(Photograph by Albert Backer, Wikimedia Commons)
By Justin Nobel
I think guides are dangerous, no one can show you the way. The world changes too swiftly, even if someone has just cracked the code, five minutes later the digits are different. And besides, you are different, you are not them, and if you trail too close your own work will never be your own.
But it is okay to have inspiration, that in fact is a necessity, because there are too many ways to look down off the ledge and become frightened, and there are too many ways to skip out for something easier, and there are too many ways to create ways, ways to not believe in yourself. You need something to spark the fire, to unleash the monster, to churn the chaos into beauty. Journalists often find inspiration in the impossible: in going somewhere others are afraid to go, in tackling projects others tell us are pointless, and in the simple moments, in those rare red bolts of fiery light that burst out from the blackness.
We also find inspiration in people, in those who have pushed their own limits and pulled something back from the brink, in those who have sojourned the world in order to understand the world. For me one of those inspirational people was the journalist Matthew Power, and tragically, he has just died [while on assignment in Uganda for Men’s Journal].
I found Matthew’s writing as a young man, my pockets stuffed with scrawled-up notebooks, my mind addled by how to turn the scrawl into that thing called writing. That thing I could do for a magazine, or a newsletter, or a pamphlet, or anything, really. I wanted to scrap together a living, and a life, with nothing more than a pen and a pad and a burning desire to make journeys.
One day, I stumbled across a story about hopping freight trains across Canada in the now defunct adventure-lifestyle magazine Blue, and discovered a writer who was doing just that. “The disembodied sensation of taking off in an airplane pales compared to catching hold of a train and not letting go,” wrote the then twenty-something Matthew Power, as he hopped an eastbound train from a Vancouver rail yard. “It’s like grabbing the landing gear as the plane taxis up the runway. Suddenly, all the nausea of anticipation is gone, I am flying.”
The way to do it, I realized, was just to do it. Do the thing you want to do, and write about that. You will always write best when you follow your own ideas. Matthew’s writing taught me another lesson. If you scroll through the articles on his website you will notice the impressive list of publications he wrote for: Harper’s, Wired, National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times, Granta, Slate, GQ, Mother Jones, OnEarth, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Believer, SEED, Heeb, Feed, and on and on. To be a freelance writer is to parcel out your life as story. The time you got arrested at City Hall while part of a sit-in to save some community gardens becomes a story, and the time you rafted with “boat punks” down the Mississippi River a la Huck Finn becomes a story, and the time you sailed to the Galapagos on a ketch called the Shangri La with a pair of old friends becomes a story.
Your life is your material. More than just that, your life is your energy, your drive. What should you write about…Well, what makes you burn? That!
The world is a dangerous and strange place and most of us don’t dive in too deeply. Matthew completely submerged himself. For me no story says this better than the haunting and beautiful piece he wrote for Harper’s about life in Payatas, a massive garbage dump in the Philippine capital of Manila that serves as home for an industrious population of trash-pickers.
“Hundreds of scavengers, brandishing kalahigs and sacks, faces covered with filthy T-shirts, eyes peering out like desert nomads through the neck holes, gather in clutches across the dump,” wrote Matthew. “The impression is of pure entropy, a mass of people as disordered as the refuse itself, swarming frantically over the surface. But patterns emerge, and as trucks dump each new load with a shriek of gears and a sickening glorp of wet garbage, the scavengers surge forward, tearing open plastic bags, spearing cans and plastic bottles with a choreographed efficiency…We stand by the side of a fresh pile and watch as it is worked over with astonishing speed.”
If you can understand the world, then you can understand what it means to be alive in the world, then you can understand what it means to be alive in your own skin. And if you can understand yourself at the end of the day, at the end of the life, you have succeeded in the holiest of tasks. To find the thing it is you want to do, and actually have the guts to do it. Matthew was doing it. “The kind of stories I’ve gotten to do have involved fulfilling my childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life,” said Matthew in a Longform podcast interview. “Even though I don’t make a ton of money doing it, I’ve never felt like I was missing out on something.”
Matthew Power pushed his own limits, he pushed his craft’s limits, he pushed the world’s limits. And he has now left the world with a bounty of knowledge and stories that will push the minds of anyone willing to take the time to read them. My deepest condolences to his family, in Matthew you have lost something so special. Many of my friends and colleagues have written lovely tributes to him on facebook and elsewhere. I didn’t know Matthew personally, so I have no tales to tell of how we ever interacted. All I have is the inspiration he instilled in me, and I have his writing.
Halfway across Canada, Matthew finds himself alone on the rails. His freight hopping companion Pike has gone south for Florida, Matthew is headed east for New York. Somewhere near Thunder Bay, Ontario the train shudders to a stop in the middle of the woods. Matthew spies a raspberry bramble:
“I jump off and grab raspberries by the fistful, scratching my arms, the sweet juice running down my neck through the rust and oil. Maybe only bears have ever eaten here, I think. Maybe I am the first human ever to eat from this patch, a hundred miles away from the nearest town.
“The berries are perfect. I am nowhere near home. The train is waiting for me, it hasn’t pulled out yet. All the ghosts of the workers who built this railroad, all the people who have knowingly or not helped me across the huge continent, all swirl around me in those few moments. This is a great secret of trainhopping. And this is what it means to be alive.”
Justin Nobel is a freelance journalist and author of Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle.