When I was an art director, we created an animated product based on a feature film. Our product was to be released along with the movie. As such, we received “dailies” from the feature film production crew, meaning we got a VHS (yes it was a while ago) of all the film they shot in a day, uncut, unedited, unfinished, so we could see exactly what the characters looked like and how the scenes progressed. We got dozens of snipits of the story as they were created.That was a wonderful window into almost being in the film production crew and served to help us create our product, since it was the only real visual reference we had to work from. But since movies are shot in a non chronological order, it was wholly confusing to try to put the parts into a semblance of order to understand the story line. Some days we were left piecing bits together and filling in the gaps with our imagination.
I found I was applying the same methods as the film crews in getting the stories out for this book. A story would be forefront in my mind, and I’d tap it out without regard to chronology. That makes for a bunch of snipits that then need to be woven together. So getting it all out was the initial draft phase. Then the weaving began… and it took twice as long to weave it all together than the story-telling phase. But it had to be done that way, because it was too big of a thing to all fit in my head (or an outline or notes) all at once, in one place.
Another thing I learned (again) while telling a story this long is that you can’t tell it all. There are things that were interesting at the time that simply don’t translate well. There were simple moments that are insoluble in their beauty, but don’t go down on paper or in photos. In other words, they were real moments, simple and direct as part of life. Things that expressing in words functions to destroy, rather than embellish. The funny thing is, it is important as I look back at these snipits to realize this fact. I have a deep desire to include them, and that would be to the detriment of the book as a whole. Some stories serve to embellish others, some denature the ones around them. And I suppose this is all common knowledge and trivial study among the literarily-trained folk out there who might be reading this, but it was something I learned along the way. And it happens to be one of the things I like best about storytelling. But you all didn’t want to see the dailies anyway. There is a finished feature out there and it’s a lot easier to tread through.
(Yeah, songs again in the title.)
Sherpas are the culture of people who live in the high Himalaya, in the shadow of Mt Everest. The group I traveled with was predominantly Sherpa. They are a jovial, friendly, very social people and thrive on connecting in their own community and others. One of them from the trek lives in New York and I have kept in good contact with him since returning. About a month after I got back I recorded this:
Gambu called me today. He’s in New York so it’s not an international call. I sent him some raw video the other day and he was calling to thank me for it and catch up. He is typical Sherpa in that he actively pursues connecting with his friends and family through phone and Facebook and any means available. He does it just to say hi, or to chain the “news” of what’s going on in the Sherpa world. I love being an extended part of that.
We’ve had several exuberant conversations since we both arrived back in the US. Today was no exception, and the verbal gymnastics that goes on is sometimes entertaining enough in itself that I thought I’d try to capture the miscues and misunderstandings. I don’t think you need to know expressly who each of these characters is, but know that Sherpa families name their babies for the day of the week they were born. Which leaves a lot of re-used names, and a little bit of confusion. Oh, and ‘didi’ isn’t my actual name. It means ‘sister’ in Nepali, and that is how Gambu has always referred to me.
“I talked to Pemba and Dawa, you know, Mingma’s brothers?” Gambu began after our bubbly greeting in both English and Nepali.
“Yes I have spoken to Pemba on the phone for Mingma’s music video.” I’d been head-down working on a video for one of the other Sherpa musicians on the trek.
“Dawa’s wife just came here from Kathmandu to visit for a while. Pemba and Dawa, they both saw your video. Pemba, he is my neighbor, you know. Dawa, he writes the lyrics and some music for Mingma, you knew that right.”
“Yes, I did know that, so they saw my music video that I put together for Mingma?”
“Yes and they both say, ‘Oh, how clear and beautiful the video is!’ They like it very much!”
“Great, so they like it? I got the feeling from Mingma that he thought it needed more work.”
“Oh yes, they say ‘very nice, but keep going’..”
“I think I met Dawa at the airport on the way out of Kathmandu…Mingma introduced me to him as we were leaving….”
