November 6, 2019 17

Michael Pollan on writing: What illuminates a story?

Michael Pollan on writing: What illuminates a story?


this was an enormously challenging book to
write. First of all, I knew very little about neuroscience. I knew very little about psychology, psychotherapy. And I had very limited experience of psychedelics. I had these mushrooms a couple of times in
my 20s, but it was what people call a museum dose– enough to make the world sparkle, but
not to lead to any kind of profound insights. So I was faced with the challenge of mastering
a new subject, and I was faced with the challenge of trying these psychedelics because I realized
I could not describe the experience strictly based on interviews with other people. And that’s how I work as a writer. One of the very important parts of my work
is to find a way to have an experience that will illuminate the story. So when I wrote about food, I bought a cow
and followed it through the food system, through the meat industry. And I apprenticed myself to a great baker
to learn how to bake. And I feel that these kind of experiences,
especially when you’re doing it for the first time, gives you an ability to see things very
freshly. And you have that sense of wonder that comes
with first sight, and you also get the common possibilities of a fish out of water, doing
something that he or she is not very good at and the learning that comes from that. So one of the things I always think about
when I’m starting a project like this is, what are the different perspectives that I
need to bring to bear on this subject? I don’t believe any one perspective can unlock
a subject as complex as psychedelics. So you need to look at it– and this was true
when I was writing about food and plants. Nonfiction gets interesting when you multiply
the perspectives or layer the different lenses that you bring to. So you can look at this through the lens of
neuroscience, say. A very interesting lens illuminates a lot. But that doesn’t tell you anything about the
lived experience. Because neuroscience cannot reach consciousness. It has no tools for penetrating or measuring
consciousness, except the absence of it. And so phenomenology– the accounts of lived
experience are very important. And I could get those from the volunteers
I interviewed and from my own experience. So I needed a memoiristic element, as well
as the neuroscientific element. And then there’s the historical lens. History always illuminates things. How did we get here? Why did it take so long to get here? What have we learned along the way? So I realized, OK, I’m going to need to do
a chapter of history or two. I’m going to need to do a chapter of neuroscience,
a chapter of my own trips, and it gradually comes together. Each chapter is going to represent a different
lens on this subject, and I’m going to circle it from these different points of view. And that, to me, is how you make nonfiction
rich. Otherwise, you might as well write an article. And what necessitates a book is the fact that
no one perspective will give you the picture you need, the full dimensional picture. Within that frame, the most challenging part
was describing the psychedelic trips. Many people have said– and William James
famously said that the mystical experience is ineffable– beyond the reach of language. Well, I had an effort. I couldn’t just let that lie and just say
you had to be there. But it’s very hard to describe because these
are kind of pre-linguistic experiences. One of the researchers I interviewed said–
I said why are these experiences so hard to describe? And he said, well, imagine a cave man coming
to New York in 2019, and he sees subways going by, and planes overhead, and people talking
on phones, and the noise of traffic. And then he goes back to his friends in the
cave, and what does he say? He says it’s loud and fast, and he doesn’t
have the words for cell phone or the bustle of urban life. The language doesn’t exist. But I had to find the language, and so I approach
those chapters with a great deal of trepidation and as much trepidation as I had about the
trips themselves. And it took me a while to figure out how to
write about it. Because I was trying to write for a general
audience. I’m not writing for psycho nuts. I’m writing for people who’ve never had this
experience, but might be curious. And I want to tell them what it’s like. And it took me a while, but I gradually found
a voice in which I could do it. And this comes through trial and error of
writing an account and reading it and going, that sounds crazy. Or that sounds really banal. Gee, you’ve had an insight that love is the
most important thing in the universe. That’s a Hallmark card. The solution I found to that was to be very
candid with my reader and essentially tell the narratives. And then break the fourth wall at various
points, step out of the narrative, and say, look, I know how banal this sounds, but let’s
talk about banality for a little while. There’s a very thin line between the profound
and the banal. What is a platitude? Well, it’s a truth that’s lost its emotional
force from sheer repetition. So how do we recover that? Or, in another moment, where if something
crazy happens, I would break the wall and say, I know how crazy this sounds. So I kind of move in and out of the experience,
sort of the way a memoir writer would juxtapose the point of view of the 10-year-old with
the adult and go back and forth. Because if you just stayed in the head of
the 10-year-old, it would have no perspective. It might have vividness, but no perspective. And if you stayed in the head of the adult,
it wouldn’t be evocative. So memoirs, I realized– and I realized this
teaching them because I teach writing– get their [INAUDIBLE] or their edge from that
going back and forth in perspective. And I kind of did the same thing, not in a
temporal dimension, but on this inside outside of the experience. So I found my voice to write about it, and
once I did, it was great fun to write about the trips. I’ve never had more fun as a writer. I loved describing them. And I and I would license the absolute madness
of parts of the experience by saying, yeah, I know, it’s crazy, but this is what happened. So this book was great fun to write. I was learning new things. I loved being at the beginning of the learning
curve on this subject, rather than at the end. One of the reasons I moved from writing about
food to this was I realized I had become an expert after three or four books on food. And I don’t like writing as an expert. I think readers don’t like experts. I think they want someone to take them on
a journey. And my education becomes the story that you
follow. I always start out as an idiot in my writing. I’m naive. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m confused. I have questions in my head. I’m reluctant. I’m skeptical. And gradually, I build my knowledge. We learn things. Things happen. And by the end, we are experts, but we’re
not at the beginning. And I think that’s a really important lesson
for writing in general. I think even though when you finish a research
project, you have your conclusions, don’t put them on page one. That’s like starting the joke with the punchline. Storytelling is you start from knowing less,
and you move toward knowing more. So that the novelty of this subject, the fact
that I was very naive, was a virtue, or at least, made a virtue. So we shouldn’t be afraid of our ignorance. We should use it in our storytelling

