It Takes a Journey

When I moved to Kaohsiung, this incredible city, I didn’t realize that I’d become so busy I would abandon one of my favourite crafts.

I have been longing for the deeper thoughts that come with maintaining a regular habit of writing. Over the past year, my thoughts have been filled with a bustling happiness, but my writing well ran dry. I had lost the ability to (what I like to term) ‘think in writingese’.

A spark has been reignited! I remember the language now! And I know the cure. I needed to take a journey.

Of course I’ve been going on many mini-excursions in and around Kaohsiung. It’s such a wonderful city where I revel in the food, language and culture around me. It is a city with beautiful mountains, beaches, a river, lake, and many parks. There are also so many other places just a quick drive or train ride away. Many of my weekends are spent finding waterfalls or exploring the surrounding Taiwanese countryside and cityscapes.

In these moments, especially on a long scooter ride, or while hiking a mountain, I find glimpses of my deeper, writing self. But then I return to a grueling 12hr-a-day teaching schedule that drains my body and mind from putting any words to keyboard.

Another big part of the problem is that I fell so much in love with Kaohsiung, I couldn’t envision when I would want to leave it. For many years I have never experienced such contentedness with a city.

This in itself put a huge block up in terms of writing. By settling in so much, I blocked myself from the ability to see the finer details that make traveling and living abroad so special.

Two things have happened to change this.

I’m currently at the start of a journey. I’m bound for Singapore, where I will meet one of my good friends who happens to be the cultural anthropologist onboard a big, beautiful boat. (Even boats need a resident anthropologist! Obviously!). So, he has invited me to join him and embark on a ten-day tour of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

The other difference comes from my recent decision to leave Taiwan. I will be returning to Canada in August for my cousin’s wedding, and the time feels right to make a change in career and location. I’m not yet sure what that entails, but the prospects are enticing.

With the scent of travel in the air, my senses have been reawakened to the beauty of life. I have re-donned the travel goggles that I hadn’t realized I’d taken off. With a renewed lens and fresh perspective, I’m experiencing things around me in the way that I want and love. In the way that I had forgotten a bit.

It’s so easy to get used to daily routine. The comfort of the every-day. The contentedness of settlement. These are wonderful things! Especially when being settled allows for a developed ability to effectively live and communicate within the space you inhabit.

But from this comes danger. The danger of blindness to beauty and excitement. The danger of the mundane.

I read once that you should regularly try to change your route to work. By following the same path everyday, we desensitize ourselves to what is around us, which actually limits brain stimulation. Almost robot-like, we can navigate our way easily on an unsurprising track.

This is okay, especially if your route is known as the fastest and most efficient. And quite frankly, I think we all require and search for the element of comfort and safety that comes with the predictable. But it can also dull our brains and limit the growth and stimulation that comes from attempting a new and unknown path.

In these moments of discovery, our senses are alight observing the unknown. We look for recognizable features and pay more attention to difference. Neurons are firing as we search for road names, landmarks, direction, and even logic. It’s the art of orientation, and I believe it’s incredibly good for us.

Despite the roads of Taiwan feeling like a video game with the dodging, beeping, red-light running, turning without looking and wrong lane changing, I still recognize monotony on my drive to work that comes from taking the same path for too long.

In Kaohsiung, there is an easily navigable grid-like pattern of roads, augmented by many other roads that veer in very unpredictable ways. By taking unknown and new directions, maybe I don’t end up where I want to be right away, but some very meaningful things come from this off-my-beaten-path endeavor: I’ve heightened my exploratory and observation skills; I’ve seen things that I otherwise would’ve missed entirely; I’ve found that a destination might actually be more reachable later because of knowledge gained from a previous wrong turn; and I’ve found even better routes that I never knew existed.

I think the same is true on a much grander scale for me.

I can’t help but remember Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk about our creative writing genius. It’s a concept that there’s an entity outside of ourselves that assists in any creative endeavor, like Dobby the house elf helping out around the house. I’ve written about this before, but it really stays with me and I feel it’s worth mentioning again.

I thought my writing elf had forsaken me. But it seems I just let her sleep for too long in too predictable a pattern. The impending travel and the lure of adventure has awakened her. Has awakened me. The words have since been pouring into my head in the language I had forgotten for too long. I hope to revel in this as I heighten my experience of Taiwan, and of any future place I may encounter.

I’d love to hear your experiences with the balance between finding a settled routine, and reaching out for the unknown. Share below! 🙂

The view touching down in Singapore. The boats in the background are incredible to watch - especially knowing I'll be on one tomorrow! And landing in a new place, seeing this golf course that I know my Sikh granddaddy in Tanzania must've played on, brings a lot of thoughts about the past and future, and the amazing realities of space and place.

The view touching down in Singapore. The boats in the background are incredible to watch – especially knowing I’ll be on one tomorrow! And landing in a new place, seeing this golf course that I know my Sikh granddaddy in Tanzania must’ve played on, brings a lot of thoughts about the past and future, and the amazing realities of space and place.


Anthropology, finding words, and my mystical writing elf: To simply begin writing is not so simple!

After publishing my ‘about’ post, I had a serious bout of anxiety. Why would I make these thoughts public? Am I serious in thinking I can continue writing thoughtful pieces that reflect the essence of not just what I experience, but of what I think that means for other people? What if no one wants to read what I have to say? Or worse, what if they don’t like what I have to say with valid points of obvious criticism?

