Un-planning

A friend has been reading a book about story design; after mentioning that the author of this book is helpful for those of us who aren’t “natural” story tellers, and need the structure of a narrative “blueprint” in order to get anywhere, he goes on: “It makes me think, too, about traveling.  In particular, the question is, why shouldn’t I just go drive my car to Winnipeg and see what’s there?” Because one thing will lead to another, and eventually you’ll end up in Yerevan staying at the house of a friend of a cousin of an aunt of one of your students. Oh, wait… wrong country.  Because one thing will lead to another and you’ll eventually find yourself trying to steal gold from a dragon? Sorry, wrong story. But I do have a bit of experience in unplanned travel, and unplanned writing as well — not as much as some, but more than I would have expected. Why shouldn’t I go to Eagle River for Pascha? Why not visit Tbilisi? No reason, really, and so I went — but I don’t know that I want to do so again, or at least not alone. It wasn’t scary, but it was a bit lonely.

In my experience (and I’m by no means suggesting that this is true of everyone) spontaneous travel is usually a concession to loneliness when I’ve failed to quite integrate with the local community. In Santa Fe or Flagstaff I never would have even considered visiting the Phoenix cathedral for a holiday, because I would have known what I would be doing: I would attend a Liturgy with my church community, receive Communion, and have lunch with some friend; perhaps a potluck. Not a big production, but festive enough, because we knew and liked each other. If I left, it would be for some other reason — to visit a friend, or family, or for a school holiday. None of these “perhaps I’ll run into somebody in the street” shenanigans. No squeezing through a crowd of strangers. It’s hard to be an outsider in a small town or a village, however. Most people rely on their family networks; the church is simply an extension of the town, and the town takes a long time to become part of, just as it takes a long time to learn the language. So I went to Eagle River because there was a church community there in a was that there wasn’t in Tuluksak; I knew that they would celebrate Pascha together. I went to Tbilisi because I knew that they would celebrate the Dormition of the Mother of God — or at least that some of them would. Experience suggested that Adigeni wouldn’t. If I was going to be a stranger either way, I might as well be a stranger among a thousand other strangers in a magnificent cathedral. Which wasn’t a forbidden choice, but neither was it necessarily the best choice possible. I’ve also had some bad experiences with heavily planned trips, like the time I went to DC as a teen — but that’s a different story.

Unlike my friend’s observation, however, I’m not sure that this means anything for writing. I  suppose that if unplanned trips are a metaphor for writing off the top of one’s head, I might say that in both cases I’m off looking for something that I don’t have yet. Both are born of the feeling: perhaps I’m ignorant even of my ignorance; perhaps I’ll have a vision or an epiphany; perhaps I’ll meet a bosom buddy or see a magnificent sight or be given a vocation. At the very least I’ll have gained an interesting life experience and seen a beautiful cathedral. As G K Chesterton says, the word “essay” does not only mean five paragraphs of prose on a sheet of paper; it also means “to attempt,” and essayists are those who attempt to attempt to understand, formulate, and cohere an idea, an argument, a way of looking at the world, a thought that they see truth in. While artists do this in paint, or poets in lines, essayists happen to do this in sentences and paragraphs; there are probably story tellers who do the same thing — Chesterton was certainly among them, though I’m not sure who else is.

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