A drug user's guide to not writing

Essayist Geoff Dyer on the difference between fiction and nonfiction (none), the usefulness of marijuana, and the importance of doing nothing.

Published February 24, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

In "The Rain Inside," one of 11 essays in Geoff Dyer's "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," the author falls apart. Sitting in a Detroit diner called the Clique, looking out the window and noticing the rain, Dyer writes: "That day in the Clique I looked down and saw it was raining inside as well as outside. My egg-smeared plate was becoming wet. Drops of water were falling onto my toast, moistening my eggy hash browns. As I looked it rained harder and I could not see. I was crying."

At the time of his ostensible breakdown, Dyer was visiting the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. His search for some sort of erotic encounter had failed, and one might assume that he was suffering from terrible loneliness. But readers ought to remember Dyer's introduction to the book before diving into the rest: "Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by the same token, all the things that didn't happen didn't happen there too."

What's remarkable is that you never know what's fact and what's fiction in Dyer's essays and, perhaps more important, you don't care. As in "Out of Sheer Rage," a hilarious account of Dyer's excruciating attempt to write a critical study of D.H. Lawrence, the essays in "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" defy categorization. They blend travel writing and memoir, criticism and fiction. The result is often exhilarating, and endlessly entertaining.

In his latest effort, Dyer travels from Rome to Libya to Indonesia to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. But he was in his favorite city of all, San Francisco, when he spoke to Salon about the one experience that nearly ruined him as a writer, why he doesn't feel the pressure to write fiction anymore, and why, for writers, drugs should be tax deductible.

At the publisher's luncheon for your new book you said that you were starting to feel that you didn't have to write fiction anymore. Is that true? Why do you think that many writers think that writing fiction is the crowning achievement of their career?

I think the answer would have to be historical. Now more and more is being done in the "neither one thing or the other" realm, so I'm happy to be one of the people opening up that territory. It sort of bugs me that some of the most conventional or least novel things being written are actually novels. So often it seems to me that the whole form of many novels is close to a cliché. You notice it in the last 40 pages of a book, when you feel it all being driven towards its novelistic apotheosis and climax.

Do you read much contemporary fiction at this point?

Less and less as I get older. But then, when I read "The Corrections," it was a fantastic experience of complete immersion in this other world. Recently in England Richard Yates has been rediscovered, so I read "Revolutionary Road," and there is a thoroughly traditional novel that's really, really gripping. Quite often now I can't be bothered to go through the whole process of the novel becoming a novel. The remarkable thing about "The Corrections" is that it starts being amazingly gripping by Page 3. I recently read the new T.C. Boyle book, "Drop City," which again I was loving from Page 2. So the experience is still available.

So you don't have any plans to write another novel?

No, all the time that I was failing to write "Paris, Trance" I had this sense of regret and failure hanging over me because I'd always wanted to do my version of "Tender Is the Night." And then I did it and it really did sum up what I wanted to say and let me work through my Fitzgerald thing. Now I feel happy in this first-person stuff which has elements of fiction but wouldn't end up being classified as a novel.

I think I was always disadvantaged when it came to writing fiction in that I have never been able to think of stories or plots. There are ways of getting around that. There's that famous E.M. Forster comment, "Oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story." Still, plot and story are important parts of a novel. In addition to that, I felt I'd never been that strong on character either.

When I left university, I thought there were two ways to go: Either you became a writer, which meant you wrote novels, or you became a critic, which meant you wrote about other people's novels. Then I discovered [the work of] these European people like Roland Barthes -- it was commentary and it was incredibly imaginative. Walter Benjamin would be part of that. And then crucially there was John Berger, who, although he was English, seemed very much in that European mode of "neither one thing or the other"-type writing. His book on Picasso ("The Success and Failure of Picasso"), which was this incredible work of art history and art criticism, was also as gripping as a novel.

John Berger was your mentor, wasn't he?

Yes, in a very informal way. He doesn't teach and he's not attached to an institution. But he was the best kind of mentor -- fantastically encouraging on a personal level -- and his books were such a huge source of inspiration. He was incredibly generous and always urged me to send him stuff, and whenever I did send him anything he would be really helpful about it.

Were you modeling "Out of Sheer Rage," your book about trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, after these writers' works, or was it something that happened naturally?

The first book I wrote was this unbelievably boring book about John Berger ("The Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger"), an incredibly timid, sub-academic thing. I felt that I'd failed to make any use of all the freedom that Berger had made available. It was really inappropriate to process him in that straightforward academic way. But I got all of that academic stuff out of the way.

I then wrote a novel ("The Color of Memory"), but it was a novel without a story. After that I was really interested in jazz and so there's my book "But Beautiful," which is dedicated to Berger. I was really trying to listen to music with the same intensity with which Berger looked at a painting.

