Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
There’s a plummy quote from Thoreau’s Walden that must open this discussion:
“Not till we are lost … not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves …
Henry David was centering on getting lost in nature there, and thus freed of some of the day-to-day material constraints and pressures, but the message applies well to writers, and to the value of getting “lost” in travel. Value sometimes in getting literally lost, and thus having to rely on wits and resources to gain back your compass, but more so in losing (or loosing) the bounds or habits of thought that often hold us in thrall.
Here’s a fiver’s worth of why traveling releases the balloons of a writing mind.
Travel Takes You Out of Your Old Thinking
On the Micronesian island where I lived for a year, the islanders ate dogs. After a while, because most island dogs tried to bite me when I rode by on my bicycle, I began to think that eating dogs wasn’t a bad idea at all. But I spent some time mulling over cultural taboos and how rational — or not — they are.
Many countries eat horse, many eat insects. (My own eats oysters — the horror!) In our country, dogs are cherished members of families. The Micronesians I knew were amazed that people bought dog food, that dogs would actually ride around in cars with their owners. The scroungy dogs on the island were thrown scraps to keep their weight up, because many of them would be making the islander’s table later on.
I never did have the courage to bite anything that barked, but interesting food is one of those travel opportunities that can be so stimulating, like trying conch salad in the Bahamas and seeing the oddity of the conch, its extraction from its shell and the sharply entertaining salad preparation. Or the Huitlacoche “corn smut” empanadas in Atotonilco, Mexico — delicious! But going back to seeing that island behavior (and so many other behaviors unlike mine): that did make me frequently question what is “normal.” Normal, as so many deeper philosophers than me have suggested, is relative. So don’t eat your relatives.
Travel Pushes Your Boundaries, Literally and Figuratively
In the summer after I graduated from high school, I hitchhiked across a good chunk of Canada. Hitchhiking across the Canadian prairies is quite scenic: the long, flat stretches let you see — from seemingly 100 miles away — the farm truck that will eventually pass you by. An hour later, you might see the next one. (It will pass you by too.) My friend and I spent 28 hours outside of a small town hitchhiking in the same spot, though we did sleep a few hours in between the hitching.
As the hours rolled by, and conversation flagged, we no longer stood up fresh and eager near our bags on the roadside. Instead, we were half-lying, propped up on the bags, with a weary thumb raised. After a while, we both began flipping the bird at passing drivers, though not out of actual anger, but a kind of resigned whimsy. After all, the results were the same — no ride — so why not amuse ourselves?
When I first began hitchhiking, I couldn’t imagine that I’d be using my middle finger to beckon (?) a generous driver. Circumstances might pull at you in your travels so you stretch the sense of who you are (and what you might do), something that rarely happens in your at-home life. By the way, we were eventually picked up, without any hand signals at all; a kind driver saw us flopped on our bags and thought we needed help. Or that he might sell us at the flea market.
(A while back, I wrote a novel loosely based on this trip—some of the incidents of what happened on that odyssey were too crazy to credibly fictionalize, but I tried.)
Travel Develops Your Sense of Place
Developing a sense of place can be so critical for the fiction writer, and in some circumstances, even for a nonfiction or business writer. When you can make your reader wince from the description of a bite of chile pepper from a local market filled with colorful exotic foods, or make them involuntarily inhale in shock when you let them join a character who is in tumbling in free-fall into an unexpected cliffside cave, that reader is yours.
Travel pushes unusual and arresting sights into your eyes: My girlfriend and I were enthralled by the hundreds of colorful doorways of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with their intricate woodwork, framings of wrought iron, tiny vestibules for saints or gargoyles — every street we walked down (and we walked down many in our two months there), we’d exclaim over these visual candies.
I spent 10 days in Myanmar six months ago, and it’s an almost hallucinatory place: thousands of glittering pagodas and shrines — some vast complexes — dot the countryside (and some of them are thousands of years old). The heat and humidity was dizzying, the various tribal peoples’ dress and manners fascinating, the trees, flowers and hills — even smells — none my own. New places push new furrows into your brain, new places invite a writer to look more closely, and those textures of new thought can give surfaces to your writing not there before.
Travel Forces You to Stretch Your Language(s)
Last year, we house-sat for a while on Hawaii’s Big Island. There’s an exquisite mountain road you can take between the dry Kona side and the wetter Hilo side. The route takes you between the massive Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea mountains, and there’s a boggling number of terrains you travel through. Some are almost like moonscapes, some are impossibly overgrown, some like dry savanna, some harsh lava-crusted buckles in the earth.
These are places that cry out for description, and not casually. The demands such places put on your language, your word choice, your syntax, the blood in your sentences: traveling outside your norm can push you to make your sentences measure up to what you see. I love some of the flinty language Cormac McCarthy uses in describing blasted landscapes — he seems to be exhaling the dust of a place on the page. That’s the measure I mean.
Of course, another way to make your brain do somersaults is to literally learn another language, and try it on a country’s natives when you travel. I am sorely deficient in this area, though I will try now and them to make my threadbare Spanish amuse a listener. I’m lucky sweetheart Alice has made more of an effort here, because I’ve see how her even limited fluency gives us access to people that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Travel Makes You Look at Your Own (Old) Life with New Eyes
Have you ever returned from a trip, even a short one, and thought that your house or your things looked odd or strange? If you’ve gone to places where the people don’t have much, do you marvel at the abundance of the American (if you’re here in the US) lifestyle? Though I rue the fact that the novelty fades, I appreciate travel for pulling the veil away, letting me see the essence of my “ordinary.”
I find it a blessing that travel often slaps me upside the head, to remind me to be grateful for what I have. And to see what I have from a new perspective. And to know that I don’t have to get on a plane to go to someplace amazing: extraordinary settings — really, other worlds — like Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park are only a short drive away.
Travel can help your writing in many ways, more than I can discuss here. But I need to mention, since I regularly write travel pieces: travel and its widening can itself be the sole focus of the writing — and you can pull in some assignment dollars while you push your boundaries.
So, get out there. Maybe get a little uncomfortable, maybe challenge your resources. There’s a good chance that stretching your legs out in this wondrous world will later bring big returns on the page.