Beyond Soul Searching and Boxes Filled with Photos

I spent a lot of time traveling this summer; one of these trips was Planned and one was Very Much Unplanned. There was some ground, sea, and flight involved; and of course, a fair bit of walking. Last night, I put my suitcase away; I’ve been home two weeks. I looked at it, realizing I was slowly pulling things from it. I just needed to feel like I’m going somewhere; travel is a reassurance you have a destination in mind, a solid place in the universe. Both of my travel moments came out of feeling frustrated; they both came from a sense of lose, a thing that stemmed from a deep sense of failure. There is a bitterness attached to the first trip, a thing I hope fades in time; I know this isn’t the trip’s fault or mine. It’s a thing of timing, a twist of circumstance connecting things in my head; the things that happened after the trip were set before the plane took off, put into motion after I said I was going, but before I left. The second came after a wave of exhaustion and boredom, conquering the need to overpower being ground beneath emotions too heavy and brittle, impatient expectations. I told myself this trip would allow me to wait, pull me away from world; it took me away, whisking me into a self-made fantasy land where time lost meaning; my needs piled up, all large dreams put in boxes and stacked away.

Because dreams, the things I want in life, have no room in suitcases. I can’t find myself or achieve long-term goals on a plane or site seeing. Some people soul search during travel; my soul gets enough action. The places I’ve visited aren’t going to achieve my dreams or air brush meaning into my life; beautiful vistas or exquisite art won’t make me a more complete person. Higher revelations aren’t my thing.

My boyfriend quipped that I should “take pictures with my mind.” I said, “I already do.” That doesn’t prevent me from toting around a digital camera, trying to get some okay photos; out of a hundreds of pictures, there are always a couple that I find decent and encapsulating of what it meant to be in that moment. There are no pictures of food; it’s food, I’m pretty sure I’m not sucking down something thousands of people haven’t seen before. If you’ve got the recipe, I’ll take that, but no, no thanks to plate of French macaroons. I have no need to make a memory book or scrap book my life; yes, I’ve had it suggested I should make a scrap book with my pictures. Sorry, the flickr album must suffice.

This one, I think this next one is my dirtiest traveling secrets: I don’t keep a travel journal. I don’t keep a real journal, either, so I’m not surprised. I kept a journal for a while, and really, what did I get out of keeping it? It was a ‘Book of Problems Written By Someone Who Really Has So Few Problems in Life It’s Laughable.’ Being a detail oriented person, I would write down details, which meant I recorded how things went wrong and how I might change that next time. If you’re running experiments, it’s the way to keep notes; for running a life, I found it made me a needless worrier, trapped in a vortex of things I was doing wrong. I can’t do everything right, but it’s equally true it’s not all wrong.

When I traveled, I got sick, missed a ferry, lost more than a little time hunting down hotels and internet cafes, and drove for hundreds of miles at a time; I learned that you need to budget for these things. But guess what? I get sick at home, miss buses, lose a little time hunting addresses down, and I end up waiting to meet with people. The mistakes aren’t a reason to stay home. The only car wreck I’ve been in happened less than five minutes from my house, on my way back from the gym. That time I got stung by a bee? Backyard. Flu? Crutches? Yup, during the normal routine of school. Staying home, insulating myself never kept me safe; for the record, that was a big bee, and I shut it between my legs so it stung me twice.

I have the pictures, eschewing the soul-searching; I don’t want to talk about deep meanings or grand vistas. The reason I went, and would go a thousand times again, is because of the details; life is in the details, and travel is when all the details are amazing; the intricacies of the world aren’t about rent, what you’re making for dinner, or what night you have to do laundry. Yes, those things are part of travel, but they’re not the sum of it; the color of the rocks under bare feet, the feel of the sky pressing down over endless plains, the soft lines in two thousand year old pottery, the broad strokes of light in a favorite painting you could touch with your nose you’re so close. These are travel, these are the details I keep; I think, “I don’t want to lose this. I want to feel this freedom and passion because I know the world is made of more than I will ever see.”

And that? That’s why you should throw out your travel journal and refuse to scrap book. Although I will keep the camera. Somethings are just meant to be photographed.

The rocks and the sky.

Ancient, tiny pottery.

The story is in the retelling

As a writer, I am obsessed with being original; this thorn in my brain to have new ideas, better ideas. To be unique. Just like everyone else.

No one else has a pair of these, right?

This is why it’s a kindness that I read this article. I’m going to quote it because this is an post about unoriginal ideas.

Yes, the muggles are just like the terrible adults of Roald Dahl fiction; the foul-tasting magical candies come right out of a Monty Python skit; and wearing a horcrux that must be destroyed while worrying about its own corrupting influence on your soul sounds a lot like Tolkien’s one ring to rule them all. But those elements are not why people like Harry Potter. Instead, the Harry Potter universe is filled with rules that are constantly broken in the interest of equity. Time and time again, Harry and all the likable characters of Hogwarts break the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law. The best kind of wish fulfillment made all the better by the intensity of the defeated evil.

Indeed, compare Frodo’s trip to Mordor while wearing a corrupting ring with Harry Potter’s wearing of the horcrux. Frodo knows that carrying the ring is his burden. That it cannot be passed to another. Although Harry is facing an evil as great as Frodo’s, he shares the burden by altering the wearing of the horcrux between his two companions. Yes, the similarities are apparent, but it’s the distinction that holds Harry Potter’s specific charm.

J.K. Rowling taught me that using influences in a novel is a lot like using sampling in music. It’s absolutely fine to lift riffs and hooks from other songs as long as they are referential building blocks of your work instead of being the appeal of your work. For example, the “When Doves Cry” sample is the only good part of MC Hammer’s “Pray.” The “Under Pressure” riff is the only good part of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” But take a song like “Jackass” by Beck, built around a sampled loop from Them’s “It’s All Over, Baby Blue.” It stands completely on its own terms.

Rowling liberated me so much that when I wrote my serialized novella Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, I had great fun incorporating elements from Douglas Adams, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Palahniuk, George Orwell, David Bowie, George Romero and Scott Kosar, confident they were only cultural shortcuts enriching the story instead of stealing its individuality. So yeah, sorry, J.K. I was wrong.

There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea. When I think of the most memorable books I’ve read, they all play by these rules. Even the books we consider original draw on ancient mythology and cultural tropes. You have to use them because they are in your head. They are literally part of you. This is why tvtropes exists! You can never get away from them unless you live in a hut in the Canadian wilderness after wiping your brain clean in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but with all of society instead of one person.

This obsession with originality gives me headaches, quite literally. It stunts my writing productivity, and maybe it’s at the center of the bundle of fear all of us carry around inside. But that fear? All it needs is to take a breath, and the knots that keep me tied and unproductive untangle. I can breath. I can explore and find influences. I can begin to push barriers and find my style, my voice. This is why I made a concerted effort to try and write more ‘reactionary’ pieces in my blog. I want to focus on analysis and understanding and not throwing out grand, wild ideas. I need to understand before I can use those ideas. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write anything with some original posturing, and I tie up ideas and themes with my own conclusions.

The cliche goes that the story is in the telling. What you mean is what you say, just as you’re defined by what you do. It’s how you work ideas together, mold plot, and live your life. What we take for originality might be the ability to push past the wad of fears and all consuming duties and distractions of daily life. The people we remember are those who have shouted long and hard enough for their ideas to break into our minds. There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea.

And because I love this video, here is J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech from Harvard circa 2008.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.