Revisiting His Dash to Stay Still: Pico Iyer on the Craft and Life of a Restless Writer

A guest post by author and North Words Program Director Daniel Henry. (First Posted in May, 2018).

As Time magazine’s travel correspondent since 1986, Pico Iyer has visited nearly every corner of the globe in search of the astonishing, remarkable, bizarre, and profound. He’s the author of bestselling books including Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. In June 2018 he traveled to Skagway as the keynote speaker at the North Words Writers Symposium

North Words is an intimate affair (max. 40 participants) in the heart of historic Skagway, the jumping off city for Klondike argonauts. Apart from Iyer, this years faculty features authors Ernestine Hayes, Willy Vlautin, Colleen Mondor, Emily Wall, Frank Soos, and Ray Troll. To learn more about North Words, including how to register, visit their website.

North Words program director Daniel Henry recently exchanged thoughts with Pico Iyer about writing, cultural taboos, stillness, Alaska, and places he’ll never visit again.

DH: How would you describe your quest/craft to someone who doesn’t know your work?

PI: All my writing is a journey into what I don’t know, so I can deepen my sense of how much lies beyond my grasp or comprehension.

Writing teachers will sometimes say, “write what you know,” and that’s great advice. All great writing comes out of what we feel and know first-hand.

But I’m also a great believer in using writing to advance into the dark, to be reminded of how much we can never know, to be humbled (and stretched). Even if we’re writing about a mother, a hometown, a sweetheart, part of the attraction is that we’ll never get to the bottom of them, or know them entirely.

When I write non-fiction, I’m essentially sending searchlights out, and trying to gather a few kernels that I can shape into a story.

When I write fiction, I really feel I’m nosing in my car out into the desert after midnight, with the headlights off.  All kinds of terrifying spirits and creatures are jumping out at me, and the horror and beauty of the exercise is that all of them come from somewhere inside of me.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend anyone follow my example. but the one good discipline I got into as a kid—and the luxury I’ve been able to sustain through 32 years of being a free-lance writer—is that I do spend the first five hours of every day at my desk.

Every other day, that’s an exercise in masochism. I’m stuck, I’m tired, I’d rather be doing anything else. No words come—or, even worse, the wrong words keep coming.

But I know, after having done this for so long, that the next day more words will come out of me than I know what to do with, and they will be radiant and beautiful words I didn’t know I had inside me.

So writing is an exercise in patience—and in that sense, too, in trying to access those currents and truths that you didn’t know you might serve as a vessel for.

DH: In what ways did your education inform your writing?

PI: The best and only training for writing comes in reading. And though, like most of us, I really didn’t make the most of my education, maybe the one good thing I did was to spend eight formative years—between the ages of 17 and 25—studying nothing but literature.

Not an hour of history or social studies or science or foreign languages—this was all in England, where kids are encouraged to specialize very early—but just literature and more literature.

It made me pretty much entirely unemployable, but it did mean I got to keep company with the immortals, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Annie Dillard and Hunter Thompson.

I never studied writing as such, but for me studying reading was even better, in part because it showed me how Peter Matthiessen and Keats and Emily Dickinson wrote, and in part because it showed me how to read the world.

When I started traveling and found myself in Beirut or North Korea or Easter Island, I read these new places the way I would new texts.

The other great advantage of my boarding-school was that we were given lots of homework and lots of free time. So every day we were asked to produce a couple of essays, but we had all the hours free from maybe 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

At the time, of course, we played soccer, roamed around town and did all the things that adolescent boys love to do. but later I realized it was a great training in being self-sufficient, but also in meeting deadlines—perhaps the two most important things for any writer.

DH: We know you for a remarkable body of travel writing that touches –sometimes deeply—on the human condition. Which events and epiphanies led you decide to take up a career of writing about these subjects?

PI: As a boy I never kept a journal—I still don’t, really. But I was lucky to travel a lot growing up, partly because my parents (from India) moved from England (where I was born) to California, when I was seven, so got used, from the age of eight or so, to flying back and forth between my schools in England and my parents’ home in California several times a year.

And as soon as I graduated from high-school, at seventeen, I came back to California and got a job as a bus-boy at a Mexican restaurant. And with my savings, I got into a bus in Tijuana and spent the next four months riding down, through Mexico and Guatemala and Panama and Colombia and Ecuador and Peru, to Bolivia, before flying up through Brazil and Suriname and the West Indies and getting into a Greyhound bus in Miami to come home.

On that teenage trip, I couldn’t stop taking notes! All I wanted to do was to record every impression and experience and confounding new friend, in some way deeper than my Kodak Brownie camera could catch. and having gone to all the trouble of recording all this for myself, I thought that I might as well inflict it on my friends—and even on strangers.

And the idea came to me that I could take holidays for a living. Since all I wanted to do when I traveled was write, maybe I could write to keep the travel going forever?

One happy aspect of this gap year was that, of course, by the time I showed up for college, I realized that being lost in the Amazon and inhaling the 10,000-foot skies of La Paz and getting stuck in a house of ill repute in Bogota was far more fun than sitting in classrooms.

