I mentioned in my last post that I was traveling to Guatemala with friends who do humanitarian work on behalf of the Masai American Organization through proceeds from the Dream Shop and other sources: providing basic health, dental and visual checkups; building new schools and elder centers; supporting local women’s co-ops who create hand-dyed and hand-woven textiles; collecting and distributing donated materials for health and education, and so on. I was looking forward to the trip, but also a little trepidatious, since I’ve never been to Guatemala. I didn’t know what to expect, despite my friend’s descriptions, since every person’s experience of travel like this is unique to them. I’ve been to Nicaragua, so I imagined it would be similar in some ways. Still, fear of the unknown is a strong phobia, one I struggle with on a regular basis. As the day of departure approached, that squiggle of worry in my stomach grew. I think there were a couple of moments when, if I hadn’t already spent the money on non-refundable airfare, I might have backed out.
I’m so glad I didn’t.
Navigating Guatemala City, Santiago Atitlan, San Juan Atitlan, and Antigua proved interesting at times. To be fair, we were almost always with knowledgeable locals—first with a long-distance driver who picked us up at the airport and delivered us safely to Santiago, and later with local tuk tuk drivers. Once, we braved the back of a pickup truck and hung on to the chest-high frame for dear life while the driver flew through the nighttime streets dodging pedestrians and other vehicles in the narrow lanes. I quickly learned it’s sometimes better for my peace of mind to just look away from the road. If you don’t watch, you can’t see the close calls. A few times, we were among the pedestrians walking single file along the side of the road (there are few sidewalks or streetlights) while tuk tuks, trucks, motorcycles and buses whizzed past. Local travel there is not for the faint of heart.
In the cities we visited on Lake Atitlan—Santiago and San Juan—many streets are lined with merchants who saw us as potential income. And of course we are. No judgment; Guatemala is a very poor country, and some of these people are truly struggling to feed themselves and their families. We visited one woman known to my friends who has worked with them for years. She makes her own textiles and sells them to MAO, so we went to see what she had to offer this time. The young woman met us on the main street and led us through a tight alley that almost brushed my narrow shoulders on both sides. Left and right we passed tiny rooms—dwellings for people, sometimes whole families—with beds that filled either end of the room and a small space in the middle for children to play or adults to work. In the few we saw up close, there were no bathrooms or kitchens, no running water, only shelter. The only exits from this long alley were at either end, thus residents must wind their way through whenever they need to go out for food, laundry, cooking, personal necessities, what have you. This was only one example of basic living conditions here. Some are much less luxurious, others more so.
The hardworking Chapín (Guatemalan people) around Lake Atitlan stay busy from sunrise to sunset, sometimes later. Tuk tuk, truck, and bus drivers keep long hours. Builders and laborers work construction or maintenance, which seems ever-present. In the Lake cities, merchants await buyers in their booths and peddle their goods hard. Women wash laundry in the edge of Lake Atitlan, and carry large loads of clothes, produce, or other items in baskets atop their heads, hands-free. I saw men walking up or down the steep roads carrying enormous loads of wood, produce, building materials, once even a full-sized refrigerator, bound in woven cord and hanging on their backs; a leather or fabric strap and rope wrapped around their foreheads, so that when they leaned forward, the load was lifted up and weight borne on their legs and backs. Amazing.
Language was sometimes a challenge, since few speak English and some don’t even speak Spanish. Most common are the local Mayan dialects like Tz’utujil in Santiago Atitlan. Gestures could be a universal communication device, though perhaps a bit clumsy; details were sometimes lost and miscommunication was always a possibility.
The terrain in the regions I visited is rugged, mountainous. Walking up and down steep slopes tested my legs and my lungs numerous times, but I would not want to drive there, where getting behind the wheel takes real nerve. And given the humid climate (even in the dry season), life abounds. Life of all kinds. As in, check your bed before you get between the sheets. I didn’t find any critters sharing my bed, but I did find several eight-legged neighbors sharing the shower in Santiago Atitlan. They were scooped up and escorted outside as often as possible.
Perhaps the scariest moment for me was riding a horse up the side of Volcan Pacaya, which is still erupting, albeit slowly. Vast lava fields stretch down the tour path, which required us to cross what looked like a slippery slope of slag on a narrow, harrowing path. Of course, I was first in line with our group, so I didn’t have the benefit of seeing anyone else cross it first. To me, it seemed we would have nowhere to go but down if we slipped. I tried to stop my mount, Tequila; alas, that was the single moment when he was happy to keep moving despite my wishes. Once on the other side, I realized it wasn’t as slippery as I’d expected, but that didn’t make it any less frightening to me.