“No, Dawa has lived here 2 years, you meet a different Dawa… oh, you mean the other Mingma Sherpa, long-hair Mingma? I know that Dawa Sherpa, he is a different Dawa…”
“No, not long-hair Mingma, Music Mingma! He met us at the airport and gave me his CD for the video, and he introduced me to a Dawa… at least I think it was a Dawa… I might have misunderstood his name. He was very excited to meet me. He said he was with Mingma’s music company.”
“Okay, I know that Dawa, a short guy, right? Yes, he is another Dawa in Mingma’s music.”
“Oh, that was not his brother, Dawa Sherpa then?”
“No, different Dawa.”
“What’s his last name?”
“Another Dawa Sherpa and 2 Mingma Sherpas…?” I giggle.
“Didi, we are all last name Sherpa! Don’t you know??”
Besides the writing itself, I have about 6000 photos in my arsenal to add imagery to the book. The hardest part isn’t what to include, it’s what not to include. There comes a point when the description that appears in the reader’s head is better than any image that could be added to embellish it. Or at least I hope that’s how it works out.
I’ve gone through the set of 6000 about 7 times. I keep thinking I’ll make a master subset and just pick from those, but every time I need to grab a batch, the subset I picked last time isn’t complete enough. Some aspect has been left out. When I spoke at Soul Food Books to the group who followed Clint and John, I knew they wanted to hear the music part foremost, so I focused on that portion. When I selected photos to go up on my photo share, I tailored it to the photographers and what I think they most want to see. When I spoke at REI in Seattle, I didn’t mention music once. I focused on the trekking, the culture and the people of the area. But this book is the first time I’ll be able to incorporate all of the different aspects of the story which means another run through the 6000 photos.
Regardless of how many there are in the book at the end, only a tiny fraction will be seen. This is a story, not a coffee table book. But there will be photos and they’ll be my favorites and they’ll be in color.
When we returned to Lukla (back down to 10,000 feet from the top), we had a couple days to rest. One evening in the common room at dinner, I talked to an Irish gal who was staying in the same lodge as we were. About my age or a little younger, she had been traveling solo through India, and now Nepal. Before that she had spent time traveling in Pakistan and working there in an office to make money so she could travel some more.
We were discussing the different cultural tripping points, things we found interesting and most different from our own cultures. She helped me draw parallels between what I knew of Pakistan culture, and this one I have come to know in Nepal. But the differences are vast, too. I asked her about conducting business there and she replied, “Very little work ever appeared to get done the way we Westerners think of ‘done’. I’d ask if a document had been completed, or a product shipped and the answer was invariably, ‘insallah’, which means ‘God willing’ or ‘If Allah wills it’ which isn’t a very cut-and-dried way to do business, if you ask me. They would answer ‘insallah’ to your every query….’Are you going to lunch? Is there a meeting now? Have you heard an answer from the director?’ and the answer is always ‘insallah.'”
When I looked at her with a vague glimmer of understanding, specifically from the things I had just been through along my trek, she continued and went into specifics. She gave me a good idea of what they consider an agreement, a contract and a method for working. But the interesting part is that they get business done, they just get it done differently. Very differently than we do, in fact. I have had to embrace this set of thoughts in working through the end of this book.
In looking back, it helped me so much to hear her words. They must have fallen at just the right time. I had forgotten all about her until I was wrestling through the cultural stopping blocks that I am at this point in the book. It’s intriguing that part of the story which seemed unrelated as it happened, is becoming part of the answer. Is the book done? Insallah.
Stepping back in time, here is a bit of story…
When I arrived in Kathmandu, I had already been gone from home for 36 hours. Three days later, I felt like I had been there for a month. So much had happened already: I met about 50 people, I learned new places, new foods, new streets and buildings. I had to figure out new toilets, new ways of dealing with electricity, internet, air and sleep. I learned how to be a female person in Asia, which, by the way is a whole different animal than here in the US. I can lead just fine, it’s the following that I have a little trouble with. But the whole thing, every step of every day for those first 3 days was new and different, and a cultural shift in the largest sense.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Clint and John both remarked that it felt like a month in 3 days. When the trip was over and I was back at home, I shifted time zones again and unwound all of the cultural shift that had taken place over the previous time. I have been home 6 days. My hubby remarked this morning that it felt like I had been here a month. Of course he said it in the most positive and supportive light: “She’s just slipped right back in where she was.”
