Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stories and Anecdotes: Traveling and Tourism: Metaphors and Cliches

In 1993 John Guare's hit Broadway play Six Degrees of Separation was made into a movie starring Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Will Smith. It is the story of two complacent NYC art dealers who are taken in by a young man who shows up at their door claiming to be a friend of their children's from college. This turns out not to be true, but it forces Ouisa Kittredge to look at the way she has lived her life in a way that she had never done before. At the very end of the play she utters these lines,
And we turn him into an anecdote, with no teeth, and a punch line you'll tell for years to come: "Oh, that reminds me of the time the imposter came into our house." "Oh! Tell the one about that boy." And we become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on like we're doing right now. Well I will not turn him into an anecdote; it was an experience. How do hold onto the experience?

It is a poignant line, and Stockard Channing is brilliant delivering it, but it has resonated in my head for almost two decades because it makes a distinction that I find frightening. As Ouisa demands of Flan just after this scene, "How much of your life can you account for?" By this I think Ouisa means to have us look at how much of our lives have we spent traveling, and how much have we been tourists?
(I would like to note that making distinctions (like traveler and tourist) is useful because it gives us finer delineations of clarity about certain ideas, but it always runs the risk of creating a dichotomy. Dichotomies are notoriously the enemy of experience-based learning because they work on an "either/or" basis rather than a "both/and" foundation. The cardinal rule for experience-based learners is to be wary when someone offers you a choice of two things; the idea has almost always been over-simplified and denied it true richness. Follow this in your daily life--it is remarkable how often we do this to ourselves, not to mention people we care about. Think about this in as basic a concept as gender; doesn't it makes sense now why "trans-gendered" is such a difficult idea for people who set up a binary world? So, I realize that this distinction between traveller and tourist is a dichotomy, so our goal is to avoid the classic Manichaean split into good and evil that results in debilitating judgment. We are not always one thing or the other; we are both. I am trying to use the dichotomy to make a useful fine distinction.)

Ouisa has had one of the epiphanies that travelers (in this case her travel is internal and she never leaves her apartment) seek out or have thrust upon them where they are forced to see themselves in a wider or a sharper light. In experience-based language, she "self-implicates." By this I mean she turns the window that she has been seeing Will Smith through into a mirror where she sees herself--and is horrified. Flan, being more of a tourist in that moment, wants to make the incident into a cocktail party anecdote. Ouisa is worried that her life has become too much of just that. What is the way out of this problem? How do we make ourselves less tourists and more travelers, less cliched and more metaphoric, less anecdotal and more....more what?

I think if we go back to the idea that writers are familiar with the kind of uncertainty that we are identifying, we may get some clues. For me the person I go to for all these kinds of questions is Joan Didion. In this case, Didion's answer would be "story-tellers." Simply perhaps too simply, when we are touristy we tell anecdotes (often amusing ones), when we are travelers we tell stories. But what is the difference. In The White Album, Didion writes,
We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
This is what I struggled to do in Israel for the past two weeks, to try to make connections between events, people, ideas, conversations that were all happening around me, but I did not want them to be simply a collection of funny anecdotes I could relate to people when they got home. And so I kept looking to see what event might be leading me somewhere, if only I could discern the direction. Why were the German Templars showing up everywhere? Why did I keep thinking about "hospitality" all the time? I know that the Teaching for Experience workshop I help facilitate in the summer really understands and practices hospitality on that level, but I do that in my classes or in my home? To paraphrase Jean Paul Sartre, "Life is where you get to be both the main character and the author at the same time." I had to be in the story but write it at the same time. And frankly, it makes the whole enterprise challenging, but in such a fun way, and you end up with so many odd connections that would never have happened, if you hadn't been paying attention.

To adopt the mind of the traveler, I knew I had to be willing to enter into the uncertainty of Donald Barthelme's "not-knowing" (see previous post) and try to impose a narrative line (or at least make some connections) that made sense while I was in the middle of it all. I played hunches on what I ought to do next, I tapped my intuition to plan the next day. This is a far cry from the movies that made American tourism famous in the 1960's-- If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium or The Ugly American. The itinerary has to be constructed by you, it cannot be handed to you to follow; and you have to be courageous enough to self-implicate along the way. To be a traveler is to be willing to author one's own learning in an unfamiliar setting, and to use the tools that authors use to make meaning through stories and not settle for anecdotes. That was what I was doing for the past two weeks, and it gave a mindfulness to the whole time that was paradoxically relaxing and exhilarating. I think this is why Dorothy doesn't want to leave Oz--she has created a story that make sense of the disparate characters in her life. That might be a pretty interesting definition of "home" right there. No wonder she wants to stay.

Of course, you must look to the last line of The White Album to realize that this does not always work, ""Quite often I reflect on (all that had happened), but writing has not yet helped me see what it means." It doesn't always work out--I have lots of anecdotes from Israel-- but the attempt is so wonderful as attempt at making events mean something lasting.

I'd love to hear if this makes sense to people as they put this construct on some of the more successful "travels" they have taken. True, or not? And what are some of the other tools we use to make ourselves travelers? As a teaser to that end, I would put forth the idea of "design thinking." But more on that another time.

Lastly, if I were trying to make sure that I designed a course that helped students with how to be travelers and not only tourists, what would I make sure to do? What would I try to minimize?

(Steph, make sure you come back with some stories, ok? Travel safe.)


  1. David, I am so sorry to see that nobody has responded to some wonderful questions you have posed. I think that one of the most important thing you would want to do to help people not just be tourists is give them a broad enough question that can only be answered by interacting with the people who LIVE in the destination. You may have tuned in to a recent This American Life where Ira & Co. recreated the adventures of the Georgia Rambler - a guy who worked for an Atlanta-based paper who every week would travel to some random dot on the map and find out what made that little town tick. The question he used to figure this out was simple, he asked a number of people "who is the most unforgettable person in this town?" Sometimes, he'd find that the most interesting person was the story, but then other times simply the interactions he had with people while discussing the question was the story. So, in the end, it seems that setting forth with a simple enough question can bring you MANY experiences. Recently, i have been planning out some bike routes in rural Vermont, and then i just let myself go, with a few notes about which roads I am supposed to turn on - just to avoid being stuck out there for hundreds of miles - but EVERYTIME, something happens: detours, missed turns, etc. I always get to discover something new, and see a new community at a slower pace than i would in the car. Plus, i always go on longer rides of about 40-50 miles, so that at some point i have to stop into a local convenience store to buy food and drink, and hopefully get a little conversation in, too.

  2. Hey I want to share some of my experience with you. I don't know about others but this blog is very helpful for me. Great work that you have done. Thanks for sharing.
    Velassaru Maldives