The Best Kind of Spin Doctor

It’s amazing how words well-told can awaken a dreamy desire in this reader, at least, to do things that would sound repellent otherwise. Take camping, for example: unless you offer me some incredible reward– true love, a secure sense of life’s meaning, a comfortable discussion with the ghost of Jacques Derrida– I won’t do it. There are many things about contemporary existence you’ll hear me rail about; sleeping in a comfortable bed, away from the reach of crawling things and (because let’s include even far-fetched options here) open-air murderers slinking through lone campsites, is not one of them. But here I am reading Robert Macfarlane’s beautifully written The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, and suddenly I’m imagining myself walking chalk-paths by day, and by night, gazing up from my bed of grass at stars. The only open-sea experience I’ve had, with a group of drunk cousins in south Florida, turned me off to a few hours’ worth of sun exposure on choppy waves– and now I’m waxing romantic about hopping into a small boat and jaunting off to the Hebrides.

Chris Heaton

The Upper Icknield Way; Chris Heaton

I know very well my wonder at the natural world would peak after about two hours of Macfarlane-esque forays, after which point, I’d need a snack break, and then would plod on as my eagerness to delve into the surrounding biota waned, along with my ability to notice differences between plants or charm in the flitting of birds. And maybe I could go one day without a shower, but ask for more than that, and we’re going to have a problem. Now, if all of this trekking resulted in a brilliant book, as has happened with The Old Ways, I’d change my tune– but I’m not sure what needs to occur first for all of this to come together as a written product: that gentle openness to the world that seems firmly and calmly within the author’s possession, or the knowledge that, hell, I can write about anything– and I will, so bring on the experiences, because I’ll make delicious work out of them.

And now we’re back to my core issue: what is it that makes some writers just go for it, love the craft so much that they can’t but continue to spew words about any and everything, without (so it would appear) any qualms about there being no story there, or the topic not being worth reporting on, or one’s talents not being up to the task? What keeps them from worrying themselves either out of a project, or into general inertia? At this point, I’m tempted to write to Macfarlane, but I’m not quite sure what I’d ask him, so the jury’s currently out on whether or not that will happen.

In the meantime, I’m taking the book at a relishing pace, neither speeding through nor hovering over every word– just letting it come and go at its own clip, and thoroughly enjoying a ride which, although I’m guessing I’ll never undertake in real life, is alive on the page in the best of ways.


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