Can’t A Writer Take a Vacation?
By Don Wallace
We came home recently after a six-week journey of reconnection, having not been able to travel for two years. I know, it’s not much of a complaint—unless, like us, most of your friends are 2,500 miles away.
We had some hard times. Losing parents, losing work as magazine after magazine folded up its tents. A spot of health trouble. It could make you bluesy, if you stop to think about it—and we did, because we couldn’t get out of town to save our lives.
Songs come on the radio. You hum along and then pause to think: Maybe the best is not to come, despite what Old Blue Eyes is singing. Suspecting the future, you wonder what lies in store. You may find yourself, as the Talking Heads sing, living in a shotgun shack. You may find yourself living in your large automobile. You write down that line and immediately feel better. Yeah, pour it on, baby!
So you turn off the radio. And maybe, as we did, you finally cash in all your frequent flier miles and hit the road to see all the friends and places you’ve been missing.
We traveled gingerly, like rookies, at first. No longer the JetBlue redeye warriors of old, when fares were low, we freaked at the security lines, nearly dropped trou when removing our belts for the TSA gal, hauled our roller suitcases cursing in one direction only to spin on a dime and sprint off, cursing even louder, in another. But that isn’t what really threw us off stride. It was being on vacation; specifically, being writers on vacation.
We hadn’t done it in years. Wait, had we ever done it? How does a writer vacation, anyway? The brain can’t be left behind in the care of a neighbor (“Please give Donnie’s cranium a scoop of tuna fish once a day…”) As I re-discovered, when you explode out of your everyday state, all your mental gears strip. Stuff flows into the brain. Fingers itch to write. And instead you’re trapped in a tiny seat between giant tattooed oil frackers on holiday (which consists of snoring and drinking, as far as I can tell) or your pens got left in the TSA tray or your notebook is covered in blueberry yoghurt you snitched from the breakfast buffet three days ago.
Normally I wouldn’t think twice about it, the urge to write was just there when I woke up. But this trip I’d just finished a book, really finished it, and while awaiting the editor’s notes felt too depleted to work on anything new, or old. What I really wanted to be doing was regenerating my creative stem cells via sitting in an electric lounge chair with the New York Review of Books in my lap and a Torpedo IPA in my fist, watching football, but the season hadn’t started and we were headed for Europe—to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany, where my book, a memoir of our stumbling adventures buying a ruin and then becoming slaves to it, is set. When in Europe I try to pretend to be the sort of sophisticated American who doesn’t watch football. Nobody is fooled, but keeping up the pretense is important to me.
The trip passed in stages. Seeing the We Wanted to Be Writers duo, Eric and Cheryl, felt like a proper launch. But I sat before the pulsing laptop, fingers sleeping. Then, pausing a day in New York, we walked our old neighborhood unrecognized and, instead of writing or seeing friends, visited our Chelsea pied à terre… a storage unit. It’s nice to say hello to your old clothes. But they never write.
And neither did I. It began to fester, the urge. But still I couldn’t force it. Loose paragraphs from my book floated like alphabet soup in my retinal backwash. This is getting serious, I thought. Maybe we should’ve never left home?
This may be why many of the old esteemed paleface writers were known for never going anywhere. (Or at least hiding the fact if they did.) Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Melville after Moby-Dick, Faulkner after Sanctuary, Kerouac after Time Magazine put him on the cover—practically shut-ins, if you trust the biographers.
When writers do travel, disaster often trails behind them. At least for the men, like Raymond Chandler and Faulkner and Malcolm Lowry, whose closest confidant was a bottle of hooch. As for the women, there are passages in the expat lives of Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter and Sylvia Plath to make travel cowards of us all.
Next stop, Paris. An overnight stop to rest the legs, something we never worried about when we were—oh, all right, enough with the geezer routine. I wrote a couple pages in Paris, about what it felt like to be staying in what our concierge swore was Rimbaud’s room in the Hotel Cluny-Sorbonne. It turned into a riff on what it felt like to be at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop while upstate at the Podunk Iowa State U an English professor named David Morrell was writing and publishing a novel called First Blood, whose main character was a loner hitchhiker Vietnam vet named… Rambo.
Then I was on the island, in our tiny village. Day after day went by. Perfect weather, hours to spend. I stopped turning on the computer because, for the first time, the words wouldn’t come. But then I would think: what words were they, that they were supposed to come? Who was I to pretend to be a ringmaster of words, racing sullenly around like tigers while I cracked my whip?
I went out and sat on the stoop, or walked around, or went down the lane to see if any neighbors were stirring. It’s called living, stupid, I thought. So, live already.
Still my brain kept kicking. Desperate to quiet its needy voice, I wrote a blog about football and hiked across the valley to a neighbor’s yard. He had wifi. They pronounce it wee-fee but it’s the same thing—the goddamned Internet, waiting to suck up my day. As I sat on a stone wall between shaggy bushes under a blue sky and posted the blog I felt those slimy Internet tentacles swirling around my ankles and so split, leaving all kinds of great stuff up on the screen—see a cane toad eat a bat! what’s this man’s sexy secret? annoy a liberal, click here! A hundred feet later the SEO vampires vanished into the ether. Saved.
After that I was more careful, didn’t try to post blogs or even check email more than once or twice a week. Too dangerous, to a writer who can’t write, who’s on vacation. Until I started writing again, if I went online the SEO vampires would take up residence in my head.
Gradually I forgot to worry. The writer went on vacation. Days without end, at the beach, walking along the moors, eating cheese and salad for dessert, trying to explain the Republican hatred of Obama to our genuinely bewildered French friends, reading Hilary Mantel for hours on end, buying free-range chickens from the lady who will wring their necks on the spot if you’ll do the plucking (we opted for a pre-plucked bird).
It wasn’t until the last couple of days that I remembered I had an obligation to my forthcoming book to pretend to be a savvy social marketer. I hiked back to the meadow that had wee-fee and opened the web page to my Tumblr. Sighed. Wrote the following little paragraph to go with some photos I took on our next-to-last day in France:
One of the best things to do, particularly if you’re staying late into September on the island, is to get on your bike and just head off into the country. Here’s the reason all French movies must begin with a girl on a bike: mother-of-pearl skies, harvest-time panoramas, no cars on the road (finally!) and no particular place to go, just as long as you end up at Les Embruns crêperie on the Sauzon waterfront, or Crêperie Chez Renée in Bangor. A pitcher of cidre brut, a runny country egg on a galette of blé noir with grilled leeks, and it’s time to saddle up and head home with the wind at your back.
Not much, but it was a start.
What’s your approach to vacations? Do you take your muse with you?