D.H. Lawrence, an author who had succeeded in transferring his travels to writing, summed up my work in the U.S very well in the opening passages of his diaries.
We talk so grandly, in capital letters, but all it amounts to is one little individual looking at a bit of sky and trees, then looking down at the page of his exercise book” (Mornings in Mexico & Etruscan Places – D.H. Lawrence, 1927).
It was hard to process. I had just moved halfway around the world to pursue a cultural experience, and nothing had come to me. What I’m referring to is the well of ideas and experiences I expected to find as soon as I got to the US. To the desert. Out here, amidst the dunes and drought, I expected pure ideas to present themselves. It happened to the beats, with their grand visions of the Midwest. To Tom Wolfe and his days in the rat maze cities of the East. To Lawrence with his Mornings in Mexico. But I was stuck in a vacuous cycle of blinking cursors and blank pages. Devoid of the artistic authenticity I convinced myself I would find.
But soon enough serendipity hit. As I was waiting for the bus one morning, I saw its distorted mirage appear through wisps of heat from the road. It was right there in front of me, although it took another ten minutes to stop. The ghostly streaks of morning heat had blinded my idea of distance. I realised there and then that I was being consumed by my own expectations. I was waiting on experiences I knew would come to me. I just didn’t know when. But, as I stepped up and onto the bus, there was a sense it didn’t matter. I knew this trip was important, and over the course of that bus ride I thought about why. I realised some ways in which travel makes us better writers.
1. Your characters will improve
I took a seat at the front of the bus. It shuddered to a start and began its route, corralled by the towering cacti lining the road. About ten minutes in an old man slowly clambered onto the bus. He fumbled with his wallet and pulled out a small plastic bag filled with pennies. Pennies in America are quite worthless legal tender. But needless to say, he began his quest to pay the $1.50 fare in 1c coins. The man was sun-burnt, toothless and shaking with every penny that ‘clinked’ into the coin slot of the bus. What surprised me is that the driver just sat hypnotised, watching the metal fall down the well. Clink, Clink, Clink. But in a way, it was hypnotising. The old man was like no one I’d ever seen before. He embodied character, he was a living, breathing story. Behind the concentrated gaze of the old man there was an aura of interesting life.
The strengths and frailties of human character present themselves daily. These are the traits which give depth and insight into the characters we create. The lives we lead and the experiences we encounter throughout our existence effect our art. That being said, it’s important not to directly lift elements from what you witness. Use characteristics that you’re specifically interested in. We pick and choose like a shopper the aspects of character that we can identify with. Suddenly all these characteristics are not borrowed. Suddenly the sum total of what we have collected over a lifetime of sensory involvement is our own.
We don’t appreciate fictitious characters because of their surface level humanisms. Take for instance, the character Lady Chatterley from D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel of the same name. We care about her because of the ideals and morals she embodies; her hopes, fears and interests that transform the character a writer created into something that transcends pages and words. Through travel, you too may find the intimacies of human existence that will transform your writing. Thus creating a cycle. To take from life, to put into words, to create life.
To see this in practice, one must look no further than the work of Edward Rutherfurd. The author writes tales of epic scale set within foreign cities around the world. These novels span thousands of years yet retain the attention of readers through carefully plotted characters and intimately written interactions. An example of such work is Sarum, a historical retelling of the birth of England. The timeline of events stretches from prehistoric days to the year 1985. This is a huge task for readers to remain engaged with the material when the arc of events is so spread out. However through focus on only five main families, Rutherfurd confines his sprawling epic. The novel of grand proportions is consequently cut down to a portrait of time. Or simpler still: a vision of the past.
2. It will calm your stress
Still jetlagged from my flight, I fell asleep. I woke to find myself bathed in the milky glow of the evening’s dawn. Strobing flashes of orange street lamps filtered through the Perspex glass beside me. I got off the bus and dialled a cab. As I listened to the dial tone I looked into the sky and up at the towering mesa and mountains in the distance. Their scale and grandeur were staggering. Out there, in the dark desert I saw the peaks of the Catalina Mountains which stretch far into the North. I felt miniscule. I felt like dust. I felt comforted.
Amongst the infinite space of that moment, any worries in my mind were wiped clean. To quote philosopher Alain De Botton on encountering vast space, it was a:
Representative of infinite time, against which our weak, short-lived bodies seem no less inconsequential than those of moths or spiders” (Status Anxiety – Alain De Botton, 2005).
Perhaps more so than other fields of work, writing has an inherent stress coupled with its process. We are like magicians repeating the same trick over and over again. We hope to impress the audience yet again with something we’ve made up or pulled out of thin air. The difficulties of deadlines and criticism can often push us to breaking point. Through travel, we get a sense that in the scheme of things our problems are nothing in comparison to the universe and its scale.
This can be a terrifying realisation, but also a calming one. The importance of travel is that we gain a perspective on what really matters and what doesn’t. Through the spaces of the world it becomes apparent what is important in life.
Through seeing the vast spaces of the world we can also gain a sense of equality. In an industry that thrives on ratings and criticism a motivation to complete our work can sometimes stem from being ‘the best’ or gain dominance over another. But in seeing the wonders of the world, the relative scale of everyone becomes level. The idea that we should focus not on our position over another but on just our short, miniscule, and personal existence.
3. Your stories will come to you
My cab arrived and I told the driver where to go. We set off down the dark tarmac, funnelled by the parallel power lines to either side of the road. With the moon in the sky and the shadows growing long, I thought about the day I had just had. It was quiet but important. As the car travelled on I had the feeling I was being taken to somewhere more than just my home.
Travel is all about living in the present, although it is only through reflection and hindsight that we can appreciate the trip best. Often after we’ve lost something we can see what we once had. When we return from a trip away we long to be back. We think about the experiences we had and remember with clarity the emotions we felt (sometimes embellishing the feelings to an extent). This is the same for the reciprocal aspect. When we’re away we sometimes feel homesick and crave the pleasures of our ‘normal’ life.
It’s important that when searching for experience we don’t overshadow the present with expectations. Stories have a way of finding us in the recesses of our minds, often when we least expect it. Travel delivers us these stories with the new experiences it entails. These experiences can be channelled through quiet thought or meditation on the past. This way of thinking allows us to take with us a sense that no matter where we are in the world, at home or not, we can always find something. A skerrick of ideas; a point of inspiration. We shouldn’t worry about the present and its dry well of ideas. Instead we should enjoy our time away and wait until our ideas find us. Until the waters of imagination flow once more.
The process of idea development can examined through 1960’s travel journalism. Writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe would turn their experiences on the road into more than just newspaper pieces. Through travel and a constant update of their original argument, the articles would take on a different form. Thus, the term ‘new journalism’ was born. By embellishing elements of their own travels these authors were turning their articles from regular pieces into famous stories like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
As my cab approached home, I looked into the distance ahead and at the line between the sky and road. There was a clear path ahead straight down the line. No more was the heat obscuring the distance of what was to come. Although through the dark I couldn’t see what was next, I knew that I would be home soon. In due time.
If travel and writing go hand-in-hand for you, you might like to check out our article How to Be a Travel Writer, here.