At first I blamed my inner anthropologist. This is a field of study currently riddled with the post-post-modern complex of triple-guessing assumptions and reading/thinking against the grain. Always question the question. Period. Or should I say, question mark? Don’t get me wrong, I love anthropology. But it is a kind of toxic love. You know, like those relationships that go hand-in-hand with a chaotic inner turmoil? In one moment you think you’ve just caught a glimpse beyond the boundaries of physical existence into the highest spiritual reality. And in another moment you have the most profound sense of questioning and self-doubt you can’t possibly get out of bed. Ever again. In another moment you experience an extreme case of narcissism and over-exaggerated pride. And in yet another moment, you are so humbled by the beauty of the rest of the world and of humanity, you can’t think of any other way to spend your finite existence than to worship it.

When it comes to writing, the questioning and self-doubt tends to win. Until you’re met with a make-or-break deadline. Then you have to fight with it until you submit a final draft. And even then you still fight it. In academia, it turns out that this fight is actually quite a beautiful dance that exploits your inner turmoil and forces you to produce something never before considered, with the intention that it will benefit future academics. This is all done with the hope that it will contribute not only toward their own inner turmoil (yay), but also toward the betterment of humanity (double-yay). And so it goes on. No pressure at all. The beauty in this deranged process lays the heart of the matter: humans are complex, yo.

To do justice to an observation or an experience means to delve into the possibilities not yet explored. What of the perspectives not considered here? Just because one person says “This happens because of this,” doesn’t mean another person won’t say, “Actually, this happens because of that.” This not being that, in this case.

This is the crux of my problem in wanting to write anything down. Especially in a public forum such as a blog.

But it doesn’t stop there.

My mind often thinks in what I’ll call Writingese. Meaning, I’m regularly envisioning parts of stories to put to paper. In my mind, I assign details to a situation and rejoice in using my ability to think in a literary way with the intention that it would delight my family, friends, and an unknown ‘public’. And yet there is a lot of work that must go into writing a piece to be worthy of such delight. The most work comes from the fact that what I’m terming Writingese, is not actually writing – it’s still just thinking. There is a lot to be said for sitting down to the keyboard and putting your ideas into something cohesive with structure, grammar, selective word choice, and as it turns out, even just an overall point to what you want to say. Why bother writing anything if there is no point?

A new friend of mine just wrote a blog post that really resonated with my feelings on this matter. I could not agree more with Sam:

“I have always believed that if I have nothing to say, then I shouldn’t say anything. It is better to produce nothing than to produce bullshit writing (I mean, seriously, wouldn’t you rather clean up nothing than clean up shit?). So, that has been where I have been: running around Taipei with nothing really to say. And I’m not implying that my life is at a standstill or that I’ve had nothing to do–I have been everywhere and done everything (figuratively) in the last few months. And I’ve been super fucking stoked about it. I just haven’t been inspired to write about it. I know that I don’t really care to read anyone’s journal, nor do I care to keep one… ‘Blah, blah, blah today I went into downtown and saw an orange cat sitting on a car, and then I decided to have lunch…’ Fucking. No.”

As the point of Sam’s writing implores, how does one have a point in writing?

I recently watched a TED talk by the wonderful author, Elizabeth Gilbert. You will all know her from her infamous book: Eat, Pray, Love.

Here’s what she had to say about the difficult task of writing and being creative. 

She explains how the dynamic surrounding the expectations for (and the treatment of) artists has changed over time, thus changing the very nature of an artist’s relationship to their work (whether it’s written, painted, sculpted, etc). The Ancient Greeks and Romans attributed creativity not to human beings, but to something magical outside of the human. The Greeks called it a daemon, the Romans called it a genius. Not ‘genius’ as we interpret it today (meaning, clever), but as in magical. Gilbert gives the analogy of Dobby the House Elf, helping out behind the scenes. These geniuses shape the outcome of the work, creating a distance between the human artist and what they produce.

Gilbert describes how beneficial this thinking is for a creative person. It takes the pressure off. You can’t be overly puffed up with pride if you’re work is successful because you can’t take all the credit; and if your work fails, everybody knows it’s not totally your fault – “cause maybe your genius is lame.”

It wasn’t until the Renaissance put the individual at the center of the universe that the mystical creature was eliminated, and the genius became the person. Gilbert thinks this is a major error, putting too much responsibility on one fragile human psyche. Since this change of thinking, we’ve come to believe creativity to be inherently linked to suffering, and the “pressure has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.” Gilbert suggests we shift our thinking again, and encourage our great minds to live. Not only would this shift ease the pain a lot of artists tend to experience, but it would also just help with the overall process of producing works of art—whether deemed ‘good’ or not.

I loved the story of Ruth Stone, the American poet who would feel a poem rolling through the countryside toward her, and then with the words barreling through her she would reach out to grab them in order to write them down. While my experience of thinking in Writingese might relate on a minuscule scale to what Stone experienced, I admit to neglecting the far too frequent moments I should ‘run like hell’ to write down what thoughts barreled through me. In fact, I’d neglect them altogether telling myself I’d write it ‘later’. Later, becoming never. Some of these writing thoughts and ideas are still a shadow in my memory, but certainly lack the clarity that would come from writing things down soon after I experienced them. (By the way, this procrastination of writing as soon as possible is to commit a major anthropological fieldwork faux paux. Tisk tisk. Sigh…).

For any other writers who sometimes have an overall lack of motivation to do the work, or who suffer the sometimes-paralyzing condition of writers block, I think we should take Gilbert’s advice:

“Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just continue to show up…. If the divine cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow, and olé to you nonetheless… just for having the shear human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

In order to continue this blog and to turn it into something I hope to be proud of, I’m going to try this out. I’ll just keep showing up to write and to contribute with the hope that my writing genius, my mystical writing elf, will help me out. If what you read is enjoyable, I’ll give my elf credit. And if you don’t like it, don’t blame me, maybe she was feeling off that day. Not entirely my fault.