So when I was at graduate-school, I spent two summer vacations writing parts of the Let’s Go books (the $5-a-day books for student travelers in Europe that were, in the 1970s, the forerunner to Lonely Planet guides and rough guides) in England, France, Italy and Greece.

And when I got a job working for Time magazine in their New York city offices the next year, I started taking vacations—to Thailand, Burma, Japan, Indonesia, India—to escape the office and, after three years in New York, concocted a proposal for a travel book so that I could take a six-month leave of absence to travel across Asia, from Manila to Tibet.

DH: In this age of tribalism, what is the role of a cultural “in-betweener” like yourself?

PI: Growing up, as a little boy with an English accent and an Indian complexion and an American green-card, I always felt that I was in quite an unusual and privileged state. I had three sets of eyes to bring to the world, and I could try to create new combinations by bringing the California in me together with the England, say.

I never could have guessed that soon I’d be part of a huge tribe that already encompasses 280 million people and will soon represent a larger population than that of the entire United States.

I never guessed that the president of the United States would be a third culture kid, or that perhaps the most popular writer of non-fiction in our language (Malcolm Gladwell) and the great younger essayist and novelist (Zadie Smith) would both be half-English and half-Jamaican.

If you go to Toronto or London today—not to mention places like Dubai—the average person you meet is born in a foreign country and is therefore an “in-betweener.”

And the beauty of all this is that more and more of us define ourselves by our passions rather than by our passports, by where we’re going rather than where we “come from.” if someone asks me where my home is, I look to the people I love, the values and affections I carry everywhere with me, the songs that go round in my head, the books (The Quiet American and Walden) I always carry round with me.

As your question perfectly suggests, those who have pieces of themselves in many places don’t fit into our boxes and don’t allow us to think in terms of “us and them.” The other is everywhere nowadays, in our backyards, in our beds and often in ourselves.

When I was in Fairbanks last year, I learned that there are more Thai restaurants in that town than what we would call regular American restaurants.

The whole world is becoming mongrel, hybrid, very quickly, and that’s why tribalism, feeling so threatened by this rainbow flood, has staged a comeback.

But the beauty of the in-betweener—take our last president, say—is that he can’t think in terms of black-or-white because he’s black and white.

DH: In what ways does your cultural identity affect your freedom to move about and gather information?

PI: I suppose my one great advantage as a traveler is my complexion, which allows me to pass as a local in Cuba and Indonesia and Yemen and Iran. I can fade into the woodwork wherever I go, and when I’m in Brazil, say, I never feel threatened because the people around me, seeing my worn Payless shoe source loafers and torn t-shirt, always take me to be Brazilian.

Sometimes, in fact, I can fit in too well. In Cuba I used to be turned away from my hotel on the grounds of being Cuban, and in Iran I was the only American who didn’t receive fifty invitations to dinner a night because everyone assumed I was a local.

But by and large I’m grateful for my ability to fit in, and to float around, as you suggest, as just another guy on the street. I always travel as a tourist, and I have lived in Japan for 31 years on a tourist visa to remind myself that I’ll always be a tourist there, and that can be a wonderful short-cut to fresh and appreciative eyes.

My other advantage is to be male, and for many years I would use jet lag to open windows in the places I visit, and spend all night walking the streets of Bangkok or Singapore or Shanghai or Manila. Were I a woman, there are places I might have thought twice about visiting.

Plus, nearly all of us on this site probably have the great advantage of being native English speakers, and being fluent in the one lingua franca that everyone wishes to converse in.

DH: Is travel a distraction from one’s responsibility to a “home place?”  

PI: Traveling too much raises very difficult questions about accountability and responsibility. To which place do you really belong? How are you going to give back to the places you visit sufficiently to justify your presence there? Where do you vote? To whom will you be answerable—and not just floating around as a non-belonger everywhere?

And how will you justify your carbon footprint?

I wouldn’t call travel a distraction—though it can, in the wrong hands, be an escape. for me one of the blessings of travel is that it allows you to bring fresh eyes to the place where you live, and often to appreciate many of the things about your home you would otherwise take for granted.

Spend even a day in Cuba, North Korea or Ethiopia and you will be so grateful to live in America.

But the challenge for those who have many homes is to come up with a single, precise, concrete answer to the question, “What is the community to which you are beholden?”

When my grandparents were born, they knew which race, which religion, which caste and which place they belonged to, and had very little chance to change that. now many of us enjoy the opportunity to craft our own sense of home, from the many places that have formed us, but none of the answers are handed to us.

And if we don’t consciously and scrupulously devise a sense of home, we fall between the cracks, as between the gratings on a sidewalk.

DH: You probably get this a lot—where are your favorite places on earth? Do you have a top five?

PI: I do—and, interestingly, most of my favorite choices are (no coincidence) the places we hear about all the time and know about least. until very recently, my favorite place in the world—because it’s the saddest and the most exuberant, the most passionate and the most disenchanted, the most beautiful and the most dilapidated (in other words, the most complex, which keeps going round and round in one’s head like a song one can’t forget) was Cuba.

But then I was lucky enough to go to Iran, and that instantly flew into first place, as the richest, most glamorous—and most surprising—place I’ve ever been.

