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Mythmaking in the Moab

Biography? Essay? Memoir? I had hit a conundrum ...


Story by Mark Sundeen. Photos by Cedar and Issa Brant.

I got a call from Becky Saletan, an editor at Riverhead Books in 2009, asking if I would write a book about Daniel Suelo, a man who had lived a decade without money, barter or government welfare. Suelo described his choice as an act of civil disobedience against an economic system that he thought corrupt, and the result of a life-long religious quest to follow the teachings of non-possession he found in Scripture. He lived in a cave near Moab, Utah, and survived largely by foraging and Dumpster-diving. He proposed that money was an illusion. Suelo had been the subject of a Details magazine profile that had provoked a passionate worldwide response: Some thought he was an inspiration or even a saint, others deemed him a freeloader, a nut, a charlatan and a threat to the foundations of civilization. 

As it turned out, I lived in Moab and I knew Suelo. We had been cooks at a diner there 15 years before. I hadn’t seen him in years, so I spent a couple of hours reading the website that he runs from the public library. I was fascinated. In the wake of the financial collapse, Suelo appeared to embody a set of beliefs that our culture had shunned. His choices seemed prophetic. It was the sort of story with broad cultural implications that I’d been seeking for years. I agreed to write the book, The Man Who Quit Money, and Daniel agreed to be its subject, declining any compensation. He asked that some books be made available to the public for free, a request that Riverhead honored.

But exactly what sort of book did I want to write? My writing is grounded in narrative. I also love philosophy and history and politics, but those elements don’t come alive for me unless they are part of some compelling plot, in which the reader connects to the character, understands that character’s longings, and is worried for his sake. I saw Suelo’s life as a great adventure, from an evangelical upbringing to college to the Peace Corps, to cave-dwelling in the desert, to living off the land in Alaska and biking across the country, to the monasteries of Thailand and the realm of the Dalai Lama in India, to his decision to leave money behind.

When I was younger, I loved books that we might call “spiritual adventures,” like Hermann Hesse and Carlos Castaneda. And while those examples have not, for me, aged too well, I liked the idea of doing something similar in nonfiction. This was to be a nonfiction novel of a man’s journey toward his idea of enlightenment. Because Suelo’s choices sparked such emotion, the risk would be getting tangled up in the judgments and assumptions made by his  fans and critics. The author’s role would not be to debunk or deify him, but to tell the story through his lens, and let the reader think what they will. I wrote to Becky, “He’s articulate enough to state his case without seeming dingy, so let him.” Besides, I thought Daniel was a kind and gentle man, and I didn’t want to get paid to take him down. “I think this book would need to be sympathetic, not cynical,” I said in a note to her.

I thought carefully about what I was trying to achieve, and what genre could get me there. First, I figured that a man living without money had a built-in reader-curiosity: basic questions like how does he eat, where does he sleep, and what does family think of his choices? The answers could be best conveyed by a Feature, a magazine news story. I also knew that the events of Suelo’s life would make a gripping page-turner. The form to show them was Biography. Third, I believed that Suelo was more than a curiosity, more relevant to the national discussion than, say, a man who chose to live without shoes. After the Wall Street meltdown, Suelo’s story was relevant to the rest of us, those who had assumed that money was real. He was a walking allegory. I had to explain the ideas that brought him to quit money and persuade the reader of their importance. The way to do this was an Essay. Lastly, I wanted to stamp this book with my own personality, to be clear from the first page that nobody other than Mark Sundeen had written it, not just in terms of voice and personality, but also because this story mattered to me personally: The questions Daniel’s story raised were ones with which I have long wrestled. This would require infusing a fourth genre: Memoir.

 

Before I started writing, I did something I hadn’t done with previous books: I asked for my editor’s advice. 

 

Having written features, essays, biography and memoir, I knew that each had its own rules and challenges that often contradicted the others. Yet there was only one way forward: I had to write all four at once. Before I began writing, I did something I hadn’t done with previous books: I asked for my editor’s advice. With another editor this might have been disastrous, but because Becky was so personally fascinated by Suelo – the book was her idea, after all – she proved excellent not just as an editor but also, in terms of structure, a collaborator.

“Think about how he lives, and what it would mean to live that way,” she wrote. How did or didn’t he fulfill what we would call necessary human desires – in short, the needs most people think money helps fulfill? For example, she listed:

Housing/shelter/comfort

Food

Health

Sex and love

Friends and companionship, society

Family

Work

Recreation

Education/learning

She then named four needs that she felt money didn’t meet in a satisfying way for her:

Spirituality

Political action/thought-through belief

Sense of self as animal/relationship to and stewardship of planet

Sense of and reconciliation with my own autonomy/freedom/essential aloneness

That was a great guide for writing a feature: a checklist of things the reader wanted to know. So we outlined a basic structure: I would alternate the telling of Suelo’s biography with this exposition of the “fulfillment of needs.”

