“The longing is the path.”
There’s nothing like a long walk to get to know the voices in your head. It’s hilarious really . . . until you realise those voices are shaping every moment of every day of your life.
Some years ago, I walked across Italy and through the Balkans. I was heading to Istanbul – imagine that, walking from Rome to Istanbul (I sure did! imagine it, that is) – but the thunderstruck, snowbound mountains of Macedonia pulled the journey up short in Albania.
I was in my late 40s – 49 to be precise – and in the end I walked a day for every year of my life. That’s 49 years of being hammered and tonged through life on Earth. That’s 49 years of voices clammering for attention over 49 days.
I had 20kgs on my back, far too much for a woman of my stature and age and condition, but there was nothing wasted in that weight – hell, I wore the same clothes for 49 days! My feet were like concrete at the end of every day. My shoulders ached a good deal of the way. My physical state was nothing compared to the mental and emotional exhaustion of the clamouring voices.
49 years of incessant blah blah blah for company – other people’s opinions and judgements and stories and ideas rattling their way through my body, shaping my own opinions and judgements and stories and ideas; my own stories and judgements shaping their world in turn; our interconnected lives a riot of reaction and response.
For 49 days I buckled under the weight of the voices – because on pilgrimage, the only thing you are actually ‘doing’ is putting one foot in front of the other . . . for as long as it takes – the voices that are usually silenced, snuffled, smothered by the busy-ness of everyday life had finally found their moment to shine.
The writer, friends, is also on pilgrimage.
I was following my son’s lead, walking with him for the middle leg of his own, much longer, pilgrimage – from Canterbury to Jerusalem (I mean really, imagine that – 7000kms, 16 countries).
My son led me through countries and landscapes I would not have ventured into on my own, particularly ‘the Balkans’. Once we entered Bosnia, the voices in my head had me convinced I’d tread on a landmine and lose a limb. I peed on flat rocks to avoid treading on unturned dirt and ignored the small splashes on the legs of my trousers. As for Albania – my body was a frozen riot of death as we entered this unknown dark state.
My head was a double riot because of an email my son had received from our couchsurfing host in Albania’s capital, Tirane, an American Fulbright scholar. She had said we should stick to the highway in Albania, which is flat and straight and safer than the mountains. She had said that if we avoided the mountains, however, we may miss out on an ‘adventure’, because ‘Albanian hospitality in the northern highlands is unmatched’. She said that according to the Kanun, the ancient northern Albanian code of customs and ethics, a guest in one’s home takes the form of God and that people would treat us like royalty. Those who break the custom of hospitality would be killed, she added. My son liked the idea of being treated like God.
My mind was full of it . . . the mountains . . . Albania . . . Macedonia . . . strangers . . . fear . . . lives on the line.
And this was the moment I truly understood the power of story. And the unpower of giving credit to the riot.
The fear and anxiety were all made up, products of my head. They had zero substance outside of me. For weeks I had been entertaining made up stories. Fairy tales. I had been giving power to imaginary sagas based on . . . ? Fictions, that were living in my body, defining my life, shaping my experiences, creating what I see around me and all round doing their best to sabotage my fabulous walk from Rome to Istanbul.
In that moment I learned to ask a question: am I safe now? Errrrr, yep. Now? Ummm, yep. What about now? Sure am.
The writer faces the same challenges.
Set out on the book writing journey and, not only will your writing lead you to and through places you’d never go on your own, the unmet voices will start up. Their demands will be simple at first: there’s dusting to do (even for women who ‘don’t dust’), the car needs washing (for the first time all year), the garden needs a water (even though it rained yesterday).
Make it to your pen and paper and the voices will begin to get nasty, usually with variations on the following themes:
* you’ve got better things to do (you’re wasting time)
* you didn’t finish school (who the hell do you think you are?)
* who’d want to read it anyway? (I am not worthy of being a writer)
* what I want to write is so bland (only special people with talent should do this).
These voices are standing between you and a deep, deep longing in your heart to write. Like a woman on pilgrimage through foreign lands, you have a choice: go nowhere, do nothing. Or face up, stare the voices down, pick up your pen and paper – and write.
Do it. Do it anyway. Dance with the voices. Invite them to dinner. Entertain them. Ask them questions. Get to know them. And learn to ignore them and get on with your heart’s desire (which, if you are reading this, is to write).
Because here’s what else: every moment of every day in every single thing you do, these voices are shaping your life. They are keeping you small. They are making sure you will never ever ever even try. To do. The one thing. You long to do. More than anything else.
And here’s another what else: step forward despite the voices to pick up that pen, and you will get brave.
Very, very brave.
Written by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.
Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.