Monday, January 20, 2014

A Writer's Fantasy: Myth and Reality

Every writer has a fantasy about cutting loose from mundane responsibilities and going someplace exotic and just writing. That exotic place could be an isolated village in Newfoundland, an apartment in Paris, or a bungalow on a palm-lined beach. We have Hemingway to thank in part for our yearnings for tropical climes, with the breeze flowing through open windows, our bare feet tapping on a concrete floor while we stare at a blank page. The fantasy may go no farther than imagining ourselves at the desk in that long-dreamed-of location. If it does go further, it’s usually the community we’d become part of—the fun we’d have in an entirely different world. What really happens the rest of the time isn’t part of the dream.

Since I’m right now sitting at a desk with this computer, a stone’s throw from the Arabian Sea, with a warm breeze billowing the floor length curtains into the room, I can tell you what happens after the first image of the fantasy takes hold.

My desk, small as it is, is covered with a white cotton cloth, and on that are spread my notes—a pad of paper with my scrawl all over it, a number of note cards with clues, lines of dialogue, and descriptions of characters I want to remember to add at points marked on my note pad. I also have a lovely pink gladiola in a white vase and a candle in a candle holder, with a box of matches nearby, for when the power goes off. I have no television and no phone, but I do have WiFi access to the internet, most of the time. I have a fan overhead that seems to get louder the more trouble I have figuring out what comes next in the story. I’ve stared up at it so often that I finally put it into a story, as the hiding place for an important clue.

The trouble with fantasies is that they never include the rest of the story. We picture ourselves in a certain location, but we’re unlikely to think beyond that. If your fantasy is a boat on a lagoon in Florida, you might imagine the gentle rocking from the waves of a passing motorboat. But what happens then? For writers, the rest of the story is work. I do have breakfast on a terrace at seven-thirty every morning, brought over from the hotel kitchen next door (coffee and toast and fruit), but I’m at my desk every morning at nine o’clock at the latest. That’s exactly what I do at home, in the States, when it’s ten degrees below zero or ninety degrees and muggy.

Yesterday afternoon I went into the city to take a walk, visit friends, do errands, and get to know more of Trivandrum, which is expanding so rapidly that after nearly a dozen visits, some as long as a year, I still don’t know half of the city. I read in the afternoon or evenings, write book reviews or make notes for my current work in progress. At home, I do exactly the same—I walk, visit friends, and on and on.

I’m not sure if this little essay is about discovering that the fantasy of every writer has a very short lifespan, that it’s fragile and can’t hold up to close examination, or the other cliché that wherever we go we take ourselves. I’ve taken myself to South India, to Kerala, a place that I love. I’ve learned to tolerate the heat, the power blackouts, the erratic inflation, the incredible traffic and suicidal taxi drivers, and not knowing what’s happening in my story, what’s wrong with my characters, why won’t they behave? But some of this happens at home too.

The danger with any fantasy is that the dreamer will forget that it’s a dream. Writing is work wherever you do it. But that palm tree by my terrace and the warm breeze do console me when my characters won’t behave.

Do you have a favorite imagined place of escape?

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