Otherppl with Brad Listi is a weekly podcast featuring in-depth interviews with today's leading writers. All episodes—hundreds of them—are available for free. Listen via iTunes, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, or right here on the web. Better yet: download the Otherppl with Brad Listi app. Available for iPhone and Android. Free! If you'd like to support the show, you can do so via Patreon or Paypal.
Become a Patron!
To subscribe to Brad Listi's email newsletter, click here.
Air date: January 17, 2018
[1:52] Hey everybody, how’s it going? Welcome to the Otherppl podcast. I’m Brad Listi, here in Los Angeles for episode 500 of this show. [canned applause] I feel like, you know, it’s a milestone episode, 500 episodes, and I’ve been thinking about it over the past however many weeks as I could kind of see it approaching and I thought, well, you know, I gotta do something. There’s gotta be some sort of, you know, recognition of this milestone. And then it’s like, eh, whatever, it’s just a number. 500. I got to 500 episodes. I don’t know what that says. What does it say about a person when they’ve done 500 episodes of a podcast?
[2:32] I don’t know. [laughs] I guess it could say…I guess that there are different options. You could choose different options. You could choose to see this in different ways. For some reason, I’ve done 500 episodes of a podcast in my life. They exist on the internet. You can find them. You can listen to them all, for free. So, to those of you who have been with me for the duration, thank you very much. For those of you who have been with me for part of this long journey, I appreciate that, too.
[3:02] 500 episodes and counting. I’m very pleased today, for my 500th episode, to have Clay Byars on the show. He has a memoir out, from FSG Originals? Is that where it’s from? I believe that’s where it’s from. Let me look this up, just to make sure. I’m so disorganized. But, uh, Clay Byars. I’ve never had a guest quite like Clay on this program. His memoir, Will & I, is about his experience going through a terrible accident, near fatal car crash when he was in college…
[3:36] As an eighteen year old, followed by a botched surgical procedure and a massive stroke. And he has, over the years, over the past twenty years or so, made a pretty…Is it twenty years? It might be almost thirty years. You know, it’s been a while. But over the past, you know, several years, he has made a pretty incredible recovery, all things considered, but still deals with disability, physical disability.
[4:07] His mental acuity is perfect, but his physical body has been through a lot. And that includes speech. So, you know, he’s done a lot of work, physical therapy, voice lessons, speech therapy. You name it, and I had a chance to talk to him from his home in Alabama, and I’m very grateful for that. His memoir, which is out from FSG Originals– it was published in June of 2016–is one of the best books that I read last year. So as I was trying to think of who I could speak with for my 500th episode, it occurred to me that he would be the perfect guest. Not only because I really liked his book but I think, in particular, because it speaks to me in such a personal way as a parent.
[4:50] Because, you know, some of the things that Clay is going through, even though his…you know, his challenges are derived from an accident, are similar to what my son is going through, even though my son, you know, is only two years old. And so, I don’t know, it just hit home. And on top of that…you know, one of the…I guess the way that I became aware of Clay as a writer, and became aware of his book, is that he reached out to me via email and is a listener of this program.
[5:18] And we sort of went back and forth on email. He shared with me some experiences of his that really resonated. And I thought, you know what, I want to talk to this guy for episode 500, and it worked out. So you’re gonna hear that conversation in just a moment. Be aware that, you know, we’re talking over the transom, and Clay’s speech is pretty good, all things considered, but it is…you know, it will require a little bit more concentration, both in terms of audio because I’m talking to someone over Skype, but also because, you know, his speech is a little bit impaired due to his accident.
[5:54] So…that’s coming up. Otherwise, you know, what do I say about 500 episodes? [pause] You know, it’s been…I’m trying to…like I don’t know what to say. [laughs] It’s one of these like arbitrary big round numbers where you feel like you’ve gotta have some grand proclamation to make. But I don’t. I’m glad to have done to 500 episodes. I feel proud of the library of conversations that I’ve put together and made available to people to listen to. That’s about it, and I’m grateful to have everybody who listened…
[6:26] And who continues to listen. And I’m grateful to the guests who have been…made themselves available and, you know, have been willing to talk with me. I’m grateful to them, because without them, obviously there’s no show. It’s an ecosystem; without the listeners, without the guests, you know, it doesn’t work. So gratitude to everybody who has participated in this big project over the past…you know, what are we going on, seven years?
[6.55] And I really have no idea where it’s gonna go from here. It’s one week at a time. That’s kind of how I view this thing, but I truly do enjoy it. I wouldn’t keep going otherwise, wouldn’t have accumulated this many episodes if I didn’t really enjoy this process and this project and these conversations. So…I did get a letter that I want to share with you. A listener named Tyler says, “Brad, I loved the recent episode with Lauren Haldeman, episode 499. The subject of mindfulness and Buddhism came up naturally, and I love that you pursued that thread.
[7:26] I learned a lot. It sounds like your book is coming along. I look forward to reading it someday. On a somewhat related note, I booked a ninety minute sensory deprivation float for this coming week. It was a Christmas gift. I’m kind of afraid but also excited. Have you done one? Advice? Also, I thought you’d like this detail: the float place is located behind the local Arby’s. Best, Tyler.” [pause]
[7:53] So…Tyler, thanks for writing, thanks for listening. I had a great time talking with Lauren Haldeman. And, you know, we got into the Buddhism thing, ‘cause she’s done a lot of mindfulness based therapy, and she’s into meditating like I am, so we have that sort of common thread to go back and forth about. And you’re gonna hear more about that kind of stuff in the conversation that I have with Clay Byars. He’s also, you know, had some pretty incredible experiences that are related. And has done a lot of reading about Zen and so on and so forth. So, he’s pretty lucid on the subject.
