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On Bali & Book Writing

I’m still working on bringing the older posts over to this new home with Indie Travel Guru, and there’s a big gap in the middle where I didn’t write for a long time, but I think it’s time to write new posts.

I’m currently in Ubud, Bali, where you have to shove your way through a throng of other sweltering tourists to move down the sidewalk but you don’t even care because everything is so exquisite. Here’s what I mean.

I have a room in an out-of-the-way place called Praety Homestay. My room is comfy and clean, really nice for $19/night (I paid extra for air conditioning!). The courtyard outside is very pretty, and the family is super sweet. Also, I get a tasty breakfast here every morning!

I love how spiritual Ubud is. The gods are everywhere, and so are the little offering trays that the women prepare for them daily. They even get tiny crackers and snacks in their offerings!

If you came just for the travelogue, you can stop reading here. The rest of this blog post is about moi.

Writing a memoir

I’m working on several projects. The one that’s on my mind today is a memoir — a book that would cover the first two years of my travels (if I finish it). After years of ruminating on whether I should write one or not, I signed up for an online class that would force me to get started. I figured I’ll either keep going or give up the idea once and for all, but either way, I’m finally moving forward in some direction.

Last week, we turned in our first real pieces of writing — an “action scene” followed by a reflective “sequel.” The limit of 1500 words for two scenes felt restrictive to me, but I was proud of what I turned in.

Then I got my feedback from the instructor. She knows how to hand out a poop sandwich, couching the tough feedback between two compliments. But the poop in the middle of that sandwich was a kick in the gut because it isn’t a simple edit or even a rewrite of the scene.

She’s telling me that I need to be more focused in terms of what my book is about. In other words, I need to understand my own life better, dig deeper for the meaning of my experiences and what I learned. Then start my book over. This would require me to open some old wounds and admit how lame I was before I learned the cool stuff, but mostly it would require me to think a lot about what those years of my life MEAN.

Quick: What does your life MEAN?

Of course, my brain’s initial reaction was to protect me with defensiveness and justifications. The word count didn’t let me fully develop what I was trying to say, it told me. And she’s got a very narrow view of how a book should be written. And the old stand-by She just doesn’t understand my project.

Then I admitted to myself that she’s right. You can’t make literature out of your experiences without processing them deeply, and I’ve only skimmed the surface of mine. I went for a long walk on the crowded streets of Ubud, gave myself a stern lecture, and bought a journal so I can start this work.

It’s a beautiful handmade journal and I felt like I was stealing it from the lady for $3.50. I won’t be packing it with me, and I’m going to feel terrible throwing it away when I’m done with it. I would have been happy with a 50¢ notebook from Walgreens, but the only shops near me are tourist shops, and I can only do this kind of “big thinking” with pen and paper.

I also pulled out this blog, because this is a place where I can process my experiences, experiment with my “voice,” and otherwise bore y’all.

Why is this so hard?

People have told me for years that I should write a book about my travels. I haven’t wanted to do that because, frankly, these are the same people who always say “I can’t wait to hear your travel stories!” and then stare at me blankly when I tell one. No one wants to hear descriptions of your travels, really. Travel is mostly walking around looking at stuff and then eating stuff. Not much happens. Heck, I’m bored telling those stories!

The stories I like to tell are about what I learned about my own culture by observing a different one — but those stories aren’t popular back home either. Most people don’t find that kind of content relatable at all, and they can’t really bounce conversation off it either.

My travel stories drop into a conversation like a lead balloon.

What story should I tell then?

I do have a story I want to tell about my travels, though. It’s about how I learned to be alone and unafraid in the world after getting off to a pretty rocky start, and what I had to give up along the way. It’s a good story that connects to the human experience in a larger way, and I think people will relate to it.

Well, women will relate to it. And that’s my next layer of resistance. I’ve seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love torn apart in my travel writing communities because she focuses completely on herself instead of talking about the cultures she encountered. It’s not “real” travel writing, she’s self-absorbed and oblivious to what’s around her… in short, she has the audacity to write like a woman and tell an internally-focused story.

So I’ve been resisting telling the story I want to tell, in part because I don’t want to be perceived that way (or worse, contribute to this view of women writers). More accurately, I’ve been trying to combine two books into one, which just creates a mess, really.

But I’m beginning to realize that I don’t agree with that criticism. Gilbert didn’t set out to write a travel novel — her book is a memoir. They are two different genres. And her job as a memoirist is to tell about her personal growth through the events of the story and not get bogged down in extraneous details that aren’t part of that development.

Was she aware of the cultures around her? Could she write a brilliant piece of travel writing about those cultures? Maybe she could. We don’t know, because she didn’t set out to write that book. I could write several different books about my own experiences, but you have to choose one.

I want the places I visited to be alive for my readers — if I’d stayed home and had this same internal journey it wouldn’t be very interesting. I want some of what I saw and learned and experienced to come through, and to give my reader a taste of the places I lived.

But I’m not going to accept this gendered view of literature. If my book winds up in the “chick lit” category because I’m a woman and my experiences are relatable for other women, then great. Women are half the human race, after all, and the truth is most men don’t read a lot of women authors no matter what they write. (“Goodreads’ data showed that male authors accounted for 90% of men’s 50 most-read titles [in 2014.]”)

It’s constant work to tease out the parts of my brain that have internalized this sexist view of life — that if something is feminine in nature, it is “less than.” Fuck that noise!

So excuse me while I go into my journal and try to sort out the “primary conflict,” “narrative arc,” and “primary antagonist” of my actual life.