A Lesson in travel writing, earning the right to write —
“Oh! You are going to Sedona??? They have The Energy there,” spoke the Hyderbad born owner of the Motel 6 in Payson, Arizona. His eyebrows raise with a mysterious sort of intention as he said “The Energy.”
“Yes,” I replied with a laugh, “and they have lots of people there who like The Energy.” I tried to say “The Energy” with the same tone of mystery and twinkle in my eye.
We both laughed a little and I checked out of the hotel and rode out to Sedona — to The Energy — with my small family.
Chaya, my wife, and I have a friend in Sedona. We both met her in India some years back, though at separate times. Our friend’s mother is the great Rama Vernon — the women who nearly single handedly jump started the yoga movement in America. Without saying, our friend delights in The Energy of Sedona.
This is as far as I can justifiably allow this travelogue entry to continue.
As I travel, I allow experience to direct my writing for me: I do not try to write about a place, I do not force my impressions so that I can present a fuller view of a location than what my observations allow.
I spent a weekend in Sedona, Arizona with an old friend. I wanted to write about Sedona, but I did not do the leg work to do so: I did not earn the right to write about Sedona.
I came into the little city in the middle of Arizona and hung out with friends. This is just what I did: we climbed up mountains to beautiful vistas, hung out on a farm, ate good food, slept comfortably, traveled down into Fossil Creek and drank beer. I saw beautiful places, had good conversation, but then when I began writing about I found myself stepping on teetering ground:
Writing about spending leisure time with friends is just about as interesting as spouting off about how I smashed my thumb with a hammer. You do not care about my thumb — smashed or unsmashed — or at least you shouldn’t.
Like so, I found myself trying to write more than my observation would allow. I did not earn the right to write about the places I visited. I simply did not collect enough hard information — I did not direct my experience to absorb the proper topics — to backup the words I found myself writing.
I struggled with this travelogue entry in vain for over a month. To no ends. I did not know what was wrong: why wasn’t this thing coming together? I soon found the piece big and fat with many twists of direction and starts and stops — I even divided it into multiple entries (one of which will be published later) but the main piece was not working. This was odd, usually these entries flow out like a river: I write what I see and hear and think. It is a simple formula.
Then I realized:
I was not writing my formula. I lacked the meat of experience to make this piece thick.
If I talk with someone and write about what they say, I have evidence of an experience, I have the raw materials from which I can draw an impression from.
But if I ride through a town and just hang out drinking beer with friends then the only damn thing that I should write about is hanging out and drinking beer with friends. But this was not the direction that I was taking this travelogue entry on Sedona.
I found myself writing about religion in Sedona, the blending of Asian and Western spiritualism, the commercialism of spiritual trend, and the rounds of subculture. But my exposure to these topics in Sedona did not inflate my words — I was writing empty. I did not ask my friends there the proper questions, I did not request that they introduce me to people to write about, I did not direct the course of this entry.
I had exposure to the proper sources — I met people who could have provided meat to the bones of a travelogue entry that I was laying down, but I did not capitalize on it in the moment.
There are travelogue entries whose topics can be discerned after the experience occurred, and then there are travelogue entries where the topics must be identified in advance of the experience. Sometimes you need to have an idea of where you want to go in order to get there. Sometimes you need to provide yourself with a mental map to direct your steps in order to fully write about a place.
Usually, as I travel I use the former strategy: I take any avenue of interest that I come upon and write about my experience. But sometimes I need to plan: I need to PUT myself in situations, I need to strategically ask my questions.
In Sedona, I used the former strategy and tried to write as if I used the later.
I found myself with a skeleton of an entry without any meat, without the chopping block of solid experience and observation to let my butchering knife fly into.
I was waving my knife in thin air. I did not earn the right to write.
I learned something about the process of being a traveling writer from this experience. Passive experience can only take a traveling writer so far, sometimes you need to use intentional action to find the means to back up your words.
You must earn the right to write.
Sometimes I need to say: “This is what I want to learn here, and this is how I am going to do it.” Sometimes I need to plan.
If I had done this in Sedona then I could have kicked out the following travelogue entry with the usual amount of bullheaded steam. I am pretty sure that the raw building blocks for this entry were at my finger tips, I just did not take them.
I drank beer and watched movies instead.
This was a good lesson learned. My notebooks are now structured a little differently: rather than just taking notes on what I experience passively, I actively write lists of what I want to actively observe, what I want to find out, what I may want to write about.
What I want in order to earn the right to write.
A small portion of the previous entry as it stood
The confluence of many strands of Asian spiritualism seem to have found a joining point in the USA. It was the vision of 1970’s Indian yogis that America would be the place for the next spiritual revolution, and they came over to teach in droves. They found an ample young audience. It seems to have been a time when the mystic of Asia was given a rebirth, it seems to have been a time of excitement and new ideas.
