Half a lifetime ago, when I was still a young man, I quit my job as a lawyer, flew to London, bought a Land Rover, and drove it down through Europe and across Africa. My travels took me nearly a year. Thirty-some odd years later it’s hard to remember why I was determined to do this expedition; even then, I’m not sure I knew exactly why, but my obsession with Africa had been with me since I was a small child, and it seemed that if I didn’t do it then, I never would. And so, with more hope than wisdom, off I went.
This was before the days of laptops and cell phones, and so when I began my journey I had with me a stack of notepads and a box of Bic pens. I had resolved from the beginning to take copious notes – the idea of writing a book and becoming an author had been with me almost as long as my obsession with Africa. In nearly a year of traveling, I scarcely recall anyone asking me why I was feverishly copying down our conversations in my little blue pad, and when they did, a simple, “I’m writing a book about this,” sufficed. In fact, no one seemed to take much notice. I quickly became aware that as a “writer” – or at least someone aspiring to be one – I became hyper-attuned to what went on around me, to all that I saw, to everything I heard. It made for a lot of notes. In the end I probably had ten notepads crammed with scarcely legible tiny lawyer-scrawls.
I began writing Travels in Africa as soon as I returned home, pecking with two fingers on a word-processing typewriter whose brand name now escapes me, though I remember at the time it was one considered “state of the art,” having a floppy disk for storage. I decided not to start my writing with the beginning of the journey – I had a vague idea that I shouldn’t write about the start until I had written the end. While I was in the middle of the Sahara I had met a young missionary from New Jersey, and we’d spoken for nearly an hour. I’d transcribed nearly all of it and that, I thought, is where I should begin my writing – with dialogue. I thought nothing could be easier than writing dialogue. I was wrong.
I’d vowed that whatever I wrote would be “truthful;” I wouldn’t engage in what Werner Herzog has called “ecstatic truth,” meaning made-up dialogue or scenes designed to convey a deeper reality. If I put it in quotes, I’d decided, it meant they’d said it, but it became quickly obvious to me that a verbatim transcription of what we’d said without editing or transitions wouldn’t make for very good writing, or very good reading either for that matter. What became even more obvious to me is that writing is hard.
I’d never taken a creative writing course, but I was convinced that to write well one needs to read a great deal, and to learn to read well, and so I began reading every travel memoir I could, everything from Richard Burton’s journals, to Andre Gide’s Travels in the Congo to Paul Theroux’s works, to Bill Bryson’s lighthearted romps, seeing what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t. Slowly I became like a young film student watching a master director’s film, studying where the cameras and the lights were placed, how the plot was organized, trying to be aware of where the strings and pulleys were arranged that gave the film its sense of structure. A book is much the same. Very few of us are gifted enough to be wholly original, and I thought there was no sense in reinventing the wheel. But writing is a craft and I struggled mightily to learn it. Of course in a sense a travel memoir is easy: you have a ready-made plot, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At least there was that. For months I wrote intently.
I’m ashamed to admit that after that first enthusiastic immersion into writing I let life get in the way, and for nearly twenty-five years I scarcely wrote a thing, Periodically I’d dip in and write a few pages, though I doubt a day went by that didn’t think about writing my book. I read somewhere that Ernest Hemingway, when asked where the best place to write was, responded, “In your head.” I learned quickly he was wrong. If you want to write, you need to put it on paper.
As Jimmy Buffet said, once that bug bites you, you live with the sting. So a few years ago I returned to Africa, meeting up with some of my old friends in Arusha, Tanzania, the place where twenty-five years before I had ended my journey, and when I returned, I resolved to finish Travels in Africa. It took me over a year of research, writing, and rewriting, and rewriting again and so, after thirty years, Travels in Africa was born.