Monday, February 23, 2015

Secret heroes and knowing what day it is

Julie, my neighbour, will attest to the fact that sometimes I don't know what day it is. That is a consequence of freelance, solitary life. She tells me to keep my diary on my desk. This was a problem in the diaries I've been using to write Venda Sun. As I try to pull them into shape, make sense of them in the present and not as a travel log, I realise my numbering is all out and in places I have more than one entry for the same date. It could be a problem with transcription - I hope so.

Then there's the issue of the time in between. This isn't a memoir, but surely I have to acknowledge something of the years between all four trips? The last trip was nine years after the third. Chapter and section headings are helping - they provide a framework. I go back to my CV from time to time to place myself in time. But I know I'll have to unpack the top of the wardrobe for the box of notebooks, that I'll curse myself for not dating spines, to discover what did happen in between.

I've realised, reading  about other people's journeys recently, that the moments in between the physical movement from place to place, the non sequiturs and the daydreaming, are just as interesting as the charting of the walk or drive. However, this was in the Guardian earlier this month: "The literary sub-genre of “writer discovers truths about themselves while on a journey” is well-worn and often dull…."

I have no dramatic revelations to make, no famous circles to describe. So what is it? It's evolving. I hope exploring the time in between will help even though I enjoy going back to moments in the Kruger National Park, re-reading my first impressions of Venda's sub-tropical landscape.

But I'm also working out what succeeds in books about walking I've read - and what fails. I'm not so keen on writers who spin off into some historical issue to fill up a few pages, although done well it can be gripping and sometimes offers the action the writer him or herself isn't having on the walk, especially if it's about war.

I can suspend disbelief for some writers because the quality of their prose would take me anywhere and
my main interest is in the harshness of mundanity rather than the exotic. I quite enjoy hearing how people get through the day.

But I've always enjoyed Paul Theroux - he is so in the moment, so engaged with people, action, adventure. WG Sebald has a different style: more melancholic, haphazard. His writing has the best approach to free-association. One of the most exciting books I found in a charity shop was E Fraser Darling's Island Years. He writes about the design of a bell tent, lists of essential groceries, anchorages and earwigs among many other close observations of "three years of three people's lives." It's an account of research on the west coast of Scotland.

Mine is nothing in comparison, but it is liberating to write prose again, to remember that simple aim of Fraser Darling's and to feel unconstricted by notions of character, plot, empathy and theme that attach themselves to thoughts of fiction. I realise I've been harbouring secret heroes like Dervla Murphy, Jim Crumley, Jackie Kay for Red Dust Road. I am enjoying how uncomplicated this project feels. Apart from dates. Knowing what day it is. Monday - right?