Paul Theroux on Travel writing

I was extremely blessed to get one of the last 6 remaining tickets for a Southbank talk by Paul Theroux as part of their ‘Great Thinkers’ literature series this May. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the recent revelation to me that travel writing may just be up my alley came as a complete surprise and is leading me to pick up and explore writers I have never before been exposed to. I thought attending Paul’s talk might bring more to light about the ‘travel writing’ process. I was wrong.

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Unlike most of the people in the room who had accompanied Paul on many of his previous journeys through reading his books, I was a newbie. But also unlike most of the white, middle class, non-immigrant Londoners sat in the auditorium, I could relate to his descriptions of travel as a process of self-discovery; where one could explore not only the places they were moving to, but the ones they were escaping from. I didn’t expect to gain truths about my own life journey so far.

In one of his anecdotes, he recalled how a grown man told him that he wanted to be a travel writer and asked Paul for his top tip.
Paul said, “That’s great. Where do you live?”
“At home with my parents,” the man answered.
To which Mr. Theroux replied, “Son, you need to leave.”
Leaving home is an important event, one that you’ll keep repeating as you travel. There’s the “I’m on vacation kind of travel” with your kids, your partner, your friends and then there’s travel, where you seek to understand the culture and rhythms of a place. Where you are open enough to let yourself inadvertently absorb something of the place you visit.
Paul Theroux explained himself saying that when one stayed at home, people around you asked,
“Why do you want to be a writer?”
“How will you make any money writing?”
“What will you write?”
And the final nail in the coffin…
“Who will want to read that?”
Leaving home can allow you to give yourself the permission to be a writer and to find the space to write. Once away, you always have more perspective about home; you appreciate it better and you can always go back. Whether you’ll be welcomed back when you return is something else.

I sat in the auditorium, my heart beating quicker and thought, ‘This is my life.’ I’ve been away from the idea of ‘home’ for 20 years – and now, I’m preparing to return. I know I’ll be welcomed, but those questions – they still linger there in the same recesses I left behind. I wish it hadn’t taken me 20 years to give myself the permission to write again – indeed, to be creative. But there’s something allegorical to be said about my ‘return home’ that is actually a ‘return to myself’ or at least, the creative spirit within me.

Although the above did cause something in me to stir wildly with resonance, it wasn’t the most profound thing that he said. The most profound (and poetic) was, “Keep in mind that the way one travels, reflects the way one lives their life.” If you travel without trusting in the universe’s provision, without optimistically saying to yourself – things will get better, without expecting a beautiful discovery around every corner – that just reflects that you’re suspicious of people in your life, that you are full of despair and have no hope for the future. Exquisite nugget, I thought.

I noted a host of tips from Paul Theroux’s lips on how to travel and travel writing in general. I’ll list them below for you. Who knows you just might find a nugget to inspire you and God knows we all need inspiration!

1. What is required of travel is the lucidity that comes with being alone.
2. If you’re afraid of being alone, don’t travel (paraphrased from Chekov’s famous line quote – If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry)
3. Just as a fiction writer needs solitude to reflect and write well, a traveller (writer) needs to move around without anyone breathing down their neck asking them to look at that architecture on their right and wondering if they read the map correctly.
4. Pack only the bare necessities – a change of clothes, a bag that fits everywhere (on a bus, a train, a small plane, a crowded car), a notebook and pens.
5. When you’re travelling, you inevitably think about the past. Keep in mind that your baggage goes with you when you travel – your memory comes alive. Be prepared to deal with this. Travel doesn’t necessarily allow you to run away from yourself.
6. If you’re writing a travel book – people want to know about your honest reactions to a place. They don’t want to know how ill you were from food poisoning or how long the queues were for a bus ticket.
7. In any kind of writing, an ‘ordeal’ that someone went through really sharpens the mind. People remember ordeals. Our memory sharpens itself when it goes through its greatest fears. The prose is sharper.
8. Travel is a metaphor for living. If you don’t anticipate or enjoy travel, you don’t enjoy life.
9. You need to travel with a sense of optimism that things will always result in a discovery.
10. Good travellers are great negotiators. If you come from a large family (like Paul does) the last biscuit on the plate at tea-time is never snapped up, it’s discussed. Over-privileged people usually over-step their mark while travelling and cross sensitive boundaries because they don’t know the true art of negotiation.
11. Having a detailed map, studying it deeply, can heighten the anticipation of a trip. Stanfords in London is a fabulous place for maps of all kinds and a rare service that the city of London has to offer.
12. Flying distorts your sense of space and distance. If you want to understand a place, always travel over ground. The mystery of the world is revealed to you when you’re on the ground.
13. Spend two years in a country if you really want to get to know it.
14. When documenting travel experiences: write every day, write everything that happened every 8 to 12 hours, photocopy everything you write and mail it somewhere that it can be retrieved if you lose the original. This kind of discipline separates the writer from the non-writer.
15. Remember that when you’ve been welcomed into a country or a place, you have to return the hospitality and welcome people to your country, place, home.
16. Don’t call attention to your writing by writing in the present tense. Use the past tense so that the characters and stories come to the forefront and people are not admiring or distracted by the writing.

Paul Theroux was promoting his latest book, “The Tao of Travel” which lists 10 top things every traveller should know at the back of the book, which is a compilation of other famous travel writer’s works. He tends to have an honest, dry style of writing but the integrity of his journeying can’t be challenged. His openness to people everywhere he goes, even in conflict torn areas and his observations of humanity are touching and astute.

I’ve just finished ‘The Pillars of Hercules’ which is a lovely book of the Mediterranean countries and portrays the lesser known, non-tourist havens of Italy, Croatia, Greece and others. I was lucky enough to get my copy signed. His most famous travelogue is ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ which everyone seems to recommend if you’re interested in reading about a railway trek across Central Asia, South Asia and the Far East. And to anyone who has the chance to hear him speak in person, do so. I can guarantee that at the very least, you’ll gain insight into the life of an extremely intelligent, very passionate travel writer.

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