Mark Salzman's annus horribilis began with a case of writer's block. It was spring 2009, and he was overdue on a novel -- set during what he refers to as the "conquest period" of the Mongol Empire, in the 13th century -- that wasn't going well.
"I had handed in a third draft of that novel," he remembers over a simple lunch of fruit and pasta in his La Canada Flintridge kitchen, "and it wasn't good enough. I was starting to feel desperate. I'm one of those people for whom, when it comes to what I want to say or my feeling that I have something to say, I go through long stretches where I'm becalmed. During these times I'm able to be patient and trust that I'm fine. But there are times when I get anxious and think I have to do something about it, and generally that doesn't work out well. I make myself tense, I have real negative thoughts, and I use them to try and spur myself on to greater action. But that only seems to make me more wound up."
Salzman -- whose books include the memoirs "Iron & Silk" and "True Notebooks" and the novel "Lying Awake" -- laughs as he tells the story, but his laughter has an edge. At 52, he is wiry, with short blond hair going gray and a nervous, boyish energy; he's alert to the nuances, one might say.
"If the Salzman family had a coat of arms," he writes in his new memoir "The Man in the Empty Boat," the story of his year in the emotional wilderness, "it would be a shield with a face on it and the face would look worried." As an example, he describes an encounter just after he dropped out of college in the middle of his junior year. Distraught over what he "considered to be the meaninglessness of existence," Salzman went to his father, a social worker, for advice. "After he'd listened for an hour or so without interrupting," he writes, "... [my father] pushed his reading glasses a bit higher on his nose, and looked at me for a long time. At last, he gave me a sad little smile and said, 'Welcome.' "
This is an almost perfect encapsulation of Salzman's aesthetic -- worried, resigned and yet gently amused as well. Such states of mind are at the center of "The Man in the Empty Boat," which grew out of a performance piece he developed for Idaho's Squaw Valley Writers conference that helped him circumvent his writer's block.
"It's short, so there's no wallowing," notes Jane Friedman, chief executive of Open Road Integrated Media, which decided to issue "The Man in the Empty Boat" as an e-book after the company's co-founder, Jeffrey Sharp, saw Salzman's Idaho presentation and came out of it in tears. "I was just overwhelmed by its human quality, by the lightness of his touch."
As for Salzman, the attraction was more practical; "not thinking I was writing a text," he says, "something meant to be read, freed me up a lot. All I was doing was creating notes for a talk that would be pretty free-form, and I didn't have to write it word for word. It was exactly the story that became this book, just in less detail."
Friedman is right: "The Man in the Empty Boat" is a slight book, but it never flinches, relentless, sad and funny at once. For Salzman, writer's block was the tip of the iceberg; not long after he realized his novel was going nowhere, he began to suffer debilitating panic attacks. Then, his sister Rachel was hospitalized with pneumonia, only to die from a staph infection there.
"If there was a button I could press," he writes, describing his reaction to her death, "and I knew that pressing it would make every human being on the planet disappear instantly, painlessly, forever, without a trace, so that the whole bonfire of fear and hope and confusion and pain would be over with, once and for all -- would I press it? ... God, yes, I thought. I would press it in a heartbeat. And I felt truly sorry that no such button existed."
It takes a leap of faith to find relief from such despair in writing, but that's what Salzman did. "Sometimes," he observes, "to write about a painful experience is strangely cathartic" -- although the real catharsis in "The Man in the Empty Boat" is a more individual one. The title of the book comes from the "Zhuangzi"; "If a man in a boat is crossing a river and an empty boat drifts along and bumps into his," this 2,000-year-old Taoist classic tells us, "he won't get angry. ... If a man could make himself empty, and pass like that through the world, then who could harm him?"
That echoes Salzman's experiences as a teenager, studying Buddhism and martial arts, which he evoked in the 1995 memoir "Lost in Place," and the detachment he was struggling to achieve in adult life. When his troubles began, he recalls, "I started to do a lot of meditating and breathing exercises. But the way I approached the meditation was result-oriented. I needed to become calm because that would help me write the book. And it better happen soon because this had been going on for years."
Three years later, he can see the irony, but in the moment, meditation turned out to trigger, not diffuse, his anxieties. "At one point," Salzman says, "my brother-in-law called to say he had heard an interview with a psychiatrist, and among his patients were Tibetan Buddhist monks in exile, who have panic attacks during meditation. Apparently, the trauma of having escaped from China comes out when they're most relaxed. Certainly for me, the worst thing I could do was to meditate or do tai chi. It would bring it on right away."
The turning point, Salzman notes, came after he had given up; in fact, it was the giving up that was the key. Away for a week in Idaho, alone with the family dog, he had a revelation: That everything was as it was supposed to be.
This sounds simple, counterintuitive even, especially given what Salzman had gone through. And yet, what other choice did he have? "It was a vivid emotional and intellectual experience," he says, "where I felt, suddenly: Oh my gosh, I see what my mistake was all along. I believed that there was an invisible entity within me, an agent that truly had control over the ship. And when I came to feel that this didn't exist, it was like a gigantic knot finally came undone."
As for what that means, Salzman doesn't know, although he worries that his newfound equanimity might have a deleterious effect on his need to write. "I feel," he admits as he clears away the dishes, "that my primary identity isn't as a writer, it's as someone trying to figure out problems I can't escape. So if that's my central conflict -- and it's clearly the subject of all my books -- and now that central conflict has been resolved, what am I going to write about?"
For the moment, though, there's "The Man in the Empty Boat" and his excitement about publishing in a different way. The book comes with a print-on-demand option, but mostly it exists in the digital realm, and while this offers certain challenges (no book tour, no public events), it also opens up possibilities.
"A lot of people I know," Salzman says, "are threatened by the e-book thing, but I don't feel that. I think that what people want from physical books is going to endure. Digital books, it's just a different means and it serves different ends." Then, as if he were discussing his own journey: "Ideas get transferred. That's what it's all about. This is evolving on its own."