“If a man in a boat is crossing a river and an empty boat drifts along and bumps into his, he won’t get angry. But if there is someone in the other boat, then the man will shout out directions to move. If his directions go unheeded, he will shout again, and then a third time, followed by a stream of curse words.”
“If a man could make himself empty, and pass like that through the world, then who could harm him?”
Mark Salzman’s latest memoir, The Man in the Empty Boat, takes its name from this allegory from the Zhuangzi, a Taoist classic written in China around 23 centuries ago. Growing up in a family of rabbits, (you are going to have to read the book yourself to find out what that is all about) Salzman has always been plagued by anxiety – which comes to a head in 2009, for him a year of personal catastrophe. It begins with crippling writer’s block and continues through the tragic illness of his youngest sibling. While Salzman shares with us the harrowing experiences of that year, the book is filled with witty anecdotes of his life with his wife – Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons: the Life and Work of Mark O’Brien) – and daughters Esme and Ava. Two-year-old Ava’s pronouncement in answer to the existentialist pondering of a family friend, “You are who you choose to be,” is one of the themes of the book. But Salzman’s ultimate epiphany comes courtesy of a flatulent dog. And yes, you’re going to have to read the book to understand that one too!
An accomplished cellist as well as an award-winning writer, Salzman joins LACO on September 13 for Music & Story, the first exploration of the parallels between composing and the art of storytelling in this season’s Westside Connections chamber music series. Salzman credits his love of the Bach Cello Suites as an important factor in his overcoming writer’s block and at the concert, Salzman narrates his writings on the subject in juxtaposition to LACO principal cello Andrew Shulman’s performance of Suite No. 3. Having savored The Man in the Empty Boat and been fascinated and entertained by his appearance on Live from the New York Public Library,I look forward to the opportunity of hearing from Salzman in person.
In the meantime, I’m digging into Iron and Silk, his bestselling memoir about his two years in China. Next up on my reading list are his novels The Soloist and Lying Awake, and his non-fiction account of juvenile offenders finding a voice, True Notebooks. The Guardian’s review of True Notebooks states that “Mark Salzman is a rare breed: he not only understands the power of words and the preciousness of word-power, but is blessed with an ability to impart his understanding in a way that others may share it.”
I’m only one book and a chapter into his writings, but so far, I completely concur.