On my first night back in Yerevan after several years living in England, I noticed a book on the bedside table – a book I hadn’t seen for a very long time.
It was a copy of my first travel memoir, Janapar. This one belonged to my wife, Tenny. It had a bookmark in it. English is her third language, and because my prose can be somewhat mellifluous, it had taken her a while to worm her way to a point about three quarters of the way through our story.
Now, contrary to popular belief, authors like me do not tend to sit around re-reading their debut masterpieces with an air of self-satisfaction. My usual reaction to seeing my book in the flesh – particularly my first book, particularly an unfinished copy with a dusty-looking bookmark in it – is of terror: that the reader will have come across a typo so devastatingly obvious that they long ago cast the book aside in mirth and went to tell all their friends, or – even worse – that they reached a point where things have become so irretrievably tedious that the story has passed the point of redemption, and to continue reading would be nothing less than an insult to the precious hours they have remaining upon this Earth.
But for some reason I picked it up; opened it at the bookmark; began reading:
Lake Sevan vanished behind us as we began to climb up into hilly land, the valley sides green but bare, carved with patterns like tree roots where rivulets of water had for centuries delved. The air grew dry, the sun ever more fierce as we gained altitude. We were far from any major route through the country, and people and settlements were few. This road would weave through the highlands, summit a final high pass and then descend into the far valley where we would join the through-route to the Iranian border, two hundred miles distant.
We met a shepherd on the roadside. His flock was scattered like rice in the meadow far below. He produced a bundle of cloth containing bread, cheese and herbs, offered us lunch, and asked about our journey. Tenny told him we were heading for Iran, and that I’d cycled from England. That’s great, he said, and cast his attention back to his flock. A friendly exchange; unremarkable. Yet rarely could I have left our flat in Yerevan with my beard and shorts and sandals without the feeling that I was being eyed or mocked, insidiously if not overtly, simply for looking different. After half a year of it, this easy encounter with a quiet outdoorsman was exactly what I needed – a return to a life of simple things.
A friendly exchange; unremarkable. If I remembered correctly, I would have been writing those chapters in a café here in Yerevan in the summer of 2011, spinning the tale of the time I’d followed a dream of cycling round the world but got sidetracked by the messy, complex and distinctly un-dreamy reality of life, both on the road and off.
Who might read it didn’t really matter at that point. I’d been spinning that tale not because I’d got a publishing deal (I hadn’t), nor because someone had told me I should write a book (they hadn’t), nor because I wanted to make a career as an author (I didn’t) – but because I needed to.
The writing process was long and fraught, but for the most part it was delightfully messy and luxurious – the painting of landscapes, the articulation of emotions, the expression of the challenges and the lessons that came from tackling them, and above all the freedom to put down anything I damn well felt like on the page and play with it until it expressed the truth – all the while sitting about in coffee shops and libraries while the world carried on in the background.
To cynics, such ‘work’ can seem pretty whimsical, but art is whimsical by nature. There is value to the writer in reliving one’s journey and finding previously hidden meanings – and there is value to the right reader in finding those same meanings vicariously. That alone had been enough to justify it, though human expression has never needed justification.
The nostalgia was ironic. For a while I’d been wondering why I was feeling increasingly empty when it came to writing new material for my long-standing blog, TomsBikeTrip.com. Reading those paragraphs, I realised why: working on Janapar had been the last time I’d felt truly creative as a writer.
There had been fleeting reappearances of that luxurious, unconstrained flow of words that all writers wish was permanent. But while I had indeed typed hundreds of thousands of words since then – factual, informative, philosophical, occasionally even motivational – I had also stopped telling stories for the hell of it in favour of writing about supposedly more useful things.
It was a conscious decision at first. A couple of years back, I’d decided to develop TomsBikeTrip.com, originally a personal travelogue, into the most effective adventure cycle touring resource in the English language. Aiming high, I would nail to the post my belief in the bicycle as a tool for making personal, meaningful journeys, and that anyone with a bicycle and a sense of balance could do it. I would share every scrap of knowledge and encouragement on the subject that I could, in the name of breaking down knowledge barriers and making bicycle travel as accessible as possible.
This mission has succeeded tangibly. I’ve never had more visitors to the site. I’ve never had more active discussions on pieces I write. And I’ve never more frequently met people in real life who’ve come across and read articles I’ve written. When you can strike up a conversation with a random stranger on the Camino de Santiago and realise, fifteen minutes into your chat, that they have read your work and they in fact have one of the touring bikes you designed in their shed at home, then you can be fairly sure that your message is getting out there.
TomsBikeTrip.com is far from complete as a source of facts and information about cycle touring. It may not, yet, be the most effective adventure cycle touring resource in the English language.
But that doesn’t matter, because by aiming to make it so, the blog started to better reflect that core belief: that cycle touring really is as simple as riding a bike, and that everyone can (and probably should) experience that freedom at least once in their lives.
