In the last six months, most of my effort in starting to write a book has been directed toward soaking up advice, not in the actual writing of the book itself. I’ve been shown, as well as discovered, a myriad of free teleconferences and advice-giving forums, to include one the National Association of Memoir Writers conducted a couple weeks ago. It was a full day event of interviews with successful memoirists with tips and advice galore to whomever cared to dial in. One of the last groups they had as guests were “young memoirists.” This is where I first heard of Elisabeth Eaves, now in her early 40’s, and her book Wanderlust: A Love Affair With Five Continents. She had a borderline abrasive straightforwardness about her that I liked. Many of the authors I’ve heard at these various speaking engagements are overly apologetic on one end of the spectrum, or overly salesman’y on the other; it was refreshing to hear someone speak unabashedly about their work. Plus, it was a travelogue memoir.
I went on Amazon and ordered the book before the interview was over.
The short chapters were easy to read and clearly demarcated significant events and people whereas the longer chapters served their purpose in providing deeper dive looks into locations where more action took place or where more emotions were experienced. Stylistically, I enjoyed it immensely. Few books manage to capture an eloquent, educated voice while remaining simple, but Eaves does it well. If I were to judge it just on the quality of the writing and its accessible style, it was excellent; when one begins to judge the author – and we do judge characters in fiction books, too, so I don’t think it’s any harsher to do so in a memoir – I lose a little of my interest when I see that time and time again she doesn’t appear to overcome any “real” adversity (other than a week-long hike in Papua New Guinea that goes awry and sailing the south Pacific seas during a massive storm) – she’s just achieving success in regards to her self-made obstacles. So although it is strong in the entertainment factor, and admirable that she went on so many adventures, it lacks in the inspiration category. If one keeps hurling themselves against a brick wall just to show how tough they are, what’s the point? She doesn’t seem to make anyone else’s life, or her own for that matter, better in the process. Although, by the end of the book, she basically asks herself those questions in one flavor or another, as well as asking “What will make me happy?” She asks, but doesn't answer.
A good memoir shows a progression, a transformation, growth in the protagonist. I was disappointed for Eaves that it did not seem like she really learned much about what her fundamental sense of self was other than someone who constantly left others behind and only sought satisfaction of selfish impulses. Of course we all do this in varying degrees of directness and intent, but her writing implies she always did this completely on purpose.
The closing of the story left me feeling a little depressed. So, in a sense, I guess the book was good insofar as it burrowed into my psyche, but I did not like what it did once inside. The early stories initially came across as healthy wanderlust, self-challenge, and questioning in her late teens and early twenties but then become self-absorbed, pointless lust-quests by her early thirties with no real conclusion about how to move forward in her life any differently. Going on a pilgrimage of adventure, culture, love, or faith (or whatever you want) and at least aspiring toward a higher purpose, even if you don’t find it, seems more admirable to me than just setting out to get yourself off. She does things without thinking. There’s no evaluative nature to what she does, therefore, no purpose. She’s introspective but only for the point of how to please herself later or get herself out of a current commitment. She’s lost but doesn’t even have any semblance of a compass, of an internal guide whether by personal maturity or any form of faith. That seems sad to me. When she is at a crossroad as to whether or not to move to France with her boyfriend, she says, “My self-image is as a person who would go. I’m the kind of person who would do this, and therefore I have to. Even if I don’t love the reality, I love the story of following my diplomat boyfriend to Paris, and of being a writer there. I want to have the enviable life just because it’s enviable.” She’s saying this as a thirty-year old woman. My take on that is if you can identify that you’re doing it just because it’s to create an enviable façade, then why not have the backbone to decide not to go? Had she learned nothing?! She follows him to France, and waffles about their relationship the entire time they’re there together. Ultimately, her conclusion is that she doesn’t know if she can be faithful to anyone. By the end of the book, I was left without hope…without hope for her.
The silver lining is that the book did get my brain churning about how I should write about my travels. Her story provided something to which I could compare/contrast myself. Reading is as much a part of the writing process as writing. Therefore, although I’ve read plenty of memoirs by non-famous people, I’m now reading them with new energy and seeking out travel and military oriented memoirs more than any others. Beyond my desire to write about these topics myself someday, I need to relate to these books on a human level as well as continue to add utensils to my writing toolbox. I need to see what other people have done. I need to evaluate how we are similar and how we are different. I need to be mature, and identify the differences without just insulting the author. As much as Elisabeth Eaves’ stories and mine have in common – thank Gosh someone else did some of those crazy things I did! – ours are very different, too. In a way this reassures me on the personal level because it reminds me that although so many of us seem to be the same on the surface, in reality we are individuals with unique stories. I need this reminder when I start to doubt that I have anything special to say.
In wanting – nay needing – to distinguish myself among other memoir writers, I also have to be similar in some ways because my story needs to reverberate with more than just a handful of people in order to make a lasting difference. I hope that when I finally do write my story that it does hang hope in some peoples’ hearts.
Last night when I finished the book, I frowned. I wondered, “Is this how my book will seem to others? Like my trips were one self-indulgent jaunt after another?” Then I went to church today, and – in all seriousness, PRAISE THE LORD! I think I’ve finally found a good church again. The pastor’s message didn’t have anything to do with what I’ve been writing about today, but as all good sermons go, the message alighted upon other areas of my life, too. God speaks to you where he knows the words have been missing. And so today’s sermon reminded me of what I know, but I often forget: I traveled yes, for the thrill of travel, but also for faith and love. I learned good and bad about myself and feel I found the courage to change accordingly. I’m not anywhere near perfect; I am a work in progress like everyone. But where I think my story is different in the biggest way is that God was always my travel buddy – whether other people realized it or not. Perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to tell my stories…because I’m afraid people will think I went off traveling for the same reasons Elisabeth Eaves did when I know that there was so much more to it, that some of the stuff I experienced deserves to be accredited to the glory of God not attributed to me, and to talk about how I found God in the most unexpected places. Moreover, I hope it inspires other people to believe, trust, and absorb the love He offers…and the love you have to offer to others, of yourself.