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The Wright Process

Pulitzer Prize Winner Lawrence Wright on Writing, Donkeys and His 4x6 Approach to Research

By Joanna Cattanach with photos by Ben Sklar

Lawrence Wright stood poolside in Pakistan, his thoughts focused on the phone call he’d received hours earlier. Should he stay or should he go home? A good friend would go home. A good writer would stay.

But he couldn’t be both good friend and good writer, not with this story.

The Tribesman

He's passionate, dedicated, emotional, and a little verbose. George Getschow tells Michael J. Mooney why the Mayborn tribe cares so darn much about narrative. 

by Michael J. Mooney

Dark Living in the Lymelight

“The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we’ve done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.” -- Albert Einstein

The downward spiral started after Julie’s mother died. It was hard to tell what was grief and mourning, and what should have been a clear warning that something big was really wrong. Part of the problem was that she was so capable. So smart. So technologically adept. So artistic. So beautiful. So sexy. So wise. She was happily married to a poet who could cheerfully live his poet’s life without being distracted by practical considerations. She just took care of everything. She was her high-­‐end Design firm’s “Chief Empath” -­‐-­‐ the person who could work through the toughest, trickiest clients. She was much beloved by her family, her work colleagues and her wide circle of friends. In addition to a high-­‐powered career, she had a very smart and very popular blog where she documented ongoing efforts and research to maintain her health and weight after losing more than 100 pounds more than five years earlier. It was, as she noted, a blog where she shared freely and “thought out loud” about health issues. She’d been a runner, a swimmer and a gourmet chef. She’d done Pilates, weight-­‐training and belly-­‐dancing. She was selling nothing, but sharing wonderful insight. Newspapers talked about syndicating her blog in a column. She was a prodigious reader and knitter. She lived her life to the fullest, and wasn’t shy about sharing.

As the “fog” came in, Julie kept thinking that it was something to do with grief or early menopause, or . . . something she could study and work on with discipline and resolve, and move on. But nothing seemed to fit or work well anymore in her life. In the period between October 2007 and January 2010, she sought help from multiple doctors, an acupuncture professional and the NIH for a wide variety of problems: a blood clot in her left leg, migraine headaches, swelling joints, hearing loss, heart palpitations, soy allergies, chest pains, insomnia, palpitations, deep vein thrombosis, pelvic pain, cognitive difficulties, painful joints. She had numerous tests, none of which was conclusive. Usually doctors told her there was nothing to worry about, or there was nothing they could do. Every second opinion contradicted the first opinion, and the third opinion sent her in another direction altogether. She no longer knew what was a side effect of medication and what was a new symptom. Her blog entries slowed....