A few of my original readers – those who had followed my personal story until the blog’s reinvention began – still pop in from time. But the majority have wandered off, because my own story faltered, replaced with information – words no less valuable, but valuable to different people.
Success as a blogger, however, isn’t always measured in page views or visitor numbers or in number of random strangers who know who you are. Creative fulfilment is the other half of the equation. And it’s in this respect – as re-reading those two paragraphs of Janapar made me realise – my blogging life ended up out of balance.
Because in trying to create the most effective adventure cycle touring resource in the English language, I backed myself into a corner. Truthfully, honestly, I need to write about all of my adventures, which are increasingly not bicycle-based at all. As well as that, I need to muse on the bigger questions that such experiences raise. And I need to write about processing those travel experiences and injecting them into society at large through writing, filmmaking, blogging; the creative pursuits that don’t just add depth to the journeys, but have also enabled me to make a living, to propagate my ideals, and to spend a large proportion of my time doing something I love for a purpose I believe in.
Time, now, for some painful honesty – mainly for cathartic purposes.
There was also an unconscious decision to stop telling my own stories.
As I toured the UK in early 2013 with the film and the book of Janapar, the project generated a fair amount of buzz.
And I soon found out that when you stick your head above the parapet, you’re going to get shot at.
Sure enough, a tiny but vocal minority did indeed take aim – at the quality of my work, at the decisions I made in the story, at the values those decisions rested upon, and generally at the thoughts I’d laid bare in a what was less of a travelogue and more of a personal memoir. Some of the vitriol was comical, and some was condescending, but some of it was just extraordinarily nasty.
Like most writers, I’m a sensitive soul. And when this happened – also like most writers – I found that I had the ability to conveniently forget all of the nice things people said and focus exclusively on the nasty things.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have mattered what anyone else thought. But let’s remember that I’d written that book primarily in order to make sense of a complex and turbulent experience. I’d poured my heart and soul into that book. And to find out that there were individuals in this world who would go out of their way to contact me personally and write publicly about what a crock of shit they thought it all was? Well, yeah. That hurt a bit.
I’ve known for a while, and now it’s time to properly acknowledge it: I’ve shied away from writing more travel stories because my inner artist wants to be protected from any more pain like that. If you have ever considered engaging in drive-by abuse of someone’s creative work (1-star Amazon reviews being a prime example), please know that it’s the equivalent of a child proudly showing you what they’ve spent a week building out of Lego and you responding by stamping on it.
I realise now that I was, more or less, creatively hamstrung by that experience. I have not even started another travel memoir, let alone published one.
I am, in fact, racking up a growing list of journeys and adventures about which I haven’t published a single word – even though I would dearly love to.
Well, it’s time things changed. And this blog is a starting point for that change.
I’m going to be writing here about everything I’ve been holding back – primarily the stories of the growing list of non-cycling journeys I’ve been on over the last few years.
I’ll also be writing both philosophically and practically about life as a ‘self-unemployed’ adventure filmmaker, writer and compulsive world traveller. It’s taken many years to get to this place, and I know for a fact that there are plenty of people out there who feel constrained by the status quo – as I once did – and suspect that there are better ways to spend one’s time on Earth than as an indebted wage slave and would be interested in a personal insight into about how to bring about that change.
The reader will also be introduced – in a kind of depth I’ve struggled to find anywhere else – to the inner workings of the creative disciplines through which I’ve been able to turn my journeys into effective, engaging stories – stories that don’t just help me make a living, but have also given me a platform from which to reach more people vicariously with the experiences and lessons common to all who travel adventurously, and more recently with higher ideals about the world and how we should live in it.
This will not be a tutorial in look-how-awesome-my-life-is image crafting of the type that swamps my Twitter feed. To quote from the mission statement of the Ted Simon Foundation (for which I act as an advisor), the point of adventure storytelling is to “promote understanding, reduce tension and to favour the chances of peace between our many cultures”. That’s because “all adventure travellers have it in them to be reporters of truth in the world” – and if you are such a traveller, I’ll have a lot to share with you here over the coming years.
Finally, there’s much to explore on the philosophical side of adventure. While microadventures at the weekend are all well and good, there has long been a subculture that sees travel and the outdoor life as a complete alternative to what’s been called ‘capitalist realism’, and if there’s any group I identify fully with, it’s this one. It tends to consider adventure something that goes beyond individualistic self-gratification and campfire selfies, seeing it instead as something to be practiced within the whole of our lives, for all of our lives – and believes that a better world would come of it if more of us did so. To me, this is the most exciting idea of all.
These are the things I am bursting to share and discuss here – stories, lessons, answers to questions, breaking-down of barriers, and ideas for creating a meaningful existence at the intersection of creativity and adventure.
Will you join me?
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