[8:25] But with regard to my book and to Buddhism and mindfulness, it’s funny, you know. I’m making progress, I think it’s coming along well, and then I’ll read something and I’ll be like, “Wow! This is really fucking good.” The book that I’m writing. It’s got a long way before it can come…You know, you start to get into a comparison mindset. And then I was reading a galley for Tao Lin’s upcoming book, this book about psychedelics called Trip, and in it he’s talking about Terence McKenna, of whom I’m a big fan. And Mckenna was talking about…’cause McKenna was sort of skeptical of the whole Buddhism thing.
[9:04] And you know, going to India, ‘cause he did a little bit of that. He was like over in Nepal, and he studied the Tibetan language and…You know, he was like a hippie in Berkeley in the sixties, so he came into contact with plenty of people who had gone over and found a guru and done that whole thing. And he always sort of mocked it. You know, he was…I remember, you know, in a lot of his talks he would talk about how, you know, you have to sweep the ashram before you can get the insight and he sort of saw it as a con, you know, these gurus who would charge you money and have you essentially function as their housekeeper. [laughs]
[9:38] But there was like some line in the book that I was reading, in Tao’s book, where it was like, you know, Buddhism is sort of like a flight from psychedelics, which like bring you into contact with like the real deeper reality, so then I started to doubt myself. I was like, “Fuck! Maybe I should be smoking DMT. Maybe I need to go into the chrysanthemum dome and talk to the dribbling elves or whatever. You know it’s like…I’m very susceptible! [gong sound]
[10:06] I feel like I don’t have…like real confidence in my thinking. I feel like that’s a fault. Is it a fault or is it positive? I waffle back and forth. Like I’m, I’m sort of in awe of people who really know what they think. I’m like, “Wow! You do? You feel good about that? You’re not second guessing yourself? You’re not lost in some sort of, you know, eternal gray zone where you’re sort of like, ‘Well, could be. Maybe I’m wrong.’” That’s kind of where I feel like I’m at.
[10:36] You know…and I guess there are moments where I feel a certain sense of moral clarity. Or other kinds of clarity, but so much of the time I feel like I’m sort of drifting or in a state of indecision. Or confusion. [pause] But…and this is something that I’m hopefully gonna write about decently in my book, but it’s like…and I think I’ve talked about this. You know, I’ve had this conversation over the years. Whether or not it happened on this show I can’t remember.
[11:08] But it’s about like wanting the instructions, like the sense of impatience with life. “Just fucking tell me, just give me the book. Where are the instructions? Write ‘em down. Let me know what they are. I’ll do ‘em. Just tell me how to do life. How do we get through this? How do we transcend our suffering? How do we deal with whatever, you know, difficult shit comes our way? What do I do? Where is it? Write it down. Can you just give it to me? Can we put this on like a notecard? [laughs] Or in a book? Something. Podcast?”
[11:39] Like I have that sort of impulse. I don’t know if anybody else feels that way. But Buddhism, I think one of the attractions that I have in Buddhism is that it comes as close as anything that I’ve found to sort of laying it out like that. It’s like, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path. Here are the steps. We’re gonna try to make this simple. [pause] The Five Mindfulness Trainings. You know, there’s all these like lists. I think that appeals to like the orderly side of me, or like the weird Type-A side of me, if that’s what it is.
[12:15] And it’s all very, you know, it’s all relatively practical. It’s pretty much divorced from any kind of mythology…which, you know, is another thing that appeals to me. I don’t respond at all to like spiritual mythology. I mean occasionally one of these stories will sort of resonate, as kind of a fiction with a message, or whatever, but that’s not what I’m after. I want practical instruction for how to deal with human suffering, and how to get through life with like grace, and dignity, and compassion, and all that kind of stuff. You know?
[12:48] I want to know how to do life. [pause] Not that there’s just one way, but you know what I’m saying? [pause] So anyway, I bounce around, as I’m sure you guys know. And I really liked talking with Lauren. She’s somebody who’s been through a lot herself. Like these past couple of episodes, I feel like I’ve had the privilege of talking with people who have really dealt with some heavy shit and have come through it with a lot of grace.
[13:18] So, otherwise, Tyler, your ninety minute sensory deprivation float…it’s funny that you write to me about this because I did my one and only sensory deprivation float almost a year to the day from when this episode is gonna air. I want to say I did it on Inauguration Day…I know I did it on Inauguration Day 2017, when Trump was inaugurated, which I believe was like the 20th of January? Something like that. But whatever Inauguration Day was last year, my buddy Adam Greenfield and I…Adam was just on the holiday episode with me…he and I went and a sensory deprivation float over in Westwood. [pause]
[13:59] And, you know, I was underwhelmed, to be honest with you. It’s sorta weird, sorta gross. Like people pee in those things. [laughs] And you’re in there for two hours. You better not have to pee. That’s what I would tell you Tyler. Just don’t drink anything before you go in. Like give yourself…like, you know, go in dehydrated. Otherwise, you’re gonna be in there. It’s not like…I guess you could get out but then you sorta ruin the float. So, I remember, I think Adam peed. I did not pee, but I had to pee. So much of my time in the float tank was spent like lying there in darkness thinking to myself, like “Uh, I gotta pee.”
[14:37] And then the other thing too is that the water which is kept at a certain temperature. You know, it’s sort of like a warm bath. You know, you’re sort of like floating in this water, and I think what they want is they want you to feel like, I don’t know, like you’re in the womb, you know? Like temperature shouldn’t be a factor. You shouldn’t be hot, you shouldn’t be cold. But the problem is that once, you know, you’re in there for a couple hours, the water temperature changes. It inevitably goes down. So I remember it started to get like a little lukewarm. So then you’re sort of cold. You know, it just… enough. [peeing sound]
[15:11] But you know, like I want to say I listened to like a Joe Rogan podcast, and he was talking about like doing mushrooms and going into a sensory float tank and…I guess that’s a thing, so if you want to add an element. But if you’re claustrophobic at all, or if you have problems with darkness…or just, I don’t know man. Like, when it comes to psychedelics, like they always say what? Like set and setting are important. Like you better be really comfortable in a float tank…‘cause I did it sober, and I was a little weirded out.