The other places I always recommend to friends are Vietnam, for its rare mix of industry and grace; the people work so hard, and yet they have such a lyrical, classical, artistic way about them, such a love of poetry and painting. and Tibet, in spite of all the sadness it has endured. there is a spirit there, an elevation—a capacity to transform you—that I haven’t found in decades of traveling around Nepal and Bhutan and Ladakh and other beautiful areas around the Himalayas (and the Andes).

Ideal for anyone who loves high places and high internal states.

I can’t end this answer, though, without a final confession. in 44 years of travel I have only twice accepted an invitation from a tourist board. the first time, in 2008, was an invitation from the Alaska tourist board, and I had such a radiant time wandering around southern Alaska in midsummer that it ended up as a cover-story for Smithsonian magazine.

And the second time I accepted an invitation from a tourist board was last year, again in Alaska. my wife and I came up to central Alaska in midwinter and had such a jubilant time that I ended up writing two pieces for the financial times in London and naming one spot in this amazing state as my “discovery of the year.”

DH: Which three locations will you never visit again?

PI: I love this question, in part because I’ve never been asked it before.

I hope I’m not offending too many people by saying that I had a challenging time in Atlanta. I used to cover all the Olympic sports for Time magazine, over six Olympiads, and so I spent a lot of time in Seoul and Barcelona and Albertville and Nagano and Los Angeles and Atlanta.

And somehow, in Atlanta, I never quite found a southern town (as I did so charmingly in Savannah) but never a northern town either. It didn’t seem to have small-town charm, but I didn’t really think of it as a big city, which could be compared with Shanghai or Rio or Paris.

So it’s not a place whose heart and soul I could easily catch, and it was disconcerting to find broken houses and potholed streets a seven-minute walk from the glittering skyscrapers of downtown.

I once took myself to the oil-rich country of Brunei—but after inspecting the local library and the statue of Winston Churchill, I wondered how I was ever going to fill the next 48 hours.

And I don’t think I’m in a hurry to return to Nagoya, alas—but only because there are such wondrous places all around it (in Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Ise, Kanazawa) that stopping off at an industrial city (as I once did, but only to see a Rolling Stones concert) may be something of a hard sell.

DH: Which basic communication strategies do you find most effective in engaging with new people? Name a few cultural taboos you’ve breeched, how others responded, and what you ended up doing.

PI: I break every taboo in the book, and I find people to be very forgiving. in Japan, where I live, the locals almost expect foreigners to wear toilet slippers in the living-room, to forget that you’re meant to wash yourself before you get into the bath, not in it, and to manage, somehow, not to slurp their soul.

They’re as delighted to find us just the galumphing foreigners they expect as we are delighted to find them, generally, the perfect hosts.

But wherever I go, I think, “I have 16 hours—or maybe it’s 16 days—to get to know this fascinating stranger.” So I try to ask as many questions as possible. And I always set myself an assignment, even if there’s no editor at the other end waiting for a piece from me on Pittsburgh or Oslo.

If I don’t, I find I’m too inclined to sit around my hotel room watching ESPN. But as soon as I ask a question of a place, I’m out on the street, I’m looking around the next corner, I’m engaged. I’ve turned what can be much too passive a pastime into an active conversation.

Everywhere from Tokyo to Havana, one thing I do is go to a baseball game. Instantly I’m in a much more convivial, welcoming, spirited community than I’d meet on the streets.

And for those who aren’t into baseball, go to a market, a supermarket, a dance performance, an opera. Even the Fast and the Furious 8 in Cairo will show you a different side of the Fast and the Furious–and a different side of Cairo.

DH: We really like your TED talk book, The Art of Stillness and would appreciate your thoughts on this: “Sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.” How does this kind of love compare with the love for travel?

PI: Oh, they’re beautiful complements, like breathing in and breathing out. Sitting still all your life can leave you too stuck inside your head; and moving all the time can leave you rich with experiences, but unable to process or make sense of any of them.

We all create our own balance, I suspect, and we all know that it’s very hard to be moved unless you’re sitting still.

For me travel—movement, experience—is like going to a market to collect all the ingredients you’ll need for dinner. But stillness is the kitchen in which you take all you’ve collected and produce a meal.

Stillness is how you turn the sights you’ve seen into insights. Stillness is where you convert experience into meaning.

To me that’s is one of the great beauties of the writer’s life. we get paid—or at least encouraged—to sit down after a great trip and try to recreate it so as to share it with another. We get a chance to digest all we’ve felt and smelled and seen, to try to put it into a pattern, to think about which parts will change us for the rest of our lives.

Travel is like meeting a gorgeous stranger and realizing you want to spend more time with her or him. sitting still is how you deepen that love and turn it into a lifelong affair!

4 thoughts on “Revisiting His Dash to Stay Still: Pico Iyer on the Craft and Life of a Restless Writer”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wonderful interview, thank you. I’ve been a fan of Iyer’s writing for as long as I can remember but I learned a lot in this post that I didn’t know about him.

  2. Lynn Lovegreen

    Beautiful post, Daniel. Not able to attend North Words this year but I highly recommend it!

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