Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers224
Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers224
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|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Series:||Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The writer abroad needs concrete as well as intangible skills, both of which this book will help you develop. Two capacities are essential: the readiness to embrace a new culture and the discipline to write about it. You may be tempted to just pack and go but advance preparation will foster abilities to help you thrive anywhere from Reykjavik to Vanuatu. Start now, close to home, to explore your own culture, commit to a daily writing practice, and begin advance research.
The Practice of Writing
Notice that we stress discipline over brilliance as essential to a writer. "Talent," said Gustave Flaubert, "is only lengthy patience." Writer and editor Gordon Lish, when asked how he chose students for his fiction writing workshops, said, "I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire." Remember this when the inner critic, that shadowy figure we describe in the craft discussion at the end of this chapter, argues that you have nothing to say. Ignore the voice that directs you to the beach instead of the desk. Pledge to write even when you're tired, frustrated, or depressed. Writing daily is akin to weight lifting and regular hikes to prepare for a backpacking trip. Initially, you may not eagerly anticipate that encounter with the blank page but little by little, joy might creep in.
Some practical considerations: notebooks and journals — and increasingly, laptops and iPads — are critical tools for travelers. Consider several types of journals, including a pocket-sized notebook for on-the-street reporting and a larger one for writing at home or on a train or in cafés. Choose lined or unlined, expensive bound books or cheap school copybooks; writing tools are an individual preference. You might prefer a small computer or tablet to register your thoughts in a safe place. Don't expect your memory to guard details you think you'll never forget. Always include dates, times, and places.
Reasons to write while abroad may seem obvious. Of course you want to remember the mastery of Chinese or those rainforest leeches that clung to your legs. But beyond the need for recall, what compels our writing? Francine du Plessix Gray said, "We write out of revenge against reality, to dream and enter the lives of others." In the essay "Why I Write," Terry Tempest Williams includes some widely shared reasons — to record of her thoughts and share them with friends. But she also writes to migrating birds and her own ghosts, as a bow to wilderness and a dance with paradox. When you trust the writing process, unexpected gifts emerge. Tempest Williams ends with: "I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love." Start here with exploring why you write as well as travel.
Writing Exercise One
Dive into your first freewrite with "I write to ..." or "I write because ..." Follow that with "I travel to ..." or "I travel because ..."
The Journey's Narrator
This book focuses on nonfiction, which includes essay, memoir, documentary, travel writing, and other genres we explore in chapter 10. But the person who tells the story is not the living, breathing author. The "I" is a narrator shaped on the page, a partial persona. The voice you develop will also reflect a person changed by travel. By the end of this book, the writer who returns will be different from the one who embarked.
Recognizing who you are before you depart is essential. Writing your personal and social history is one way to make that knowledge visible. Writer and filmmaker Julie Checkoway suggests a model in the memoir Little Sister: Searching for the Shadow World of Chinese Women. She weaves personal history with the stories of resilience and strength of the women she met while teaching in Shijiazhuang, an industrial town south of Beijing. One woman struggled with a hand disfigured in an accident while working in a truck factory during the Cultural Revolution. Another searched frantically for a foreigner to marry in order to escape China. Alongside the women's stories is Checkoway's chronicle of self-discovery, a pattern common to sojourners abroad. We leave home to seek "the other" but find new parts of ourselves.
Little Sister opens with a description of the small New England town where Checkoway was born the year John Kennedy was assassinated. She lost her mother five years later; her father's silence and inability to face that loss shrouded her world. To keep her occupied, her grandmother sent her out back with a teaspoon to dig to China. This same grandmother would be banished from the house by Checkoway's father, leaving the author bereft. We learn all of this in a few scant pages at the book's start. The setup helps us understand Checkoway's meaning when she writes: "Girls whose mothers disappear can spend their whole lives digging and digging, searching the broad earth for images in near and distant mirrors." We're also prepared for the day when Checkoway, after completing her degree at the Iowa's Writer's Workshop, accepts the challenge from anthropologist Margery Wolf to search for the hidden world of Chinese women.
Checkoway explains further how her heritage and loss of her mother propelled her to seek other cultures. Youth, she says, creates an imprint — a "map" we follow throughout our lives. Depending on the contours of that map, some of us stay in our childhood places; others move outward. But our search is shaped by those internal longings.
