A woman next to me on a flight last night wanted to talk. Being something of a human sponge – if you tell me a story I’ll use it, and I have always maintained that there is nothing more interesting than other people’s lives – I would have been primed and ready to listen. But I had work to finish, I was tired after a charged weekend, so I politely indicated that I needed to write and fell into the republic of words.
But part of me then regretted turning back to my laptop. All stories compel me. And who knows what she would have told me. The grim story of her life to-date? Some crucifying sadness that she carries with her? A letdown, a disappointment, a marriage or key relationship that went wrong or south or both? A secret she has rarely shared with anybody… but, as Blanche du Bois notes in a certain great American play, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers….”
Travel is a mobile confessional box – and my narrative travel books and essays are peppered with encounters with individuals whom I encouraged to unburden themselves to me (as Joan Didion once noted, ‘writers are always selling somebody out’). But the fact is, we all have a great need to unburden ourselves of so much. One of the many reasons why Graham Greene remains, for me, such a central writer is because he married the Catholic need for confession with a larger existential concern: seeking some sort of forgiveness in a profoundly unforgiving universe.
The truth is, I have yet to encounter someone while traveling who imparted to me a happy story about their life. It’s what my character Laura notes in my new novel, ‘Five Days’ – if you look up any thesaurus you will find far more synonyms for unhappiness than for happiness. We are far more bound up in that which bedevils us than that which pleases us.
Then again, happiness is an elusive concept. I consider myself a reasonably happy man, but one with assorted attendant anxieties and complexities (like everybody else). But when a reader once asked me why my novels always deal with people in the midst of a gigantic struggle, I replied: “Isn’t everybody in the middle of a gigantic struggle? And don’t we all read to remind ourselves that we are not alone?”
  • Nan Reinhardt

    I sometimes wonder if there’s a tattoo on my forehead that I can’t see in the mirror, but is visible to others, especially on planes. It says, “Talk to me!” Honestly, no matter where I’m traveling, I get people’s stories. Once they’ve unburdened themselves, I never reveal that I’m a writer–that feels mean somehow. But, I’ve been known to hide in my Kindle or my laptop on occasion as well, when my head or my heart is already too full of my own stuff. I like the idea that “we all read to remind ourselves that we are not alone.” Is that also why we write?

  • Sabine Pollack-Merle

    It ain’t necessarily so.. I have travelled next to amusing people with incredible stories to tell. Funny ones, adventurous ones, glamorous ones and friendship can come out of that, but that’s rare.I even have a friend who fell in love with the air hostess and they live happily ever after ! Eh oui !

    Traveling in metros is perfect for that (the trip is short when the neigbor is bothering you) How nice it can be sometimes to share one’s thoughts with a total stranger about a book you are reading , an author you like , an interesting movie..
    Of course, I have been lucky up to now, I realise that. I have never fallen on someone unbearable in a moving confessionnal box..
    Happy traveling !

  • Pernilla Alm

    It is interesting those times when you actually do decide you have the time to listen. Some of the people we meet while traveling (short or far) can leave traces forever. I seem to have that label on my forehead too, the one that says talk to me.
    And yes, I think you are right DK, we’re all in a gigantic struggle and how interesting is it to read about people who aren’t? I am currently working on my second novel and it sure deals with a troubled mind. As did my first novel. That’s the way I like it!

  • Kara

    Wowzers! This is so beautifully put. And somewhat more eloquent than what I was *just* writing in my journal: “happiness is kind of boring to write about!”

    I also read an essay this morning that took apart the scientific particles that move in travel, as a kind of metaphor for the unsettling feelings the author has while flying. But I love nothing more than uprooting my life temporarily, and seeing the world from these strange angles. “Travel is a mobile confessional box” – so wonderfully put! And while I am silent, observing, and digging into my work on planes, I think I love travel most for its unavoidable brushes with open humanity.

    P.S. Thanks for finding me on Twitter! I look forward to connecting with more of your work. All the best.