The Half Empty Bookshelf

Travel writing itself is often typecast as being a remnant from a worn out colonialism, but it’s not anymore. It’s becoming a crossover genre: bleeding into memoir and fairy tales; creating mini manifestos on gender, politics, and social ills; rubbing elbows with fiction and poetry. Travel writing is everywhere.
— from "The Half Empty Bookshelf"

Devi Lockwood asked me to write a guest post for her blog, One Bike One Year. Her request was accompanied by a specific topic she wanted me to write about: the lack of diversity on the literary travel writing bookshelf. I wasn't sure I could write it, but I made an attempt. I decided to focus on the historical Western narrative and show that alongside that tradition were other storytellers--just as there are now. There's a short reading list at the end.

Here's an excerpt and a link follows:

Some time ago, Devi Lockwood asked me to write about diversity in literary travel writing. Rather, she asked me to write about the lack of diversity in literary travel writing.

To begin, I should explain two things. First, that I am a travel writer myself, and secondly, that I never had any intention of being one. Originally I had an aversion to being called a travel writer, because I thought it was too narrow of a definition. For although my bookcases were full of the classic travel writers—and I adored them, I found myself frustrated that I did not see my own type of narrative represented very often—it was cast into genres such as memoir, or something annoyingly termed “women’s writing”. Moreover, my local bookstores had slim pickings on the shelves: very few books by women, people of color, or those with different identities of gender. But over the course of this year—with the guidance of my local library, the internet, and an open mind, I’ve come to see things differently, and have embraced the title “travel writer”. Now I see travel writing as a vast vista, unchartered in some places, and in others, full of voices from multiple genres, voices that I’ve discovered just this year (I’ll share some of those at the end of this essay). Travel writing itself is often typecast as being a remnant from a worn out colonialism, but it’s not anymore. It is becoming a cross over genre: bleeding into memoir and fairy tales; creating mini manifestos on gender, politics and social ills; rubbing elbows with fiction and poetry. Travel writing is everywhere.

Before I delve into what I think travel writing is, I’d like to take you back, way back into time, when the world was divided and difficult to move about in. People who traveled from one continent to another were rare. Western thought had just begun its frenetic takeover of the world, but some places were still quite untouched and undisturbed by any outside dominant political and economic forces. There were landscapes few outsiders had seen and ground none of them had walked upon. People did travel: motivated by environment, trade, political strife, nomadic lives, their own desires—but their storytelling stayed within their own cultural narratives, rarely leaving their hearth, unless through their own art, literature, and oral traditions.

We can look at different populations to see what voices and perspectives were represented in that time: who traveled at all, outside of necessity or tradition? Religious leaders and missionaries. Political dissidents and those escaping religious persecution. Slaves and operators who worked in the slave trade. Sex workers, courtesans, and temple prostitutes. The military, merchants, elite classes, artists, and royal households. Therefore travel was defined very narrowly by a handful of populations who had limited ideas about what it meant to be out in the world at large. Some of these “travels” meant moving to other countries, but sometimes they meant moving from one walled-in compound to the next: it’s important to keep in mind that many of these people did not move about freely, and so travel during this time was not about leaving one’s country insomuch as it was about leaving one place for another. There are numerous examples of early travel writing from some of these individuals, who for the most part—if they left a story that we can still find– left it in form of poems, letters, diaries, or oral storytelling that was recorded much later. One of the earliest examples of travel writing is the forty year travel diary of royal household court member, Takasue’s Daughter, (real name is unknown), Sarashina nikki, which was written between 1020 and 1060. She also leaves us one of the first travel tales which weaves love and the duality of exotic places and identity: Mitsu no Hamamatsu, an eleventh-century Japanese monogatari. Leaping ahead, we have the example of the Muslim travel writer Al Hassan Ibn Muhammed Al Wazzan, (renamed Leo Africanus by the Europeans). His diaries and letters tell a travel tale which began with exile as child from Spain, and continued throughout the early 1500’s as an envoy to the sultan of Fez. (to read the rest of the piece, please visit the link here.)


How to Manifest a Writing Practice

Manifesting is hard work, but not manifesting is harder.

The writer who decides to write and share their work with others can find themselves in a strange new land, wondering how to navigate through such a landscape. Writing in a journal when you feel like it is nothing like writing on a schedule with an eye to having it be read. I should know: I've just done this myself, only twelve months ago. It's such a huge difference that I wanted to spend some time talking about the change that it has required from me. A change that I can only call a manifestation explosion.

 Image: Creative Commons,  Flower Close Up II  by Swift Flyer

Image: Creative Commons, Flower Close Up II by Swift Flyer


I begin my day writing and I end it writing. My mind is full of words, and it has become distracting to me if I don't write them down. The practice of writing has taken over my life-- and to glorious affect. Words have become my favorite companions.

But it wasn't always like that.

I was prompted to write this post by a recent conversation I had with a friend, who had decided to do the NaNoWriMo "write a novel in a month" challenge that is coming up soon. One question that came up in our discussion is what the point is of such a challenge, to write a novel in a month? The answer is that it's not so much about writing a bestselling book or even to write well--it is, instead about producing words/ pages/habits, all of which turn into books or other works at some point, if not at the end of the challenge. (Although writing well and writing a bestselling book could happen, of course!)