[15:42] I don’t think I would’ve wanted to go in there and be under the influence of anything. That sounds like a tall order. That could definitely go sideways quickly. [laughs] It’s like climbing into a washing machine. It’s like this metal tank. You know? It’s fucking odd. [pause] So, anyways, thanks for writing Tyler. Appreciate it. If you guys want to email me, the address is: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
[16:16] So Clay Byars is my guest. His memoir, which I read over the holidays when I was like sick with the flu, is called Will & I. It’s available from FSG Originals. Clay is an identical twin. That’s why the book is called Will & I. His twin brother Will was in the car with him when he had this accident, but I believe Clay…I think I have that right? Or actually you know what, I have it wrong, and I’m gonna be honest with you, folks. I just pressed pause and I emailed Clay for verification.
[16:47] And he was like, “No, Will was in Birmingham when the accident happened.” Will was actually asleep when the accident happened and woke up out of a dead sleep, right as it was happening. It was like one of those twin things, where there was like some sort of cosmic, psychic connection, and he somehow knew. So, you would think I would remember this, having just read the book but of course my recall, as I’ve told you many times, is really bad. And I had the flu when I was reading.
[17:16] Let me just try to excuse myself a little bit. I had the flu. I wasn’t my normal self. Somehow, I forgot this very pertinent detail. Here he is, ladies and gentlemen. This is Clay Byars.
* * *
[17:28] CB: When my identical twin brother and I were sophomores at Sewanee in 1992 I was in a car wreck. I was in the backseat of a car that was in a head-on collision with another car. And the other driver died. And I was hurt worse than anybody else in our car, ‘cause I was thrown in between the two front seats, into the dashboard. And so my only…All of my injuries healed, or were healed, in time, except for a pulled or torn nerve in my shoulder, which I had surgery on nine months later down in New Orleans. And then the surgery…during the surgery the surgeon cut my vertebral artery, which a week later threw off a blood clot to my brainstem, and which made me have a massive stroke.
[18:28] BL: So wait, was the…let me stop you. What was the…the surgeon was performing an operation on you to help you recover motion?
CB: Yeah, what they did was they cut open the back of my leg and took out my sural nerve, and chopped it up and pieced it into my brachial plexus, to where the nerve that had been damaged in the wreck, to try to regenerate it that way.
[19:03] BL: And when they did that, he made a mistake, or like, you know, somehow released a blood clot.
CB: Yeah, well he…He made a mistake. He cut my vertebral artery.
BL: What is that? What is the vertebral artery? Where is that?
CB: It apparently runs nearby, I guess, nearby where he was operating on.
[19:34] BL: In your like…
CB: ‘cause the nerves in the…
BL: In your shoulder? Is that correct? Like when you say…
CB: Right, and then they go back to…They attach to the spine.
BL: Got it. And so then like a few weeks later or…How long was it between the surgery and when you had the stroke?
CB: It was a week…I was back in Birmingham a week later.
BL: Yeah, that’s a part of the book that I found particularly harrowing. And I’m sure you would probably agree, having lived through it, is that, you know, you’re home, you’ve had this surgery, you’re hoping to recover movement in your…It was in your arm, correct, in your?
[20:12] CB: Right, in my right arm.
BL: Your right arm. Okay, so you had this surgery because you…you know, after the accident, it was the right arm that was still giving you trouble. And then you go home and you start to experience, you know, the symptoms of a massive stroke because of this blood clot that had gone up into your brainstem. Correct?
BL: And so, but you didn’t know what was happening. You were just thinking that, you know, like what was…Describe those moments.
[20:41] CB: Yeah, well, like I said in the book, I thought they…My first thought was that the surgeon had left some instrument inside me, because it was…The feeling was unlike anything…nothing organic. Like nothing manmade, and nothing I’d ever felt before.
BL: So, it was what? I mean you thought that he had left some sort of instrument, like surgical instrument inside your body?
[21:11] BL: God!
CB: I mean, that…
BL: And not to, I hate to jump around in time, but I want to make sure people listening understand. You know, you talked a little bit about the accident, which was a horrific car accident that took the life of the other driver, but was there alcohol involved? What was…It was just a, it was a driver error, correct? Like it was a two-lane road…
CB: Right. It was…Like I said in the book, the…I was told the other driver wasn’t wearing a shirt, so I think she may have been changing and just swerved over into our lane.
[21:56] BL: Okay. Who changes their shirt while driving? That’s just like…I guess people do sometimes…
CB: I mean, it was some local. I guess she knew the roads or…you know, had grown up there.
BL: Right. Right. So, okay, so you then are having this stroke. The symptoms are coming on a week after this surgery, and you know I guess…you called out for help. I mean, you knew something was seriously wrong, you just didn’t know quite what.
CB: Right. So finally I called 911. I mean after, because these like waves of intense dizziness like, I mean, they would just throw me completely off balance…would come every once in a while. And then, I think it was the third time that I was like, I didn’t want to seal my fate by calling 911 but I was like something is wrong.
[22:51] BL: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So I did.
BL: So, and prior to this surgery, and prior to having this stroke, you know, you had successfully overcome a bunch of serious injuries from this accident. Like you know what I’m saying? As bad as the accident was, you had made a pretty remarkable recovery. [pause]
CB: Yeah, yeah. When, and, I mean there…on its own…Most of my injuries healed on its own, or I had surgery for the injuries.
[23:23] BL: What were the injuries? Like you had broken some bones obviously. But like along with your right arm and that particular injury, like what else?
CB: I had some ocular nerve damage––I had to wear an eye patch for a while, a carotid artery fistula, which is a tear, which is probably the most serious…Let’s see what else I had, a broken jaw. I had to…My jaw had to be wired shut for like six weeks. And I mean, that sucked.
