We travel for business, new experiences, pleasure, education, thrills, or health. We search for our ancestors, scout a possible new homeland, try a language we’ve studied, gain cultural sympathy or historical perspective, collect artifacts and souvenirs. Myriad reasons fuel our expectations and desires for adventure. They color our impressions when we return home. Whether a road trip through the United States or a journey across borders, the lure of travel causes us to pack our bags and board the dog. We write (and read, but this post addresses writing) for the same reasons. We want to know what’s over there in the mystery, or literary, or science fiction genre, so we begin with a dead body, a poetic remark, or an alien invader. We jot down vicarious experiences of new or ancient cultures, even ones that are purely imaginary. We explore distant constellations, the depths of a cavern, or the Paleolithic era, all the while describing snapshots of the images in our brains. We have an adventure in our writing.
If you’ve been to another country, one of your observations likely had to do with traffic and driving conditions. You may even have been brave enough to drive yourself on the roads of this foreign place. The roads felt odd, not banked the same as in the U.S., or the street surface was paved with cobbles, lava rock, broken seashells, or not paved at all. They were steeper, narrower, curvier, smoother, more rutted, or the speed limit was beyond anything you’ve experienced except on a roller coaster where screaming for two minutes is expected. Writing is another road to travel, one that takes us through our imagination. It’s sometimes uncomfortable as we explore emotions and behavior we thought we’d never personally encounter. We didn’t realize we’d have to research this medical condition, that forensic skill, another historical period, or specific technological constructs. What we found made us scream with delight, anger, frustration, or awe, and we write our discovery into our story.
Nearly always, a road trip requires a vehicle and a map. Stray a little down a back road and we stretch our adventure. Stray too far and we are lost. Maps are useful tools, a guide to locations, their compass roses showing directions, our destination, and eventually the way back. Writing requires other vehicles that allow us to travel through places and times we create, and a different kind of map. The vehicle is a pad of paper or a computer, something on which we organize and construct the story. The map is a guide of standards about how to develop story arc, character, dialogue, plot, conclusion. Stray a little off the common formulae and we are called creative. Stray too far and we are lost.
Folks in foreign lands may drive on the right hand side of the street, the cars built so the driver sits on the right as well. The vehicles may be mechanically peculiar with only three wheels, cramped interiors, or strange arrangements of brakes, pedals, gear shifts, and steering wheels. Vehicles patched together of discarded buses, ancient trucks, or auto wrecks depend on unreliable brakes and cobbled mechanical systems. In other places, people drive futuristic vehicles somewhere between rocket ship and prototype, the drivers nearly lying supine on the floor while whizzing past on sleek highways. The hero of our story must befriend manipulative egotists or suspect lifelong friends, patching together an unlikely quilt of allies and adversaries. Following clues, unsure to trust strangers or acquaintances or reveal his own identity, he enters enemy territory and feels the thrill of the quest. All this transit from our pen or our keyboard, really from our driven mind.
Local driving habits tempt catastrophe as lanes and lights are ignored if indicated at all, and cars mingle with bicyclists, pedestrians, buses, rickshaws, and animal drawn carts. Each bizarre encounter pits another obstacle to overcome as we navigate to world renowned landmarks or obscure local wonders. Still we travel. Our stories are filled with moments of suspense and conflict and incite us to write more and more outrageous obstacles for our hero to overcome. Our hero encounters a drop in a pit, a gun to the head, a turn for the worse, a false clue. He endures despair, tempts love, is granted mercy, meets betrayal. Still he seeks resolution and insight.
The wording on foreign street signs appears in that country’s language, perhaps in an alphabet unfamiliar to American travelers. Even the stop sign, an icon we might expect to be ubiquitously eight-sided and red, in another country might resemble a yield or caution sign, painted red, yellow, white, or black. A driver takes his life in his hands, unsure what to make of vehicles following a different set of rules, unable to decipher the driving codes. Praying for safe arrival is as effective as adhering to traffic laws and accurately interpreting the road signs, because the other option–not completing our journey–is unthinkable. Our writing may stop unexpectedly. Writer’s block, revision malaise, everyday living hazards – whatever we call it, sometimes we can’t read the signs. We can’t go forward, don’t want to return, and can’t find the end we thought was just around the corner. We pray for resolution because the other option–not completing our story–is unthinkable.
Places beckon. That’s the reason we go, of course. A strange land, so we rent a car, consult a map of the locale, and hope we end up someplace good. Writing is the same. Stories beckon. A strange idea until we investigate thoroughly, consult a map of writing standards, and hope we end up someplace good.
Let me know how you travel in your writing. What makes you get up and go someplace new?
Be well, friend.