In 2002, I came upon a book whose alluring title sucked me in right away: In Search of the Medicine Buddha. Given its setting in Nepal, where I trekked twenty years ago, and author David Crow’s exploration of the great ancient medical traditions of Tibet, China and Ayurveda, I did everything I could to absorb this book. Then, a couple of years ago, after gaining more knowledge on all of these traditions, I read the book again.
My feeling was the same: In Search of the Medicine Buddha was more than a travelogue, one man’s search for his deeper purpose, a memoir, the author’s fascination with plants, or a study of alchemy and medicine in ways that are simply beyond conventional medicine. It was all of the above, and more: a lyrical narrative with information and story woven together so fluidly and beautifully that, I swore, a great seamstress in the sky was conducting the literary show. It also took its permanent place as one of the 50 best books I’ve ever read.
Imagine my delight earlier this week, when David Crow – now an internationally known expert on Ayurveda, aromatherapy, Tibetan and Chinese medicine and botanical medicine — came to the Ananda College campus and spent an hour and a half with several of my writing students and I. He shared stories from In Search of the Medicine Buddha, discussed the medicinal values of various plants, talked about career opportunities in the herbalism field and explained how one book completely changed his life on a global scale by the formation of his company, Floracopeia — and how he now craves the time to write so creatively again.
The biggest thrill of our time together was something quite different. Crow returned to his innate love of bringing words to paper (or laptop) with a style as mellifluous and beautiful as it gets. He spent the time talking about his process of writing In Search of the Medicine Buddha, going back and forth with us on approaches he took to his stories, his mountains of notes from 10 years of apprenticing with masters of Eastern medicine, and the way he languaged it into a book that is as much poetry as journalism, as much soul narrative as travelogue, as much personal discovery as the shared wisdom of his teachers. Then, to top it off, he shared a great secret about forming the language to write about scents and smells — and about nature — and finished by reading two pieces aloud, one a prose poem about lavender, the other an archetypal journey into our relationship with plants as medicinals.
I’ve hosted quite a few noteworthy people in classrooms, writer’s conferences, retreats and other venues. Never have I seen what I saw the other day: the guest of honor, who is quite honored in his field on a global level, wanting to hang out with the class, stay extra, just be with other writers. As it was, he stayed for an hour longer than scheduled.
During our discourse, David broke down how he wrote In Search of the Medicine Buddha. Some of what he said is very instructive for all narrative non-fiction, essay and memoir writers:
1) He wrote out of sequence. The stories became more important than their chronological order in his life. This alone plays to the creative imagination in the reader’s mind.
2) He interwove and layered stories. Two of the most poignant stories in the book — the beautiful account of canoeing at Lake Pokhara and identifying the medicinals on the lakeshore, watching masters prepare and properly use the greatest alchemical of all, mercury — are breathtaking pieces of true storytelling. He wrote out the basic story, then he wove in other layers from other experiences to create a composite (which you can do when you’re not writing in chronological sequence). He layered, and layered some more, then fine-tuned it in editing. Consequently, these stories offer a vast array of visual and verbal tastes and experiences within their small spaces.
3) He listened to and trusted his creative process. Crow said he spent weeks, at times, wandering in the woods, waiting for the inner spark to ignite. When it did, he wrote what passed through — which, as all accomplished writers know, is a feeling of no-time and no-space that results in the best and most ordered pure writing, the good stuff readers cannot pass up.
4) In order to adequately describe the scents and tastes of the plants, life and landscape surrounding his quest for the Medicine Buddha, Crow instinctively utilized bits and pieces of what he later discovered was a sub-language unto itself: The Language of Perfumery, known to winemakers, botanists, perfumists and not too many others. “The sense of smell is the only sense where our brain doesn’t make an automatic verbal association,” he said. “We’ve had to develop a vocabulary to describe scents, and memorize the words.”
5) More on the Language of Perfumery: If you write about nature, plants, environment and landscape, or use the senses in your narrative or fictional characters, learn this language. It has the capability of setting you free — at least, that’s what it feels like when the words connect some pretty amazing tactile dots in your writing.
6) Finally, he spent two years writing, revising, polishing and tweaking the manuscript, often at odds with his editor at Jeremy Tarcher (more common than you might think).
I could easily read the surprise and dash of trepidation in David’s eyes when I said to him, before class, “I’d like you to share with us your process of writing In Search of the Medicine Buddha, how you wove and layered the stories, mixed personal experience with sharing deep knowledge of the plants and medicinals … how this book came to life.”
“Is that all?” he replied jokingly.
For the next 90 minutes, he treated the class to a bit of alchemy a little different than his usual work in the medicinal plant world. His generosity, stories, words and wisdom showed a truly wondrous way of writing about the natural world and its relationship to humanity.