When I was halfway through writing my first book many years ago, I remember reading in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that the best part of being a writer isn’t getting your name in print. It isn’t all the excitement and accolades that accompany being a published author. The best part of being a writer, she said, is the writing itself.
Damn, I thought. Writing is such hard work. How can that be?
A year later, I realized she was right. The writing is the best part. The writing is what energizes and enriches me, deepens my life in more ways than I can count. Once you’ve finished writing your book and it’s in the hands of others – publishers, editors, the media, readers – you’re no longer behind the wheel, taking your characters places they need to go, deciding which verb conveys exactly the right mood, letting the phases of the moon dictate how the night sky looks. Once your book is out in the world it’s no longer yours. The publisher might even change the title on you, as my first publisher did.
So the writing itself is what I always go back to – sometimes kicking and screaming and dragging my heels – but before long I remember why I write: it makes me feel good when I feel an inspiration start to grow, an image I can’t shake, an emotion or idea that desperately needs to be sculpted into words. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m feeling a certain way about something until I start writing about it. Someone once wrote, “How do I know what I’m thinking if I haven’t written about it?” I get this. For the ideas to take shape, I need to write whatever I’m feeling strongly about. Writing organizes my thoughts and sets free my feelings, ideas and opinions. Even if nobody ever sees what I write, it doesn’t matter. It’s still liberating. It still invigorates. But I especially love the feeling of transforming something from my own experience and sending it out into the larger world. I love writing about something that, while personal, is hopefully also universal, about an experience that might induce others to nod in recognition and feel less alone.
“Damn, I thought. Writing is such hard work. How can that be?”
Writing is immensely cathartic. What was interior becomes exterior, and when it’s exterior it’s tangible, made more real. Writing lets me live parts of my life over again, even the painful parts. The second time around I can re-examine and reflect, work out why I took one particular road in life over another, attempt to recall who I was in the past, what I thought, and wonder if a part of that younger me still exists.
Writing forces me to observe life in detail, to live in the moment. I find that my two passions, writing and travelling, feed off and enrich each other. When you’re on the road, everything around you takes on a vibrancy you may not have experienced since childhood. When you’re in a new place, you absorb fresh life around every corner; you see everything from a crooked angle. Time stretches and your senses sharpen. In other words, you’re paying attention. And paying attention is a writer’s job. If you intend to write about what you’re seeing, you’ll be even more aware of the details of the moment. You’ll look more closely, listen more clearly, taste more carefully and continually reflect on what you’re experiencing. All your senses are heightened. As a result, your writing – and your travels – will be deeper and richer.
Writing also gives me a sense of accomplishment. I tried being a primary school teacher for a time and I don’t think I was very good at it. I’m terrible at any kind of retail job– unless I can read a book behind the cash register. Writing, although hardly a profession that pays much these days, has in many ways saved me from being an aimless wanderer in this life. It roots me to solid ground. What I have not earned by way of money is more than compensated for by wealth of experience. Writing has shaped me as a person in a way no office job could.
But above all, writing gives me redemption. If I write about an experience I can lift it up to another level, helping me and my readers understand more about the world. I thought about this recently when writing my latest book. It’s not a travel book, but it discusses a terrifying journey nonetheless. Writing about how my son developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in reaction to his grandfather’s death has forced me to consider how writing about a difficult and traumatic experience can bring out the truth of who we are. What we find out is not always pretty, but it’s real and it’s human.
Laurie Gough is author of Kiss the Sunset Pig: An American Road Trip with Exotic Detours, and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross: A Woman’s Travel Odyssey, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in the U.K., and silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Travel Book of the Year in the U.S. Over twenty of her stories have been anthologized in literary travel books; she has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, and has written for The L.A. Times, USA Today, salon.com, The National Post, The Toronto Star, Canadian Geographic, The Daily Express and Caribbean Travel + Life, among others. She lives in Wakefield, Quebec with her family, and has just finished writing her next book.