But what does such a challenge require? It requires unflinching self reflection paired with self discipline: two things that many people do not have in spades. These two things are what such a challenge is designed to cultivate for a month. In fact this is what entices some people about the challenge: that they must develop the habits and the mindset of the writer they want to be, rather than the one they talk about wanting to be. It's a call to action. I'm not going to make a value judgement here about NaNoWriMo--there are those who don't agree with the process it promotes. I'm simply interested in using the ideas it encourages as a jumping off place for explaining what has worked for me.

My writing life could be described this way: I have given myself the challenge of writing with an intensity every single day, but I am not a person who has a great deal of natural self discipline. If left to my own devices and wants, I would wait for inspiration to strike. Which doesn't happen to me a hundred percent of the time--in fact it only happens about ten percent of the time. But I have developed the habit of writing every day, whether I want to or not, whether I'm tired or not, whether I'm busy or not. Sometimes those words are for a piece I have to write; sometimes they land here; sometimes a letter...but no matter what, it's 3,000 words a day, minimum. (Weekend days 6,000 per day, minimum.) I have only taken three days off of this practice in the last thirty years, and those were all this year. I write on holidays, on my birthday, when I work a double shift, when I'm traveling. It has become something I must do, just like getting out of bed, getting dressed, making breakfast.

I have developed a fierceness with myself in order to accomplish my writing goals. I have to be tough, focused, and not fight the creative process, no matter where it takes me. Sometimes--often--it takes me somewhere I don't want to go. At least at first. I had some help to do this at the start, for while I wrote every day for many years, I lacked the belief in the power of the words I wrote. A life coach or writing coach can help a lot, just for a short time to help fine tune the goals and the practice. Tighten the vision. My coach was Molly Fisk, and one month in her company helped set me on fire. Mentors are important too: a tremendously talented bunch of people who care about your work in a genuine way. I prefer the old fashioned kind of mentor: people whose work I admire and who I have built relationships with based on that admiration.

I was giving my NaNoWriMo friend some daily living advice for how to manifest meeting the writing goals required for the challenge, and I used some of my own life lessons. I thought I'd share them here. Perhaps you will find them of interest, and I'd love to hear yours.


My mini life lessons for manifesting a writing life:


Waiting for the perfect time to write is a mistake. There is not a perfect time.

The first thing that is really important is that I let go of perfection in all aspects of my life but writing. For example, there is no perfect writing room or space, perfect quiet or alone time. This past year I tried to create such a space, and found when I finally had what I wanted, there were still imperfections. I realized I was putting more emphasis on the writing space than on the writing process, so I let the idea of a writing room go. (I was in mourning for the dream space for about a month!) Roommates are loud, children are louder. Partners need attention, one must be employed and make a living. My apartment is small and depressing and ill-lit, but waiting to move and write on my sunny balcony in Paris isn't going to happen right now.

I surround myself with supportive people, and I support them in return.

Life is messy, but that doesn't mean I don't have some choice about what messes I allow in as distractions. In particular, people can be quite challenging for me. I don't mind real life or drama to an extent, but mean spirited people, people who are cynical or dark have no place in my world. They take a lot of energy and usually demand agreement. But that agreement costs something: it affects the quality of my work and stymies my ability to create. I've learned to let people go who didn't "get" my writing/passion to write, didn't understand my values, or needed too much. This is one of hardest things I've had to learn, one of the most painful on one hand...but the most liberating on the other. 

 I keep tuned in to social media, but curate my time and who I interact with carefully.

A lot of people think turning off social media means one can meet their goals. But social media is a huge part of the creative life. It took me awhile to understand this. I've learned that social media can support the process, rather than distract. Social media is vital for creating conversations about your writing, for reading the work of others, and for connecting with people, because working and writing doesn't leave a great deal of free time to set up coffee dates with all of your friends. Social media is also exceedingly helpful if your time is precious, because you can fit it in around the time you decide, like 3 am.

Having less makes my life easier, and gives me more time to devote to what I love doing: writing.

There are too many choices to make in every day life that are distractions from writing. What to eat? What to wear? All of these decisions take time. For myself, working full time, I've had to really simplify these choices. For example, I gave the majority of my clothes away, leaving me with just enough to cover a week and half. That's all I, no more endless laundry. I'd rather be writing.  I also got rid of most of my possessions, because they distracted me from what I needed to be doing. Lastly, letting go of instant gratification is important if I want to succeed and feel happy with my work. Think it's different for you? A new book out called The Marshmellow Test  studies how productive people control what they allow themselves to be distracted by, and how curtailing instant rewards creates a happier, more fulfilled life. A link to a review of the book from this week's New Yorker, here.

My time is limited, and setting a schedule helps me meet my goals.

Being organized is really important, especially for me, because I'm writing a book and supporting freelance projects. Organization doesn't mean Martha Stewart precision. It means understanding I have a limited amount of time. There's no reason the same piece can't be written in 5 hours that I wish I had one week to write.

