What I’ve Been Reading: Notes From a Small Island
My path to writing lies along three distinct points.
It started with an essay writing course in college, where I discovered writing was a thing I could do.
It eventually gelled as Black Marks on Wood Pulp gained a bit of recognition and I saw the kind of audience I could reach.
In between the two, I needed some kind of drive. I needed something that made writing seem fun.
And that was a book. Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island.
To say Notes From a Small Island was formative is an understatement: Bryson’s tale of his last grasp at English-ness before heading back to his native United States shaped everything I thought writing could be, from how it’s written to the simple things I obsess over.
It was a blueprint for someone who had little confidence but a lot of drive, and it hit all the right notes when I found it after the dawn of the new century: it fueled my longing nostalgia for England, a country I had just visited and in which I had accidentally left a bit of my heart, and it was sarcastic and fast and effortlessly funny. It wasn’t a cool travel novel; there was no attempt at making things look easy, and there was no attempt at beauty or posing. It was a far cry from the adventure blogs and Instagram Airstream posts of today: it was an overweight dopey dude complaining about bad architecture. It was pure dad jokes and fumbling and honesty, and even as a 20-something I could relate.
More than anything, it made writing seem accessible. As if there was a small place in which I could fit in.
I’ve always had a daydream that I would re-write the book — that I’d track his path through England and re-walk it, seeing what’s changed in the past 20 years. I just re-read Notes From a Small Island this summer — a familiar read for a summer of bike tenting and mountain travel — and imagined myself walking the same paths, commenting about the same buildings, bringing new perspective to a story that’s already been told.
To be honest, that’s not far off of what I thought I’d be doing when I started writing. I’ve even got an embarrassing few thousand words about New Orleans that could be classified as travel writing. But it never really stuck. That wasn’t my deal. I moved on, changed scope, found a voice, and never looked back on travel writing; in fact, the entire genre shifted and moved and I fell out of love.
And that’s the point, maybe. I mis-aimed on Notes From a Small Island as an inspiration. My goals a dozen years ago was focused on topic and structure — I will write a travel novel! I will write about England! I will complain about tea! — when in fact it was the style and angle that I identified with and folded into my own. The idea that writing shouldn’t be intimidating (even when it is); that writing about anything can still be something worthwhile.
For me, some of the infallible luster has worn off of Notes From a Small Island. I was once a fresh-faced early traveller, while now the idea of travel feels more weighty and involved, with work trips and long drives no longer as adventurous as they used to be. I may still long for exotic locations, but I long much less than I used to.
Even with that, though, reading Notes From a Small Island pulled some of that nostalgia back, and it was interesting too see where this whole thing started; to look on it with fresh eyes, to understand the genesis of this blog, this career, this entire thing.
To know that, chances are, I’m not going to write the next great travel novel. But also to know that it wasn’t all for naught. To know that can’t go back again, but it’s sometimes nice to try.