Biography

Brad Wetzler

Brad Wetzler

I began my career as an editor at Outside, where I conceived, developed and edited hundreds of stories by some of America’s finest journalists. I left the editing staff at Outside in 1997, and spent more than a decade working as a freelance journalist.

I traveled across America and around the world. I interviewed and wrote longform stories about spiritual gurus in India and Messiahs in Jerusalem. I rode the campaign bus with presidential candidates and broke bread with cult leaders. I played polo with tech billionaires in India and pounded vodka shots with Russian cosmonauts. I hiked in Jesus’ footsteps in Galilee and road-tripped across Palestine. I interviewed celebrities, politicians, professional athletes, explorers, spiritual gurus, and anarchists. 

My book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. My work has been published in The New York Times MagazineGQWiredNational Geographic AdventureMen's JournalTravel + LeisureBest American Travel Writing, among others.

I had a career that most writers dream about, but it wasn’t until my late forties that I discovered an additional calling: coaching new authors. During a prolonged walkabout in  the Middle East, I saw the many ways that travel can change and heal us. I realized that we are our best selves when we pursue our passion and also serve others. I discovered my passion for helping people tell their stories, and I started my work as a writing teacher and coach. Today, I write, edit, and coach up-and-coming writers.  

You can read all about my personal journey my upcoming book, Chasing Messiahs.

I enjoy coaching writers. I help them become better, more powerful writers and to write the books that are inside them. With more than two decades of experience as a professional writer, editor, teacher, and coach, I am steeped in real-world writing and publishing experience.

Boomgalore

This is a piece I wrote for Wired magazine about changes in India created by the tech boom.  

 

Boomgalore

India’s tech superpower is acting more like Silicon Valley every day.

By Brad Wetzler

It’s a steamy, dung-scented evening, I’m riding around Bangalore, India, in a beat-up blue van, but right now we’re not going anywhere: There’s a citywide power outage, and we’re stopped dead in the middle of a clogged intersection, wishing the traffic lights would blink back on. Behind the wheel is a hot-tempered Sikh named Balbir Singh. Fiftyish and bearded, with Coke-bottle glasses, he’s furiously tapping his horn to shoo away a skinny cow. The cow isn’t budging, but it doesn’t matter. The entire city has become one huge and hopelessly tangled traffic jam.

“What a drag,” says Singh, jerking the shifter into neutral and leaning back in his seat.

Like all major Indian cities, Bangalore — a metropolis of about 5 million people on southern India’s Deccan Plateau — is a sprawl of decaying single-story houses and shops, Soviet-style apartment buildings, crumbling colonial offices, and abominable shantytowns that extend miles into the countryside. The potholed roads look like they’ve been hit by an air strike. People are everywhere, lounging on their front stoops, buying goat carcasses, gliding through the crowded streets in colorful saris. Poverty is everywhere, too: Through the van’s window I see an orange-clad devotee of Shiva the Destroyer begging for change, two cripples on all fours, and a leper with half a leg and rotting hands.

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Travel Essay: A Road Trip across Palestine

A cool August evening, the final weekend of Ramadan, and I was planted on a comfortable sofa on the rooftop patio of a three-story stone house in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Sawahre. The surrounding Judaean Mountains, known to Palestinians as Jabal al-Khalil, appeared as huge, dark, breaching whales against the stars, and, to the west, the sky was glowing yellow from the obscured lights of Jerusalem. There were others with me: the three grown children of the Halaseh family, with whom I was staying, seated in chairs. The two eldest, Rana and Reham, are beautiful, sassy, and highly educated (both hold Ph.D.s); Tamer, the “baby” brother at 36, doesn’t have a Ph.D., but what he lacks in official credentials is more than made up for by his intimate knowledge of just about every square inch of his troubled country. Satiated from iftar, we had formed a circle around a three-foot-tall hookah filled with smoldering apple shishaand were taking turns puffing on the snakelike pipe and drinking from a bottle of high-octane arak. Chocolate candies were passed around. It was peaceful here, and that wasn’t only because of the shared indulgences. I was experiencing a side of Palestine most outsiders don’t know exists, unless you spend time with a Palestinian family. Of course, in Palestine, peace isn’t a permanent fixture. Over the next three weeks, I would see for myself the tragedy that is Palestine, as well as its tremendous natural beauty.

