Rachel Friedman is the winner of “The Tashmadada/Writer Conversation/Creative Nonfiction Best Essay Prize.” Friedman’s essay “Discovery” compares her first trip to Australia with Captain Cook’s mission to discover and confirm the existence of the continent. Today, Rachel teaches literature, journalism, and writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, NY. She is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure and has written for The New York Times, New York and BUST magazines, among others.
In your essay “Discovery” you compare your personal discovery of Australia to Lieutenant James Cook’s voyage to and subsequent discovery of the continent. When did you start making connections between your experience and Cook’s—as you were traveling, or afterwards?
It was pretty soon after I started writing about my travels—and I mean in a ratty journal and not for publication—that I became interested in how the word “discovery” is used. As a young backpacker, I felt all the time like I was discovering places and cultures, yet I also realized I was covering mostly well-beaten paths. I started thinking about the feeling of discovery, how important it is to many of us, and in what ways that feeling might relate to someone who occupies the official role of discoverer in our collective consciousness. I had browsed some of Cook’s journals during my first trip to Australia, but it wasn’t until years later when I read Jamaica Kincaid’s brilliant essay “In History” that I started to connect my experience and Cook’s.
Once you decided to compare yourself to Cook, how did you go about developing the idea?
When I was in graduate school, I took a course with the wonderful writer Alice Elliott Dark. She had the class complete an exercise where we copied a short story by hand. I thought it was a really silly idea. What could possibly be the point of wasting time writing down other people’s work when I wanted to be producing my own? But when you copy another’s piece, sentence by sentence, word by word, something magical and eerie happens. It’s like you get a glimpse inside the person’s brain by deconstructing how he/she wields language. This is how I started with Cook, copying down sections of his journal that interested me. And then once I was steeped in his voice I felt like we had this weird connection and I was able to make choices about what sections to use for the piece. Essentially, I climbed inside Cook’s brain and worked my piece out of it. Does that make me sound insane?
How and when did you complete your Cook research?
Cook’s journals are available online. I also read through a lot of material posted by Australian museums. When I visited Sydney this past summer, I finally went to Botany Bay, where Cook first landed. I’m embarrassed to say how excited I was to see the place. I might be the most enthusiastic American visitor Botany Bay has ever had.
Throughout the piece your voice is extremely engaged with your reading audience as if you were speaking directly to them, convincing your readers that your discovery was just as significant as Cook’s. Your intimate tone offers your readers an equal role in the narrative. Was creating this inclusive space a conscious decision?
Absolutely. I was very conscious of the idea that we magnify or trivialize our own experiences, depending on who we are comparing ourselves to. Even though the piece is tongue-in-cheek when it comes to comparing, say, the arduousness of our journeys, I’m dead serious about the idea that my discoveries are just as important to me as Cook’s undoubtedly were to him. Instead of demarcating between one kind of discovery and another, I wanted to find the commonalities between them—and I wanted the voice in the essay to give readers “permission,” I guess you could say, to own their discoveries. Actually, I think the person who most needed my permission to do so was me. Now this is really turning into a therapy session.
There is a great wit that underlines “Discovery.” Is humor an aesthetic you strive for in your writing voice? How can writers balance humor in their work and still keep their readers engaged in the seriousness and poignancy of the subject matter?
Well, thanks! I do try to be funny because humor is an element utilized in the work I like to read. I don’t think humor undercuts seriousness and poignancy as long as you aren’t using it to get out of digging dip. Let me try to explain. I’m part of a writing workshop. We’ve been meeting once a month since we finished our MFA program three years ago. They know me really well by now and have no problem telling me when I’m hiding behind humor. I’ll turn in some essay I think is David Sedaris-level hilarious and then some poor soul in the group is charged with the unpleasant task of telling me that, yeah, while there are funny moments, the funny is being used to cover up difficult truths, instead of augmenting them. If I get a comment like that it’s usually because I’ve tried to write about something I don’t yet have enough distance from.
You have worked, lived, and traveled in more than twenty countries. Which travel experience would you say had the most resounding impact on you and your writing? Did Australia spark your passion for traveling?
This is a tough question to answer because my travels are like the children I don’t yet have but which (movies have taught me) I will love equally once I do. I’d say Israel, Ireland, Australia, and South America—all places I visited when I was in my late teens and early twenties—are the countries where I realized how fundamentally important travel is to me. And those are years when I was having so many life transformations, when my identity and desires were in constant flux, that being on the road during that time just felt like total freedom. These days when I’m traveling I’m often writing about wherever I’m headed. Being a sometimes travel writer is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives me a reason to dig really deep into a place, to ask loads of annoying questions to locals and invite myself to hang out with them far longer than hospitality dictates. At the same time, there is a certain spontaneity that can sometimes get lost.
Your travel writing—The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost—has inspired many young adults to follow their own dreams of travel and discovery. One of your readers wrote, “I am only 14 years old and I already have the travel bug thanks to you.” How have your young readers impacted your writing and future subject matter?
The single greatest thing about having written TGGGTGL (an acronym so long I might as well spell out the name) is getting emails from people who have read the book and been inspired to travel. That’s why I wrote it. I wanted to show young people—women in particular, who might not feel as empowered as men for various reasons—that travel is transformative and possible. I wrote the book in my mid-twenties. Although sometimes I wish I was a more mature writer before I published it, I know that it’s really a book of its time. It needed my mid-twenties voice to pull it off, I think, and give the material the immediacy I wanted it to have.
Another one of your readers wrote to thank you, “for helping me believe that my dream to travel mainly on waitressing and bartending skills can actually come true.” You arrived in Australia with $4,000 to your name and mention that you found “odd jobs” to pay your way as you traveled. Was that difficult? What kind of “odd” jobs did you find?
I mostly waitressed and bartended in my teens and twenties. I love the bar/restaurant world and still fantasize about opening my own café one day. It wasn’t so difficult to be broke back then because I was having all these amazing life experiences, and even though I didn’t have lots of money, I felt I was making an investment in an interesting life. I knew that I wanted to be the kind of writer who went out and had bold experiences (as opposed to the attic shut-in kind). And everyone around me was broke, too, so it was no big deal. In addition to waitressing, I sometimes worked at the various hostels where I stayed, painting, say, or guarding the computer room (before everyone had their own). I was a flier girl in Ireland for a brief stretch when I was twenty. This involved standing around cobblestone streets in really high heels and a very short skirt, attempting to get guys to patronize whatever club I happened to be working for. Not my finest hour, but it’s one hell of a way to learn to walk in heels.
You have another piece published in Creative Nonfiction, in issue #45. In “Side Gigs for the Nonfiction 99 Percent” you talk about how nonfiction writers supplement their writing income with second, third, or even fourth jobs. What “side gigs” have you personally taken on throughout your writing life (as opposed to your traveling life) to make ends meet?
Part of the reason I wrote that piece is actually because I am so jealous of writers with interesting side gigs. Right now I do freelance editorial work on the side and teach a few literature courses at a local college. I love teaching and editing, but I do sometimes wonder if I should go back to waitressing because I’d probably have way juicier stories to tell.