I recently destroyed six years of writing with the clumsy, half-asleep swoop of my hand.
As I blearily watched the full water glass tip onto my computer, my fingers still groping for the phone alarm, it didn’t register what was happening. Of course, when water damage destroys your laptop and renders all your documents unrecoverable, the first thing people ask is, “Did you backup your files?” No, I didn’t. Thanks for asking me about this at some other point during my last six years of laptop ownership.
Once I got the final verdict from ASUS a couple weeks later (made more dramatic because I live in Taiwan and needed a co-worker to translate the Chinese over the phone), it felt like a punch to the stomach. Those files included college papers, creative fiction, 2 a.m. stream of consciousness word vomit, drafts of letters I’d never send, interesting research I’d worked on, and most important of all: my travel writing. Three years of well-documented travel memories, from the glamorous to the mundane, written up into what I’d started seeing as the beginnings of a short story collection.
Every word, gone.
It’s easy as 20-something travellers for us to become obsessed with this kind of documentation. We’re having the time of our lives, right? We’re lucky enough to be travelling while all of our friends are working 9-to-5’s, right? We won’t be able to do this forever, right?
So with that constant drumbeat of “you really have to enjoy this moment,” we get trapped in over-recording. We have to take pictures from every angle from every scenic overlook. We have to jot down every dish we ate at that tapas restaurant for the Facebook captions because Aunt Mary will read and like and comment on every single one of them. We have to record the dialogue and the smells and the tastes because memory is fickle, and all those observations will probably slip away.
It’s a sort of anticipatory memory hoarding, as if we know that one day we will look back on this from the depths of middle age and maybe if we can preserve enough tiny details about this moment, we will be able to pretend that we are not in our current reality and can instead allow ourselves to luxuriate in a romanticized past life. But how many sunsets have I only seen from behind my phone camera?
When I lost my travel writing, I thought I’d lost my travel memories. Three years, two continents, 18 countries, hundreds of people, thousands of moments -- I thought they were gone forever.
Because of course, the moments that stand out on my travels still stand out in my memories. From the warmth of whisky in my belly after my first taste of snow in Edinburgh, to conversations in Czech with a poetry-reciting homeless man in Prague, to traditional Orthodox Easter celebrations with a Ukrainian family in Cyprus, the unexpected beauty revealed by new places and new experiences did not need to be printed in black and white in order to remain part of me. These stories are printed on my soul. They’ve changed me. A hundred short stories or a thousand photos would never quite capture the weight of the transformation that extended travel brings.
In the weeks since the laptop incident, I’ve focused on letting go of this obsessive documentation. Of course, I’m writing this article on Google Docs instead of a Microsoft Word file, so clearly I haven’t done a perfect 180º. But for the most part, I’m trying to trust my memory a bit more. The best moments of my life have not been photographed or recorded or written down. Does that make them any less valid? Does that make them any less memorable?
So here’s one of my travel-related New Year’s resolutions, and it’s one I think a lot of us can embrace: Record less; live more.
And start backing up your files.
Melanie Zook is a native Texan teaching English around the world. She is a featured contributor for UnearthAway. Learn more here.
How I Manage to Live Abroad and Actually Make a Living