In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I’d travelled more than half a day into the future; perhaps journeying more than half a day closer to my final day.
“I don’t feel like I’ve just come halfway around the world.”
These were among the first words I spoke on Australian soil to my Aussie-born friend and former Vancouver roommate who was the impetus behind my recent trip Down Under. This after she’d retrieved me from a very crowded Melbourne airport and pointed out all her favourite cafés, restaurants, shopping areas and, walking paths during the drive to her apartment.
“That’s because you slept,” she replied, pointing out that which I’d have thought a given for all my fellow airplane passengers considering the flight was at night, began by us being plied with pillows, blankets, a huge meal, and free alcohol, and then plunged into near-complete darkness.
“And,” my friend continued, “because cities are really all the same anyway”.
This latter statement kept me pondering for the next couple of days. My friend is a seasoned world traveller the way almost all Australians are (a combination of generous vacation policies and their near-isolation from the rest of the world).
I could kind of see her point, especially with her constantly referring to different parts of Melbourne as the “XYZ” of Vancouver.
Cities may cosmetically and architecturally differ, but they do all basically contain the same stuff.
Not unlike stories.
It’s all the same to me
All cities have their metropolitan or downtown core: in Melbourne, this is referred to as the Central Business District or CDB; in Vancouver, we just refer to it as Downtown. Cities have their shi-shi, boutique-laden shopping areas: in Melbourne, it’s Brunswick Street and also Chapel street; in Vancouver, Robson Street as well as West 4th Avenue.
Every modern city of a certain size I’ve been to has a trendy, all- or mostly-vegetarian restaurant where all the cool kids hang out that’s near impossible to get into: it was Moroccan Soup Bar in Melbourne (and it was fantastic); in veg-friendly Vancouver, we have two: Acorn for the east side cool kids and The Naam for those on the west.
Cities also have large, public parks; rich residential areas; poor residential areas; a bustling central public transit hub, and a body of water flowing above or below or right through the middle of town.
Stories aren’t much different. Once you’ve read about seven – especially seven old ones – you’ve read them all.
Any differing architecture just signifies a different story genre.
It’s almost not worth it to travel – or read – at all.
Vive la différence
Except, cities aren’t really all the same at all, for each one has its own culture – its own feel. Here are some ways Melbourne is dissimilar to Vancouver:
- Food is way more expensive
- The minimum wage is a living wage
- There’s no culture of tipping
- Pub culture is huge
- Pedestrians don’t have the right of way
- Combining sweet and savoury flavours in food is considered unpalatable
- The people shorten the names of everything (e.g. McDonald’s is called Macca’s – it even says “Macca’s” on the sign)
- Municipally owned and operated public toilets a) exist, b) are conveniently located in the downtown core, c) are immaculate
- Eucalyptus trees and birds more commonly found in North American pet shops predominate in the urban wilderness
- Houses lack central heating and good insulation (even though Melbourne does experience winter) and the typical house is built on stumps rather than having a concrete foundation
- Smoking on patios is permitted
- Credit card surcharges are generally passed onto the consumer
Not to mention the fact that they drive on the left-hand side of the road and have that distinctive, diphthong-heavy accent.
Plus, if one ventures to the wilderness beyond the city limits – the best part of travelling, in my opinion – the Australian plants and animals are about the closest thing to alien life that occurs naturally on Earth.
It’s a similar situation with stories as well.
There are no original stories in the world. Every story you’ve ever read or ever will read has been told countless times over. The practice of pitching new stories by comparing them to existing ones is evidence enough of that.
Yet stories differ in what each writer has to bring to them that’s new. We are all different people with unique experiences and perspectives. Given the same story prompt, no two writers would craft the same tale.
I used to want to write a completely new story that no one had ever read before. Now I know better.
I realize that it’s the familiarity of a story’s premise that cues our emotional responses to it – indeed, our ability to respond to it.
From there, what we writers need to do is to overlay the familiar with our unique experiences and perspectives, thus creating a lens through which the story – and the world – can be perceived in an entirely different way.
We also need to continue living our lives and seeking out new experiences to help broaden the horizons from which we enrich our writing and storytelling.
Which is yet another reason to travel, whether on a plane while chasing tomorrow, or in the points and beats of a story.
What experiences from your life have you drawn upon in your writing? What stories have inspired your own work? Let me know in the comments.
(Images: J.G. Noelle)