My Life in Six Drawers

by Sara Wheeler

The happiest moment of my life presented itself one cool February afternoon in the Transantarctic Mountains, many years ago. I was hiking up a valley. Fearful of losing my bearings, I stopped to fish a USGS map from my pack and spread it on the ice. Tracing my route by topographical landmarks (including an especially pointy mountain glaciologists had baptized the Doesn’tmatterhorn), my finger came to a straight line drawn with a ruler and marked “Limit of Compilation.” Beyond that, the sheet was blank. I had reached the end of the map.

That moment flashed into my mind when my editor suggested a volume of Selected Writings to ‘celebrate’ (ha!) my fiftieth birthday. I could see the point. While my chief endeavor, in my work, has been books: travel books, biographies, and a lumpy mix of the two, over the decades there have been many hundreds of essays, reviews, and squibs, written along the way for love and for money. So I emptied the six cuttings drawers in my crammed office in north London – and was amazed at the yellowing clips that tumbled out. One of them told that map story. I was happy to be reminded of it. How long ago it seemed.

The landscapes, and the pieces they inspired, marked my progress as a writer, for better or worse. Rereading them revived the pleasures of crossing unimportant African borders using a kidney donor card as ID; of sharing a bathroom with a harp seal; of mixing a cocktail of six parts vodka and one part something else (they didn’t revive any memories of that, because I can’t recall what happened next). Throughout my writing life, travel has lent a vehicle in which to explore the inner terrain of fears and desires we stumble through every day. I never really saw it in those terms until I read through those pieces, deciding which I might include in the mooted Selected Works. Writing about travel has allowed me, in a bumpy career, flexibility and freedom within a rigid frame of train journeys, weather, and a knackered tent. The creative process is an escape from personality (Eliot said that), and so is the open road. And a journey goes in fits and starts, like life.

How to arrange this stuff? After three days sifting, I decided a chronological approach was out. Recurring patterns of thought and theme imposed a more coherent logic on what was a wide range of subject matter. Roots and rootlessness; domesticity and the open road; the murky unknowability of our own motives (let alone anyone else’s); the funk of hopeless, lovable humanity in a world gone wrong: these were the topics that slithered through the cuttings like the cobra skin I once smuggled back from Libya and nailed on the kitchen wall. Those, and the struggle with despair, the need to make order, our relationship with landscape, and the unbreakable bond between past and present.

The pieces I finally selected for the book I called Access All Areas covered a twenty-year span. (When I wrote the first, nobody I knew had an Internet connection.) Some of it was incidental journalism. This latter might be an enemy of promise, but it got me out of the house, often to places I would not otherwise go. Dropping in to a village in Kerala for six days might not yield any profound experience, but it offered suggestions and opened possibilities. The collection automatically examined the difference between the magazine assignment, for which the writer must travel fast and purposefully, and the book, for which the journey evolves its own inner logic. Although I am in my bones a writer of books, I recognized that I had got a lot out of these short pieces. Let’s face it, writing is hell, so an essay or feature curtails the agony.

When I was deciding what to include and what to discard, I sought pieces illustrative of their time, as well as of my own interests. Besides covering a geographical spread—pole to pole, via Poland—the stories ricocheted between luxury (an oceangoing liner) and fantastic discomfort (a poorly constructed igloo), and between the frosty crunch of the Russian Arctic and the sweltering swamps of Malawi’s Kasungu, a place so hot that toads explode. Every journey yielded energy, joy, and, above all, hope. There was always a dash of human dignity to lift a story out of absurdity and farce, however ugly the background. The world everywhere and simultaneously is a beautiful and horrible place. Whatever the subject, whether frivolous (belly dancing) or grave (HIV orphans in East Africa), I saw myself striving, and often failing, to be true to life and faithful to the world’s multiplicity. And although overarching themes were discernible, I had to reserve the right to be inconsistent. I learned from a gang of atmospheric chemists on the top of the Greenland ice sheet that nothing in nature is isotropic—meaning, looking the same from each side.

Fifty, perhaps, is the time of life when most of the places you visit you will never go back to and nearly all the books on your shelves you will never read again. I saw in many of the earlier pieces a fumbling search for certainties. But as one gets older, one realizes there are no questions, only stories. Schopenhauer said the first forty years are text, the rest commentary. So I thought I had better nail a collection down. As I put it together, I had a vague sense of getting out of the woods before the trees arrive.
Sara Wheeler is the author of six books of biography and travel, including Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, and The Magnetic North.