[24:03] BL: God man! So okay. So then, you know, the stroke happens. Like fortunately you called 911 and they had emergency medical come and tend you, but you were in very grave condition. Doctors didn’t think that you were gonna survive. Correct?
CB: Right. Right. They told my parents, at first I was gonna die and then when I didn’t, that I would be paralyzed from my eyes down. Have you ever seen the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?
[24:39] BL: No, but I’m familiar with it. I’m familiar with the storyline.
CB: It’s that same condition, the guy…I think he died like right after the book was published. But it was that same condition.
BL: Same kind of stroke? Like same blood-clot to the brainstem?
CB: Yeah, yeah, except I came out of it. Like he dictated the whole book through like blinking his eyes and his nurse or someone would transcribe it.
[25:13] BL: So why do you think you survived? Do you have any sense of why?
CB: No, I mean I…Like all these hypotheticals of maybe like because I was a twin, growing up a twin, I felt like I’d always been more than myself. So it was easier for me to let go of all that, but that still doesn’t answer why I survived. I have no idea about that.
BL: Yeah, I mean that’s an important part of your life and your story, and the story that you tell in this book. I mean it’s called Will & I. You are…Is it an identical twin or fraternal twin?
[25:59] CB: Identical.
BL: So you have an identical twin brother named Will, and…That’s like, you know, that’s a unique experience. I grew up with close friends, female, who are identical twins, and, you know, remain close with them to this day, and got to witness at, you know, close range what their relationship is like. And it’s a different kind of bond than just about any other human bond. There’s something special about twins, in terms of how they interact and…
[26:30] CB: Well, I say in the book, when I discuss the different types of twins how for male-male identical twins––I guess it’s just identical in general––at one point it’s one zygote. So I mean…Like we were literally one person at one time.
BL: And then you split off. And, you know, it’s gotta be, to have an identical twin, and to be, you know, in Will’s situation. To have an identical twin brother who goes through the kind of health crisis that you’ve been through, and to have to witness that, and to have to…I don’t know, I guess it would be difficult for anyone to see a family member of any kind go through it, but to have your identical twin brother experience this particular fate while you remain healthy, it’s gotta be a head-trip.
[27:35] CB: Yeah it’s…I talk about that also in the book. I really can’t imagine it, but it was the helplessness, I’m sure.
BL: Yeah. So, you’re in the hospital and the prognosis is grim. The doctors don’t think you’re gonna survive but then you start to make a recovery. And when did things begin to turn? Like when did it, you know, at what point was it…did things shift from, you know, “We don’t think he’s gonna survive,” to, “Actually, we think he will; we think he’s making a miraculous recovery?”
[28:13] CB: Well, I think, I mean, after I didn’t die, they said you know that I would be paralyzed. And then, I guess, I don’t know how long later. It wasn’t long before I began moving I think my…I could lift my right leg off the bed. And then as far as I was concerned, once I had any movement of any sort, I wasn’t letting that go.
[28:46] BL: Is this neuroplasticity? Because when you have a stroke, a stroke causes, what is it, a brain bleed? Is that the correct characterization of what…
CB: My stroke was…It wasn’t a typical kind because, mine, it didn’t affect the hemispheres of my brain. It was just the brainstem, which controls the motor function.
CB: Not cognition. So that’s why I knew what was going on, but I still had to find another way to do things.
[29:27] BL: Right. I mean, yeah, you sort of speak to this as well in the book, about having, you know, like your cognition was like a hundred percent there, which in some ways was kinda painful, you know, ‘cause like you’re completely aware of everything that’s going on. You have all of your wits about you, and so you can obviously, you know, you have a full understanding of what you’re up against.
[29:49] CB: I mean at first I was just, like I said, I didn’t think any of it was real. [pause] And then I was just like, “Whatever, just…I just don’t want,”…If I could…Like I said in the book, if it was possible at that time, I still think this, if I could’ve turned myself off, I would have. No question about it.
BL: You would’ve preferred to have died back then.
[30:20] CB: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, not now but I’m saying at the time.
BL: Sure. What…‘cause I think maybe it would be good for listeners to like learn a little bit about how you and I got in touch because you and I have traded emails prior to this conversation. And, in particular, you know, you told me about an experience you had when you were in the hospital, when things were pretty bleak, where you kind of had this, and I’m gonna probably misquote you here, but it was like this kind of satori, to use a Buddhist term, or flash of liberating insight. Or this kind of…
[31:03] CB: I called it a flash of liberating brilliance at first, before I read anything about it. And then when I, after I graduated from college, I…when I discovered Zen Buddhism and the satori experience, the more I read about it, it’s the same experience, it’s just brought about I guess differently in Zen. But it’s that kind of feeling when, basically I’d always felt, being an identical twin, I’d always felt that I was more than myself, but after this experience it was kind of confirmation of that. This experience was, kind of had me tuned into everything. I was part of everything around me.
[32:03] BL: So you’re lying there in your hospital bed. You are in a state of paralysis, correct? Or at least partial paralysis.
CB: Right. At that point, all I could move was my eyes.
BL: And so you’re thinking like, “This is it. I can only move my eyes, and I’m sort of trapped motionless.” And was there something in particular that brought it on? Or were you just in a state of despair?
CB: No. Like I said, it just came…basically, it seemed to come out of nowhere. I think they’d just run some tests. But I said, there’s that Alan Watts quote about surrendering, about completely surrendering. I think it was only then when I could completely surrender, like when…because I couldn’t kill myself so it was like when I gave up the desire to live or to die…
[33:14] BL: Yeah ‘cause it’s interesting. You hear the word surrender in spiritual contexts. You know, like there’s a moment of surrender or, you know, that full spiritual realization, or whatever you want to call it, requires some level of surrender. And I think that that term can be confusing to people. ‘Cause it’s like, well what does that mean? You know what I’m saying? Like ‘cause I think a lot of times “surrender” carries like a negative connotation.