“As the narrative progresses,” Becky wrote, “we’ll get to see Daniel struggling with these issues/areas, figuring out how to address them, and experiencing vicariously how they reveal their essence, reconceived and remade in the way he has.” One way of thinking about the biographical narrative, she suggested, was to look for the points it presents that allow me to shift into those other genres – feature, essay, memoir – so that while we appeared to be progressing chronologically, we were also proceeding thematically.

Easy, right?

My instinct was to begin the book during a dramatic climax. I chose the moment where Suelo discarded the last of his cash in a phone booth, and immediately felt a sense of cosmic belonging. From there, I could work backward to the events and decisions that led him to quit money, and then work forward through his decade without money. But when I read this chapter aloud to students and faculty of the MFA program where I taught, and when I sent a copy to my editor, the reaction was mixed.

Becky liked the impulse to start with that moment, but to make it dramatic, in her opinion, required cramming in too much backstory that would be better spooled out over time. Better, she thought, was to begin with some slice of what it’s really like to live as Daniel does – both the agony and the ecstasy of it – and the tedium too, maybe. A moment – getting sick, getting dinner, etc. – or maybe a day in the life that conveyed how hard and sometimes uncomfortable but also how alive and connected and even blissful his life was. “I know that is a very tall order – and maybe not even an accurate description of what his life is like,” she wrote, “but it’s the visceral ‘imagine this was your life’ sense that I keep wanting to get right up front.”

I had hit a conundrum: The narrative arc of Suelo’s life was resolved 10 years before the point at which the reader finds him interesting! The climax of Suelo’s life was giving up money. It concluded a lifetime of religious yearning, depression, struggling to fit into modern society. Everything after that was denouement. Paradoxically it was the denouement of his life, not the conflict or the climax that made people want to read this book. And yet, the years without money often lacked drama. Indeed, Suelo could rarely remember the chronology of events in the 10 years since giving up money. Because he truly was “living in the present,” it didn’t really matter whether he went to Portland before or after going to Colorado. This sort of nonlinear thinking was great for enlightenment, but ruinous for narrative.

The readers needed to know right away that this guy successfully lived without money, in a cave, before they would care what he was like before that, and what brought him to that moment. I mulled it over. I listed five requirements for that opening scene: 1. Should be after his decision to go moneyless, not before it. 2. Needed to involve other people, ideally with them serving as “straight men” who were normal consumers, so the readers can identify with them when they say: “What do you mean you don’t take money?” 3. Agony. There needed to be some longing by Daniel for something – a sandwich, aspirin, a flush toilet – that would be easily attained with money, but because of his principles, was difficult or impossible to attain. 4. Bliss. Ideally the event would result in some kind of reward to dramatize Daniel’s philosophy that once you give up the striving, the abundance follows. 5. Should focus on the Americana-hobo aspect of his life, rather than the Eastern mystical part.

This last one was sheer pandering to mainstream readers who I thought would be drawn in to Daniel Boone’s rugged individualism, but turned off by too much Buddha and the Eternal Now in Chapter 1. So my idea was to entice them with My Side of The Mountain, and sneak in the dharma once they were hooked.

So directed, I scrapped my first attempt at Chapter 1 (it eventually returned as a later chapter). Instead, I began the book by describing an evening in which, after searching for Suelo for two days, I bumped into him randomly on the street and he led me to an abandoned melon patch where we enjoyed a spontaneous feast. In this single scene, I could show his day-to-day life of wandering and foraging; and the “straight man,” or skeptic, was myself. It showed his hobo ways and also hinted at the ecstasy of abundance, of something that I didn’t quite understand but found captivating.  (My third requirement, the agony, I punted to Chapter 2, showing the story of Suelo’s eviction from his wilderness paradise by a ranger.) Feature and Biography were well begun.

Next came Essay. Why did Daniel matter?  How did his decisions ask fundamental questions about money, consumption, religion, morality?  Becky wrote,  “The point is not to write a biography of Suelo per se, but to explore the way of life itself, and the thinking behind it – to hold him up as a mirror and a beacon of how we might live more freely.” To succeed, I was going to have to discuss topics that did not fit directly into Suelo’s biography.

