Where are all the good stories?
Good travel storytelling is about two things: identifying good yarns, and telling them.
For the latter topic, we can turn to any number of mentors, writing schools and How To guidebooks. But what about finding things to write about? How can you spot a good story in the wild? This is a much slipperier topic. It requires instinct, experience, skill, gut feelings, all the things that fall under the label “individual creativity” – too subjective to be generally useful?
But maybe there’s another way to get at this skill. Things we can all do to attract inspiration, to better make ourselves available to it. Maybe there are ways to find good travel stories that are near-universally applicable, whoever and wherever you are in the world…
Maybe these 5 suggestions fit the bill.
1. You Have Nowhere Else To Be
If you’re just passing through, and if your departure time is set in stone, it’s very hard to get your brain to relax. It won’t be able to tune out that clock ticking in the background. It will fret and occasionally panic, plucking you out of the Now and into the Oh Crap, What If…? You’ll feel the urge to hurry when the subject matter calls for attentive lurking. You’ll miss things because you’re prioritizing, knowing that time is short and you can’t do everything. You will not be fully present, because you can’t surrender yourself fully to the moment, because, what if you miss the bus and then the ferry and OH GOD maybe you’d better just skip the sightseeing to be on the safe side…
The details that make up a good story work to a schedule you can’t predict, and usually involve a lot of on-the-hoof thinking. Journalist Gay Talese was asked to write up a profile of Frank Sinatra. Sinatra refused to be interviewed. End of story? Talese didn’t think so, and spent the next 3 months (and $5,000 of Esquire magazine’s expenses) getting as close to Sinatra’s orbit as he could. The result was one of the most famous pieces of magazine journalism ever written.
You probably don’t have $5k and 3 months just kicking around, waiting for the right story to blow them on — but you do have the ability to give your stories room to breathe. Craft your own Overflow Rule – where you automatically presume that anything you do will take a percentage of time longer than your gut says it will. (My writing always, always takes longer than I think it will, so I run on a 50% rule: if I think it’ll take me 2 hours, I give myself 3, and so on). Force yourself to slow down, to the point that you’re a little jittery and impatient with yourself. This is the perfect state for stories. They are the byproduct of braincells starved of something interesting to do, tugging at the leash, ready to disappear down every rabbit-hole in sight.
This is why great insights often occur to people while they exercise, as their bodies are hyper-stimulated, and their similarly energized minds are so fed up with being squandered that they make their own entertainment, in the form of Flashes Of Genius. This is why Haruki Murakami goes running.
Turn off the clock and mesmerize yourself until you can see the stories around you.
2. You Forget Yourself
When you’re doing something online, you’re usually trying to attract attention.
This isn’t the start of some kind of rant about how the Internet is ruining society. This is about the story that drives social media – your story. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a bazillion other online content-sharing services all run on the simple premise that your story is worth sharing. Boot them up, and the first thing you’re made aware of is yourself, via replies, retweets, Likes, DMs and all the feedback that makes you feel like a respected citizen of the Web. Social media can be an incredible force for selfless acts of philanthropy – but at rock bottom, it is driven by ego.
To tune into the stories around you, you need to tune yours out. It can be as simple as putting your phone in your pocket for 10 minutes, or as hardass as refusing to go online all week. If you’re fighting the urge to check your social media messages, your story is tugging your chain, either distracting you from what’s happening around you, or filtering it through you like a sycophantic publicist, making you the star of the show at the expense of the actual facts.
Forget yourself. There’ll be plenty of time to put yourself back into the picture when you write this story up – but for now, in the words of Pam Mandel, “get out of your own way.”
3. You Single-Task
Go here, and watch the video featuring Kurt Vonnegut, then the video featuring Andrew Evans.
Are you sure you did nothing but that? You probably didn’t. None of us do. We’re all supremely capable multitaskers, which is a phrase that means “easily distracted”. This is a big problem when it comes to teasing stories out of the world, because stories are complicated and require a lot of thinking-through.
You know when you put your headphones into your pocket, and when you fish them out again they’re a hideously complicated knot in at least 3 dimensions, leaving you wondering why nobody has solved this very basic engineering problem yet? You know that special calmness that you have to settle into, where the world disappears around you until nothing exists except your fingers, your headphones and your blood pressure? And that bit goes around there and knots under there and ah, okay, so that’s why, so if I pull this I should, OH YOU F….no, it’s okay, I see it, come on, I got you I got you I got you….
That is what chasing a story is like. Good stories look simple enough, but they’re actually exactly like knotted headphones. When you’re unknotting them, you almost certainly will not have the bandwidth for anything else – so make sure you have nothing else to do. Give that story the full wattage of your brain-power. The results might floor you.
4. You Write It Down
Here’s why travel writers need paper notebooks. (Edit, 30/6/14: alas, Travellll.com is long gone, but I’ll be reposting the essay behind that link very soon.)
But there’s something else – and it’s to do with the way we learn things. There is good evidence that handwriting is a far more effective tool for getting information to stick in our heads than typing is. It seems we bond with what we write in a more meaningful way, or at least a very different way. Don’t ditch the tech – use paper to complement your gadgets, rather than replace them.
If you want to capture a story in the fullest, most vivid way you possibly can, you need a notebook.
(And a sexy pen you can’t stop writing with. That’s important too.)
5. You Do Something “Risky”[quote style=”boxed”]Let’s face it — fear sucks. It has a place, however limited, to prevent us from running off the cliff like lemmings. But it’s not a place from which good things like joy or confidence flow freely. How to beat it? Aim to be informed and understand that the process of doing so requires a little effort. (After all, what in life that’s worth it doesn’t require some work?) You’ll be surprised by the overwhelmingly positive unintended consequences of your effort. The conversations and connections alone will shift your thinking. And when you decide to act, you’ll find that informed experiential travel is one of the best ways to combat fear. But that means you have to get in it, amongst it, and occasionally press the edges of your apprehension first. Don’t allow others to simply tell you about the way the world is when they haven’t been there. Demand better information. Go and find out for yourself. [/quote]
The Danger Map Of The World: Fear Vs. Awareness – Uncornered Market
Defining risk is a risky business.
If you’re in search of a good story, the best place to look is outside your comfort zone. The reason for this is partly your reaction to discomfort and fear. Your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. Your respiration level goes up. Other, less pleasant things threaten to happen if you don’t keep a lid on them. In summary: you are dragged, sweating and trembling, into the present. You are aware like never before.
(My favourite way of putting myself in this state? Getting lost.)
When you’re not exploring that discomfort, your senses aren’t enjoying that attention-honing jolt of adrenalin. They’re relatively dulled to the things around you, less able to collect and process sensory data. You’re less attuned to the things that lead to good stories.
But there’s another danger in comfort, and it’s the one Dan & Audrey allude to in the above quote. “Comfort” is a world you’ve created for yourself, a world with rules you understand and events you can more or less predict. To step out of that world is to emerge from a story you’ve written for yourself and surrender to something else – to throw your arms wide, like Kevin Costner on his horse in Dances With Wolves, and shout “Come on then – what else have you got for me?”
Find a way to step outside your comfortable, safe view of the world, carefully, with your mind thrown open…and go see what other stories are out there.
My thanks to everyone whose brain I picked over Facebook & Twitter while I was writing this post!