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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened
By William Least Heat-Moon
University of Missouri Press, 2014, 164 pp.

In 1978, his marriage failing and his teaching job discontinued, William Least Heat-Moon set off from Missouri on a journey through the back roads of America. His means of transport—and mobile home—was a small van he called “Ghost Dancing.” His destination: “Any Damn Place Else.” Four years later, at the age of 42, he published the story of his three-month journey across some 13,000 miles: Blue Highways, as I imagine most travel readers know, was a huge success.

But that success did not come easily. In Writing Blue Highways, Heat-Moon recalls the years that followed his return, as he struggled through draft after draft, trying to transform his journey into a book. This was, after all, his first book. Not only did he have to find some way to earn a living that would also allow him the time he needed to write, he had to learn to write. Indeed, it was only in his seventh draft—after he had encountered rejections from publishers and the disappointment of his good friend and best reader—that he saw what was missing from his narrative: the right narrator.

Writing Blue Highways, says Heat-Moon early on, is the kind of book he wishes he’d had when he was grappling with his own. It is not a writing manual, though he does provide sound advice throughout, either directly or by example: work slowly, get something down (so you can revise it), read only excellent literature while you are working.

But mainly, as he says, the book is “a compact guide on ways to survive the demands of real writing, and perhaps a dispelling of a few popular illusions.” Through his own story, Heat-Moon prepares the writer for the demons of doubt, the pressures obsessive writing can place on life with a partner, the demands of persistence over years.

One illusion this book dispels is the idea that a travel writer takes a journey and then simply sits down and recounts it. This may be the case for “destination pieces” in newspapers and magazines that record a brief trip and note where the travelers stayed, what they ate, and what they saw. But a meaningful journey has layers that need to be uncovered before the traveler can perceive—and relate—the true nature of his or her quest. It is this process of uncovering that Heat-Moon shares in Writing Blue Highways. His story of that “second journey” is clearly of interest to writers who intend to take such a voyage themselves. But it also offers armchair travelers insight into the transformation of journeys into the memoirs they love to read.

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