or Teaching the Ape Travel Writing
Today is what I like to call the anniversary of my “blog” – though when I started posting missives of my travels, it was via email and only gradually evolved into The Mad Traveler.
I moved to Turkey in 1997 to take a teaching job in Ankara. On September 2, 1997, I sent the first of what would be a long chain of emails about my experiences living, traveling, and working in Turkey. (Note the numerous typos in the photo — really? I mistyped Ankara? — and the frustration of special letters laid out like a mine field on a Turkish keyboard.) The email list – at first just friends and family – started a bit long and got much longer, until by the end a good portion of the addressees were total strangers to me, friends of friends’ friends. After one comic email about dealings with a door-to-door yogurt salesman, one friend suggested I might have a story. That changed everything. It reminds me of James Tate’s “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems.”
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
Oh dear, now you’ve done it. Then I got a couple emails from high school students who were following my travels. My good friend Erica, I learned, was printing out the emails and leaving them in a binder for her classes to follow.
I started looking at the emails as chapters, and began fashioning them as such. By the end of the year, many stories weren’t even making it into the email chain as I was finishing them long after the events. Some of them existed as copious notes and didn’t get written until I had left Turkey. It all became the draft of my first book, The Yogurt Man Cometh, and after a few pitches to editors and an absurd amount of time in the bottom of a desk drawer, it finally found a publisher and a bookshelf in 2006. I had banged out over 160,000 words, and it had to be whittled down to 65,000 – that valuable lesson for a writer to learn to “kill all your darlings,” bury your lovelies.
After leaving Turkey in 1998, I returned to teaching jobs in the US for the next 3 years, traveling abroad for all of the four seasonal breaks, even missing Christmas with my family. I started a Geocities website with posts and articles about my travels. I quit teaching in 2001 and moved to Guatemala for a year, picking up the email chain again and adding published newspaper and magazine clips to my website which I soon moved to its own domain. Eventually the emails moved to a Blogspot site back in 2007, and finally — after finding a place to stab the pointy end of my compass in Madison — to the Mad Traveler main site and this blog.
Where did 16 years go? Three passports filled to bursting. Notebooks stacked in desk drawers. Thousands and thousands of digital photos (not to mention a large box and many albums of film photos). Chronicles of a year in Guatemala, a year in Italy, and travels in Egypt and Syria – all still languishing in literal and digital desk drawers, waiting to be pounded and bent into coherent narratives. Like in the Tate poem, I think I need to be strapped into a chair, pencil tied around my hand, to finish them.
Just this week I received a message from Turkey, from someone who had just read Yogurt Man:
“Having been here in our land I felt you became someone from among us. You made me feel that as if I have long been friends with you, strange isn’t it? I could deeply feel the love you grew for our land throughout the book… I could feel whatever you felt or whatever you wanted to make me (as your reader) feel. So much so that toward the end I grew an emotional tie…”
Is that the good doctor whispering in my ear? The wind stirring in the mainsail? I’ve been up to my ears in guidebooks these last few years, now just finishing up with Paddling Wisconsin and Michigan’s Best Beer Guide, but I swear it is high time to get back to the storytelling, and — if this ape may be so delusional — to get back to fiction writing.
Yogurt Man’s fifth edition, in an Istanbul bookstore, May 2013