Why I Write (Or Is It How?)

by Pico Iyer


An Englishman wakes up in an Eastern city, at the call to prayer. He goes out into the dark and travels to a mosque in the old part of the city, in search of a Sufi contact. Not much later, he’s hearing about a secret manuscript, from the Islamic tradition, that may have gone out into the West, taking its hidden messages into the wider world.

One kind of reader, encountering this scene, thinks, “This is a book about enlightenment, awakening. About being wakened by the call to prayer and going to the mosque to find a secret self, an alter ego who opens up a lost part of you.” Another, no less reasonable, says, “This is a story about Islam and the Western world. About a Westerner traveling into the heart of Islam to try to discover its secrets, and to find out what it has to teach him.” A third may just take the story as a mystery, an exciting, perhaps exotic pursuit of a fugitive manuscript.


The writer’s job is to entertain every level at once: to write with all parts of her being so as to engage the reader at all levels of his, or, at least, to speak on different levels to the many different kinds of reader who may pick up her book. Only the best of writers manage to speak from heart, mind, and soul all at once, and they produce the classics we adore. But when I, for example, began my last novel with the scene described above—no, it wasn’t the alarm clock that was awakening him, the man realized in the first sentence, it was the cry of the muezzin—I was doing what is most fun because (for me) most impossible, to do, which is write to the mystic, the page-turner and the cultural explorer all at once.

It is, for those of us not gifted on many levels, a challenge always bigger than we are and ahead of us; in life we share the whole of ourselves only with a longtime partner, if that. The rest get only parts (and those parts often an actor’s parts). But when I sit down at my desk, on a beautiful autumn morning, the leaves in the park across the street from me beginning to turn, the kids running about, kicking up a storm of color, the sky above the slate-grey roofs brilliant and blue, unaccountably warm, I’m hoping that I can be the person I present to the world, the person I am to myself, the person unknown to me who may not even be a person.

Gnomic, perhaps: which is why it is best explained only by its effects. After the character in my novel returns to California, he encounters a woman, and he starts driving with her up into the hills. “Another clichéd Californian love-affair,” some readers will think (the girl is blonde, and an actress, and full of the vagueness and waywardness we associate with all things Californian, not very far from Hollywood). A meeting with a kindred spirit, who will, as in many a love-affair, reflect back to him the parts of himself he is unwilling or unable to see, says another reader (holding onto the fact that the woman’s name is a near-anagram of the male character’s, and the experience of each reflects the other's in curious ways). A journey into his own hidden self, his anima, the lost and sometimes better part of him, a Sufi will instantly see, just as in every Sufi poem. In Tibet, in John Donne, in Leonard Cohen and the poems of Persia and India, the singing of a love-song looks on one level like a hymn to a woman, but on another like a hymn to the divine, or the eternal, or however you like to think of what is deepest or truest within. It’s as hallowed a tradition as the villanelle (and, perhaps, the reason why this character’s seeking a Sufi manuscript, and not a Sunni or an Afghan or a Chinese text).

Our lives—my life at least—play out like that. I walk through the streets and take in a blaze of surfaces, variously diverting, allegorical, shallow, and surprising. I also may make contact with a pair of eyes seen in a shop or, displaced, stumble upon something I had never discovered at home. I then sit down in a coffee shop and have a four-hour conversation with a friend that changes the landscape of my life. All on the same afternoon outing, and all engaging me at a different levels.

The book in which I described the Englishman going into the mosque and up into the hills with the Californian was called Abandon. “Abandon” is one way you could translate the word “Islam,” often rendered as “submission.” It is how we refer to the love, the fever, in which we surrender everything. But when we abandon ourselves, we often find ourselves abandoned—left out, stranded, in the lurch, in the phrase the therapists now use (with their talk of “abandonment” issues). It isn’t just a play on words, playing the mystic’s abandonment, the best sense of being lost to God or something outside yourself, against the disappointed lover’s, feeling herself stuck; it’s a way of enacting the everyday truth that everything that happens to us happens on several levels. “I feel lost,” a friend says when we meet her, and she may be speaking geographically, she may be talking psychologically, she may actually be saying she’s on the brink of feeling herself somewhere new and transforming. The aim in life is to transform the lowest sense into the highest.

A character in my book, an absent-minded professor, actually begins the story by delivering a lecture on the Song of Songs to reiterate this point: to some that book in the Bible is a sensuous love-song, to others an esoteric testament charged with spiritual meanings. The words never change, only the people looking at them.

