Aspirant writers are told to find their ‘voice’. One of the ways to do this, one is told, is to read widely. Discover the way other people write; find styles that resonate, ways of writing that appeal to you. Try different styles and eventually you will find your own.
Jen and I are spending a week in the dune forests on the northern shore of Lake St Lucia. I picked up a delightful book about the quirky travel experiences of a couple of intrepid wildlife explorers. Chris and Jo Meintjes met on a trip to the Amazon which culminated in a visit to the fabulous Galapagos Islands of Darwinian fame. I call it a “trip”; for you and me it would be an expedition, an adventure. For them, simply a trip, like you and I might take to the shopping mall. The book is called, The Borneo Head Hunters Cuckoo-Clock: Travails in Transit. The cuckoo-clock refers to a visit to a long hut in the middle of an Indonesian rain forest. In the night a clock struck midnight. It wasn’t an ordinary clock; there in darkest Indonesia, where human skulls, if not still harvested, are still used in decorative hanging baskets around the home, a cuckoo called the time.
Chris’s writing style appeals to me no end. He has a deliciously dry humour (without any effort) and an ability to share the bare bones of a story while enabling one to imagine all the wonders and scary bits in between. That’s my preferred style. I would love to write as he does and write about the wonderful places they have seen. There is a minor difficulty. I haven’t been anywhere. It is a bit of a disadvantage for an aspirant travel writer not to have travelled much—well, not much beyond the local mall and the coffee shops of the more secure locations of the world. Hot chocolate in Christchurch, anyone? Milkshake in Montana? Coffee in Cape Town, London, Edinburgh?
Having started writing so late in life, I have the disadvantage of trying to catch up. To travel enough, to read enough, to experience enough, to have enough to write about. To have lived a safe, secluded, boring life has its advantages, such as arriving alive at the end of it, but not when you want to plumb its depths for writing material. Fiction writers have an advantage here. They can travel in their minds, experience places vicariously, and write great stories set in places they have never visited. For now at least I’m not drawn to fiction; I don’t have a story in me.
At least I can say that I read Chris Meintjes’ stories of ‘travails in transit’ while sitting in the middle of the African bush with, for the most part, no other human in sight. But that’s about as wild as it gets. Other humans did wander down the boardwalk to the main lodge with its bar, TV lounge and restaurant. We could also hear guests by the swimming pool 100 metres or so below us. But for the rest we were ensconced in a delightful thatched cabin with views into and over the surrounding bush with Lake St Lucia in the far distance. The lake is not meant to be in the far distance. The end of the jetty was just a few hundred metres below us but the drought is so severe that the lake is a strip of blue on the far horizon with dry sand between us. There is an abandoned boat wedged in the sand. It’s been there since 2004, with the additional insult of grass growing around it.
Perhaps the boat is a metaphor for writing. But I’ll leave that to you.