Here’s a true story about the importance of misery.
Ah, Crete! Fresh off the ferry from Athens, I’m weary but happy. I stagger down the gangplank. Thanks to an overabundance of possessions and a rolling suitcase that spilled its entrails on a Greek sidewalk, my rucksack is an appalling weight. I’m also badly sunburnt. My upper body is red and blistered, and my face and the top of my head are so scorched that they’ll eventually leave permanent scars. With every step, the rucksack straps cut into raw, damaged flesh. Walking anywhere like this would be stupid.
I get to the information office. Shall I call a taxi? I’m out of cash and I don’t know where the ATMs are. The best thing to do would be to find a cash-point, get some money out and call for a taxi. I decide it’s also the least adventurous thing to do (I may have been hallucinating at this point), and since it’s early morning at the start of a long, sunny day which I’ve put aside for exploring Heraklion, and since it’s only me that I have to worry about, I set myself the challenge of walking the two miles to my hotel.
I’ll just go slowly. It’s all about maintaining a positive mental attitude. Let’s do this!
Having officially locked myself into this challenge, my course is set. No cheating now! I walk the hundred yards to the port’s information office, tears of pain rolling down my sunburnt cheeks and dripping off my chin. It’s agony. Yay!
I can’t walk far in this state. Once at the office, I ask someone behind the desk if they would look after my rucksack for a couple of hours, and I unload half my belongings and stuff them into carrier bags and a small daysack, and it’s with these that I set off again. Unfortunately for the skin on my shoulders, the damage is already done. They’re stripped raw. Just the light touch of my cotton shirt is sending spikes of agony coursing through me. Woohoo!
I try different modes of walking to keep my upper body as motionless as possible. The Zombie. The Constipated Sailor. The Riverdancer. All do nothing to diminish my misery. I walk Heraklion’s streets, bathed in sweat in a shirt dotted with bloodstains, chugging back the last of my drinking water. Heraklion is bigger than I thought. It looked so small on the map in my Rough Guide To Greece. Well, it isn’t. Go Team Mike!
My hotel is ugly and my room isn’t ready. I ask if I can leave my bags at reception, and then out into the sunshine I go again, a beetroot-coloured Englishman wobbling down the street like a drunkard (ah! another drunk English! What a malakas), an expression of horror etched deep into his scarlet, sweaty face. I know what comes next. If my raw shoulders can’t even bear the soft touch of cotton, carrying my rucksack is going to feel like I’m being flayed alive. This is the stupidest challenge of my life. I ROCK!
It takes me two hours to carry my rucksack back across Heraklion. Twenty steps. Sparkly vision. Rest my backpack against a low wall and try to avoid blacking out. Repeat. My very own Wheel of Pain, all of my own making — but I’d suffered so much that I was damned if it’d all be for nothing . . .
I stagger into my hotel, drag (yes, drag) my bags to my room, collapse face-down on the bed, and fall into a mindless fever that lasts 24 hours.[hr]
What did that story tell you about me? I’ll make it easy for you:
1) I enjoy setting myself challenges.
2) I’m an inexperienced traveller.
3) I’m possibly a masochist.
4) I’m clearly some kind of massive idiot.
Well, the first two are absolutely correct. Busted. Number 3? Nope. Contrary to what this story and much of the rest of this website may suggest, I don’t get off on pain and misery. And while 4 is clearly true at some level, it’s not the reason this story fits on a blog about travel and good storytelling.
Here’s the dark, dirty reason.
All that pain and misery is attractive.
Here’s a poser for you: if storytelling is all about providing people with escapism, ie. a way to swap the grim pressures of daily life for a brighter, better world — why is the world drawn to stories about bad things?
Murder mysteries. Crime thrillers. Super-slick forensics dramas. Horror films. Anti-heroes. Game Of Thrones. Zombies. Terminators. The Matrix. Vampires. Eastenders.
Who would want to live in any of these worlds? Getting hacked to pieces by Lannisters because you try to rule with a sense of justice and honour? No thanks. Machines destroying humanity’s future? Yeah, I’ll pass. Shrill, sour-faced Londoners screeching, “LEAVE IT AHHT YOU TOERAG, YOR ‘AVIN A LARF INCHER?” and enthusiastically killing each other off at Christmas? That’s not the London I know (well, not much).
