I was going to start this blogpost by posting a photo of the ancient city of Bagan, land of 4,000-plus pagodas, in Myanmar. But I won’t. Because my message here is about the power of entirely un-pre-recognized places.
By chance more than anything, the places I had thought we might visit on our Asia trip, and which I could picture from postcards and the like–Kyoto, Wall of China, Taj Mahal, and so on–are places we haven’t seen. The places we have seen in the last few weeks–Malaysia, and more significantly, Myanmar–are places I hadn’t studied or dreamed about for ages ahead of time, and their fresh, unknown-to-me quality ended up being a large part of their charm. In the beginning, I kept straining for comparisons: Does this place remind me of Mexico? The Middle East? Images I’ve seen from the Nile or from Calcutta? I couldn’t stop wishing for reference points. Finally, I exhausted myself into accepting moments (at least) of simply seeing places as they were: unique and difficult to describe.
Because I had not seen iconic images from Bagan in particular, the moment I first jumped on a bicycle and started along sandy paths in search of thousand-year-old pagodas, I felt intensely alert and alive. The moment I summited a particularly large pagoda and looked around at the 360-degree views, I felt both awe and gratitude. The world, still able to produce unexpected wonders, felt larger that day, and I felt appropriately smaller.
This is what travel is and should be about: seeing life anew, not simply setting eyes on what we have already seen in documentaries and on T-shirts. But it is so hard to see the unseen, to bask for a moment in the un-iconized, especially with how image-saturated we all are. Imagine what an experience it was for earlier travelers, in the days before Discovery Channel and Instagram, to come every day upon scenes, buildings, native costumes, religious sites, and even simple foods they could barely make sense of. I envy the untainted nature of those earlier travelers’ experiences. It is still possible to be surprised in such ways, but it is harder. And of course, we travelers (and especially, camera-toting guidebook writers, which I have been) are part of the problem. Every time we snap or publish the perfect picture, we are creating an image that may detract from some other person’s future, untainted experience. (The better the image, the more it may overshadow reality. What ordinary sighting of the Eiffel Tower can live up to the most beautiful black-and-white photos of it?)
I share this here at 49 Writers because it takes me, as many experiences do, back to ideas about creative writing, which at its best, succeeds in defamiliarizing or “making strange” that which has already lost its power to overfamilarity. Some things, like powerful emotions, are harder to write about than others, and invite cliche. We have been swamped with so many received ideas and images and descriptions of grief, for example. How to describe tears and spiritual agony in a way that conveys anything at all? When someone manages to shock us with a new way of putting those emotions into words — a way that seems both fresh but at the same time completely credible and simple and right–we feel not only recognition but gratitude. We are woken from our slumber and ready to see and feel all over again.
My New Year’s wish for you, then, is to see places that you have not seen a million times in other people’s postcards, and to write things with the power to invigorate and surprise. Your readers — myself included — will be grateful for it.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, a co-founder of 49 Writers, and a member of the UAA MFA low-residency program faculty. She also works as a private book coach and manuscript consultant. Contact her at email@example.com.