CB: I think a lot of people look at it as giving up. And that’s still, you know, that’s still you giving, you know, you giving something. It’s basically taking yourself out of the equation. [pause] Which I think is hard for a lot of people to fathom.
[33:59] BL: But that’s like, that’s what you arrived at? Like, the insight…I mean, like you’ve said a couple times, you know, having an identical twin maybe brings it home and makes it realer than it would be for the rest of us. You know, that you are more than yourself. But you felt in this moment, in the hospital, that you were, you really felt like a palpable sense of connection to everything?
CB: Correct. [pause] Like I said in the book, even as bad, I mean the condition I was in…At that moment, it occurred to me that, it wasn’t like everything was going to be okay. Everything was okay.
[34:44] BL: Regardless of circumstance.
BL: Were you able to hold on to that? Like, you know, like, do you feel that’s something…the peace and the sense of connection that you experienced in those moments, do you carry that with you? Do you carry part of it with you?
CB: Oh yeah. Yeah, completely. Just not to the extent that I felt then but…yeah it doesn’t leave you, maybe. I mean…the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki talking about satori, he said, “Satori is just like normal everyday experience except two inches off the ground.”
[35:31] BL: Yeah but it occurs to me because I’ve never had one of these experiences. I haven’t had that feeling, you know, like in a really deep way, but it seems to be, often the case at least, that you have to be in some sort of state of extreme suffering in order to reach that state of surrender, which is kind of a bummer. It’s like, “God, well, if that’s what it takes.” [laughs] You know like…You would hope that you would be able to get there without having to go through something really, really difficult. But it seems like that’s often the case.
[36:09] CB: I think that is often the case, but it’s not, I don’t think that’s necessary. I mean, you know, judging from all the Zen scholars who’ve had some form of the same experience…and there’s, there used to be a Netflix documentary called With One Voice. It’s mainly different religious practices about this same experience. And none of those people were in this condition of, you know…of physically being so reduced.
[36:58] BL: Yeah, I was gonna say like it’s not like this experience of satori or epiphany or this flash of liberating brilliance, or whatever you want to call it, is not exclusive to Buddhists or quasi-Buddhists. Like this, you know, this cuts across all sorts of different traditions.
CB: Oh yeah, yeah.
BL: You know so it’s just, it’s part of the human experience but it just like, it’s hard to sort of English it. It’s hard to get, you know, it’s hard to find words for what you go through. And it seems like maybe Buddhism, at least from my perspective, like has made a clearer attempt than, you know, than…I don’t know, I don’t know…It seems like there’s language for it there, and I haven’t been able to find it.
[37:42] Yeah well everything…That’s why I was attracted to Zen, because everything in Zen revolves around this experience.
BL: So when did you get to…So like you had this experience and then you started to read about Zen? Or had you dabbled…Didn’t you dabble in it a little?
CB: No, no. I had this experience, and then I read about Zen, I guess it was after I went back, I mean after I graduated from college, went back and graduated. So four years maybe.
BL: Okay, so four years later you started reading about it and then found like basically a language for the experience that you had had?
[38:28] CB: Right. It transcends religion. I mean, it’s not exclusive to Buddhism. There’s a quote from Meister Eckhart from…who was a medieval Christian mystic, and he said, “Regarding this matter, a heathen sage hath a fine saying in speech with another sage, ‘I perceive of something basically that flashes upon my mind but what it is I cannot perceive, only meseems that if could I conceive it I would comprehend all truth.’”
[39:14] BL: Yeah ‘cause this is something that I think about sometimes when I think about people like the Buddha, like any kind of really…a person who has purportedly realized some deep spiritual insight and has sort of achieved, I don’t know, what do you call it…contact with deepest truth or whatever, deepest reality, and I think about my own like, you know, small neurotic mind, and all the questions I have about so many different things, you know, confusions, things and I don’t understand…When these people have these experiences, whether it’s Meister Eckhart or it’s you or it’s the Buddha or whatever, like what happens to all those confusions? Like, you know what I’m saying? Like you can’t possibly have like intellectual mastery of everything.
[40:10] CB: No, no. In that moment they, you know, they go away. It doesn’t matter. But I’ve said, the more time I spend in public with its concerns, the more that just leaks in because that’s the way humans operate.
BL: So wait, I’m not sure I understand. You mean the more that you spend time like sort of with civilians [laughs] or, you know, just in contact with other human beings, like the more that confusion leaks in?
[40:43] CB: Right. Right. I mean, ‘cause, you know, it gets old just being by yourself.
BL: Yeah. Well, I mean and you spend a lot of time by yourself living out there in the country, right?
BL: But that’s gotta be good for writing. I mean you kind of live sort of like a…
CB: Yeah, it’s conducive…
BL: A monkish, contemplative life.
CB: Right. I guess just that now I’ve been out here for so long, a change of scenery would be nice. [laughs]
[41:16] BL: Yeah. Like how often do you see people? Like do you see people everyday? Are there like…
CB: I go in town. I still…Another part of my book is about the voice lessons I started taking in 2008, 2007-8, with an opera singer to, basically to be able to speak better, and I still do those. I still see him once a week. So I go in for that, and I go over…Whenever I’m in town I eat dinner over at my brother and sister-in-law’s house.
[41:59] BL: So they live nearby?
BL: So what about these lessons? Like ‘cause, you know, if the accident was in 1992, you didn’t start the opera singing lessons until, you said 2008?
CB: Right, because I’d been to different speech therapists over the years. I guess…my father died in 2007. So after he died I went to another speech therapist because I hadn’t seen one in a while. And he was the one that suggested singing lessons, which, through my brother-in-law who’s a, you know, musically talented and used to sing in operas…led me to this dude, Dewin, this guy.
