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Notes from the 2017 keynote address at University of Colorado's Program for Writing and Rhetoric

In March, I delivered the keynote address at the launch of Journal Twenty Twenty, a journal of creative nonfiction produced by students in the University of Colorado's Program for Writing and Rhetoric. As a guest editor and advisor to the journal, I contributed the following introductory piece.

ON JOURNAL TWENTY TWENTY

Once, on a reporting trip to India for WIRED magazine, a cab driver offered me this advice: “If you want to be a human, you must go to the burning ghats, and watch the bodies burn.” The cabbie’s words haunted me. I finished my reporting and flew north to the ancient city of Varanasi, took a cab to the city center, and descended a staircase drowning with humanity. At river’s edge, I hired the first boatman I saw, a thin teenager named Aryan. “Take me, please, to see the bodies burn,” I said. Thirty minutes later, squinting through thick smoke, I stepped onto an ash-covered shore, impossibly close to the hot fire—a remote corner of Hell, I thought. Two men carried an ornately decorated litter over and set it on a metal rack. As flames ripped through its white sheet, I was shocked by what I saw: a thick mane of long black hair and the gentle curves of a woman’s face. Too young to die, I thought. We stared. That was my job: to witness. Hours later, all that remained was a charred section of sacrum and a single vertebra. Both bones were removed from the ashes, set next to a flower and a flickering candle on a tiny boat, and let go into the Mother Ganges, an offering from the dead. I said a prayer to nobody and climbed back into Aryan’s boat. Three days later, back in the States, I knew I’d been changed, though exactly how I hadn’t a clue. Transformation. Many stories in this issue of JOURNAL TWENTY TWENTY explore this—not the type in Hollywood movies, but the hard-won variety, burning away the past. Talicia Montoya give us a healthy dose of truth in her poignant piece, “NO, NOT LIKE THAT.” Her writing is both gritty and soft, as she walks us through her realization that she is asexual, arrived at like scratching an itch till it bleeds. But the story is also beautiful. By the end, we experience what she experienced: new hope that she’s not alone. Indeed, maybe there’s a tribe of her. Nozomi Kido’s “EPIDURAL HEMATOMA” tells the story of both painful injury and growth, a transformation by transcendence, permanently inked on her body, “Mom, I’m not scared.” “TO GUATEMALA AND BACK” by Makena Lambert plays with arrival and transcendence as well, born not of pain or physical trauma but of a very particular type of love: the temporary love experienced during a study abroad in a foreign country. Her story, both graceful and bittersweet, depicts the arrival at a new, more honest place. Love is temporary. We are all temporary. Stories are eternal. BRAD WETZLER

Brad Wetzler is the author of REAL MOSQUITOS DON’T EAT MEAT (Norton), and has published in THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE and BOOK REVIEW, GQ, TRAVEL + LEISURE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE, WIRED, and was an original contributing editor to JFK Jr.’s GEORGE Magazine.

The Art of the Travel Essay: A Writing Workshop with Brad Wetzler

The Art of the Travel Essay: A Writing Workshop with Brad Wetzler

Brad Wetzler appears on Nothing Off Limits Podcast

Brad Wetzler appears on Nothing Off Limits Podcast