But now it feels like a month since I have seen my Nepali friends, and I am left wondering why. So I pick apart the reasons that time seems to stretch so extremely when shifting between cultures and spaces. When I travel inside the US, it doesn’t feel this way, but I remember my trips to the Caribbean and Central America being a similar experience. The learning-while-traveling process tends to lengthen life in some respect. And I love that. Life is and will always be too short.
I am just sure that most novel writers spend the majority of their waking and sleeping hours developing characters. I was spared that since my book is NOT a novel – it’s non fiction. My characters were already developed and it was just my job to call it like I saw it. The main character in my book (ok, besides me, I am telling the whole story from my point of view) is a guy by the name of AC Sherpa. I met him for an interview of my magazine. Any of you who have been following the magazine since February already know this. If you haven’t, here is the article that came from meeting my protagonist. And yes, it will give you a little back story about me as well.
For the record, I like hiding song lyrics and titles in my blog writing, so feel free to begin singing when you see a title, if it strikes you.
I spent the first 2 months writing with reckless abandon. It was a purge, a way to capture all these fresh ideas and thoughts and memories that were fading away too quickly. Once that purge hit a sort of equilibrium (or maybe I just finished my reacclimitizaton to US culture) I began asking questions of myself about the book.
“Why am I writing this?” is always first. That was answered in the first 2 posts of this blog. “Who am I writing for?” immediately followed. Because if you don’t know who your audience is, then your voice gets fuzzy. If you are speaking an unintelligible language to those hearing your message, then you’ve failed. But changing the language wasn’t as hard as figuring out who I was directing my story toward.
Initially this was a journal. I keep journals on almost every journey I take, whether it’s a single overnight camping trip just up the road, or a month in Nepal. Sometimes a good day hike or trip to the mall even warrants a journal entry. I have a lot of words, I guess.
After bending several people’s ears nearly to breaking, (thanks guys!) I quit thinking I was writing this just for myself, just as a remembrance of a month of my life, and began thinking of it in terms of the people who might be affected by the story if they were to run across it. All you non-writers out there are wondering why that is such a big deal. I won’t go into it, but believe me, it is a huge shift when you are writing words for your own psyche versus spelling things out for anyone else’s. Huge paradigm shift.
So after mulling it over and getting plenty of support from people who really, honestly wanted to read it, I rewrote the purge. So now it is a better book, for you and for me.
I spent the first 2 months that I was asked this question, trying like hell to answer it. It’s hard to encapsulate, and that is part of the reason a whole entire manuscript was warranted. If I could tell it in a Facebook post, it probably wouldn’t be too compelling of a story, now, would it. Here’s my attempt to catch even those who don’t know anything about it to get a glimpse.
I am a mom who lives in the suburbs of Seattle. I live a pretty normal life in that vein. I run a business, I run kids to soccer, I run to the mountains to photograph and write about them. (And I just run, too.)
This is the part where the normal goes away. I ended up in Nepal, hiking up a famous path called the Everest Highway, on a project designed to raise awareness and funds for global environmental issues. During this project I lived in Nepal for a month with a handful of Nepalis, and a few Americans. And they weren’t normal. They were musicians and mountain climbers – extraordinary ones. And it wasn’t a normal trek. Some pretty extraordinary things happened along the way.
So the month that I lived there changed my life. And I don’t mean it in the ethereal, touchy-feely way (though that’s true too). I mean that I learned some pretty ground breaking things that I never would have learned if I hadn’t done it. When that happens I have to write it down. Have to. For fear that it is a dream and if I write it down, well, at least I’ll be able to read about it later and pretend it was real, right?
So the book is my attempt at grabbing that dream by the tail and pulling it back toward me, and onto a page where it can be enjoyed, remembered and shared. Thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert and TED for that amazing description of the creative process.