 

 

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Adventure: The World of Goran Kropp

This is part of a magazine feature story about Swedish adventurer Goran Kropp. The piece first appeared in National Geographic Adventure. 

The World According to Kropp
By Brad Wetzler

He cycled 7,000 miles [11,265 kilometers] to Everest, summitted, then biked home. Now, once he knocks off the North Pole, he plans to sail from Sweden to Antarctica, drag a sled to the South Pole, then turn around and retrace his route. Meet Göran Kropp, a true lunatic for adventure.

If Göran Kropp were living a thousand years ago, his headwear of choice would be a Viking helmet, fashioned of wood and adorned with bull horns.

He might be prowling the coastline for things to plunder, or banging on the table with a frothy mug of mead. But Kropp has both feet planted firmly in the 21st century, in the thick wealds of southern Sweden. So instead, he’s wearing a baseball cap, gunning the gas on his 2000 Opel, and chattering away on his cell phone.

It’s 10 a.m. on a sparkling June morning, and Kropp is piloting the car north across the Øresund Bridge, a mammoth steel structure that connects the Danish city of Copenhagen to the southern tip of Sweden.

The sun is peeling back shaggy blankets of morning fog to reveal the calm, cobalt-blue water of the Baltic Sea. Inside the car, things are a little more chaotic. Instead of watching the road, Kropp is conducting business as if he were at his desk: schmoozing, scheming, joking.

He’s also fiddling with the stereo knobs, scarfing a melting chocolate bar, and, to my dismay, using his knees to steer, making occasional faces as if his expression alone could save us from careering over the guardrail.

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Notes on Writing: The Voices in Our Heads

I want to tell you about a book that, each time I open it, makes me a better writer. You probably haven't heard of it, or of the author, Ted Solotaroff. It’s not a best-seller like Bird by Bird or a popular favorite like Stephen King’s On Writing. In fact, I’ve never seen another copy of this essay collection other than the coffee-stained, dog-eared one I own. But this book—just one essay in it, actually—is my savior. It’s my savior during dark nights of the soul, when I lurch, when I desire to say something meaningful and truthful, when I wish to say it in MY own unique and original voice.

I bought my copy of A Few Good Voices in My Head at a used bookstore in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood during my graduate school years. I don’t recall the shop’s name, but walking its aisles was a Saturday afternoon ritual, especially during the dead of a brutal Chicago winter when the snow flies horizontally off the lake and pelts you in the face like buckshot. This shop was stuffed with books. And they were practically free. Well, $3 per grocery bagful—an amazing deal if you bought small books of poetry, and still awfully good deal if you bought dictionaries and encyclopedias. Moreover,  if you were trading in books that afternoon, your books might be free. Or you might even make a few dollars. Sometimes I felt guilty when I left the shop with two grocery bags full of books and and two extra dollars in my pocket, enough to stop off and get a Chicago hotdog fully loaded.

A Few Good Voices in My Head wasn’t on the shelf where the other books on writing sat. It lay at the bottom of a knee-high stack of books on the floor. When I opened it, I noticed that one chapter was particularly heavily annotated.  Sentences were underlined two and three times. Asterisks indicated the previous owner’s favorite whole paragraphs. In the corner of one page was a math problem: 22 divided by 7, in long division. I had to own this book.

Today, that book is more marked-up than when I bought it.  I’ve underlined my favorite lines. I’ve written asterisks next to meaningful paragraphs. Sometimes my underlines match the previous owners. Sometimes they don’t. The cover is worn and tattered and faded, like a papyrus scroll discovered in a cave by a wandering bedouin millennia after its author had turned to dust. I can’t imagine losing this book.

But enough of this blithe reminiscing. Why is A Few Good Voices in My Head so important to me? How does it save me from dark nights of the soul?

The essay begins with a scene: It’s early 1970s, and we’re in Solotaroff’s office at The American Review. A young writer—I picture a boyish man in his 20s with shaggy hair and wire-rimmed glasses; I picture me in graduate school. This anxious, ambitious kid doesn’t want to write for Rolling Stone. That magazine is too faddish and glib, he says. No, this kid wants to be a writer. He wants to say something meaningful, truthful—and in a voice that readers will remember.

There’s just one problem. This young writer doesn’t know what to write about? Neither does he know what his voice is like.
“So what are you looking for when you select a piece for publication?”  he asks.