Observations on Homelessness

When you have lived on the streets long enough you lose the desire to return to the “land of the living,” so to speak. The adaptations you had to make whenever and however you left were hard won. You have disconnected from the concerns of the larger culture and been born anew into a whole other one…the culture of homelessness. What is valued is different. What is acceptable is different. The hierarchy and politics are different, as are the coping mechanisms and experiences in general. You are bound by a different set of expectations and your view comes from a perspective shared only by those who have been there. What seems to be a dream offer, an invitation to return to civilized society –a seeming no brainer to someone on the grid –is really no more desirable than the process of your previous descent. It’s just the same effort, different direction. It looks like surfing to the civilized. It looks like climbing Mount Everest to the people of the street. That doesn’t mean people really want to live on the street as their first choice. It means they have no confidence in their ability to do otherwise, to have more. Because, to many, it is a mystery how it all fell apart and came to this in the first place. I didn’t know it could happen to me. My worldview never included this scenario or anything close to it. But, no, it will take more, much more than a simple offer, no matter how shiny and sparkly, to reclaim the lost citizens of our culture. They have lost faith in the social compact and in their ability to participate in such a ruthless system. And rightly so. This itself is a deep and singular wound. Being homeless is an isolating and unique experience in the way that going to war or going to prison is an isolating and unique experience. It is not the same experience, but it is an analogous one. Think of the isolation of the masterfully inspired, those who throughout history felt like misfits relative to societal standards. Our great artists and geniuses were often vexed with some form of mental illness, the cause and/or result of being misunderstood. Those who fit perfectly into society by all appearances feel misunderstood. Magnify that feeling several times over and you will know the feeling of those who were not successful in the cultural norm, the paradigm of the many, and their sense of separation becomes palpable. No, the trinkets and trappings hold no appeal. When you lose your stuff it isn’t the stuff you miss so much…except of course the roof and the sense of sanctuary it provides. In my own experience the greatest loss is the loss of a support system, support by inclusion, that you never knew you had until it was gone. Even then it is a hard loss to articulate. And like war it is a loss that will cause you to question everything you ever thought you knew about anything – the nature of humanity, the role of the individual in society and the role of society itself. After all, what is society if it is an every-man-for-himself mentality that pervades it? It will test your faith like little else. Everything in your head that you have woken up with and walked around with - in your head – for years - will be glossed over with a coat of surreal. This is indeed a dark night of the soul because such an experience dismantles your identity and your ideas about all that surrounds you, one fiber at a time. Such weighty issues cannot be suppressed because you genuinely have more pressing matters – like survival – at hand, because every interface with culture is an event that begs these questions. This is where the relatively modern luxury of philosophy collides with the primal need for survival. Cavemen did not likely know of or pursue self actualization. But to the homeless these questions scream for contemplation at a minimum. Who, however, wants to ruminate on philosophy when they are cold, hungry or in pain? I suppose this is where many seek escape, if they hadn’t before, through drinking and drugging. Addiction and homelessness on close inspection are the age-old conundrum of the chicken and the egg. Maybe not at the level of any specific individual, but certainly at the topical level. For those resilient souls who make it to “the other side,” back to civilized society, they have answered these questions at least to their satisfaction. This comes easier to some than others....

The Big Hitch

Mother warned me. But I hitchhiked anyway. I was a fledgling, exploring what it meant to be on my own and discovering the world. My teenage thumb was my ticket across town when I was late getting home. I could go farther and faster with my thumb than on my bike. My friends and I boldly hitched around the Willamette Valley. I was a key player: the girl that could get the guys a ride. We went all the way to the Oregon coast. What freedom! Hip, cool, adventurous, practical—of course I hitchhiked. I just didn’t tell Mother, but she worried anyway. I hope you’re not hitchhiking. You never know who is going to pick you up, she’d say. Although I wouldn’t admit it, I knew that hitchhiking was dangerous. What did that creepy, greazy, middle-aged man have in mind when he insisted on stopping to buy me a burger as if I were his date? When he went inside to order, I didn’t wait to find out. And that goggle-eyed guy who stated his intentions as soon as I’d stepped up into his rig? Of course you won’t mind if I play with you along the way . . . Why, I jumped right out and hitched another ride; a family picked me up. There was the occasional creep, but I knew how to take care of myself. My parents gave me a car before I moved out on my own. But in 1974 when gas prices shot sky high, I gave the car back. I was 19 and living in a communal house in Eugene. All I needed was my bicycle and my thumb....

Way of the Food Desert

In a rough area in Des Moines where convenience stores are the only grocery stores, the “bad apples,” as one storeowner calls them, have wrongly defined not only the convenience stores, but their neighborhoods, too. The good apples aren’t quite making headlines. Madni Muhammed is a cashier in the kind of neighborhood where, if you’re not from it, you drive through. You hit the lock button if you’re waiting in the parking lot outside a convenience store like his. Pulling out of the lot, you push a little harder on the pedal on your way to some place better. Madni calls it a “C Class area.” It’s on the outskirts of Des Moines, but could be the backdrop of any metro area with low-income housing and windows with holes. It’s a place where no one buys expensive liquor—except on the weekends, maybe. Where the broken snare and low bass of rap music is the soundtrack of every street corner. Where an iron grid covers the front windows of most shops, including Madni’s. With guns men rob convenience stores like his—there are three in the area co-owned by three Pakistani families. Outsiders don’t venture into these neighborhoods for fear of being jumped, I’ve heard. If they have to, maybe it’s best, they think, to stay in their cars. But one day, I forgot these unspoken rules. On a sunny autumn afternoon, a friend and I strolled into the University Groceries convenience store. Shortly after, an intimidating group of loiterers entered, and one began yelling at the man behind the counter named Ali Saquib. The loiterers were outside waiting for Ali to come, it seemed. Most of the group hasn’t returned to the store for over a year, after one of them stuck his hand over the counter and stole some cheap tobacco products. Ali caught him on tape and filed a police report, but the guy disappeared....

