Pilgrimages and Idle Travels


  1. Not My House

  2. The Battle Ground of Middle School

  3. Creation

  4. The Pastor’s Home


Dear reader,

And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. … He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of his flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men…. The street… is too glowing and overpowering. He has to sooth himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles.

– GK Chesterton, Heretics

I do think that “broadening your horizons” with travel is important, but I really like the quote above. He describes the neighborhood as the most diverse and strange place someone can find. It’s strange and exciting because the people there are real. They aren’t tourist attractions or pleasantly strange. They are rough and wild. Family, he says, is the ultimate small neighborhood. You don’t always get along with them, and that’s why they are so important. During this class, I wrote travel pieces, but they aren’t the stories of adventures in the far corners of the globe. They are travels to small worlds – neighborhoods, families, and the past.

Starting in eighth grade, and all the way through high school, I wrote and rewrote one essay. It’s a typical travel piece about how I visited a foreign country and what I learned there. Through the years, it has taken many forms. The first version told the lesson that we should remember history. The thing about me is, usually by the time I finish a paper I realize that it’s not saying what I want it to say, so I start over. The next time I turned it in, the lesson was different. Now it was a story of forgiveness. Rather than remembering history, sometimes we should just forgive. Lit classes, German classes, it didn’t matter. I could adapt the story to work for just about anything. By the time college essays were due, it was a meta-paper. I described the old lessons that I wrote about, and how contrived or wrong they really were. I am a senior in the Computer Science program at the University of Washington and a member of the interdisciplinary honors program. This is my honors portfolio. In it, I store samples of my work from both honors classes and non-honors classes. It gives an idea of what I have studied and thought about.

Through this one essay, I have had many chances to practice writing that eschews the five-paragraph format. I’m sure the relentless editing to bring thousands of words into five-hundred for college essays sharpened my writing skills. But, the writing was still stuck in the past. Sure, as I grew I found different lessons in the events, but rewriting the same essay was taking the easy way out. The events of the essay weren’t some life-changing point in my life. In fact, they said little about me. I think that’s why it was so easy to write. I could write about things that happened to eleven-year-old me, because then I wouldn’t have to write about eleven-year-old me. At the end, I pull out some lesson to be learned, as if the whole thing was just a parable and the narrator wasn’t me.

So now comes this class. I wrote all-new pieces and told stories that I’ve never told anyone. I experimented with different forms and voices. I was inspired by the authors we read in class, as well as the amazing writers taking the class with me. There are four pieces in this portfolio. I will explain a bit about the process and goals of each one.

In the first paper, I wrote twelve-hundred words about my best friend’s house and the time I spent there as a kid. For the second paper, I expanded it to twenty-five hundred words. I didn’t tell much of a story with this piece. It’s just a series of anecdotes with a large helping of nostalgia. In fact, I avoided several things that would give the story a more definite chronology. I went without dialogue in the piece, only describing things that may have been said. The time is a blur. One sentence, I may be six years old, the next, I may be thirteen. I don’t mark or indicate when this happens, because I really don’t know myself. This was a very comfortable piece for me to write. I stuck with my normal essay voice and kept a straight-forward form. All this isn’t to say the piece is meaningless. I was very selective in choosing the stories. They reveal character traits of me and my friend without me having to explicitly say them. To some extent, I think it worked.

Paper three was highly experimental. I decided to tell a story with minimal narration and use a collage of historical documents with varying authenticity to tell a story for me. This was inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which sometimes includes historical documents. I wrote the essay very quickly – I started it during class one day, and finished it up the next – it was fun to explore how I could structure a narrative by implication with documents. For my midterm, I opted to expand it by bringing back some narration to tell a more cohesive story. Even though I didn’t use it for the final, the rounds of peer editing helped me edit it a lot, and the version on my portfolio page is substantially changed from what I turned in for the midterm.

I’m somewhat allergic to ranting. I’d rather not pick a side in most debates. After reading Jamaica Kindcaid’s A Small Place, I decided to give it a shot in paper 4. The result wasn’t quite a rant, because I let too much argument in, but it was fun to adopt the satirical narration style. I was trying to channel her and a little bit of Douglas Adams into my writing. The result was somewhat a rant, and somewhat a story of growing up as a pastor’s kid. Some people wrote comments like “Sweet rant! Needs more!” and others liked the more personal narrative. I made some revisions and decided to tone down the rant and bring in some more personal details.

This brings me to the final paper. It a new piece, not an expansion of something I wrote before, but really it’s what I’ve been writing all along. This quarter has required a lot of self-reflection. I didn’t pick the easy topics. I wrote about family, personal history, religion, and friendship. Each earlier piece kind of tackled those one-by-one, and now I have collected some of the thoughts I’ve had into one paper. All of these papers are a snapshot of me looking back at my life, my history, and my family from today. I’ve written a lot of true things, I think, but there’s still a lot for me to figure out.


Ryan Russell