The books I go back to are the ones that offer the promise of giving me something entirely different every time I look at them. A single page can turn in a hundred directions. I can pick up The Quiet American and realize that the American isn’t quiet at all, and yet is notably different from the unquiet Englishman. I can turn to Mason & Dixon and see that the account of the charting of America in the mid-eighteenth century is the best and most beautiful evocation of the 1960s and their influence on America today that I have read, all but unsurpassable. I will read Sabbath’s Theatre again, and not only shake my head that Philip Roth can set a scene from King Lear in the New York subway and pull it off somehow, but muse on why he chose the name “Sabbath” instead of his usual Portnoy or Zuckerman or Kopesh. The books I love aren’t books to read and put down, but to re-read, to catch their changing angles. It’s like walking through a room hung with crystals, every one of which catches the light, throws off rainbows, in a different way every day, and in every part of every day.

This is, I tell myself, how the unconscious works: It speaks in metaphors even as it takes in daily life. It offers names—Sabbath, Abandon—that come from nowhere but then are seen to have a hundred meanings (the way a friend gives us a book, and, if it’s a wise enough friend, we find that she’s giving us many books at once). The conscious mind sees a path, follows a line, has a point it wants to prove, and a sense of where it’s going; the unconscious heads off into the dark, so every moment is a discovery, and works on one mysteriously.

When I began covering the Olympic Games for Time, a task I undertook at five Olympiads, a fellow sportswriter explained the process of writing to me (sportswriters were known to be the most stylish and often the most talented of magazine writers because they had, with style and sensibility alone, to take an event that everyone knows is not of world-shaking importance, and turn it into a jewel, a parable, a story of human interest and human emotion). “I remember Frank telling me”—he cited the acknowledged dean and master craftsman of all sportswriters—”how, every time he wrote an article, he thought of it as a series of bells. He’d place a bell somewhere near the beginning. And then another further on. And then another, a little later. All of them would make just a little chiming tinkle. But if you placed them at the right intervals, and could get the run of the piece to work just right, somewhere round about the end, you’d set off an effect whereby the smallest sentence would touch off all the bells at once, bringing them together in a grander chime, so suddenly you were ending with a Hallelujah chorus.”

Well, he didn’t say it quite like that, but that was the point. You’d get a delayed pay-off, and all the bells would ring together in a grand hosanna.

This isn’t what the reader consciously is after as she turns the pages. It may make demands on her—when is that next damn bell going to ring?—or just leave her wondering why (in Pynchon’s case) the story has got abandoned so the author can deliver a lecture on giant cheeses and the history of automata. It means dirty jokes in Shakespeare, of the crudest kind, bouquets of prose thrown in for the groundlings, bad puns and foolish ditties. Philip Roth breaks every taboo when he’s on, to pitch us into the widest, wildest parts of ourselves and our subconscious (his books at times being the story of how the conscious mind works hard to be a good boy, to please the parents, to get good grades in school, and then the unconscious blows it aside and wreaks a pornographic havoc). The writer at his desk knows as viscerally as anyone that he has not a clue what’s going on, and doesn’t have the first idea where all this is leading.

I send my character, for no good reason, off to the Alhambra, in Granada, one of the many places where an Islamic tradition meets and touches the West, where a work is constructed of such sensual and romantic beauty that it seems to be transmitting a spiritual truth. It stands for the convivencia, the golden age when Jew, Christian, and Moslem all lived in relative harmony in southern Spain. It speaks, as Venice does elsewhere, for the place where the West tried to expel the Islamic tradition, only to find it sneak in again through the back door (60 percent of all words in Spanish have their origins in Arabic). It speaks of mystery.

Maybe none of these are the reasons why the subconscious unexpectedly one day, in suburban Japan, alighted on Granada. But ten months after my book came out, I found myself there, in this place I’d hardly seen before. I went out, on the penultimate day of the year, at dusk, stealing out of my room in late afternoon, as the gates were beginning to close, as the last buses were laboring down from the hill above with the day’s last sightseers.

I hurried up the sloping street, to where it becomes a garden, the reddening building in the fading sun above me. I walked against the crowds, as they poured down into the city, the day growing chilly, faces and hands stinging. I climbed up to the central square where people assemble before entering the main building, and after they have exited, and I noticed that the guard post at the main exit was unmanned. The place would be closed in fifteen minutes.

I slipped in, through the back entrance, and walked backwards, as it were, through the zigzagging garden, and while a couple of guards disappeared to take care of the day’s last business, I stole into the place through its last room, some other guards herding the final tourists out.

I went back swiftly through the last four rooms and then found myself suddenly alone, in one of the great courtyards, the building shimmering in the reflecting pool, the place so silent you could hear the sound of water. Room after room now was suddenly my own, and I was back many centuries before, on what might have seemed unvisited ground, as the day’s last light picked out a window here and there.

Three years before, I’d visited this scene in my head at my desk in Japan. If the subconscious was working as it should (we know this from dreams), what we’re really remembering is the future.




Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, translated into twenty-three languages, most recently two contradictory books on Japan published more or less simultaneously, Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan. His novel, Abandon, on the intricate dance between Islam and the West, was sent to his editor on September 10, 2001.