So given all these challenges, you might ask, why would I choose to travel to such a place when there are so many easier vacation destinations from which to choose?
It’s a good question, one which others who made the same choice might answer differently. For me, not only was it a beautiful, rewarding journey filled with adventures and experiences I’ll never forget, this kind of travel helps to inform my Weltanschauung, my view of the world and my place in it. If I always stay in the same type of environment, surround myself with familiar customs and traditions, I will never know anything of the rest of the world—which is far more vast and diverse than my own little corner.
In addition, if I never change my routine, never try something new and unusual (to me), if I never challenge myself to do A Scary Thing, I will never know the extent of my capabilities.
It is the same with writing.
I’ve seen several writers in my Twitter community tweet their anxiety about the publishing industry, marketing, or promoting their own work. Other writers I know self-published before they even tried to query and submit to agents, simply because they wanted to avoid the challenges and frequent rejections of the traditional or even indie route. One or two even write and store their work in private archives without ever intending to share it.
I understand their apprehension. I’ve felt it myself.
Why? Because writing good, marketable fiction, creating characters with depth and empathy, portraying scenes that come alive in the readers’ minds, twisting plots that keep readers awake and flipping the pages far into the night is hard. Publishing via the traditional route is harder. Not only must we present the result of months of our day-in-and-day-out labors, our blood and tears, our dreams and imaginations to complete strangers, we must then face the reality of hearing “Thanks, but no thanks” again and again. It can be gut-wrenching, and sometimes hard not to take the rejections personally.
They aren’t meant that way. I’ve written about this before, but to briefly restate: agents and publishers receive so many submissions and queries, they can afford to be picky. And they really have no choice. With limited time and funding to back projects, they must cherry-pick the very best, the ones they know will sell right now. Thus the onus is on us as writers to make our work stand out from the masses. Getting published is not easy. Few who write and query a novel will be published through traditional routes.
So if it’s so darned difficult to get published, why write in the first place?
The answer—for me, anyway: I write because despite its challenges, writing expands my horizons. It allows me a vicarious adventure through the eyes of my characters. Through my stories, I introduce myself to experiences and challenges that I may never before have encountered. Writing in a fictional universe/reality allows me to confront the status quo, test drive new opinions or theories, explore unfamiliar realms. Even if the stories I write aren’t “real life,” they change me nonetheless. And if they are well created and written, they carry the potential for change in my readers, too.
Yes, writing with the intent to publish—especially via the traditional route—is hard. But many of us do it anyway because despite the angst, the endless revisions, the rejections, and the critiques, the writing life fills us with accomplishment, joy, and satisfaction. We do it because sometimes the characters in our heads are so real we can’t ignore them and want to share them with complete strangers. We pin our hearts to our sleeves, pen our words to the page, then send our pages out into the world in search of validation and that feeling of success, pride in a job well done. In short, those of us who write for publication do so because we can’t imagine doing anything else.
At the time of this writing, I am back in the U.S., recuperating from a bad bout of flu, and beginning to assimilate the lessons learned in Guatemala. By the time this is posted, I’ll be back in my familiar routine, but the experiences I’ve had in Santiago Atitlan, San Juan Atitlan, and Antigua—like the characters I’ve created and the worlds in which they live and breathe—add to the tapestry that is Drema. I am as much a better person for having conquered my fear of the unexpected in a new country as I am for having struggled through “perfecting” my characters and my stories.
The icing on the cake is knowing that I faced an action (to travel to a developing nation, or to navigate the world of traditional publishing) that made me truly nervous, and I didn’t back down. Every time I do that, every time I carry on despite my fear, I grow stronger. For me, the journey to Guatemala benefited me as a person. Seeking publication through traditional routes—even if I eventually decide to self-publish my manuscript—has improved my writing.
It feels pretty damned good, too, to Do A Scary Thing and be better for it.
Does that mean I won’t be afraid next time? Of course not! But with experiences like these under my belt, I’ll be more likely to Do The Thing anyway, and be proud of myself afterward. And that’s a priceless gift no one else can give me and no money can buy.