[42:52] BL: And so do you sing? Is that what he has you do? Like what does he have you do?
CB: Yeah, I mean there’s singing…like what he does…Most of the people who he sees are singers, either aspiring or professional. And the exercises that I do are the same that he does for them. I mean, only rarely do we actually sing complete songs, but it’s like little snippets of different words…and I guess…that work out different parts of the voice.
[43:35] BL: And so you grew up in Alabama?
BL: And can you tell me a little bit…Like what was your childhood like there?
CB: It was…I couldn’t imagine anything different. But it was very comfortable. Like the community I grew up in, it was like very socially conservative. It was a really old community. Everybody kind of knows one another, and everybody’s in each other’s business. That kind of thing.
[44:21] BL: Like what was the community? Was it Birmingham or is it a part of Birmingham in particular?
CB: It’s part of Birmingham. It’s called Mountain Brook.
BL: Oh okay. So…but I mean at least it sounds like you had like a pretty strong social network.
CB: Oh yeah. Yeah.
BL: And what did your folks do? Like you mentioned your dad passed away but what was his…What did he do with his life and career?
CB: He…I say in the book, he had polio as an infant so his back was hunched and his left leg was a little bit shorter than his right, but despite all that he was a really good athlete, and…Anyway he worked his way up from…He did all these different things after college, but he worked his way up to where he ended up buying a mortgage banking company, and…I guess he sold that right before he died.
[45:28] BL: So he was like a real estate guy?
CB: Right. Correct. Commercial.
BL: And then what about your mom?
CB: She was a housewife…and she worked for him some.
BL: Okay. And you have your twin brother Will, and you have another sibling?
CB: An older sister.
BL: An older sister, okay…So and then when you got to Sewanee as a freshman did you have an inclination that you were gonna be a writer? Like was that something that was on your radar?
[46:02] CB: No, no. I wasn’t even an English major. I was an English minor, or I had enough credits to be an English minor, but I was a philosophy major. I wasn’t even thinking in terms of writing at all.
BL: So and then…but after the accident obviously something shifted. I mean you…
CB: Right. When I went back to Sewanee after the stroke I took an independent study with Wyatt Prunty, who’s the director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. [pause] And I guess it was through him that I learned all the fundamentals. And also that, you know, I could do this. It gave me, at the time, you know, because I was still pretty, I mean, physically, I still am, physically, you know, incapacitated. But it gave me a sense of freedom that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
[47:12] BL: So yeah, so you, I mean…So how long after you had had the stroke and were, you know, like in bed thinking like for a while at least that you were gonna be paralyzed, how long between that time and when you returned to college?
CB: Looking back, it was pretty quick. It was probably a year and a half. Once I began moving, I was in a rehab hospital for six months. And then I moved home, and I still went to outpatient rehab. Then I went back. I guess I moved home in December of ‘93, and then I started back at Sewanee in the fall of ‘94.
[48:10] BL: And so, and what was your physical ability at that point in terms of getting around?
CB: I mean I could walk, not very well, and talk, not very well, but I was…I mean…I think I was just doing…It was like a little kid, like, “I’m okay! I’m okay!” I was just determined that I wasn’t going to just sit around and do nothing.
BL: Well I mean I think that that’s, and I think you speak a little bit about this in the book, and it sort of made me open my eyes a bit, but when people are dealing with disabilities I think that there can often be a tendency among those around them to want them to not do much or to rest or to take it easy. Do you know what I’m saying? Or to imagine that that’s what you would want, but the truth is that you were like raring to go. You were like I want to get back into my life.
[49:14] CB: Yeah, exactly. I think, I mean…Of course I can only hypothesize why people would be like that, but it all comes back to yourself eventually. So, I mean, it’s like you said, it’s what they think they would want.
BL: People have a hard time I think dealing with like the emotional experience of being confronted with physical disability, or mental disability, or any kind of like malady. You know what I’m saying, I think when we’re confronted with these things, it forces us to confront the unpleasant reality of our own inevitable…You know, it’s mortality. It’s our physical decline that comes with aging. It’s all of these things. Do you find yourself ever getting impatient with people? Like do you find yourself angry with people’s inability to process?
[50:24] CB: I think I used to. I don’t as much anymore. Just ‘cause [laughs] I’m not around people as much.
BL: But do you think that the fact that…I mean did you make the choice to maybe live out in the country, and to live a more secluded life, in an effort to avoid having to deal with that? Or to just like, you know…
CB: Oh yeah. Yeah, to some degree, yes. I mean, and you know, I speak to this in the book too. Speaking of being an identical twin, there was kind of a catch-22 because I knew that he saw me for me in the same way, you know, as he always had, so I figured that everybody would. I just kind of…I noticed after a while just that I got tired of always having to, kind of explain myself, to break even basically.
[51:35] BL: Right. That gets exhausting.
CB: I could only rise so far.
BL: What about, you know, ‘cause we spoke earlier about the spiritual experience you had when you were in the hospital, which is unique but, you know, there’s also along the way when it comes to recovering from traumatic injury and having to go through countless hours of rehabilitation, and having to, just on a daily basis, you know, confront and accept the limitations of your body, you know, and what it can and cannot do. There have to have been times, or there have to maybe still be times where you struggle with like depression, or anger. Like are these things that you feel like you’ve got a handle on? Like is it a daily battle or do you feel like you’ve sort of gotten past it?
[52:36] CB: No, no. It’s definitely, it’s a daily battle, I don’t have a complete handle on it, but I think maybe through my dad…I think polio, you know. I mean I knew even before this happened no matter what you do, as long as you feel like a victim of anything, you can’t get past it.
