This week, I embarked on two big adventures. First, I launched this blog, making the leap both to commit to writing, and to share that writing. Second, I arrived in India, where I will be participating in an experiential course on health and development with the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) in a small area in Maharashtra called Jamkhed. Surprisingly, my mind started meshing these two very different events together (which, in retrospect, is not so surprising given the brain’s tendency to look for meaningful patterns). As I sit to write with a view of bustling Mumbai, I can’t help but wonder about the similarities between writing and traveling.
Beginning with nothing. Both writing and traveling to unfamiliar destinations begin with nothing. There can be maps, guidelines, outlines, and ideas that contribute, but the preparation is very different from the active process of doing, which begins with a blank page or the first time your eyes and brain absorb a place you’ve never seen. Despite preparation, writing and traveling seem to take on lives of their own that culminate in something very different than what (if anything) was initially envisioned. Both writers and travelers speak of going in without expectation, because expectation – which has been referred to as an assassin of creativity – is thought to narrow our minds before we’ve had a chance to allow the natural processes to blossom on their own.
“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” — E. L. Doctorow
“I will think about Africa when I land in Africa. I will take it as it comes to me, unfiltered and raw.” — NomadicMatt, an avid traveler and blogger
Uncertainty. The idea of beginning with nothing, and dropping expectation, brings with it a vast amount of uncertainty. In writing and traveling – and, well, in life – this can be both terrifying and enlivening. The necessary capacity of the writer to lean into uncertainty has been referred to by Donald Barthelem as an art of “not-knowing,” and Keats as “negative capability.” Travelers, too, are encouraged to lean into not-knowing, although the terminology used is different. An open mind, it has been said, is the key to traveling: embracing rather than resisting the presence of the unknown so that we don’t miss opportunities, rely on limiting stereotypes or cultural arrogance, or color the experience with the frustration and disapointment of unrealized expectations.
“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it.” — Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” — Bill Bryson, The Best American Travel Writing 2000
Vulnerability. When faced with uncertainty, our security surrendered and many things out of our control, we often feel vulnerable: exposed and raw. Writers often reveal deep aspects of themselves through their writing that they don’t convey in ordinary conversation, and then share this personal expression with others with no control over how it will be received. More than the content, the form and style of writing can be a source of vulnerability as well – the unique signature of someone’s craft, a voice and art-form subject to critique and criticism from others. In traveling, the surrender of our familiar ways of being, knowing, dressing, eating, navigating, talking, and interacting is nothing if not vulnerable. In both cases, however, it is this vulnerability – the dropping of our familiar masks and habits that keep us emotionally safe, protected, and often distant from others – that makes these experiences so transformative. (Note: It is always important to be educated about where you’re traveling and follow safety guidelines – being open to experience can and should be done while traveling smart!)
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.” — Brene Brown, Ph.D. (learn more from Dr. Brown about vulnerability on her TedTalks)
“As is often the case when I travel, my vulnerability — like not knowing what the hell I’m going to do upon arrival — makes me more open to outside interactions than I might be when I’m at home and think I know best what needs to be done. On the road, serendipity is given space to enter my life.” — Andrew McCarthy, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down.
Perspective. Releasing expectations, leaning into uncertainty, and embracing vulnerability often have the effect of shifting our perspective. In writing, we learn about ourselves as we let our filter and our guard down; we also learn about the perspectives of others who may not agree with our words or like our style. In traveling, we learn that our way of being in the world is not the only way there is. The trick is remaining open when presented with these differences, rather than hardening and closing off to them. In neither writing nor traveling is this process about determining good and bad, right and wrong; instead, it’s about broadening perspective enough to see the context out of which different perspectives arise, and allowing space for them all.
“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” — Gustave Flaubert
“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” — Henry MIller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Connection. While writing and traveling may highlight differences among perspectives, they also provide opportunities to peer beneath the specificities of those perspectives and identify the characteristics of being human that we all share. In writing, we often find a story beneath the story – a human tale of love, loss, desperation, or joy, that may have been told time and time again in different ways, with different details. In traveling, we see human expressions of laughter, love, and suffering that transcend cultural boundaries. When approached with openness, respect, and compassion, what is different can also be a source of connection, encouraging us to find companions in sometimes the unlikeliest of places.
“Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.” – Dani Shapiro (read more of Dani Shaprio on vulnerabilty)
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” — Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now
In the end, then, perhaps writing and traveling are both practices in letting go – of expectation, of certainty, of control – in the service of broadening our perspectives and fostering connections with ourselves and others. This is no easy feat; in fact, it takes a lot of courage. But, I suspect, writers and travelers alike find that the meaning they cultivate in their lives through these processes makes the discomfort and difficulty worth it – just another part of the wild ride. Of course, this is just one perspective. I’ll be curious to hear the thoughts of all you writers and travelers and writing travelers out there – what does your experience say about this?
In the coming weeks, stay tuned for more information about CRHP, their work in India, and how the qualities above manifest – or don’t (no expectations, right?) – during my stay in Jamkhed.