Goofy

“As with language, so with sexuality, an insistence on order always speaks the other and more troubled scenario which it is designed to exclude.” —Jacqueline Rose “Goofy.” That’s the nicest thing my daughter has ever called me. You have to understand she was sixteen at the time, an age when daddies are decidedly uncool. Like, duh! What made this a compliment was that she grinned and said I was "goofy, like Jonas Mason.” I glowed. Jonas, a faculty colleague—religion prof, salt-and-peppery, polymath—was the intellectual guide on an Episcopal pilgrimage qua shopping tour to Greece and Egypt that Elizabeth and her mom had just taken. He’s also the most "out" gay man Elizabeth has ever met. She really likes him. He’s, well, goofy. On the trip Jonas called his purple carryall "Barney.” In Cairo he showed up for breakfast one morning in a lavender shirt and said, with the downcast look of someone sorry to rat out a friend, “Barney got sick in the night.” Well, hadn't I worn lavender to the NYC Gay Pride parade back in ‘95? OK, when I put on the shirt I didn't know it was parade day, but I look back on it as an unconscious expression of solidarity. I even enjoyed the occasion once I got over thinking that, whatever my sexual politics were (and I seem to be constantly re-negotiating them), they’d be offensive to someone in that crowd. I eventually figured that's what the parade was about, trying to offend someone with your sexual politics. The motorcycling “nuns” with nipple piercings hinted it was getting harder all the time....

Not Reading Faulkner

“Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?” “I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it! - Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner I have a secret, a failing I seldom admit in polite company: though born and reared in Oxford, Mississippi, I refused to read William Faulkner. I confess it: I shunned the work. Having left Mississippi, I avoided the family pew and altar call at the Church of Mr. Bill - until now. I told myself that Faulkner’s prose was too dark and daunting to be worth all that trouble. True, I dropped his name shamelessly, but distance from him and his little postage stamp of native soil suited me just fine. All those people he brought to life on the page weren’t too close to home in a manner of speaking; too many of them were flesh and blood I could call by name. His stories captured all I was born into and lived inside and fled, fatality and curse of the baffled living and unreconstructed dead. My gnarled family tree held enough Southern Gothic craziness, thank you. I didn’t need to beat literary bushes for more, even if said bushes burned and drawled the master’s prose. The few times I thumbed through Faulkner’s books, reconsidering self-imposed exile, his unending thickets of run-on sentences were as uninviting as the kudzu separating my childhood backyard from the red-clay gullies beyond. And where I’m from, kudzu is the plant that ate the South. Imported from Japan by a Philadelphia Yankee in the last year of Reconstruction, it was soon hailed as the answer to Southern erosion. As Faulkner hit his writing stride, conservation agents paid farmers across the South $8 an acre to plant it on worn-out land - serious money in the Depression. By the time the Mississippi writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, the primordial green monster engulfed telephone poles and railroad right-of-ways and Civil War battlefields from Chickamauga to Vicksburg. Kudzu’s leaves and vines have itchy hairs that grab and strangle everything in their path. Every July, its purple flowers bust out looking like trailer-park wisteria and reeking like grape bubblegum left too long in the sun. It is nearly impossible to control, much less kill. By the time I was born in 1959, it didn’t just dominate North Mississippi’s rural landscape. It was the landscape....

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