By the time I came to write "Out of Sheer Rage," probably the biggest influence on my writing was myself. That is to say I got quite confident and at home in this "neither one thing or the other" realm. Before then there had been my First World War book, "The Missing of the Somme," which is another of these uncategorizable books. Also, in terms of the prose, I was very much, in "Out of Sheer Rage," under the influence of that Austrian nutter Thomas Bernhard. That's where that grinding repetition, that insistent, interminable quality came from. So, by that stage, Berger wasn't at the forefront as an influence.

And your latest book, "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," like "Out of Sheer Rage," came out of another book that you were trying to write, but didn't.

For ages I was stuck on this idea of writing a book about the ruins of classical antiquity. I became interested in that in Rome. Two things happened: a) I couldn't seem to make any progress with the book, and b) it seemed to me that if you were going to write a book about antiquity there are only two ways to do it. One, it should be a column in a newspaper. Or, two, maybe only the ruins of that book should survive. And in keeping with that, if you were going to talk about ruins, this book's falling into ruin [might be] due to the author himself falling into some kind of ruination. So then I was in that nice state where I was able to do that thing which I'm fond of doing, which is getting several things going at the same time.

One of my favorite passages was when you describe ruins and write that you think people shouldn't try to understand what they were before. Why do you think so?

I'd become very confident in the idea of being faithful to the vagaries of my nature. When I was writing the book about the First World War, for example, however hard I tried I could never get interested in the flurry of diplomatic maneuvers that led up to the war. I had an idea then of just being faithful to the contingencies of my own experience and being quite frank about it. I became interested in antiquity, but then I found that I got really bored when I was reading about it. It seemed to me that rather than trying to deny that -- again, I see this as a Nietzschean tactic -- I would take that as the starting point and try to articulate why it is that that's not an inappropriate reaction to what you're seeing.

What that does is put the onus on me as the writer to describe as accurately and precisely what I'm really seeing. There's that lovely line of Walter Benjamin's -- I think he's quoting Goethe: "There's a delicate form of the empirical which identifies itself so closely with the object under scrutiny that it thereby becomes theory." I liked this idea that by looking really closely at something and articulating what you're seeing, you might come up with a whole metaphysics or theory of ruination. I felt that knowing the whole history of what had gone on in Leptis Magna, say, might have inhibited that capacity for a form of reflection which had a great degree of immediacy to it.

Would you say that you personally were in a state of ruin for the pieces in "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It"?

Well. My friend said something quite clever about the book. He said that if "Paris, Trance" is my version of "Tender Is the Night," which it certainly was, then this was my version of "The Crack-Up" [Fitzgerald's semi-fictional memoir of his alcoholic collapse]. Yeah, the book does record some unhappy moments. For example, last night [at a reading in Seattle] I was reading the bit about Detroit where I collapsed into tears. Everyone was really disappointed. They said, "Oh, so you had some kind of breakdown." I said, "That's all a bit exaggerated for comic effect."

There was a lot of malaise going on. It seems a bit of a cliché to reduce it to a midlife crisis. One of the historic novelties of our time is that you can be in a state of crisis from adolescence onward.

Very often, as you admit, you're blurring fact and fiction.

Oh, yes, always. I was saying the other night that at one stage it looked like they were going to publish this as a book of nonfiction in the U.S. and as a work of fiction in England. I liked that very much. The distinction means absolutely nothing to me. The fiction I've written tends to be autobiographically based and I like to write stuff that's maybe only an inch from what really happened. An awful lot of artifice and contrivance and art can take place in that inch. The test is hopefully that you can't tell when I go from faithfully transcribing what happened to completely inventing something, or importing something from somebody else's life. To that extent, the technique is indistinguishable from that of the fiction writer.

I especially wondered about this during the passages while you were on drugs: the piece on Paris, "Skunk," and the passage about the trousers in the Amsterdam piece, "Hotel Oblivion." How did these memories come to you if you were so messed up? Or, rather, were they even true?

That would be a good example because last night I read the bit about the trousers in Seattle and they were really disappointed when I said I made that up. That was something that a friend told me, about being on acid and trying to change his trousers and putting the same ones on again. I imported that into my story and completely exaggerated it. The Paris one is, of all the pieces, the most straightforwardly literal and exactly what happened that day.

Let's stay on drugs. Were they just incidental or did you want to experience certain places in that way for a specific reason?

I suppose I would broaden the question out and say, "Was the traveling something I did on purpose?" It's funny that at this moment I'm perceived as a travel writer, but you know, I don't particularly travel. All I do is live my life. Traveling is of course a part of that, and so is writing. It would be a not-so-good life if I didn't travel. Is travel incidental to the life or inherent to it? Well, it's inherent. And the same way with the drug use really. I've liked taking drugs for a good long while and it's pretty much always, apart from the few freakouts, been really valuable on the level of this kind of responsiveness to place. As I say in that Paris piece, it enables one sometimes to have these really intense responses to a place. There's a long tradition of that.

