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At what point does the telling of the story become the story itself?

At what point does the telling of the story become the story itself? When does the story become more true than the journey?

A while ago I wondered what remains of a journey when all the memories have faded and gone. I have written also about how the telling of a story ought to belong to just one time and place. To change the story is to change the journey itself.

I have been mulling over thoughts like these whilst putting together the film of my expedition into the Empty Quarter desert last year. Like any journey, it was rich with sights and sounds. There are an almost countless number of moments and thoughts and meetings and memories. So how do you begin to condense this all down to a decent tale? For the worst thing any storyteller can do is to try to say everything. Boring books, boring blogs, boring people almost always err on the side of saying too much.

My favourite part of writing books is the edit. Cutting away the fat, paring the book down to the most distilled story I can manage. When editing my last book, There Are Other Rivers, I cut 60,000 words from my initial manuscript. What happens to those 60,000 words now? As my memories fade do all those events and encounters just disappear as though they never happened?
As we reach the end of the film edit I have to stop myself from thinking, “perhaps we should have told the story like this instead. Perhaps we should have included that event instead of this event.” It’s too late now. We have made our choices, done our best, and now we have to live with that.

This is all background to why I have really enjoyed reading two telling of the same tale. Tom Allen and Andy Welch set out together to try to cycle round the world. They have both written books about their experiences. I enjoyed the books and both of them make a useful addition to the canon of cycle touring literature. But the sum of the parts are greater than the individual parts. (A future idea for them, as both have self-published and thus retain all control, would be a print run of both books in one volume.) I am more familiar with Tom’s version of events as he created the film Janapar to tell his story. His book begins as mates heading off on an adventure and transforms into a love story. (It includes a very brief cameo by me, in which I have been portrayed as a woman!) Andy’s book begins as mates heading off on an adventure and transforms into personal reflection and philosophy. Both books end very differently.

As someone who has ridden long miles with good friends myself, I enjoyed the tales of larking around and silliness. And I chuckled at the petty resentments and incredibly pointless arguments that long trips inevitably produce.

But what particularly gripped me was the way two people not only see the same story differently, but also tell the story very differently.

To the point where it is no longer the same story at all.

Janapar by Tom Allen.
Weave of the Ride by Andy Welch

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  1. I always feel like I’m betraying events and people when they are edited out of the story. But the map is not the territory. Those events belong to the adventure, to the event. Whereas the telling of the story is a separate, different event.

  2. Fascinating thoughts, yes. Something that I often ponder on. Especially when writing about a trip 10+ years later. You are describing the essence of a trip, not the facts, and to make it ‘readable’ and ‘interesting’, artistic license must be applied.

    Again, I often wonder what it would be like to go on a trip with other people specifically with a view to ‘creating’ from it, from differing perspectives. Either two or more writers or many artists. How would a trip be told when those on it are poets, writers, painters, photographers, sculptors and musicians? How would it be represented a year after completion?

    Fascinating 🙂

  3. The same can be said for the reader. I may interpret the stories and emotions that you convey in your books entirely differently to another reader.
    Does this therefore mean that stories should be written in order to attract a wider audience? Or would this detract from the unique aspects of the story that make it attractive in the first place?
    You could therefore argue that it is worth sacrificing a few potential readers in order to truly enthrall those that enjoy your stories. Otherwise you would effectively be writing an impartial textbook that looks to cater to all readers by incorporating views taken from many sources, and that would lack any sort of personal charm.

  4. Thanks for mentioning Janapar, Al!

    These are big questions with no clear answers. I think it helps to take one’s focus away from the past (and the future, for that matter). Our accumulated experiences act on our personalities and mould the way we react to and perceive the world, as well as informing the direction in which we choose to go. Spending too much time looking back invites too much comparison with the present moment and creates the risk that the present won’t live up to those rose-tinted memories.

    This probably sounds like new-age claptrap, but it’s actually the only way I’ve found to put the experience of the journey in its place.

    On the messy subject of the story becoming the journey, I’m well aware that almost everything that happened did not end up in the book (or film). I’ve always tried to view the story and the journey retrospectively as occupying two separate parts of my memory, and though it hasn’t been easy I think I’ve mostly succeeded in restricting how much leakage there has been. I wrote this article on the topic of representing a journey in story form.

