Writing about Tibet Helped me Find my Voice

by Rupert Wolfe Murray

It’s bizarre. I’ve written so much about my time in Tibet – I’ve got a book about Tibet coming out next month – and yet I haven’t written an article about it since 1987.

If I was a proper writer, a pro, I’d have been churning out articles to a band playing; I’d have posted loads on my own blog, at least one on HuffPost and would have been pitching to the majors. Instead, I’ve done nothing. It reminds me of Renton’s “Choose Life” rant in Trainspotting, which ended with him saying “why would I want to choose life? I chose something else.”

So where do I start? What can I say about my book? Who should I address? Dunno.

In fact, the only way I can write this article is as notes for me. Nobody’s going to read this. If I think about writing for other people, my Alter Ego jumps in and says:

Who do you think would be interested in what you have to say?

Er…um…people like my stuff…

They like your stuff do they? Do they really?

This kind of dialogue in my head prevents me from putting pen to paper. It sends me scurrying off to the land of escapism which, in recent days, has consisted of reading an awesome book by Philip K. Dick called The Man in the High Castle (set in USA post WW2, which has been divided between the Nazis and the Japanese).

What I need to do is write an article which says my book is being published next month and that I’m going on a book tour around the country – by bike.

I also need to say that I launched a crowdfunding appeal on Kickstarter, to get started on this book-bike-writing-tour. I need some support to make the transition from home base (in Liverpool) to bike base (in a tent); from becoming a PR consultant to writer-of-books. I’ll start my tour in the Highlands of Scotland and head south – give talks about my soon-to-be-published travel book (9 Months in Tibet) and inspire people to get into independent travel and creative writing.

I will also develop a new way of writing, travelling and living. Every day I will pack up my tent, ride to a new destination and set up camp somewhere else. At some point during the day I will stop – in a forest, café, library or my own tent – and write some more of my next book, which I’ll call Writing on a Bike — observations from a dis-United Kingdom.  I’ll share the updated manuscript on Google Docs, whenever I can connect to the internet, with anyone who sponsors me on Kickstarter with a minimum of £2.

If you’d like to be part of this experiment, please join my Kickstarter appeal. I’d be really grateful and, apart from anything else, it will be a good way to keep in touch.

A Proper Writer

My girlfriend Manuela says I already am a “proper” writer and can prove it by having published a few books and lots of articles. My publisher agrees, she says “being a writer is a state of mind.”

Ah yes, says I, but if I was a proper writer I’d be publishing articles every week and books every year. I’d be writing 4 hours a day – this seems to be the key ingredient of being a successful writer – but I’m not.

I actually find it really hard to write the type of articles I’ve been writing on my blog and that’s why there’s only about one a month. As I write this, I’ve suddenly realised what the problem is: I’ve been writing newspaper-feature-type articles for the last few years, even though I’ve not written for a newspaper since God knows when. And I’m not even trying to get published in a newspaper. What the hell am I doing? I’m following a practice I learned in the 90s, when I was grubbing along as a foreign correspondent in Romania, actually I was a “stringer” which is the lowest form of journalistic pond-life.

In writing this rant (I can’t really call it an article in the normal “newspaper” sense) I’ve had an epiphany, a sudden realisation: I can just keep on writing in the way I’m writing here, which feels more like my natural “voice”. It flows out of me quite easily and it’s more like a conversation than an analytical article. It also feels naughty, wrong, irreverent and rude — which is a good summary of me.

This is how I will write my next book: even before I set out on my grand bike tour I will describe the difficulties of doing a crowdfunding appeal; and every day I’ll describe the funny or interesting things that happen. I’ll share my vulnerability and stupidity in all its glory, as well as my discoveries and enthusiasms. It will be fun to write.

About my book: 9 Months in Tibet

I’ve written almost 800 words so far but only two lines were about my Tibet book, which is supposed to be the subject of this article.

What the hell are you playing at Wolfe Murray? Sneers my Alter Ego in his slim designer glasses and five-o-clock-shadow. Now he’s playing the role of my (non-existent) London publicist.

Er…um…writing an article about 9 Months…

You’re doing nothing of the sort. You’re a disgrace Wolfe Murray. What are you? I’ve seen what you’ve been writing and it’s a lot of self-indulgent codswallop. Get a grip man. You’re supposed to write an article that excites people, makes them reach for their credit card….

But it’s so difficult to write about my own book…

That’s because you’re bone idle Wolfe Murray. A workshy yobbo. But you know perfectly well that everyone who’s read your book really likes it and you have a foreword from one of Scotland’s top authors. Just quote him and that chap from the Sorbonne.

Ok, okay. I’ll get on with it.

It feels good writing about my Alter Ego, or maybe I should say “altar” ego? It feels like I’m calling him out, getting the better of him, getting over the fact that his disapproval usually stops me from writing anything. Also, he can be put to good use, as there are opportunities in all negative situations (such as Brexit). His suggestion that I quote from other people is a good one. Here goes…

Getting a Celebrity Endorsement

When I was rewriting my Tibet memoir, 20 years after I’d written it, I realised I needed someone famous to write a foreword (“otherwise nobody will take you seriously” says Mr A. Ego) and so I wrote a letter to Alexander “Sandy” McCall Smith. I had met the great man in my youth as my mother, who used to run Canongate Publishing when it was poor and pioneering, published his children’s books and folk tales from Africa. This was long before Sandy was famous, when he worked as a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University.