17 Replies to “Michael Pollan on writing: What illuminates a story?”

  • sks says:

    911 was c0ntr0lled d3molition

  • LinSuen says:

    You made me wanna try mushrooms

  • Stay Woke says:

    If this guy was a cup ,it'd be full of himself.

  • dontstresstoomuch says:

    Watching this video felt like Micheal was directly giving me advice on a project I've been working on. It felt like he took all the doubts I had about not being an expert, not knowing how to write, how to include all perpectives etc. and addressed them one by one…Thank you so much

  • Pedro Augusto says:

    Good advice! Presenting the puzzle and then slowly put the pieces toguether.

  • somastic69 says:

    The massive media effort to destroy president Trump is executed by leftist Jewish owners of media corporations.

  • h7opolo says:

    3:41 "i had to eff it", i like that phrase.

  • Bogdan Chilianu says:

    press 8

  • HingleMcCringleBerry26 says:

    I really enjoyed the book. More history than I was expecting but he does cover a lot

  • Evan Fields says:

    Takes drugs and writes about it. "I've never had more fun as a writer." Ya, drugs are awesome.

  • Bobby Garrity says:

    I've read How To Change Your Mind and I can confirm that it is so well written. I knew quite a bit about psychedelics before reading it, so I wasn't his target reader, but I still learned a lot from it. However Pollan's excellent writing was really what kept me from putting the book down. I highly recommend it!

  • Iron Ballz says:

    This is a privilege. Interview Ruth Ozeki next.

  • Naomi G says:

    “We shouldn’t be afraid of our ignorance; we should use it in our storytelling.” Damn

  • Rick Harold says:

    Thx interesting!

  • Self Elements says:

    I'm not big on writing, but I absolutely love Art as much as I do Science, or perhaps even more. But nothing comes close to my passion for Wonder. As a humble observer, I'd say the primary goal of writers is to be able to capture the essence of subjective experiences and then translate that into words, perception. Thus, the object of Art is imagination, to make us dream. To help reach the mystical through numinous elements as the bridge to the Self. To open us up, to wonder. To try and offer inspiration and meaning for what is, in scientific terms, a meaningless life.

  • Robert Rodgers says:

    Sadly, very disappointingly… this fella babbled so much in the beginning that he made watching the rest of the video absolutely pointless. Here is an idea for improvement, DON"T WASTE TIME… especially the time of others. I wanted to like the video because of the topic. But! That scumbag made himself worthy of nothing but contempt in just a matter of seconds.

  • Stephen Powdexter says:

    "history always illuminates things" – so true. History is often criticized as dead and over with, which simply illustrates the ignorance and closed mindedness of those people. So there Henry Ford.

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