Solotarnoff’s answers quickly, with boilerplate editor-speak, explaining that he favors pieces which “seemed necessary for the writer to have written.”

But what does that mean, the young writer wants to know. “OK,” he says, “but look—you write yourself, right? Who do you write for?”
Solotaroff doesn’t dodge this question so easily. He pauses and ponders and then he says the words that I find so meaningful, even magical: “I guess I write for a few good voices in my head.”
This answer appeals to the young writer. Suddenly, he gets it: He says with overt 1970s insouciance: “Right on!”

What does Solotaroff mean?

He explains. I’ll paraphrase. There’s only one way to find your own voice: by listening to your favorite literary influences, the good voices in your head.

That’s the gist, the essence, the gold.

Our heads are full of voices, both good and bad. Lines from favorite books. The styles of favored writers. And these voices are constantly chattering behind the curtain of your thoughts. Don’t ignore this chatter. Tune it in. Pull the voices apart. Listen to them. The reason we remember these voices is because they say what we WANT to say. They say what you NEED to say. They say it better, but who cares? In essence, they already are telling  your story, your truths. So listen!

Solotaroff says it this way:

"These [voices] empower you because they confer upon the enterprise of writing a more powerful and refined version of your way of feeling, your sense of truth.”

More important, they lend hopefulness to a writer’s despair. How? By adopting you, by being your surrogate father or mother.

“By being there, if only in your imagination, [a good voice] prevents you from being an orphan as a writer.”

Listening to them is “like a good friend or a good psychotherapist who brings out and confirms your better nature, who prompts your calmest, most personal, most truthful voice.  It’s also not so very different from prayer.”

I like that last line.  I’ll say it again, “[Listening to the good voices in your head is] also not so very different from prayer.”

And so, every New Year’s, I pause to pray. I listen to the chatter behind the current of my thoughts. Sometimes it’s not easy to pull the voices apart. But when I do, I hear writers such as Joan Didion and Bruce Chatwin. Charles Portis. Mark Doty. Rebecca Solnit. Camus. Hunter Thompson’s “good” stuff and Dostoyevsky. (What a pair that would be to have a drink with?)

Well, this New Year’s, these are the voices I listened to.

Next year, it might be different.

I love the way Solotaroff’s essay ends: When everything breaks down, he says, and you feel like you can’t go on—like you shouldn’t go on—that’s when you must rely on those good voices.

“I know this to be so because each time the crisis hits full force again—when I say I must abandon this, it’s just too painful to go on, I’m too ignorant, too superficial, I don’t have enough time, I can’t write anyway—I’ll open a book of literary pieces…and read a page or two, quiet down, gather myself, and say: Well, that’s what it’s all about, he’s just telling the truth as best he can, get on with it.”

My response to Solotaroff’s wisdom: With casual 1970s-style insouciance, I say,  Right on!

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Brad Wetzler appears on Nothing Off Limits Podcast

Author and journalist Brad Wetzler joins NOL to share his personal inspiration behind writing his upcoming nonfiction book about the art and science of spiritual awakenings. We discuss the interesting phenomenon of Jerusalem Syndrome and the profound effect holy places can have on some people, a few of his stories and experiences with self-proclaimed messiahs in Jerusalem, his research surrounding the connection between faith and mental illness, how the wiring in the brain changes as a result of regular spiritual practice, Brad’s personal shift from neutral journalist to spiritual author, and much more.

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Turning Life into Story

All of us experience drama in our life--both good drama and hard drama--that seems perfect to write about. But turning these experiences into compelling story is harder than it looks. On April 12, I'm teaching a class at the Colorado Writing School called Turning Life into Story. 

Here's more from the class description:

Even a dramatic experience that seems as if it might "write itself" can be difficult and labor-intensive. We can end up disappointed that the writing didn't capture the essence of the experience. How do accomplished writers such as Jon Krakauer, Anne Lamott, or Joan Didion write powerful narrative so consistently? This class will examine a variety of nonfiction forms, from the memoir to personal essay to longform journalism. We'll discuss two important tools that nonfiction writers employ: compression and conflation, and how to use these tools with integrity and confidence. We'll also discuss important techniques drawn from fiction. Students will write and share with the class a variety of exercises that develop core craft for writing narrative nonfiction. By the end of the class, students will have new tools and, hopefully, they will feel as if they have permission to approach their nonfiction storytelling more creatively. 

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