There’s no chance that such a famous writer will reply to your pathetic begging letter, said Mr A. Ego.

F**k you. I’m sick to the back teeth of your negativity. If he doesn’t read it what’s the problem? I move on. But let me at least try.

Oh, excuse me.

To my surprise, Sandy McCall Smith did reply. My surprise grew to amazement when he said he’d read the manuscript and was willing to write a foreword. That was a satisfying two fingers to my Alter Ego

Here is an extract from his foreword:

“There is something very compelling about a memoir of a journey made in the early years of adult life. The world at that time lies at one’s feet. Everything is possible, and remoteness, the exotic, and indeed the forbidden all beckon. It is a call that is hard to resist. In that spirit, Patrick Leigh Fermor set forth on his extraordinary walk through pre-War Europe, or Laurie Lee embarked on his own famous walk. There are many other accounts of similar journeys.

“Rupert Wolfe Murray’s story of his time in Tibet belongs in the same company. He has written a highly readable and engaging book about going off to Tibet in the late nineteen-eighties, with little money in his pocket, but with all the optimism and determination that goes with being twenty-three.”

When I was rewriting the manuscript I sent it to various people – my mother (who had been a great editor at Canongate); my girlfriend Manuela; old friends; and people I had known in Tibet – two of whom are now professors of Tibetan studies. The feedback I got back was a million times more encouraging than the sneers and scorn of my own debilitating Alter Ego.

Tibet 1987 GyantseOne of the characters I met in Tibet was Charles Ramble, an Oxford-educated anthropologist who not only spoke fluent Tibetan but knew several local dialects too. I met him in the wild eastern part of Tibet, where both of us were wandering alone. He had the looks, charm and humour of Indiana Jones and I came to admire him over the course of two days we spent together (I was under house arrest for riding a horse through a forbidden area and he was unlucky enough to be with me when I got picked up by the Chinese rozzers).

Over two decades later I tracked down Charles to the Sorbonne University in Paris – his full title is Director of Studies in Tibetan History and Philology at the EPHE – and we re-established the rapport we had had in 1987. I told him about my book, said that I had written about him doing some rather un-scholarly things like throwing stones at bottles behind our quarters and he said “I don’t mind you portraying me as a derelict”.

Then came the moment of truth: would he read my manuscript? Of course, came the reply. Would he hate it? Of course he’ll hate it, said my Alter Ego.

Charles Ramble’s verdict wasn’t clear when he sent the manuscript back as he had proofread it; each page was full of corrections. He also sent me some expert opinion on my rather amateurish attempt at summarising the history of Tibet – all of which improved the book.

I was on tenterhooks: what did he actually think of it? He must have realised my grasp of English grammar and Tibetan history were pretty shoddy, but did he like the actual story and the way it was written? On the one hand he must have found it tolerable or he wouldn’t have done so much work on it, but on the other he hadn’t actually said he liked it and I dreaded asking in case he sent a devastating critique.

His next email blew me away:

“I’ve had cause to justify using the cliché ‘I couldn’t put it down’ on very few occasions, and this is one of them. It really is unputdownable – a highly unlikely but irresistible combination of Robert Byron and Hunter S. Thompson.”

I didn’t know how to deal with such praise (I still don’t); I find it easier handling criticism, probably because I have a built in critic who does it daily.

Sometimes I have moments of wild enthusiasm – this is going to be a bestseller! I’m rich! – but more often than not my Alter Ego has the upper hand and I just bumble along with my tail between my legs, my wings clipped, carrying around a sense of failure about ever becoming a writer.

But the media seem to be in agreement with my Alter Ego. I’ve made a few tentative attempts to contact journalists and try and get some publicity but they either ignore me or, without having read a word of the manuscript, send back a list of reasons why “the public” would not be interested. There’s no point getting upset about this, or regretting the fact that we haven’t got the money to pay a privately-educated publicist who knows all the right people. Instead, I’m hoping to sell the book directly to friends, family, people I meet and those who support me on Kickstarter. People like you!

This is my time.

This is my moment to break free, cross that chasm and start doing what I should have done when I got back from Tibet in 1987 – become a writer. Fortunately, this only involves four hours of work a day and that means I can do another job as well (“or sit around doing nothing” A.Ego). I’d like to do something physical like gardening as it frees my mind and is not mentally exhausting. Writing and physical work complement each other.

If you are still reading this article I want to say two things: thanks a lot for listening to my ramblings; and, secondly, will you help me get on the road, and make this transition to becoming a writer by contributing to my Kickstarter appeal? I would really appreciate your support, I’d like to share my next book with you on Google Docs and get your feedback. It’s also a good way to keep in touch with a group of like-minded people: my new community.

In case you missed it above, here’s the link to my Kickstarter appeal.

I’ll leave the last word to my inseparable companion, my Alter Ego:

Are you finished waffling yet?

No, I have a lot more to say on this subject.

God help us.

You know what?

Pray, do tell…

I’m not going to put up with your negative, cynical, sarcastic comments any more. Your dominance over me has ended!

I was only trying to help…

Silence! I’m going to put you to work. Behind all your scorn is some good advice and from now on you will be my full time consultant. From now on you’re going to advise me on how to do things better.

But, er, um…

The End

Photo Credit: the photo above this article was taken by Uli Zimmermann, Tibet 1987. The complete photograph shows these women working with rocks at the side of the road. Considering that they’re probably unskilled, and underpaid road workers they seen quite cheerful.




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