What’s With All the Journals?

It seems I’ve kept more than a few journals in my time—five, by my count. (And by a stretch even this blog itself might be considered one.) Three of these journals are actually diaries of each day’s thoughts and activities (Saharan—crossing the desert on a sheep truck; Mr Bojangles, Dance—the walk across the U.S. with a book for the President; and Voyage— months in a camper lecturing and traveling around America). The other two are less structured and consist mostly of random reflections (Europe Notebook—travels through Europe; and Miscellaneous Ramblings—thoughts while in New York looking for a publisher).

When I look back at them, a few things seem to stand out. First, all were written around a particular theme—a journey. Even the New York journal was about travel, because it was part of a journey and I was just passing through.

A key thing about travel is that every day is different—most of the time I didn’t even know where I’d be sleeping that night. In writing three of the journals, I carried a sleeping bag and slept rough most or all of the time. I think this makes one more vital and creative— the mind is shaken from its lethargy and starts to work overtime in something more like survival mode. This stimulates thought, and in my case that thought begs to be recorded.

In addition, such travel can be supremely uncomfortable—heat, cold, dust, endless walking, insects, stray dogs (or worse, in Africa), carrying everything you have on your back, and you’re never sure there’ll be a decent place to sleep at the end of the day. This is very humbling, and I think it helps one identify more with the suffering in the world, even though you know (or you hope) that you can eventually return to more comfortable circumstances when it’s all over. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be over, and you empathize a lot more with people whose lives are difficult like this on a daily basis—because you are suffering, sometimes hour after hour and day after day.

I don’t think it’s the least bit neurotic to say that although I didn’t enjoy the physical discomfort in the least—I’m no masochist, believe me—I did think such experience was good for me, as a writer and as a person. It increased that well of pathos that we all possess, a well I drew from not only for a better understanding of life but for the very desire to write about it—for when one is too comfortable, where’s the motivation to write? The feelings stirred up by this discomfort, too, demanded to be recorded.

Though I met many people in these five travels—more and varied than you might believe—I was essentially alone. If I stayed in one place for a short time or had a traveling companion, that was the exception. So who does one talk to about all these ideas and feelings that gush constantly and uncontrollably from within like an unholy geyser? And even if someone were there, would they be able to make sense of what I said? Sometimes even I couldn’t at the time. One enters something of an altered state, and for me the best way to make sense of things in that state and to communicate it (or at least record it) is to write it down. I can’t deny the therapeutic effect of this, either. When things build up inside or become overly complex, writing is a great release. I’m not writing for that purpose—by any means—but I do appreciate its salutary benefits. When you’re traveling like I was, sometimes any pleasure at all is welcome.

Finally, I think I’ve learned more about life and the human condition—mine and others’ combined—when I was on the road. Not just the suffering, which I may seem to be stressing too much in this post—only because I think it’s important—but also the fascination, the elation, no, the sheer joy of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and really tasting life in its many forms. I’ve been through fifty-six countries on five continents—not always traveling rough, mind you, though hardly first class—and the pageant of life one witnesses is spectacular. This, also, is worth recording; if not in a journal, then at least as a mental note to be brought up again at a later date for inclusion in (or as background understanding for) a novel.

I wonder what impression someone would have of me if they read all my journals back to back? I could say that the picture wouldn’t be entirely accurate because I was always under the natural stress of life on the road at those times—but maybe that’s the best time to take the measure of someone. Under stress. But I think you might find the journals overly weighted toward the serious side, thus offering an incomplete picture. I don’t know. I haven’t read them for years (and I’m not about to do so now!) so I have no idea of the man they’d portray. Hopefully it would be the essential me—though that’s not my purpose in writing them—but again, because of the difficulty of the situation as I felt it during the writing, at best it’d be only a partial picture.

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