    Cheers again!

  5. I’m not sure.. is there such a thing as independent travel anymore. A year or so ago I didn’t realize who many people were traveling the world in search of ever more “exotic” places. So many of these kinds of blogs, not mentioning your own, seem to list cycle gear and have lots of photos of smiling kids but little content. Is is slightly vain to just pass through a country and take lots of photographs and tick it off a list of places to go? What is the point of the travel in a way..? I’m not sure enough people are really asking this question.

  6. Thanks for the mention Al. I think the learning experience created from the documenting process and in the edit is extremely valuable as it challenges one’s own subjective point of view, and encourages a reaching out to others to create something universal that they can by entertained by or learn from. For the person on the journey, I think that the technology itself writes itself into the journey and is a very important consideration in terms of shaping the experience and the possibilities for how the story can be presented. Its one of the most important learning experiences for me to see how differently two people’s experiences’ can be, because I think often in everyday life its possible to start to take for granted the plurality of viewpoints and the immense value of this for learning.

  7. One may undertake an adventure to enjoy it and later write choice parts for sharing with the others or for writing being the prime focus with adventure for the sake of adventure only.

    It is all up to the explorers and adventure seekers of today.

    When I go exploring with my dog, my dog connects me with nature immediately and I am micro-exploring my surroundings. This interest is not shared by most. When I am narrating my hiking adventure in a get together with family, relatives and friends they want to hear about my trip at a macro-level, not how were the plants and wildflowers, water bodies, wildlife, patterns of sun, moon, and stars in the night sky, etc. I have to modify my personality to cater to two kinds of audience – other people and myself.

    Admittedly, I am very honest to myself.

  8. Thats a great thought, dear Alastair, well presented in a compressed manner.

    I believe we have to take care about the word “story” itself. Especially when it comes to making a film about a certain journey. There is a difference between STORY and NARRATIVE (at least in Germany, we have seperate meanings).

    While a “narrative” is assembling together all kinds of events, mostly spectacular if you want so, it still has no further meaning beyond the things it shows. That does not mean, it is boring, but it is far away from giving an experience to the audience, that can change their way of thinking or seeing things. A “story” is able to do exactly that. A story takes the audience along into the deep inner meaning of the journey and lets it grow beyond that experience. A narrative is more like a slide show: “and then there was that, and then there happened this, and then it was hard, but then it was fine,…”.

    I don’t want to create the impression of being able to always make it right. In fact, I’ve done it wrong often enough when it came to the production of a film. But at least I can see whether somebody tells a story or is just narrating. In fact, narration is seductive, because it is easy and sooo true. Its not “true”. It would be true if your narration about your 24 hour journey also lasts 24 hours and picking up on every detail. But. A good “story” tells the truth, mostly in a short amount of time. A narration just shows what happened in reality.

    So your right, at least from my POV, when you say: don’t tell everything. but this is not enough on your journey to become a storyteller.

    You ask: So how do you begin to condense this all down to a decent tale?
    I try to find out, what its really about. What is the truth behind it? Or which truth can I serve when editing my material. However, what I notice to be the core of my story is still not easy to tell to the audience. I don’t know, maybe I don’t speak their language. Sometimes, just few people understand me…

    At the end, its also a little bit of luck and perception, thats for sure.

  9. I think the events we experience are always ours to keep, however by nature, our memories change every time we recall them. I believe that is why two people recount very different tales of the same events, always exaggerated by the passing of time. The other reason is that our experiences are filtered through our own set of generalizations, deletions and distortions. Under these circumstances, we should revel in our experiences and equally our future recollections; they are all just extensions of our unique perspective of life. Great topic Al!

  10. Some really interesting points there, particularly @Karsten Pruehl regarding the idea of the narrative vs. the story. I like German viewpoint and linguistic way of understanding is very Heideggerian 🙂 My understanding of narrative is a recounting of events whereas a story is events told with meaningful elements extracted, emphasised and crafted to create an experience that is less subjective and more universal and able to be related to more effectively by the reader. It says a great deal about the story teller what is chosen to be emphasised relative to the cultural context.



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