would have made this contribution to understanding that I think I can do now. There is something really valuable in being not confident that your words are enough—that the content really matters. It keeps you humble, it keeps you hungry and it spurs you to do something bigger than yourself.”

Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.