Gimme Shelter: or, Finding the Emotional Center in Travel Writing

I am still wrestling with an essay I mentioned several blogposts ago. I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. Every time I walk away I come up with ideas of how to change it, then when I get back to the page, the ideas seem unworkable.

The essay is a meditation on how sometimes you can feel attachment to a place you’ve never seen before. You come upon a place and know it, impossibly. It haunts you when (if) you’ve left. Not everyone knows this feeling, but enough people do that I think it’s “a thing.” It’s certainly a thing I experience.

I keep putting myself into and taking myself out of the essay in some kind of editing hokey pokey. I’ve even tried shaking it all about. I keep trying to make it strange. It keeps staying conventional. I keep trying to make it thin. It keeps staying a bit corpulent.

The personal essay/memoir form is fraught with this question of “I.” To be truly effective as art, the essay has to transcend its own I’s story. It’s not enough to say what happened, nor what “I” felt about it. The authorial consciousness has to somehow rise above itself, with empathy, with insight, wonder, and generosity.

The best stories have an ah-ha in them somehow — not a lesson taught but a moment expressed so clearly that the reader/listener feels the frisson.

I can’t seem to balance the intellectual with the emotional in this essay, the descriptive with the so-what. There is a balance in any piece of art among the elements: the what, the why, the who cares. Until I figure out my own emotional stake in the piece, it will continue to be travel without a destination.


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