On the other hand I find it useful on the creative level. Smoking pot when writing seems to be incredibly useful. A typical thing that people say is that when you're stoned you write all this stuff and you think it's so great and in the morning you think it's all garbage. Well, the truth is that some of it is garbage, and lots of it is not usable in exactly the state in which you scrawled it all down, but you make all sorts of connections and ideas. To that extent, I really think that as a writer it should be tax deductible. There's that nice line of Thomas Pynchon's: "Marijuana -- that useful substance."

In terms of the psychedelics, well, that's a different thing because obviously psychedelic experiences are so huge. You get into this whole realm of the visionary and you're much less able at that moment to record what's happening. But afterwards, just as when you've had any big experience in your life, the impulse is to communicate.

That's all the nice, positive side of head drugs. Then what can also happen is this great desire to heighten the moment, to make a great moment still greater. Of course, you can just mess it up. I'm quite drawn to the confusion that drug use can lead to. That incredible chronic indecision -- there's a lot of scope for not just humor. That in itself provides insight into a contemporary malaise.

You talk a bit about doing nothing in the book. Do you think you actually were doing nothing?

I'd have to refer you back to the Lawrence book where I really talk about this at great length. There's that nice passage from Rilke when he says something like, "On reflection, the work we did on this given day, maybe that was the product that came out of that phase some time in the past when we were ostensibly incredibly idle." I'm quite resistant to this industrial blend of novelist whereby you finish a book on Monday, have the weekend off and start another one two days later. I tend to prefer the idea of there being some kind of accumulation of experience in between.

And I have a great urge to do nothing. The problem is what to do once you've decided to do nothing. It's very difficult to actually do nothing. I think those periods of indolence for me have been quite useful. This is the great virtue of writing or any art, isn't it? That it can all be redeemed by the work that results from it.

I did waste quite a lot of time in Rome, but I think I'm a very inefficient writer in that I get very poor mileage out of experience. I use a lot of it for not many words. Those summers in Rome -- the piece on Rome is based on several summers -- was all redeemed by the fact that I did end up writing about it. I remember when my first book came out, I really felt that I'd wasted a good many years just living on the dole in Brixton when the people I graduated from university with spent those two years taking taxis to urgent meetings. At the end of that I ended up writing that book and suddenly it meant, oh, I hadn't wasted my time at all and in retrospect, nothing seems like more of a waste of time than taking taxis to urgent meetings. The meetings were probably pretty pointless.

That's the great attraction of the life of the artist, I think, in that everything can be turned to your advantage. The most extreme example of that is [jazz saxophonist] Art Pepper in "But Beautiful." He completely squanders what should have been his most creative years by becoming a junkie and ending up in San Quentin. He loses the '60s almost entirely. And then you get this incredible comeback in his last years when all of the stuff he's experienced, all the suffering he's undergone, is manifested in his playing, and he ends up being a much better player than he would have been if he'd just been a good boy.

And it's made all the more magical, probably, because you know it's fleeting. I was struck by the difference between your Burning Man essay, "The Zone," and the others in this book. It seems that there was despair, confusion, roiling anxiety in all the others, and then at Burning Man it seemed as if you'd found something.

The idea would be that ultimately Burning Man shouldn't be different to anywhere else on earth. It's that typical thing where people say, "I wish it could be Christmas every day." Why can't Burning Man be a year-round event? And the Burning Man people would say the crucial thing is that it's up to you to turn the whole world into Black Rock City, so that it's a question of opening your heart and all this.

People behave at their very, very best at Burning Man, so it's an ethical lesson as well: that this is how you should try to be in the rest of your life. It's just such an incredible, amazing summing up of where all your dreams come true. Not just because it's a great headbanging party and you can get sort of messed up and there's wild sex going on and all that, but because it's a dream come true in terms of what you hope people can be. People are so incredibly moved by it not just because they've had a wild time but because it's so uplifting in terms of what it reveals of people.

I remember reading your Burning Man piece when it first appeared and my co-worker, who goes every year, remarked that it was one of the few good pieces on the event that he's read. Why do you think it's so hard to write about Burning Man?

I would say for two years or so Burning Man ruined me as a writer. It so surpassed anything you could imagine. It's more far-out than one of Italo Calvino's invisible cities. It made me want to be making some really elaborate, crazy sculpture. Then, you're faced with the already ascetic labor of writing, which seems even more clerical and monkish and miserable by contrast because also it's so solitary, whereas the Burning Man thing is so much about interactive and communal creation.

It was absolutely catastrophic for me as a writer. And also I was aware that this thing that was the most important thing in my life was exactly the thing that I couldn't write about. A lot of the stuff that I've read about Burning Man I haven't thought was so great either. That's a tribute really to how awesomely fantastic it is as an event. One of the nicest ways in which its greatness is conveyed is that amazing look that people get in their eyes when they talk about it, which, to the outsider, looks like you're a cult member. But for those of you who were there, you just recognize that lovely thing: Often what people are remembering is that "I was at my best. I was everything that I might have become."

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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