Thursday, February 18, 2010

WHAT IS YOUR REASON FOR TRAVEL? Business, Pleasure, Family

Whenever I find this question on the customs form (What is the purpose of your travel: Business, Pleasure, Family) I have no idea how to answer. Most of the time for me, well, basically, it's all three. My work is my pleasure and my pleasure my work and more often than not family is involved so what am I to say? Usually I just check "Pleasure" because fewer questions get asked.

But if I start to analyze the elements, I realize that for most people these are three distinct things. Business is what you do to earn a living and pleasure is how you relax and family is, well, the pod to which we owe our allegiance. But if you're a writer, and a wanderer, it all gets murky. The lines blur. Everything becomes material. Every delay. Every miscellaneous bit of conversation. Every gesture. Every word. It can all fit in there somehow, somewhere.

In graduate school I had a professor who kept telling the class that soon he was going to take a leave. That he was going to travel the world and gather experience for his novel, which I believe he never wrote. Gathering experience is what writers do, isn't it? And every journey whether to Milwaukee to see my aging mother or to the Caribbean with my daughter to look at fish ultimately involves gathering material.

I remember hearing a panel in which three men (Robert Stone, William Styron and someone else - maybe Russell Banks) all talked about their travel experiences. One had been in the Merchant Marine (Stone). I think Styron had been a pilot or soldier somewhere. Russell had his own version of same. And I thought to myself, gee, I'm a woman and I never was on a whaling ship or in a B-52 bomber. Do I have to do this to have experience? Of course not. You just have to move through the world. For whatever purpose you choose. But it usually adds up to some kind of equal parts business, pleasure and family.

Some days I think I'm going to stop doing this. I'm just going to let a vacation be a vacation. But it never works that way. No matter where I am in the world, it seems I must spend the morning writing. Friends who wisely refuse to travel with me ask me why I insist on working on my vacation. And I tell them I don't know the difference. Then I read that while most people experience alpha brain waves while sitting by the side of a pool or smoking a joint artists actually experience them while doing creative work. From a neurological point of view my work is my rest.

Someone once asked William Styron (and if I am wrong about this, maybe someone can tell me who)if he planned to retire. His answer was, "How does a writer retire?" I know exactly what he meant. When my brain stops moving, then I will retire. Or be retired. But for now it is all one thing - one journey - this life I am living now.


  1. Nice column, Mary. I always answer the question "pleasure" because Hey! hope springs eternal.