By Marco Moreno Flores and Jeff Bernstein
Jaimal Yogis’ first book, a best-selling coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha, was praised by The Times of London, Publishers Weekly, and selected as one of E!’s Best Summer Reads. It has been translated into numerous languages. A feature documentary film based on the book will premier in 2016.
Jaimal’s second book, The Fear Project, was widely praised, translated in numerous languages, and is currently being used in a number of high schools as a way of teaching neuroscience and psychology.
Currently, Jaimal is in development for his first feature screenplay and working on a new non-fiction novel for Harper Collins.
Jaimal took a moment out of his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about the craft of memoir writing and his writing career. Learn more from Jaimal in his upcoming 4-week Memoir Bootcamp class starting Sunday, Jan. 31 at Writing Pad San Francisco.
1. If I want to write a memoir, how should I start figuring out what kind of story to tell? How do I know if there is a market or audience for the stories I have to tell?
There definitely are people out there who have amazing stories – someone who’s a war hero, for example – or someone who rose up from poverty and became a billionaire, and that’s an interesting story for sure, but people are also interested in the everyday and the mundane. Each time you break through a little fear inside yourself, or an insecurity, or you have an insight about what you should be doing in your relationships, those are heroic battles inside yourself. And those heroic battles are often more interesting than the gun battle in Fallujah, if they’re written honestly, with compassion and humor.
Never say I’m just a schoolteacher or I’m just a divorced parent or everyone has written a book about having a stroke or getting laid off or whatever. Everything has been done, but your creativity is like your thumbprint. No one has it except for you, and your story will add to humanity’s collective wisdom.
2. When you were writing Saltwater Buddha, how did you nail down which aspects of yourself as a real person would be parts of you, the character in the book?
In Saltwater Buddha, I had some luck in that I’d written an article about surfing: how it was a contemplative practice for me, not just a sport.
The article buzzed around the internet, and I got some feedback on the persona I put forth in the article. I was already thinking about writing a book about it, and a publisher called me because I said in my bio in the magazine that I wanted to write a book about Zen and surfing. Zen was already a big part of my life – I lived in a Buddhist monastery, and I had been surfing. But there we 18 other things that were big parts of my life, but I decided that I had this book deal and I was going to follow wherever Zen and surfing and ocean and meditation crossed paths, that this was the story I would follow.
Think of your persona in a memoir as a container or a bottle. In each piece, you “bottle” yourself in a certain way. As long as you’re telling the bottled version of yourself as honestly as you can, you can always bottle it differently the next time. Your readers will let you do that.
3. Tell me some more about the magazine article you wrote. How did that essay grow into your memoir?
The article I wrote was only 1000 words. I took one idea, and that was the idea that our true nature – one’s Buddha nature – is like the ocean, and all of our thoughts and ideas and identities are like passing waves. There’s an idea in popular meditation that the purpose is to get past the waves, to get to the placid lake. But when you study Zen, the masters keep coming back to the idea that the rough seas and the storms are part of your nature too, and the enlightened mind recognizes that there will always be changes in your temperament. It’s all water – it’s all the same stuff.
I experience this every time I surf. I have this macro experience, through surfing, of something that is often made into a metaphor in Zen. The essay was very short. Once I saw that this simple personal experience was attractive to readers, I decided that I wanted to show readers what this learning process was like for me.
4. When I think of a story of enlightenment, I think of Hesse’s Siddhartha. Did you have a specific model in mind when you wrote your memoir?
Yes, definitely. I did think of Siddhartha when I was writing Saltwater Buddha. It was the one book I took with me when I ran away from home in high school, so I went back to that book that struck a chord with the masses but also retells the Buddha story in novel format. That was an ancient epic, sort of like Homer’s Odyssey, so I wondered how I could tell that story in novel format. You have to be very careful who you decide to take as your leader as you’re writing. I first took Anne Lamott.
This is a woman who wrote great novels, and then murder mysteries, and eventually became an alchoholic. Then when she quit drinking, joined joined a gospel church, and now writes about her own spirituality. But it’s a quirky liberal Christian spirituality, and she’s hilarious. She does something totally unique, and I thought that this is more or less what I want to capture. She is an easy writer to pigeonhole: woman quits drinking and finds Jesus. Then you read the story and it’s not that at all: she’s just herself. This is a voice I can follow, the writing is great – it’s simply and funny. And I continue to use her as a guide.
Then I went and found surf writers, like Daniel Duane, who is here in San Francisco and wrote Caught Inside, and Stephen Kotler, who wrote West of Jesus – their books were doing well at the time. They didn’t have quite the voice I was trying to capture, but they wrote great books. They captured the feeling of surfing. I combined what I learned from their books with Anne Lamott and Siddhartha, and I tried to make they guiding lights. I didn’t want the models to take over my book.
5. So with your new memoir, are your going through this process all over again, finding a new version of yourself? New inspirations? What’s that like?
With Saltwater Buddha, I went through the process of finding a container for myself that was honest and real. I had what I thought was horrible fortune at the time, which is that I tried to write a novel and couldn’t finish it. I was frustrated, and I said that I wanted to live off my writing and I needed to write a book that I could get an advance for. I wanted a package that would sell – and that was the fear project: a project about neuroscience and psychology. In writing that, even though I liked the book, I felt that I didn’t find quite the right container for myself. Even when I published it, the voice didn’t feel quite right.
