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Journeys Without Maps

Knowing when to get lost

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Last summer, in several countries, in many cities, I spent the long, dry days walking around districts of no special interest. Industrial sectors, quiescent docks, suburbs whose residents had all decamped to summerhouses. I walked on my own. I did not listen to music. I had only a vague sense of direction.

My short stories and novels have all been written without a plan. At most, I knew the major plot points, what the story was supposed to be about, how it might end. Whilst this might sound like substantial scaffolding around which to erect a narrative, in practice it usually consisted of roughly ten sentences that loitered at the bottom of the document. Ten breadcrumbs on a hundred-mile route does not constitute a trail. I might, for example, get a character through a psilocybin-fuelled night in the Black Forest but then have no idea how to transport them to the top of the Empire State building in time to witness a sentient storm. Although I suspected this was not the best way to work, once the ghost of an idea materialised I was impatient to start writing. Pausing to drop more breadcrumbs seemed like procrastination.

The prospect of visiting a series of famous sights made the trips seem like work. I would only be crossing things off a list someone else had written. Instead I decided to walk down one street, then another, and be content with whatever came next. In Tallinn I went through graveyards, a retail park, past rusting prison towers, along disused train tracks. In Kaunas I crossed the Nemunas river then walked along the bank on a partially overgrown path that skirted timber yards, construction sites, and abandoned factories. Walking without an itinerary made me feel free.

My fiction has mostly been set in the present, in no particular place, so I have been unhindered by the need to do research into fin de siècle Paris, the Lancashire cotton mills, or the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan where severed heads bounced down hundreds of steps. My characters have not been doctors, priests, nautical engineers or any other annoying specialisation I do not possess. Working without a plan felt like the purest form of ‘making up’, a method that offered a continual, word-by-word pleasure. Any doubts about the project I was working on were dispelled by the flow of writing. Not knowing in advance what a character was going to see from a train window, what they might think about during the journey, meant that whatever I wrote was a surprise to myself. I was under no illusions that I was always making good choices, yet the certainty that I was going to need to do a lot of rewriting in no way diminished my enjoyment.

In Palermo I passed a prison, then a line of shops offering to buy and sell gold, then entered a densely built residential area full of grey postwar buildings. Over the tops of the buildings I could see spires and a bell tower I was sure were beautiful and historically interesting, famous sights I could read about, perhaps even mention to someone who asked what I had done during my stay. I could already imagine sending a postcard – or at least a text – about remarkable sculptures, architectural quirks, or a fresco in a side chapel with a thrillingly terrifying depiction of demons shooting a saint with red lasers. But I refused to turn towards these possible attractions. Knowing what I was going to encounter was sure to bring a sense of anticlimax. Better to keep my options open. Better to keep going.

I am always surprised when I hear another writer say they don’t like writing. ‘I prefer editing,’ they often say. They complain about the isolation, the frustration, the sense of captivity during those long hours staring at the screen. I do not say that for me the opposite is the case. Writing is like being allowed to select from an almost infinite set of possibilities. I’m liberated, not imprisoned. I can go anywhere.

Occasionally, on those aimless walks, I would reach a dead end or find my path blocked by a railway line. As I retraced my steps, for what often felt like a long time, I was angry with myself for not knowing where I was going and yet expecting things to always work out fine. Having my progress interrupted somehow negated that way of exploring the place. I felt that I had failed.

I saw no reason to question, let alone change, how I wrote. Given that I was able to publish stories and novels, surely the method was working. As soon as I finished one project I was able to go straight to another. I was never blocked. A new Word document, with five or six sentences typed into its whiteness, and I was ready to go again.

By the end of the summer I no longer felt any excitement about visiting a new place. In each city there would be shops, offices, apartments, little parks, big parks, busy roads, quiet roads, street art, signs of poverty, signs of wealth, famous museums, churches and galleries that I would avoid. Each city was just another network of streets in which I would improvise a route to nowhere in particular. I was more interested in the book I was reading, Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger, which is about philosophers of the interwar period. I already knew about Wittgenstein, Benjamin and Heidegger, but had never heard of Ernst Cassirer. Nor had I heard of Aby Warburg, the art historian, who had a private library in Hamburg, and was institutionalised after having a psychotic breakdown during which he threatened to shoot his wife and children. When Cassirer visited Warburg he was still convinced that the staff of the asylum were trying to feed him the flesh of his family. Yet the two men nonetheless were able to have a deep discussion that ultimately sparked Warburg’s recovery. Almost immediately I decided to try to write a novel that depicted the meeting from Warburg’s perspective, a novel that would show Warburg’s journey from madness to something close to sanity. I opened a new Word document into which I typed a few factual sentences about Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms and his meeting with Warburg. I could not wait to get home. I was ready to start immediately.

I did not start immediately. I began reading about Warburg and Cassirer’s work. I took a lot of notes. A month passed. I read books about German history and culture, I read Goethe, I read Nietzsche. After two months I had taken fifty pages of typed notes, most of which seemed useful. I printed them out, read through them, then decided to start writing. All I needed to do first was to paste a few of my notes into the Word document so they could act as breadcrumbs. I put in a quote from Warburg, a sentence from Cassirer. I added a reference to the astronomer Kepler, a few lines from Nietzsche, some information about the Hamburg cholera outbreak of 1892. Three days later I was still pasting in text, moving it around. By the end of the week I could see the book’s overall structure. I had created a map.

With all those breadcrumbs, and a clear path to follow, I no longer had freedom of movement. Every morning, when I sat down to work, I knew what I would write. At first it was strange to have the course of the work predetermined. I missed the constant sense of surprise. Sometimes I felt pressured, hemmed in. But I was certainly working faster. By lunchtime I had written as much as I usually wrote in a day. Instead of having to think about what was going to happen next I could focus on the how. And there were still gaps in the route. In the details, I could surprise myself. Knowing Warburg would go off on a rant about Switzerland was not the same as him declaring that it was the suicide capital of the world to which tourists brought their coffins. There was a sense of satisfaction at executing the plan, gobbling breadcrumbs, moving closer to my destination.

I finished the book in four months. Afterward it felt different. Being able to see how I’d reached my destination made me more confident that I had not wandered to that place by chance. I don’t think every writing journey needs a map: sometimes getting lost is part of the process. But I can also now admit that time spent not writing, not moving forward, isn’t wasted. In that interregnum one can do far more than construct a map. You can consider where you want to go, and the best route to take. You might even ask yourself why you’re so impatient to begin the journey.

Nick Holdstock is the author of three books of nonfiction (The Tree That Bleeds, Chasing the Chinese Dream, and China’s Forgotten People), and three books of fiction (The Casualties, The False River, and Quarantine). He writes for the TLS, The Guardian, the LRB and other publications.

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