Other people’s words about … paths
This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide — a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling … Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s native aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.
So stories are travels and travels are stories.
by Rebecca Solnit
Last year, a theme I returned to often on this blog was paths. I had decided not to make a New Year’s Resolution for once: instead, I thought, I would learn to find, and then follow, my own path. Paths became a metaphor for me; once I began to look, I found them in the most startling and beautiful moments. There were paths in the sea, paths across the sky, paths to the horizon, paths trodden by other creatures than myself, making their way through the bush.
Perhaps it was a theme painfully obvious in its metaphors. Less painfully obvious is the metaphor Rebecca Solnit employs in the passage above. To consider one’s job as a writer to be the task of carving a path for one’s readers to follow: what a wonderful thought. What an honour.
I was interested in Solnit’s comparison with the songlines of the First Australians. In these days of serious debate about cultural appropriation, I considered long and hard whether it would be appropriate to include that part of the quote. In doing so, I found an explanation which seemed genuine and made sense to me. You can read it here.
Landscape as narrative. This is something I have long believed in, right down to my core. When I go for a bushwalk in a place that is familiar to me, a track I’ve walked many times before, part of the joy I find in my wandering is in the act of observing how the seasons have wrought changes on the place since the last time I was there — how rain brings forth wildflowers, for example; and how those wildflowers differ in variety and in abundance, depending on that year’s rainfall. It feels then as though I am following a narrative which is both part of me, as a creature on this earth, and also greater than me. Songlines are not mine to appropriate, but the sense of a story, and the sense of the sacred, is everyone’s to share.
But story as map: that’s something I hadn’t considered before. I am both a reader and a writer,and I am intensely aware, in both roles, of the contract between the two. The writer makes a promise; the reader holds the writer to it. I like the idea of viewing this contract as a map. It explains the sense of awe I feel as a reader, and the sense of humility I feel as a writer.
In the end, we each tread our own path across our own landscape, using our own map.
But it is nice to know there are guides along the way.
Happy new year, everyone!