Bad Advice Wednesday: Choose Your Own Adventure

categories: Cocktail Hour


 Adventure! Sex! Daring! Fun!


            Well, I’m sure those things are out there somewhere but not in a lot of the nonfiction I read. Granted, the stuff I read is of the literary, and sometimes apprentice, sort, and tends to be concerned mostly with the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the writer him or herself. But I am consistently confused by how little adventuring occurs in most of the work.  Haven’t these writers heard that great books have been written by climbing mountains, spending some time in prison, hopping trains, or even taking drugs and driving to Vegas? It is true that going down this road presents dangers of its own, chiefly, aside from physical danger, the dangers of superficiality and gimmick. If you are just being bold to be bold it usually doesn’t fly. But what if you matched up your own personal obsessions and ideas, and yes, even your important memories, with an appropriate adventure or quest?  What if it turns out that getting out of your room for a while is the answer or at least the beginning of the answer to some of the stuff that’s been bugging you?  (Our minds, John Hay once reminded me, are not the best tools for getting out of our minds.)


            If I were a young nonfiction writer I would think long and hard—or maybe not long and hard but fast and spontaneously—about this possibility. For one thing, doing things out in the world can prove lucrative, and can help you straddle the literary and commercial worlds. For another, it’s a lot of fun. And to get you started we here at Bill and Dave’s will make it simple. Yes, we’ll help you choose your own adventure.


            Here’s how you begin. Get out a pen and paper and get ready to write. For each category be prepared to write down 5 answers. Write them fast and without much thought. The idea is to get the brain moving. Okay….


Category 1: Obsessions/Ideas

Think about what you think about. What obsesses you? What problem do you want to solve? What chews at you or what do you chew on incessantly? What bugs you? What delights you?


I’ll use the handiest personal example. Just yesterday I posted in here about my book, Soaring with Fidel. The book grew out of a delight in and obsession with birds—ospreys to be specific—but just as much out of what the birds meant to me, which tied into another obsession. I have always been obsessed with the idea of finding home, of finding the right place on earth. What is home and how can I find it?  I thought I’d found that home on Cape Cod, where I had watched the birds nest and fish and rear their young, but had recently moved a thousand miles from there. So what did that mean?


Category 2: Journeys /Adventures/Places

Write down five places where you would love to go. Not just to lie on the beach. Places that have significance, that might uncork something in you. Where are your ancestors from? Your favorite writers or literary characters?  Where is the birthplace of some of the ideas you wrote down for category 1?  What place might be a blast to travel to?



I’ll continue with my example from category 1. Having moved to North Carolina, I was delighted to find ospreys everywhere, which seemed to connect me to my former home on Cape Cod. It took a while for the lightbulb to go off: why not follow the birds from Cape Cod to my new home? And why stop there? If I was now a migrant why not follow the birds on their migration? A little research and I learned that after the birds flew south from the U.S. many of them headed to Cuba and South America. Hmm…..

(A simpler and more recent example from my own life: I’ve recently been fascinated by the way barrier islands react during storms. It took a while but I finally figured out that it might be a good idea to go live on an unpopulated barrier island and, as it turns out, we have one handy in Wilmington. )


Category 2: Characters

Usually in this place you choose to go there will be people. One of the real pleasures of writing and travelling is simply talking to people wherever you land and then seeing where those conversations go. It’s amazing how smart and funny other people are, and how much stuff they know. But of course this is spontaneous stuff and you can’t write down the names of five people you want to bump into. So instead write down the types of people. If you start to do this you will naturally include a certain type of person called an expert. It will turn out that in your area of interest there will be someone who has dedicated their life to what you care about. And, if your experience is anything like mine, these people will be eager to talk to you.  “Sure, turn on your tape recorder,” they will say.



No sooner had I decided that I would follow ospreys to Cuba (where of course I would have to sneak in) then I heard the name Freddy Rodriguez. Freddy was a young scientist in Cuba who had dedicated himself to the study and preservation of ospreys. It also turned out that he had a theory that water-loving ospreys, unlike other raptors, mainly migrated through his home island, not through Mexico like other birds. And it turned out that there was a giant rock in eastern Cuba where he had one day seen hundreds of birds migrate right above him in a kind of osprey river……And it was at that point that I thought I might like to stand on that rock too.  

(It was hard to contact Freddy, but a few e-mails and a brief phone call convinced me to get on a plane, and, sure enough, he met me at the Santiago airport.)


Category 3: Memoir

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you. Now that we have something going on out in the world there is no reason it can’t spark things that are deeply personal to you. The most obvious recent example of this is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, but there are hundreds of other examples. In fact it is a perfectly natural human reaction when, far from home and deeply moved, we think back to the things and times that were and are most important to ourselves.  And the reader, having been relaxed and perhaps even a tiny bit exhilarated by being out in the air for a while, won’t mind spending some time in your head.   



My trip to Cuba would jar free many memories of both rootedness and being uprooted in my life: my many moves, my father’s death, my daughter’s birth, our leaving Cape Cod…..well, you get the point. Your own memories may fit your story or it is possible they will not and you will jettison them, leaving a perfectly good adventure story full of ideas, obsessions, characters and places. That’s enough for starters.


I could go on, could add other categories, but I think you get the point. Scribble away. Connect your external to your internal. Makes plans and then a list. Buy a pith helmet and a plane ticket. Then go before your brain gets in your way. Good luck! Bon Voyage!







  1. Tom Fate writes:

    Great counsel here. Most of my students are working full time and are broke. But I’ve convinced a few of them over the years that they could live cheap in Central America for a summer, learn a different language, travel (by bus and mule and bicycle), and discover some new “raw material.” Haven’t heard any regrets so far…

  2. Paula writes:

    Not just YOUNG writers, please. Us oldies who are trying to reinvent ourselves could heed your advice as well!

    • Dave writes:

      I always mean young in writing terms, not age. Really. I’ve had lots of young old students.

  3. Tommy writes:

    Why isn’t this website called, Dave and Bill’s?? I might like to see the other side of your face on the masthead.

  4. Susanna writes:

    This made me think of Jonathan Raban’s wondrous work, which I think is shelved under travel literature but often roams into the territory of memoir.

  5. john writes:

    Yes. We need to adventure onward!