It was a good experience, because when I got started with my third book, I was able to look at both of my previous books and ask myself what I did in Saltwater Buddha that allowed me to find that authentic persona. I realized that it came from looking at myself in the third person and realizing that I’m a bumbling fool. I’ve made a hundred mistakes and yet if I were talking to someone who had made all the mistakes I had made I would want to give them a chance – I wouldn’t think of that person as a total idiot that I shouldn’t listen to. Saltwater Buddha was more honest – in that book I was spiritually vulnerable, psychologically vulnerable, so I said okay, I’m going to do that in this third book because it felt right.
But it is ten years later now. Hopefully my voice is more mature, but it still has to get to this essence, this compassionate vulnerability, to allow myself to bleed onto the page and say hey, this is okay, this is true – and if, on my death bed, I can say that whether or now by my book made any money, I told my truth, which means more than making money and telling a half truth. Those two things – the idea of seeing myself in the third person and this question of whether on my death bed I can still say that I wrote an honest book – push me to keep it real in this next book. And I think I’ve done that. Hopefully my publisher will agree.
6. How did you come to writing? Was this something that came later to you, or did you write as a teenager when you were surfing? Did you keep a journal? How did you evolve as a writer?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. Reading and writing came naturally to me as a kid – I wrote stories about animals and stuff – and my teachers would say I had no trouble writing a lot, but I didn’t see myself as a writer. I did like Kerouac and the other Beats in high school. But I was interested in everything and wasn’t especially interested in writing. My sister was studying English and was the poet in the family. I was in a Buddhist monastery before college, thinking I was going to be a monk.
Then I went to college thinking I was going to be a marine biologist before deciding to major in religion – and when I got out of college I wondered what I was going to do with all of this experience. Get a Ph.D? Go back to being a monk? I started a journalism program at Columbia, which was a dual master’s program in religion and journalism. I thought I would be able to travel and do cool stuff – like Sebastian Junger out in the jungle, with a little Indiana Jones mixed in. I was 25, and I was insecure about my writing. I thought everyone at the school was going to be a better writer than me. It turned out that I was just fine. I could put one word after another just like everyone else, and that was when I realized that I was good at structuring stories. I wasn’t as good as some others at the investigative research part of journalism, but once I had the material I could write a good story. That was when the lightbulb went off.
I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and I realized that being a writer was a way of seeing the world. You can be interested in everything, like I’ve always been. I didn’t think I would write books until I was older – I thought I would be in the magazine journalism world for a long time. But then I wrote that piece about surfing and meditation. I almost didn’t write it, because it felt too vulnerable, like I was giving away too much. My career changed direction as a result.
7. Do you have a standard creative process that you use to approach each project? Is there some process that’s classically you, that you use to approach any project at all – article or memoir?
I think in terms of movie scenes. I will always go and close my eyes and picture the movie. This helps me find my central scenes. I want to hang everything around a moment, and I see the characters and the lights and the director. I want emotion to lead, and film is the genre that cracks at your heart. I find the scenes, and then I dangle the characters off of them. This is what makes a good magazine piece. I also am really good at taking breaks. I write and write, and then I need to find something to do – running or surfing or meditation, something nonverbal – that gives me space from my writing. If I don’t get this space, I feel like I’m in a bad relationship. I start fighting with my pages. I’ve also been doing some screenwriting, and I follow this process for these projects too.
8. On that note, are you working on a documentary as well?
Jamail: Yeah. Right when Saltwater Buddha came out, a pair of national geographic divers said they wanted to make a film about it and I sort of rolled my eyes. But I was excited and over the course of five years we pieced together some funding and went to Hawaii and New York, and all these other places where the book takes place, and we did this sort of retelling of the book as a doc. It’s done now, we’re submitting it to a couple of film festivals. It’s been an interesting ride and a good way to learn about grassroots film making—and fun to see your words live in a different way. It’s going to be out sometime in the next year.
9. So, how do you even go about starting to adapt the memoir to a film or a documentary?
This process was so unique, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Saltwater Buddha is the kind of book that if it was going to be a film, should have been a feature film. But we didn’t have money for if that so what could we do? We thought: We don’t want to make surf porn, because I’m not that great of a surfer. What if we capture the essential spirit of the book and retell some of the stories? And that’s what we did.
To be honest, it was frustrating having to do that because we didn’t have a script, we were just winging it. A lot of the editing came after we shot about two terabytes of footage and had all these interviews with different people and with me, and then realized, somehow this has to get whittled down. In the end we were happy, but it would have been better if we had written a script and then shot that script.
It was a good lesson. I was going along with these film makers who had done it before. I mean, a good way to make a doc is just shoot the heck out of it and then see what you have. Anyway, we’re happy with the way it came out, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It took 6 years, but it’s been fun. It’s nice to say we finished a film, because so many people never do.
10. So what’s coming up for you next, for your third memoir?
I’m turning it in and then we’ll go through the editing process. I have a really great editor, Cary Brunell, at Harper. That’s another thing about pitching that is like matching. She’s an editor who works on amazing books, but she’s also a water person, so we connect on both the soul level and on the narrative level. There are people out there who will match with you—you don’t believe it, but they’re out there. I can’t believe I found her.
So to bring that in, I’m working on another doc with a filmmaker based on a story I did in Afar magazine, about the first female Muslim surf star in Bangladesh. She rose from the most severe poverty you can imagine, to being one of the best surfers in the country. Her struggle is incredible and we’ve shot the whole doc. This was one where we really did have to shoot it all, just terabytes of footage, and now they’re editing it. I’m a producer, overseeing it a bit.
Thanks Jamail! That was very inspiring. If you want to learn how to write a stellar memoir like Jamail has, sign up for his 4 week memoir class starting Jan. 31, and you could have your memoir in Oprah’s book club in no time.