The Ecology of What We Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Anand Pandian as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Anand teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (Duke University Press and Penguin India, forthcoming this fall), and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2014), which he wrote with his grandfather.]

One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.

The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.

The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day.


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We tend to think of writing as a lonely task. “The life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation,” Annie Dillard writes. “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.”

There is, no doubt, a limpid truth to so much of her prose. But this, though, how could it be? Whether Dillard’s Venetian blinds slatted against the vista of a graveled rooftop, or some other more porous and inviting space, writing always happens in a sensible world of sounds and textures, an atmosphere of tangible things and diaphanous beings.

How does it matter, this company we keep?

Anthropology is a field science, staked on the value of having been there, somewhere, in the pulsing midst of something. Later, there is the hope of a work that nurtures the same feeling in the mind of a reader, that sense of really having been there too. Do we know enough about what happens between these two moments of palpable and often quite arresting experience? Does the act of description involve turning away from the world, as Tim Ingold worries, or, instead, turning more attentively toward an unseen face of its reality? What might the circumstances of our writing, in other words, share with the environments we write about?

Writing, like walking, can be a way of passing through the thick of things, as Writing Culture’s famous photograph of Steven Tyler might remind us. We write on the fly onto countless surfaces of the world at hand: notepads, napkins, scraps and screens of many kinds. This sentence, for example—this one right here—came together as I was staring through a sheet of laminated glass, taking in a railway landscape of scraggly limbs, murky water, vinyl siding, and the occasional flock of specks in a winter sky. It came together with the tap of thumbs onto the glassy face of an iPhone, as my thoughts and sentences often seem to do these days. As such screens, frames, and windows proliferate—where, for example, do you see these words?—so does the sense of a yawning gulf between ourselves and the actual world.


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“Traces of the storyteller cling to a story the way the handprints of the potter cling to a clay vessel,” Walter Benjamin once wrote. These words were an elegy for an artisanal unity of life and craft, shattered by our technological modernity. Benjamin’s melancholy notwithstanding, what anthropologist can afford to forsake the integral promise of such craft? How else to make sense of that peculiar collusion between fieldwork and writing, their conspiracy to transmit together the force of an experience?

Possession, dream, hypnosis, trance—writing is often likened to such altered states of perception because what happens here is a matter of channeling. Passages are literally passages, openings to a world beyond this one and yet present already within its span. Scattered sheaves of image and paper, the routines of the head and hand, tides of association and digression set into motion by whatever we see and hear, imagine and recall—writing takes shape through the expansive play of such relays.

Over the last few years, I’ve been writing a book on the making of cinema in India. I’ve tried to stay true, in the writing, to the sensory depth and richness of the medium, and certain wierd things have happened as a result. I sat in an opthalmologist’s lobby with my laptop and a film, trying to convey the pure sensation of its colors through dilated and unfocused eyes. I’ve tested the patience of my colleagues next door, looping a song hundreds of times over to put something of its rhythm into words. I wrote beside a plate glass window in Los Angeles, eyes darting between the careening of a car chase sequence and the glint of passing automobiles outside. That chapter, on speed, took form rather quickly, as a staccato series of 86 terse cuts.

How well these techniques have worked, I can’t say. But these small ventures in the experience of writing share their spirit with the process of creation I’ve been writing about. Whether a cameraman reacting to the aesthetic potential of light and shadow, a choreographer discerning possible moves in a current of sound, an editor wrestling with his body’s reaction to a discomfiting scene, or a team of screenwriters slipping into a dreamlike space of unruly associations, what I saw, again and again, were diverse ways of acknowledging the creative force of the world at hand. Their openness toward a broader ecology of creative emergence crept into what I do. I’ve come to believe that something like this happens in our own environments of thinking and writing.


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There is a world that writes itself through what we do. Writing is an activity that partakes of the expressive movement of life, borrowing its form and force from the circumstances that make it possible. We write with a multitude of beings, things, and relations, with the complex sensations and unforeseen ideas they put into motion. As Alfred North Whitehead put it, “we finish a sentence because we have begun it.”

That creature, by the way, took me to Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Perhaps a Spotted Apetelodes. I haven’t seen another one since.


Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

3 thoughts on “The Ecology of What We Write

  1. Exquisite—and provocative. How many anthropologists have the poetic sensibilities to write like this? Who will read them? Who, taxpayers may ask, will be willing to pay for the hobbies of any but a handful who manage to achieve celebrity?

  2. Powerful, thought-provoking and insightful.
    I would also worry that such works as these would not be deemed worthy of anthropological higher powers but this shows such a profound depth of understanding for the ecology of creative writing. Isn’t that one of the primary roles of the ethnographer; to experience, to feel and to document as richly as one can.
    One can’t dismiss the power of the world around us to frame the creative process.

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