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By Jamey Glasnovic
Writing, for the writer, can be many things. It is quite obviously a means of communication, sure, but when carried a step further it becomes a more nuanced form of expression. Another step or two leads to intoxicating art form if you so choose. Writing can be dogged inquiry or delivery of fact or joyful creativity. The seemingly simple act has broad appeal, a slippery core, a remarkable adaptability and a long reach. I love it, unconditionally.
But, the one thing that writing is not, is easy. It takes time, and effort, and often doesn’t seem to lead anywhere beyond a stack of notes scribbled on napkins and coasters and in notebooks, or perhaps, as an unfinished manuscript tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Unanswered or rejected query letters are commonplace, pay checks can be few and far between.
In spite of all of that, I have been fascinated by the process for going on thirty-five years now, and for much of that time I have been a consumer—as opposed to a producer—of words. I love song lyrics and movie dialogue and books and magazines and newspapers in equal measure, and in preparation for a pair of presentations with the Canmore Museum about my books and photography I’ve been given a unique opportunity to stop and reflect on what it all means, this thing so many of us are drawn to.
Because truth be told, I’m always thinking about what working with words means, and am not sure I’ve gotten very far with the inquiry. But I’m still trying, because as I said, I love it. There is no pleasure I get in this life that is greater than when I’m building sentences. Even when those sentences suck. And maybe that’s the first lesson aspiring writers need to learn, no matter how talented you are with a pen in hand, you’re going to suck a lot of the time. Get over it. Get on with it. Or, don’t. The decision is entirely up to you.
Perhaps author Larry Brown expressed this idea best. His contention was there are no born writers, that there is a skill component that needs to be learned. “You’ve got to write X number of words before you can write anything that can be published, but nobody is able to tell you how many words that is,” he said.
Get over it. Get on with it. Or, don’t.
For two decades I didn’t. I dabbled at the page occasionally and spent a lot of time marvelling at the seemingly effortless works of others. Work that was so good it could make me laugh out loud, bring a tear to my eye, or make my heart hurt. I sought advice from professional writers I knew and read everything about the craft I could find. Without realizing it, I was building a cache of creative knowledge and energy. A storehouse of sorts, to be accessed when “I have to do this,” finally overpowered “I’m too scared to try.”
And then along came King.
The novels written by Stephen King are not everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I do enjoy them, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read. Blunt, honest and informative, it could have been crushing to my fragile aspirations. Instead I was energized, by this passage in particular.
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind or heart.”
He goes on to list a number of motivations people use to rally the courage to do the work, but concludes with, “Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
Message received Steve.
I write books about travel and adventure, because as it turns out I am incapable of taking that subject lightly either. In 1964 writer, scholar and theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey,” and, “the inner journey is the interpolation of the meaning and the signs of the outer pilgrimage.”
For me, writing is an obvious accompaniment to that philosophy. The process of searching out adventure and then expressing it in words has an irresistible and strangely symbiotic allure.
Imagine for the moment a warm afternoon and a rooftop patio and the Virunga volcanoes spread out in the near distance. This snapshot in time is from back in early 2019 as I was riding my bicycle through the northwestern corner of Rwanda, while doing research for my third book. I was road weary and a little bit homesick and the trip up from Kigali was arduous, but I wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet. There were clearly revelations still to be had before returning to Canada.
As another beer arrives I realize I’m tired, and maybe a little heat stroked as well, but the broken cloud continues to be entrancing as it brushes over the collection of peaks that extend 120 degrees across the horizon. The beer is beginning to work its magic, and after the big effort of the last couple of days I’m happy to catch the buzz and wait for the coming sunset. As I’m contemplating how great life is in this exact moment, my mind can’t help but drift to Barry Lopez’s new book ‘Horizon’. There is an opening quote by French writer, poet and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery in it that is nothing if not beguiling, “To travel, above all, is to change one’s skin.”
I have to wonder as the end of this journey begins to draw near, have I changed my skin? I admit, I absolutely do feel different, but I don’t know if I’m changed. I’m still essentially the same person I was two months ago when I came to Africa, but maybe what I’ve done is return to a skin that’s more comfortable. It’s not a full transformation, I’m still too often anxious, and fall too easily into the “western shoulds” as my default position when I’m not sure what to do next, instead of being patient and allowing the right option the chance to present itself. I long to get truly comfortable with the idea of letting the day guide me. If it doesn’t amount to much, so be it. We’re not there yet.
But overall, I am better here, out on the road looking to satisfy a hunger to experience and to explore in order to learn and to know. There are powerful glimpses of peace and purpose in that process, and that is why I’m drawn helplessly forward by the idea. It’s not about escapism, or the avoidance of everyday life in western society, I’m simply trying to find my best life. Perhaps travel is an acknowledgement of my true self. This is the curious me, the adventurous me, the thoughtful me, the hopeful me. I like this me.
It wasn’t until I started working on this article and my museum presentations, nearly three years after staring out over the volcanoes in Rwanda—and two years after turning simple notes into full paragraphs—that I realized I could just as easily be talking about writing as about travel in this excerpt. For me the creative impulse is a non-linear, crazy jigsaw puzzle of ideas and inspirations that demands my attention, and so I give it. I am continually amazed by what it reveals, but you do have to start somewhere.
Leo Tolstoy once said, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, but others judge us by what we have already done.” It took years for me to get comfortable with the idea that I’m a late bloomer and that I work slowly. Resisting that simple truth hindered my progress. Before I could fully appreciate the steps along the way I had to park my competitive instincts. I had to manage my childish jealousy and overcome the ever-present fear and doubt. I knew I could do the job well enough but was too easily sidetracked in my younger days.
Fortunately, coming to the tail end of that difficult learning curve means my hopes and aspirations are now more tightly aligned to reality. I’ll never be Jon Krakauer or Tim Cahill or Bill Bryson—to name but a few of my influences who have written (prolifically) about travel and adventure—but, I can still be me. And that’s OK.
So, to all the sage advice about the craft to be found out there I might humbly add, never take yourself too seriously. It doesn’t matter what your interests are—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism, screenplays—the words require the appropriate respect regardless of the form, but remember you are simply the conduit for the message. Embrace that, take the time to build the appropriate skills, and then do what you have to do. Even if no one ever ends up reading it. If you have the fever, I don’t see that there’s any other way.
In other words, get over it. Get on with it. Or, don’t. The decision is entirely up to you.
Author & Event Info
Jamey Glasnovic is a freelance writer and photographer based in Canmore, Alberta. His books include Lost and Found, Adrift in the Canadian Rockies (Rocky Mountain Books 2014), and A Few Feet Short, An Uncommon Journey to Everest (Rocky Mountain Books 2018). He’s currently working on his forthcoming travel memoir, about his trip to Tanzania and Rwanda. Jamey’s photos can be found at www.jameyglasnovic.com.
He’ll be doing online presentations as part of the Canmore Museum’s book club on December 2 and speaker series on December 9. Event information and registration can be found at the following links:
Feature image: Cholatse and Taboche, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, 2016. Photo provided courtesy of Jamey Glasnovic.