What Are You REALLY Writing About?


I had the pleasure of hearing Michael Pollan speak last weekend in San Francisco. He was the keynote speaker at a conference for independent school trustees (yup, that’s me – newly appointed to the Board of Trustees at Chadwick School, and proud to serve a school that has been at the center of my family’s life for 8 years.) His point has to do with the garden and the school cafeteria as places of true learning — “Gardens are a place where we can see ideas in practice, where we can experience the friction between our ideas and the way the world works,” he said. And, “What’s on our plate is now our closest encounter with the natural world.” Turns out that Pollan is not only a deep thinker and an engaging writer (The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules, Cooked), he is a gifted speaker, and his message on this topic was very powerful and moving.
 
What really got my attention, though, was the few minutes he spoke about his writing life. He read some hilarious passages from his first book, a memoir called Second Nature, and then talked about the pressure and responsibility of writing the second book.
 
Writers frequently talk about the second-book blues. In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes, “The beginnings of a second and third book are full of spirit and confidence because you have been published and false starts and terror because you now have to prove yourself again.” 
 
What Pollan had to say, however, was something else entirely: Most second books aren’t beloved by readers, he said, but “The second book is the most revealing for the writer.”
 
Revealing? How so? “One book is a point in space,” he explained, “Two books is a line.”
 
What was his line going to be? That was the question. He started a book called The Architecture of Dreams, thinking he would write again about building something – not a garden, this time, but a room, a shed. He thought that his topic -- the one he would stake his career on -- was building things, making things, creating things. As he wrote, however, found himself gravitating away from questions of building and towards questions of nature in architecture. That book, in other words, taught him what really mattered to him. “I learned that nature is my topic,” he said. He was writing about architecture, but “I drove towards nature.” The next book after that was the mega bestseller, The Botany of Desire, and what followed that was a storied career as one of the world’s foremost experts on food, eating, and the natural world.
 
It all makes sense in retrospect, but at the time, he was just a young writer searching for what to say and how to say it, and listening – hard – for the longings of his writers’ heart.
 
You may still be writing the book that is going to be your one point in space, but it’s interesting to try to imagine two books or three books into the future and see what’s out there on that line for you. What do you drive towards? What is the thing that you can’t stay away from, no matter how hard you try?
 
 
I Think in Books
 
Pollan joked that no one had heard of his first book, Second Nature, but I keep it on the shelf of books I frequently reach for to remind me how to write about something very “small” and personal and yet still manage to write about something universal. He’s writing about the garden in the backyard of his house in Connecticut – how to grow tomatoes, how to get rid of the woodchucks -- but he is writing about so much more, and you know that from page 1. If you have any interest in Pollan, or gardening, or memoir, or woodchucks, I highly recommend it.