[53:06] BL: Yeah, I mean, I think like the email…You wrote me an email because my son was born with some disabilities and we’re working through that. So I’m seeing this like through the eyes of a dad. You know, so I think about your dad and your parents and, you know, having a child go through something like this I can relate a lot to feelings of anger, feelings of devastation, feelings of concern, but, you know, I think when you wrote to me you spoke a bit about anger, which, you know, it hit home with me because I struggle with that. You know it’s hard not to be pissed off as a parent when a fate like this befalls your child. And…
[53:51] CB: Yeah, I mean, I can only imagine. You’ve gotta feel responsible at some point.
BL: Yeah, I absolutely do. And not only responsible for the reality of his condition but also responsible for whatever efforts can be made under the sun to try to help him recover, you know, and to experience…you know, ‘cause, you know, within the context of your injuries and experiences, you’ve made a pretty miraculous recovery, you know, that not many people in a similar situation would have made. And so I’m hoping to help him beat the odds in the same way, and [pause] I don’t know. It’s like, it’s like trying…I feel like everyday is a battle to try to like grapple with that darkness, and to try to find a way to make sure that it doesn’t get the best of me, not only for my own health and wellbeing but especially so that I can function to the best of my ability as a parent. You know, it seems like…It’s like I’ve been…It feels like a big challenge, you know, like a big spiritual challenge, like man I’ve got to really find a way…you know, to get wise, and I’m trying my best but, you know, some days it gets the better of me. And I guess you just, I don’t know, you just gotta keep getting up and keep trying and hopefully over time you chip away at it.
[54:14] CB: Right, I mean at least you know that it’s not about you. It’s not just about you. You know, even though it may hit home with you, it’s because of him that you’re like this.
BL: There are people I feel like who have, they have a particularly difficult ride in life or they have…you know, for whatever reason, like you’ve been hit with these very big challenges, and to some extent, I guess, I’ve been hit with some; my son especially has been hit with some, and then there are people who it doesn’t seem, they don’t seem to get touched as much by whatever you want to call it, difficulty, darkness, you know…I don’t know how to make sense of that. Is it arbitrary? I mean, you know, do you ever feel like there’s some reason for it? Or does it just feel like, “Well, this is the way the cards fell.” Is there anything in control of this life of ours or is it just our, you know…
[56:18] CB: Yeah, I figured out early on too, that comparing yourself to other people is just a recipe for mania, for going crazy.
BL: [laughs] Right.
CB: So as far as like, “Why me and not somebody else,” it’s, well, I think, because I can handle it. [pause] And even though it sucks at times, a lot of times it’s…I mean, I’m still here. It’s not the end.
[56:53] Right. So you think that it happened to you because you have, for whatever reason, the capacity to handle it? That’s how you make sense of it?
CB: Right. Right. I’ve said before that what happened to me had to happen to somebody, I had everything going for me going in, like growing up with my father and being an identical twin. Like I had the tools.
BL: What…You mean growing up with your father, the fact that he had struggled through polio? And you had him as an example…
[57:29] CB: Right, that he was deformed, I mean pretty severely deformed, and being able to not let that get to him…I remember he always used to say, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one gets full the quickest.”
BL: Wait, what is it? Say it again.
CB: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one gets full the quickest.”
[58:05] BL: [laughs] I’m not even sure I quite understand. Wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one gets full the quickest?
CB: Yeah, it’s like, you know, it’s like if you’re, “I wish this hadn’t have happened. I wish something wasn’t like this.” Well, it is. And so what are you gonna do about it?
BL: Right. And you can’t let yourself feel like a victim. Or you can’t identify that way.
BL: So do you have, like do you have a defined sense of spiritual identity at this point? I mean it kind of feels like you dabble in a lot of different things, and you sort of use Zen as a way of helping you find language for your experience, but are you also a practitioner? Or is it just you’re somebody who’s just interested…
[58:57] CB: I’m just interested. I don’t practice anything.
BL: You don’t? Okay. Do you read about this kind of stuff? Like what do you read?
CB: I read everything. Yeah. I haven’t read much Zen lately, but I did for a while.
BL: And you were a philosophy major, too, so like you have that sort of bent.
CB: Right. And then I guess after I graduated, it was more Eastern philosophy, Taoism and Zen. But most of the stuff I read now is literary. It’s novels, short stories. I think Chekhov is probably my favorite writer.
[59:52] BL: Why is that?
CB: Because I think he, he understands the whole experience of being more than yourself, but, you know, he was…I think his own ego held him back. But he was completely aware of this.
BL: So let’s…I want to hear you talk a little bit more about what, like, for someone who has been through what you’ve been through and who is dealing with physical disabilities, and who, you know, your ability to communicate, at least for a good while, was pretty severely compromised in terms of, you know, speech. So you, you know, said earlier that writing for you, when you got back to Sewanee and went to college, became this very liberating experience, which makes a lot of sense to me. Like if you’re having trouble communicating but you still have all of your wits about you, it must have been a refuge for you to be able to sit down and put things down on paper, like unencumbered.
[1:01:06] CB: Right. From the day I began moving again, it was, you know, it was the only way I could communicate like unhindered, and so it just grew from that. Then being able to tell stories was freeing because it was just making sense of…of just the world.
BL: And getting to play…Like is your fiction, and forgive me, I’ve only read the memoir so I haven’t read the fiction. Is your fiction pretty autobiographical or do you step outside of your own experience and…
[1:01:47] CB: I step outside of my own experience, but there’s, you know, always some of my experience in there. But, I guess it’s pretty closely rooted, at least so far, to my own experience or stories that I know of.
BL: Do you prefer fiction to nonfiction?
[1:02: 20] CB: That’s usually what I read, but also in preparing for this book I don’t know how many memoirs I read. But memoir is pretty close to fiction so.
BL: Like do you have like an excellent recall? Like is that something you’ve always had or did you have to really dig deep? ‘Cause I find sometimes like, you know, I can say to myself, “I don’t remember,” but if I sit there a while with it, and I really go deeply back into my mind, you can start to root around, you know, and you can start to find stuff. Was that the process for you? Was it…Did it come easily, or was it really grueling to sort of do this memory work?