I write for myself first, and then if I like it and feels good to me, I share it with the whole world. I write from the heart, unguarded.

 I think I didn't write for others for so long because I was afraid of angering my parents or my family or my friends...people that I thought were more important than the stories I had to tell. I made their opinions or disbelief of my truths weightier than my own voice. This stemmed from wanting approval, and once I realized I was never going to write something they loved and agreed with, I was free. That was an impossible ladder to climb as it had no rungs. Now I'm building my own ladder and the value judgments of people from my past don't matter. Once I started doing this, I noticed something right away: it's easier to write everything in, rather than trying to keep certain things out.


The Book That Changed My Life

Some years ago, when I began a lengthy journey around the world, I found myself in the Panama jungle, living in a tiny community of Ngabe people. I can't say precisely why I ended up there, except that someone who lived there had asked me to visit. But I can say why the visit turned into a very long stay: it was because of a book.

It wasn't just any book, it was Tim Cahill's book, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh. It was the first travel book I ever read. Before discovering his book, I hadn't even known about travel literature as a genre of writing.

I didn't bring it with me to that remote mountaintop village--it was given to me by the Ngabe people who lived there. There was a small library, full of damp and molding books donated by Christian missionaries and volunteer workers, and resting among them was Cahill's book, left behind by a Peace Corp worker.

The people in the village loved his book. They could not read it, since they did not know English, but they revered the jaguar and held a special place for any person who survived a jaguar attack. They presented his book to me as though it was a holy thing.

And it was.

I spent many afternoons outside the village tuberculosis clinic, reading it to a small crowd of patients and their children, who asked questions about what he was doing in each part of the book. It wasn't me explaining and retelling his stories--it was him. He was a real person, alive, sitting with us on a tree stump, hands moving as he told his tales.


I was afraid in the jungle. I had never been so outside of what was familiar: everything I knew and had learned was wrong among the Ngabe. I was not an expert at anything. I had nothing to offer. I was exhausted by trying to adapt, and I often wanted to leave those first few weeks.

But Cahill's book changed that. I saw a person doing things he was afraid to do. I saw him embracing challenges. And I realized I could choose that, too. I could be fearless, or at least walk along side the fear.

His book became my constant companion. I memorized long passages from it. I could hear his voice speaking the words, telling me to pushing myself harder. Stop fighting. Be more open. Learn.

And so I stayed. I stayed in that jungle for many months, until I forgot who I had I had been when I arrived.


About a year ago, I met Cahill in person. His voice was exactly like I had imagined it would be. Since that time, he has been a constant mentor, guide and friend. But really, he became that mentor in the jungle. His book changed my life. His stories changed my path. Because of his words I started a journey that I haven't stopped: living a life without fear. And he continues to inspire me to write well and deeply, to overcome, to refine my voice.

Tomorrow morning, I post an interview with Cahill about travel, writing, and his life. It's a phenomenal experience for me, to go from reading a book he wrote to connecting with him in such a personal way.

I am so blessed and so extraordinarily happy with life tonight.



Your Mailbox Is Full

You change the world by being yourself.
— Yoko Ono

One thing that I've learned in the last year is that words, particularly when pieced together to make a story that is honest and real, can change the world.


Every day---every single day--I get emails from people I do not know, telling me how they feel about a story they read that I wrote. Complete strangers. People with names like Benjamin and Devni and Astrid and Mohammed, from places like Birmingham and Bangalore and Mexico City and Patna.

I'd always seen words and stories as very private, something that belonged to just me. Something that was mine. I was never a sentimental person, or attached to things, but words were special, intimate, reserved for notebooks.

At first, it was agonizing to share my life so openly with strangers. The first time I wrote an essay that was truly transparent, I hesitated to push the "publish" button. I stared at it for hours. I think something in me knew that when I pushed that button, the story would stop belonging to me.

These letters are more than just letters telling me they liked something I wrote: these are stories in themselves. Sometimes they tell me their whole life story, sometimes they tell me just one thing they are struggling with. Often they are about topics I've written about like traveling solo, or rape, or cancer. They go deep, into secrets that have been hidden for years, and now are unlocked.

Every letter always ends the same way. They tell me how much the story I wrote moved them, how they are hopeful, how they are inspired to stay in this world and make it better.

When these letters first started coming, I thought they would eventually stop. I wasn't sure I could read them all, because the stories they contained moved me so much I often cried.

But now I understand that storytelling--the art of telling a story--means letting go of it being mine, and letting it belong to the people who read it. It's not me traveling solo, it's the reader's journey. It's not me overcoming rape, it's the reader writing her own manifesto. And it's the reader looking at life after illness with renewed hope and passion to see the world, not me.

As I read their letters, I imagine myself in their place. Their courage. Their belief. Their trust. It takes all these things to write to a stranger, to tell your story to someone you don't know, and hope they will respond to you. All these letters are like beautiful hot pink roses growing up a brick wall.


Now my favorite sound is the bell on my computer, telling me my mailbox is full.