As you prepare to leave the familiar living rooms, what is the map you carry? These may reflect the physical world — a deep, mysterious woods where you played as a child compels you to comb forests everywhere. A psychological map charts your place in a large family, or the quest for success embodied in an immigrant story. Cultural maps reflect class and social status. Who gets to travel? Are you the first in your family to go abroad? Where did your ancestors come from — were they fleeing violence or poverty or searching for new work or other opportunities?
Writing Exercise Two
List all the ancestors you remember and where they came from. Write about one, starting with "I am the daughter/son or granddaughter/grandson of ..."
Then freewrite on the map you use to navigate. Begin with, "I carry with me the map of ..." Bear in mind that when we "borrow" a writer's structure, we must later remove the scaffolding and find our own form. For example, if you begin with "I carry with me the map," later cut that phrase from your piece. Alternately, you could footnote Julie Checkoway as your inspiration.
Culture as a Map
Cultural roots. Cultural competency. Multiculturalism. The word "culture" is so ubiquitous that it's hard to remember when it wasn't everyday currency. But the term is also complex, its meanings sometimes contradictory. Critic Raymond Williams wrote, "Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language." Some still think about capital C Culture: ballet, opera, and the elite arts. But most of us understand culture the way anthropologists have for more than a century as something we absorb growing up. One of the oldest but still helpful definitions comes from Edward B. Tylor's 1871 book, Primitive Culture: "Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."
Williams also noted that "culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings." In this everyday sense, culture defines the rules we internalize unconsciously as we grow up. It's a kind of map, even if it varies among individuals in a culture. People have long been fascinated by folktales of children raised by wolves or actual stories of those living outside a cultural framework. Such tales repel and fascinate. In Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, Russ Rymer recounts how the discovery of Genie, left in a dark room in her father's house between infancy and age thirteen, galvanized scientists to ask a question central to understanding humanity: Who would we be without culture? "Unworkable monstrosities," says anthropologist Clifford Geertz, "with very few useful instincts, few recognizable sentiments, and no intellect." Geertz offers his own definition of culture: "Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs."
These "webs of significance" may be regional, racial, class- or gender-based, ethnic, occupational, or religious. They encompass cultures we're suspended in now or were in the past. You may no longer attend religious services yet still consider yourself Jewish or Christian or Muslim. But cultures also shift over time and with our positions in the world. When your family moves from Mumbai to Tennessee, how does your sense as Hindu change? Cultural identity or class status in your home country affects how you view others. How does life for a Catholic in New York City differ from that of a rural villager in El Salvador? Say you're living with a family in Uruguay. Their surroundings — a comfortable house, a new Honda — may mark them as elite, even if they seem middle class. Exploring our own "webs" in advance helps us interpret difference more accurately.
Writing Exercise Three
To get to the heart of a topic, suggests Peter Elbow, write your "first thoughts." Begin a freewrite with "first thoughts on culture." What associations does the word trigger? Follow with a list of the cultures that have shaped you. Tell a story about one influence, beginning with "I remember ..." — for example, "... my grandfather's ranch" or "... learning to speak English."
We travel in part to discover something about ourselves, but that self-portrait doesn't always appeal. During a trip to Tokyo in 2002, journalist Alison Buckholtz visited the home of the master bamboo craftsman, Hirokawa-san. She wanted to buy one of his intricately woven bamboo baskets. As an American, Buckholtz thought it "axiomatic that, as travelers, we can partake in the cultural riches around us by purchasing them." She saw Hirokawa-san's studio as a "sort of scaled-back Pier One." To her frustration, Hirokawa-san did not sell his work. Buckholtz's story turns to joy when Hirokawa-san presents the basket as a parting gift. This is the heart of travel, she says, this sort of surprise. But Buckholtz likely didn't anticipate that her new learning would include this reflection of Americans as relentless consumers. We can't know in advance what mix of joy and chagrin will come with travel. But if we understand our home cultures, we'll be better prepared for sometimes vexing discoveries.
The Shaping Force of Place
You could begin, as Checkoway does, with writing about an important place in your past. The physical isolation of coastal "Puritan towns" defined her experience. Equally important was the social landscape where "spunky cheerleaders gave birth out of wedlock" before they transformed to grouchy clerks in orthopedic shoes working in needlework stores. The world Checkoway describes helps us feel her urgency to flee.