[1:03:02] CB: It was grueling but also, I mean, cathartic. Basically, you know, I think from the first time I started writing about this until the book got published, it was twenty years. So I had a long time to go over and over this.
BL: How many drafts did you write? Did you like attempt to write this memoir and have like failures with it or did you just…
[1:04:31] CB: Oh yeah. I tried to make it a novel at first, and I knew that didn’t work. [pause] I guess because at the time some of the story hadn’t been lived. But as a memoir, I don’t know if I told you or if talk about it somewhere else, in 2014…Well actually go back to 2009, I started the Sewanee Masters’ program, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, who was an undergrad with me, was teaching there at the time, and really he’s probably one of the main reasons I went, just so I would know somebody there. And then in 2014, at his urging, one of my dogs and I moved over to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he lives, for three months. And I edited the book with him. And the manuscript I took over there, it was a complete manuscript, but it was eighty pages longer than the book ended up being. So we compressed a lot.
[1:05:00] BL: So he worked with you to edit it?
CB: Right. Every afternoon.
BL: Wow. ‘Cause I read…John Jeremiah Sullivan. I read Pulphead. He’s very impressive. He’s a really good nonfiction writer.
CB: Like I said, I told someone in an interview. He’s as good an editor as he is a writer. And I guess because we’d known each other so long, that he didn’t have a problem saying, “This needs to go.” And I didn’t have a problem…There was a lot of back and forth that I don’t think I could have done with anyone but him.
[1:05:45] BL: Was there, like when you look back on the editorial process with him and the eighty pages that you wound up cutting from the manuscript, was there like a common theme to the kinds of things that you wound up cutting?
CB: Well, one of the things that we cut was a lot of dialogue and the individual scenes…that were more episodic, more like a novel than like, than a memoir.
[1:06: 20] BL: Yeah, it’s like funny, when I’m reading a memoir and I’m reading dialogue…That’s always one of the parts where I’m like, “Well.” I mean I guess you’re recalling…it’s just the writer’s recollection. And so you sort of allow for the…you know, you sort of allow for a little bit of creative license, but very few people can actually remember anything resembling a full conversation, especially over years.
CB: I do have…In the memoir, it’s divided up in sections of the voice lessons that I started in 2008, but I do have full conversations in those sections because I have, I’ve got recordings of every lesson. So, I mean, they’re exactly what was on the CD.
[1:07:12] BL: Oh really. So you got to use…You used the recordings and just transcribed them?
BL: So what are you working on now?
CB: I just completed another essay, a longish essay, about…more about the dogs, about my life…even though they’re in the book, just about, you know, my life with them. It kind of overlaps with getting my book published, which I don’t talk about in the book…about going over to Wilmington, and then Daisy died exactly a month after I sold the book.
[1:08:05] BL: Do you have plans to get like another dog? I mean I know like…
CB: I’ve just been kind of putting it off, which I don’t know why. I guess because those other dogs that I had for so long kind of adopted me.
BL: Right. We had another dog. We had a French Bulldog named Walter who died this past spring. He choked on a bagel. And…just like this random accident, and then, you know, you sort of feel like, “I’m gonna take a break, you know, we’ll wait a little while, see how things go,” and then…I find myself during the workday, like I’ve got an app now, where I’m like scanning through dog rescues and I wound up reaching…I found a dog this week and reached out to the shelter, thinking I’m gonna do this. Like I gotta have this dog. Like for some reason I looked at the picture and I was like, “This is my dog.” And then apparently someone else had beat me to the punch. So I guess it’s not my dog.
[1:09:07] CB: As more time goes on, I definitely miss having a dog.
BL: Yeah. They add something. They add…You know, it’s a lot of work, but they give way more than they take.
BL: Well, it’s great to get a chance to talk with you man, and I gotta say again how much I enjoyed reading your book, and how much inspiration I get from you and from what you’ve been able to overcome, and the fact that you were able to take all that you’ve been through and to create such an incredible work of art, you know, from those experiences. So, I salute you and I wish you well.
[1:09:52] CB: Thank you, and I very much appreciate you doing this, and being on here.
* * *
[1:10:00] All right folks, there you go. That is Clay Byars. His memoir is called Will & I. It’s available now from FSG Originals. Will & I. Go get your copy right now. If you want to find Clay on the internet, just go to claybyars.com. Thanks to Kill Rock Stars, as always, for the music. Be sure to check out killrockstars.com. As a matter of technicality I should mention that the music at the very top of the show, underneath the adspot is actually Curtis Mayfield. That’s not Kill Rock Stars. I’ve started playing a little music underneath the adspot just to add some variety.
[1:10:35] If you would like to write to me, the address in email@example.com. Letters@otherppl.com. If you would like the Otherppl app, that is free. Go get it wherever you get your apps. If you would like to support this program, you can do so at patreon.com/otherpplpod. So 500 episodes in the books. Almost seven years of podcasting.
[1:11:03] It’s strange to think of all this content, all these podcasts, all this written material on the internet. It’s all just gonna stay there. Right? Or like most of it, a lot of it, and if it’s not there then it’s gonna live on people’s harddrives or their devices or, you know, what-have-you. I find that unusual to think about. I find like, I find the process of history, or at least the ability to research history, looking forward, to be somewhat terrifying in terms of scale, but also tantalizing in terms of access, process. Does that make sense?
[1:11:37] Like let’s say 300 years from now, you want to find out what it was like in the 21st century, you’re gonna have access to quite a bit of information; just about anything you could possibly want, outside of time travel, though maybe that will exist. If you’re listening to this program 500 years from now…[laughs] Hello. I have been cryogenically frozen. Please remove me from my deep freeze. Bring me back so I can start podcasting again.