But what has become of this cultural conglomerating?
A wealthy town in a beautiful place where sign boards advertise the arts of Asia and Native America, and the tenets of all strains of spiritualism flow together easily in conversational mish-mash. Meditation centers and retreat centers and good living centers all sit together under the towering sandstone spires of a truly beautiful place.
The town of Sedona is separated by a ring of red sandstone spires, ledges, and peaks that stand as a palisade which keeps this little city from the rest of the world like a cookie cutter does to a sheet of rolled out dough. Stamp! goes the cookie cutter of the sandstone cliffs and ledges and out comes Sedona.
Buddhism, Hinduism, meditation, esotericism, yogaism, whole foodism, breathairianism, alienism — all sorts of spiritual or otherwise far out “isms” — have taken root in Sedona, Arizona. This is a town for people who really believe in life, and, for some who believe a little too much.
No idea-ism seems to be too crazed for this town in the central slopes of Arizona. Nearly any far out proclamation could probably find an agreeable audience here: aliens, Egyptian tombs in the Grand Canyon, that meat is not healthy to eat, and even that eating food at all is detrimental to ones spiritual health.
Though many of these “isms” seem very much the manifestations of subcultural pretentiousness rather than real explorations into the possibilities of life.
“I know something you don’t know, nah, nah, na, nah, nah.”
“We created an US to show that we are different than THEM.”
The subculture is perhaps created to provide its members with the status that they could never obtain in broader society. It is far easier to become a large fish simply by shrinking the size of your pond than by trying to outgrow an endless ocean. It is interesting the lengths that some of my countrymen will go to for this subcultural status: health, wellness, and sense have no bearing on this striving towards subcultural status — a striving that is often done under the banner of a tribal-like belief in ideas that the common man is too dense to believe.
When rising through the ranks of vegetarianism, veganism, and raw foodism doesn’t grab you enough subcultural regard, try breathairianism.
The common man says: “Of course you cannot live without food.”
But for one million US Dollars you can right now enroll in a workshop that teaches you how to live without any food or water. And people do it.
The drive to obtain subcultural status is strong.
Eggs, toast, ketchup, greasy forks, and Buddhism
I know of no other place where I can order eggs and toast for breakfast at a hometown diner and browse through a table of pamphlets about Buddhism, Yoga etc . .
Sedona seems to be a place for people who believe, for people who explore, and for those willing to push the boundaries of spiritualism, health, and the intellect a few steps further — the reality of the journey seems impertinent here, perhaps it is just the belief that counts.
Analysis and critique
“Why do you say that?”
This should probably be the most asked question of a writer to himself. “Why did I just write that?”
The answer does not need to be articulate, it does not have to prove the statement to be correct, it does not need to validate much of anything. A simple: “Because this person said so” or “Because I observed it” is more than enough.
It is my impression that it is still alright to write bullshit just so the reason behind the bullshit is shown clearly. If someone says something that I know is bullshit and I record their statement and publish the bullshit, then this is alright. To be validated the only thing that bullshit needs is provenience.
Writing is like snapping a picture. If I can show the background, the foreground, and where I stand — my perspective — then the piece is valid.
In the above example I did not validate my statements. I did not talk with any whole foodist, I did not meet any breathairians, and the only thing I saw of Sedona was its streets, hiking trails, and the inside of my friend’s home.
I wrote my impressions based upon the reputation of Sedona and not my observations. This is not a record of my observations but a babble of what I thought I observed.
There is a very large difference between the two. I did not write from a blank slate, but a stacked deck.
If I started out with an objective here — if I jotted down a few questions about Sedona that I wanted to investigate — then I could have added a layer of depth to the entry. A few simple quotes would have done it; a record of meeting with some of the people that I basely wrote about would have been better. Or, conversely, if I just wrote about what did experience or did not bother recording anything at all if I felt it lacked significance would have been even better
I did not validate my impressions, I did not earn the right to write what I did about Sedona.
In point, it is my impression that the correctness or incorrectness of writing is impertinent, it is the raw experience or opinion that counts. And this needs to be backed up with something:
“Why do you say that?”
Did I show where my impressions came from? Did I accurately portray the experiences and observations which lead to my passages? Can I answer the question, “Why do you say that?”
If I can answer this statement in the affirmative then I did my job as a traveling writer.
It is my impression that a decent piece of travel writing should show rather than tell about a place.
I did not show Sedona, I told about Sedona.
But I learned a good lesson.
Read more about travels in Arizona on Vagabond Journey
[seriesposts orderby=date name=”arizona” ]