Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Longing

Sometimes you fall in love with a person. Sometimes with a book or a film. So why can't you fall in love with a place? Why can't you want to go back to a place as much as you want to return to, say, a lover you met on spring break, a casual encounter you had in some funky beach town.

Certainly when I was younger, I had those kinds of longings, but now what I am really wanting, desiring, missing is that little fishing village where we spent a couple weeks this summer in Spain. What is it about a place? What is it about a person? Love, someone once said, is a minor form of madness. Obsession, after all (and this is just me talking), is a kind of repetition compulsion like washing your hands all the time.

I recall that once I was in a very dysfunctional relationship and all I could do was think of that person with every waking breath. I recall that at some point I began to be able to say to myself I haven't thought of him in twenty minutes, in half an hour. And so on. It was how I cured myself of smoking as well. Well, now I can't stop thinking about San Sebastian. The physical beauty, the liveliness, the sea, the families lingering in their walks, the ice cream that dripped down everyone's wrists, the pinxtos (tapas) bars everywhere, walks along the river, the tankers bound for Kazakstan that sailed past the window of the house where we were staying.

How could I not fall in love and then into a state of longing? But then a couple weeks ago a strange thing occurred. We had been back from Spain for, oh a week or so, and we flew to Chicago where I am from. As we drove into the city and up to the lake, I realized that it looked just like San Sebastian, another city that borders the sea. In fact the similarity nearly floored me.

I read somewhere that we tend to live in places that remind us of where we felt safe as children. So somehow something about San Sebastian brought me home. Goethe once wrote that writers are homesick people. That we are searching for a place where we are home in the world. I never went back to Chicago, not to live anyway, but to visit. But I found a piece of it this summer in Spain. Perhaps writers are just nomads, finding stories, like small oases, wherever we land. Hold on to your hunger, a fellow writer once said to me. It is your greatest asset. And longing is a hunger too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My journals

Since I was in my early twenties, I kept careful journals. I must have close to fifty of them now. They began mainly as places to express angst and misery, but soon evolved into descriptions of places, where I'd been, what I saw in the world. After a while I started using them the way a visual artist uses a sketchbook.

I wrote my first drafts of stories, poems, novels, whatever in them, and devised a rather complicated indexing system that I use to this day (more on this another time...). Then a number of years ago my relationship to my journals began to change. I started to draw and paint in them. I wasn't very good and didn't know much (and still don't), but they gave me a lot of pleasure. And the truth was, and is, that I had very little ego investment in them. I just enjoyed it and I was capable of spending all day in a cafe anywhere in the world, doing nothing but writing and painting what I saw.

A few years ago in Italy I bought a very nice journal that had strong paper pages and no lines (until then all the journals were lined). So I began doing some simple watercolors in the journals. This has evolved into a more elaborate hobby. Now I travel with a small watercolor kit, paper, journal, glue, scissors (if customs will allow), double-sided tape, and a stapler - all in a rather compact kit/ziplock bag. And a Polaroid camera (alas the film is no longer being made).

I spend large portions of my journeys just working on and in these journals. I can think of nothing, actually, that I'd rather do. For whatever reason, and I still am not clear why this is, I never am able to do this kind of work at home or in New York where I live. From time to time I will post some pages/paintings from the journal. I have lost many things during my life on the road. Cameras, film, articles of clothing, friends, lovers, money, passports, but I have never lost one of my journals.

Once I did leave one on a train in France, but a young man raced off to hand it to me and I kissed him. Once I used my journal as collateral to rent a paddleboat. The vendor, after I showed him what I had, felt it was safe that I would return for my book. In Florence I spilled espresso all over one journal, but everyone agreed it only looked better with the brown stains. And at the Russian-Polish border I risked arrest as I hid my journals under a mattress as the border patrol searched my cabin.

Perhaps I have just been lucky, but certainly it must mean something, given all I have lost in my life, to have held on to all of these.

Watercolors from the Road

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You Go On A Journey...

A teacher of mine, the late John Gardener, once said that there are only two plots in all of literature. You go on a journey or the stranger comes to town. Or, more humorously, as Stanley Elkin once describe science fiction, you go there or they come here.

I've written about this many times, but I feel the need to say it again here. I've been thinking about this again. It is an idea that has never left me. When I think about women's literature from say Austen to Woolf, it is most often a question of the stranger coming to town. The Mr. Darcys. Someone coming to dinner. A letter arrives. That sort of thing.

Often women's literature is about waiting. But men have had a different route. From Odysseus to Gulliver to Paul Theroux, men have taken to the road, or the sea, and found their stories there. It is an odd dichotomy between the genders. I have often envied men their adventures which don't seem to me to come from waiting for the stranger as much as being the stranger. But perhaps this is just my own restless longing speaking.

I wrote once somewhere, perhaps in NOTHING TO DECLARE, that "life only seemed to come together for me in stories and in journeys and those two narratives - one of the mind and the other of the road - have shaped my life. And perhaps what I have most enjoyed both in my reading and my own writing is when the story and the journey are one.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More Reflections

It was many years ago when I was sitting on the island of Crete that I began to think about landscape and literature. I'd brought with me, among other books, a copy of the Odyssey and it occured to me as I sat there, staring out into the Aegean that a circuitous journey such as that of Odysseus could only have come out of a world of islands and archipelgos. Just as Anna Karenina and War and Peace seemed to have arisen from the great expanse of Russia.

Certainly types of narrative seemed suits to certain topographies. Austen to England, Dos Passos to America. I cannot seem to separate a literature from its geography. The desert from the forest. The mountains from the sea. My love of stories seems to grow out of the ground itself.

Reflections on Landscape and Literature

This summer when I was traveling in the Basque Country in Spain I thought about how much landscape and literature go hand in hand for me. I'd brought with me a copy of THE SUN ALSO RISES and was reading the parts that took place in San Sebastian and Pamplona (the best parts of the book for me really).

Whenever I travel, I bring with me books that seem particular to the place where I'll be. AUSTERLITZ by Sebald when we went to Belgium. THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSI by Henry Miller when I last was in Greece. In Italy a few summers ago I read with great delights ENCHANTED APRIL. I'm not sure why this is so, but when I am on the road, I must read about where I am. Anything else creates a kind of disonance for me.

I decided I wanted to think and write about this more and a blog, called The Writer and the Wanderer: Reflections on Literature and Travel, seemed a good place to begin.