As a species, we simply cannot get enough of these stories. And that really makes no sense. Why subject ourselves to things designed to scare us, make us jump, fill us with dread, make us leap out of our chair and shout “NOOOOO”? In short, why consume stories that make us feel bad?
The answer is that they don’t make us feel bad. We love them. We’re drawn to them, the same way that something labelled “Wet Paint – Don’t Touch” absolutely requires an experimental poke with a finger. Are we fickle and perverse? Maybe . . . but perhaps it’s just a sign that our survival instincts are as strong as ever.
The psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley calls stories the flight simulators of human social life. Just as flight simulators allow pilots to train safely, stories safely train us for the big challenges of the social world. Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end.
– Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal
It could be that we’re naturally drawn to stories filled with awfulness because they teach us to avoid it. It might be that simple. And along the way, the neurological kick that our brains reward us with has become a dependency. We’re not sure what we’re learning from these tales of profound woe, but at an instinctual level, we’re convinced it’s valuable enough to stick around, book upon book, boxset after boxset…
So what does this mean for travel writers?
It means their audience actually enjoys it when things going wrong.
This may come as a shock to a lot of travel bloggers. Isn’t this sick and cruel and, well, not terribly supportive? Doesn’t everyone want to see shots of feet in hammocks on sizzling beaches, amazing food piled high, and all the wonderful, positive things that a life of travel can enable? Yes. There’s no denying they often do – but it’s definitely not all they want.
Everyone loves a good travel yarn about when things get scary. A shipwreck, say, or a terrifying flight through a storm, or having your passport stolen a few hours before you fly home. Situations the reader definitely doesn’t want to be in, but can’t stop reading nonetheless. So if you want to get your readers hooked, tell the bad stories as well as the good ones . . . except tell them in the right way.
Here’s the wrong way I could have written up my Heraklion misadventure.
I got sunburnt in Naxos because I used some crappy Factor 20 suncream from Athens. So I was in AGONY that day. I didn’t get a taxi because there were no ATM machines (and nobody offered to help me with my bags), and I had to walk 6 miles with my possessions. PLUS! When I got to the hotel the first time, they hadn’t even prepared my room! So if you ever find yourself in Crete, DO NOT go to Heraklion, it’s awful, DO NOT use Greek suncream and DO NOT stay at the [details of the hotel]. I had a terrible time. Zero stars, Crete. F*** you.
If you’re telling a travel story of personally experienced dread and woe, it can easily sound like whining. When it’s perceived as whining, the undesirable focus of the story, the thing the reader is subconsciously learning to avoid, changes. Suddenly they’re not learning to avoid awful events. They’re learning to avoid turning out like you.
If you’re telling a story of personal misery, assume the reader will see through any attempt on your part to rewrite history and shift the blame. Maybe we’re only 20+ years into the information revolution, but we’re thousands of years into the literary equivalent – and the average reader’s bullshit radar is well-tuned. Everyone knows the reality of travel is that it’s occasionally really hard, and the reality of being human is that sometimes you do dumb things. In the above rewrite, I’m sounding defensive because I’m ducking responsibility, and leaving out the entirely embarrassing fact that it was all self-inflicted, since I’d turned it into a fairly absurd Rite Of Manhood. It was all my fault – and there’s a good lesson there.
(Perhaps it’s “Don’t be like Mike.”)
But…being transparent about what a buffoon you’ve been? Is that really a good way to tell personal travel stories that people will enjoy?
I’m not suggesting everyone should permanently wallow in suffering, because that’s tedious and off-putting. Beyond a certain point, misery just isn’t fun any more. It becomes pointlessly negative. Your travel adventures turn into a certain type of French cinema from the ’80s, and your readers will want to grab you by the shoulders and yell, “SNAP OUT OF IT, YOU PESSIMISTIC LOSER.” (If this ever happens to you in real life, take it as a sign you’ve gone too far.)
Exaggerating or tarting up your misery until it’s something it never was? Not a great idea either. Be matter-of-fact, and don’t use long words. The horror should speak for itself.
I’m also not arguing that travel is, on the whole, miserable. In my experience, it absolutely isn’t. It’s sometimes hard, yes, and it’s also sometimes kinda horrible. And audiences often read about travel because much of the time they really do want to escape into your writing and vicariously live your adventures.
But they’re also there to watch you suffer.
So – go on. Give ’em what they want.