Familiar places and their smells, sights, and sounds mark us in unconscious as well as conscious ways. The smell of manure could trigger nostalgia for someone who grew up on a farm, but it might disgust an urbanite. A corner restaurant with barred windows could frighten strangers but connect others with the comfort of neighbors trading gossip over coffee. Memories are often fragments, not full-fledged stories. Writer David Duncan calls these "river teeth," an analogy based on the natural world. When felled trees disintegrate into a river, knotty bits of wood refuse to break down. Duncan likens these dense "cross-grained whorls" to stubborn memories that stay with us "long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away."
Some of our "river teeth" carry mixed associations. Here, Pico Iyer evokes his early years in England: "It is the light, on summer evenings, drifting on till 9 P.M. or later. ... It is the scratchy smell of grass, the thunk of bat on cricket ball. ... It is, of course, nostalgia — geography's déjà vu — that makes up a large part of what we call the 'sacred.'"
Iyer describes a contradictory aspect of home: it may be the place we feel compelled to flee but also long to revisit. Nostalgia for sacred places seeps into a person. Iyer has traveled the world and now lives in Japan. Yet the England of his boyhood still calls to him.
We'll explore landscape in chapter 6, but these initial exercises will help you examine a sense of place before encountering new environments.
Writing Exercise Four
List places that (1) you have considered "home," (2) are sacred, (3) you longed to flee, and (4) you yearn to return to. Pick one and describe it in detail, starting with "I remember ..." or as Iyer does, "It is ..."
The Writer as Witness
Once you arrive in Cambodia or Argentina or Finland, you'll notice everything. The allure of the unfamiliar enlivens our senses and our minds. But how can we learn to do the same in our own neighborhoods, places we see so regularly that we don't in fact see them anymore? A Russian term ostranenie refers to artistic techniques meant to startle viewers or readers into seeing the familiar in new ways. "Defamiliarization" — a term coined in the early twentieth century by Victor Shklovsky in reference to poetry — can reframe our daily experiences. Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange described a camera as a tool that teaches us to see without a camera. Similarly, writing is a tool for learning to observe daily life even without a pen in hand. Jotting down notes records experience but the practice is a feedback loop: the more you record, the more you notice. Your noticing makes the familiar into something novel.
Central to documenting social life is the notion of witness. The word has multiple meanings, some particular to distinct religious traditions. To witness can mean to testify, account for, be present at an event, or affirm religious beliefs. We see, record, and attend to our environment with heightened awareness when we think of ourselves as witnesses. An observer can compile facts; a witness is engaged, reaching for deeper truths. Add "bearing" to "witness" and new meanings arise. "Bearing" implies weight: to give birth to, support, yield, tolerate, endure. At home and abroad, witnessing prompts awareness of society's margins and of lives we can't see or feel until we move beyond observation.
Perhaps you've never thought about that old man living out of a shopping cart a few blocks from your home. Maybe you've stopped considering the day laborers lined up downtown and whether they may or may not eat today. We grow inured to hardship in order to survive the "compassion fatigue" common to contemporary life. But what insight, understanding, and empathy do we sacrifice when we stop seeing what surrounds us? We may also miss joy — the pleasure on the face of the woman reading in the park, of the kids leaping for a basketball.
Lives of privilege may be as invisible as those marked by hardship, though for different reasons. Ted Conover's Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, which explores the world of the town's wealthy residents, offers a different sort of witness. To gather material, he took jobs — taxi driver, local newspaper reporter — that put him in close touch with his subjects and their lives — an approach we'll explore in more detail in the next section.
Becoming a Participant Observer
We want to feel connected as witnesses to another culture and its people. But to see from another point of view, we also need to suspend judgment. This is the heart of ethnographic fieldwork, a practice that combines engaged observation with participation in cultural life. Imagine yourself invited to a religious ritual in a new place. How do you figure out when to stand or sit? Should you join in the prayers if you're a nonbeliever? Anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, and documentarians often spend between several months and many years in new settings, whether close to home or abroad. As participant observers, they have a dual agenda of involvement and detachment. They create a place in the group, learn the language, participate in social life, take field notes, and finally, analyze and write. "Ethnography" stems from the Greek "ethnos," people or nation, and "graphy," writing; the term refers to both the process and its product.
Excerpted from "Writing Abroad"
Copyright © 2017 Peter Chilson and Joanne B. Mulcahy.
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