For example, I had to explain the Christian fundamentalist worldview with its focus on the “end of time” and contrast that with the Native American and East Asian belief that time is fundamentally circular.

I had to discuss the history of money, how the Federal Reserve Bank creates money, how Christianity has viewed money over the centuries, and how the 1990s were in historical terms an extraordinarily wealthy era. I had to explain how Suelo’s worldview was a synthesis of sources as varied as Thoreau and the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, Martin Luther King and Buddha and Lame Deer.

And I had to discuss how the American desert, more than any other part of the country, had stood over the centuries as a haven for seekers and mystics. None of these topics could be easily shoehorned into “narrative,” and I wasn’t sure how to include them without breaking the flow.

Becky suggested what for me was a revelation: “I am a pretty firm believer that much as we love narrative, readers actually hunger for thematic progression. They just don’t think they do and don’t like to have it presented as such, because they think all they like is story.

OK, go back and re-read that. Those of us who write narrative nonfiction are always trying so hard to find a story upon which to hang our ideas. But what Becky said made me think twice. This is how you marry Biography with Essay: through the incremental thematic development of a persuasive argument. She continued, “Such a structure – chronological spine but with equal weight on thematic digressions – might also allow you to deal with the essential sameness/lack of chronology in Daniel’s post-money life.” I was convinced. Essay material became a big part of nearly half the chapters.

The final element was Memoir. Why? I was 40 years old, had published three books and dozens of magazine pieces but took almost no pride, for example, in a piece about electoral politics for The New York Times Magazine. It was well-crafted, efficient, a slick blend of narrative, essay and reporting – and it could have been written by anyone. I was much more proud of pieces I’d self-published in my zine Great God Pan or an odd profile of a Jack London impersonator in The Believer. I only wanted to do this if I could make a work of art unlike anything I’ve ever read before. And besides, the questions that Suelo addresses were ones that I’d once been passionate about as a young man, but that I’d let fall by the wayside as I crept into the stability of career. I wanted to write about these ideas not merely in the abstract, or as a journalist, but as someone who was affected by trying to live by them, too (and not necessarily succeeding).

But having decided that, as the narrator, I would champion Suelo, I kept being irritated by some dim remembrance, like a thorn in my foot. After hours of contemplation, the thorn worked its way to the surface. I remembered the last time I’d seen Suelo, maybe five years earlier. I’d bumped into him in Moab and noted that his teeth were in terrible shape. I was disgusted. I had pretended not to recognize him, and stormed off.

So there was a problem with my plan to be Suelo’s advocate: I didn’t totally admire him. Instead, I felt a mix of admiration and resentment, envy and disgust. What to do? Maybe I should just toss aside that memory.

I did the opposite. Although it was embarrassing for both of us, I inserted that scene into the very first chapter. I wanted the reader to know from the start that this wasn’t traditional journalism, that it was an account of my own feelings about Suelo. Hopefully, by my admitting to my own doubts and repulsion, the reader would feel more welcome with his own qualms and squeamishness instead of thinking: This is just a book by, for and about saints.

So, spinning together Feature, Biography, Essay and Memoir, I sketched out almost an entire first draft. And a funny thing happened: Neither the facts of Suelo’s existence, nor his canon of guiding principles, nor my thematic digressions, nor my own conflicted feelings were depicting what he was actually like. There was something larger-than-life about his vagabond life: an unending string of what appeared to be coincidences, supernatural events and the sort of quests that appear in legends. Suelo’s life when viewed rationally simply didn’t add up: People in the real world don’t quit money and go live in a cave. Not in Features, not in Biography, not in Essay, not in Memoir. No, the genre in which people abandon all trappings of modernity and set off on an epic life-threatening journey of self-discovery is Myth. I picked up a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Sure enough: the shape of Suelo’s life, with its visions of the netherworld, its miraculous rescue from the jaws of death, its years of wandering and climaxes of spiritual renewal. This was the stuff of mythology.

And that became my fifth genre. I revised, soaking commonplace lines with the sense of timeless legend. The year 2000 became “the first year of the twenty-first century.” Western Pennsylvania became “the middle of America.” In contrast to the rest of us with our bank accounts and mortgages, here was a man with not even an ID card – a sort of noble savage. I returned to that opening watermelon hunt and, borrowing freely from Genesis and the gospels, turned our abandoned orchard in Moab into Eden, and transformed our foraging into a magical water-into-wine feast. The language had to rise to the occasion, to depict the sort of mystical moments that occurred in Suelo’s company.

And from there, the work became easy. The hero had embarked upon his journey. All I had to do was follow him home.

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