The social sciences have demonstrated, on more than one occasion, that people tend to be highly influenced by other people, especially those who are in (perceived) positions of authority. This is an important survival skill: as social animals, we pass down our knowledge and abilities from parent to child, teacher to student, mentor to mentee, and, of course, if we didn’t run when everyone else was running, we might respond too late to save ourselves from the oncoming threat.

Despite its obvious usefulness, conformity and specifically conformity to authority has caused some disturbing problems for humankind. The infamous Milgram experiments found that most of their test subjects continued to administer electric shocks to protesting recipients even in the face of their experiencing medical distress and eventually ceasing to respond. In the Nuremberg trials, Nazi soldiers who committed atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity tested psychiatrically sound, and argued that they were simply following orders.

writingwednesdays

What does all of this have to do with writing? It must be recognized that the written word has authority, and an authority that has been driven home by years of studying textbooks, referencing encyclopedias, and reading news articles. There is the general assumption that in order to be published, authors must be 1) appropriately qualified, and 2) reasonable in their arguments and correct in the general information they present. This has never actually been the case, but today, when anyone can write an article or publish a book, it is glaringly apparent that the (perceived) authority of written works needs to be put in check.

Does this mean that certain mediums should be avoided? Absolutely not. Though there has been an influx of fake news circulating social media sites, no medium is devoid of bias, misinformation, over-simplification, or hyperbole. It is important that people engage critically with information regardless of the form it takes or the person it comes from. This means cross-referencing, fact checking, looking for bias, following the money, analyzing statistics, and arguing with articles even if you agree with them.

There is a general consensus among experts in conformity that blind obedience to authority is bad, and that disobedience is necessary in situations where those in command are in the wrong. But the world is not so simple as “these things are wrong, and these things are right.” We must disobey in order to know when to disobey. We must resist in order to know when to resist. Without initial indiscriminate challenge, criticism, disagreement and distrust, we risk complacency.

Is it exhausting to engage, at such an intense level, with everything you read and hear? Yes. Are there worse things than being tired? Yes. Absolutely.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

ibn-battuta4It seems to be the case that some of the best writers tend to also be travelers. In fact, one of the fastest growing genres in creative non-fiction is travel writing. With the success of mega travel writing hits like Eat, Pray, Love and others, it’s not hard to imagine why readers enjoy reading about the travels of others through their books.

Reading itself is a kind of traveling, where new and exciting places take form in the mind’s eye and we get to meet all kinds of characters on different adventures. The sights, sounds and smells that are evoked when we read excellent writing have a power all unto themselves. In fact, psychologists note that there is little difference between actually experiencing something, seeing someone else experience it or reading about that experience.

So we know that traveling makes for better reading and that reading is a kind of traveling, but how does travel affect your writing, even if you’re not penning prose about being on the road?

New Perspectives. The most obvious way is by offering new ways of looking at things by being exposed to landscapes and people never before experienced. The sensations of a new place can have a similar neurological effect as learning a new skill or hobby, so it’s no surprise then that traveling to different places will cause your brain to grow and adapt in marvelous ways. Being challenged on a regular basis and having to come up with quick solutions keeps you thinking on your toes. This is particularly helpful when there are linguistic hurdles to overcome during travel. You start to deeply value your mother tongue and your ease of communication while using it; however, the reality of having to make yourself understood is the challenge of every writer, well-travelled or not. Traveling just makes you better at understanding the challenge and more inventive in finding ways around it, even when your audience speaks/reads your mother tongue too.

Sensory Data. The sheer volume of inviting things found while traveling will be enough inspiration to produce encyclopedias of writing. It is not even that you have to write about these new things. It is that you get to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes. Like any artist, a writer gets to explore with the eye and translate what they see through words. The more practice you get in learning to describe even the most foreign things to your home audience, the better a writer you will be.

Othering. Most of the time when you travel, a form of othering starts to naturally take place where you start to measure yourself against the culture in which you find yourself traveling. While this can have negative consequences when a value (ie. good or better) is assigned to either your culture or theirs, it can be a positive practice when this juxtaposition is used for the purposes of illuminating the familiar and the forgotten in ourselves and our worldviews. Unsettling ourselves from our cozy cultural abodes is the first step to being able to write about them properly. It’s not an outsider’s view per se, but one that combines disparate threads of knowledge to make a cohesive picture through the written word.

Stay tuned for The Drawing Board’s list of top travel books of all time, our “Countries Traveled” list, and our “Wish List” for future travel destinations .