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?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What sort of traveler are you?

When anyone of us takes off to travel in another city or state or country, we may not think a lot about how we're traveling beyond the literal. Do we take a plane or train or drive? But whenever I'm in India, as I am right now, I am reminded of how different each of us enters a new world. We travel differently.

Right now I'm visiting my favorite part of India: Trivandrum, Kerala, where I used to live. I visit friends, explore areas of the city I don't know well, and meet other tourists as well as locals.

I'm staying in a hotel with a number of tourists, students learning about palliative care in India, and business men and women. This is a good variety of perspectives on the country. Among the tourists are individuals with a variety of goals. Some set off each morning to see the "sights," the topics and places that are supposed to draw people from other parts of India or the world. They go off to see the local museum, which holds a fine collection of South Indian bronze sculptures, or the art gallery, which has a well-cared for collection of paintings, or the zoo, which has a lot of animals and is in the process of upgrading their accommodations (better cages, etc.). I've seen all these places but even when I first came to Kerala, I wanted to see the neighborhoods, how people lived. 

It's easy to meet people here because the locals are quick to ask me where I'm from. Sometimes this is followed by the news that the questioner has a cousin in Alaska (the temperature never falls below 70 degrees here, so how the cousin picked Alaska is beyond me), or has been to New York, or something to get the conversation going. Sometimes I'm the one to start the conversation with a quick question about a child playing or a small temple nearby.

The highlight of my now annual trip is always the unexpected. Every evening for the first week or so I attend a concert of Carnatic music. These can be enormous fun if the performers work together and interact. Carnatic music involves a lot of play and response parts, and good performers play off and with each other with great enthusiasm and imagination.

On the lane leading to the concert area we pass the enclosure for the royal elephant. Darshini is 47 years old and a sweet girl. Another tourist, Bob, and his wife, Anne, have made friends with the mahout, who lets us feed the elephant. She loves carrots, apples, and cucumbers, and takes them gently from us. She lets us put the food into her mouth, and it disappears at once. I never hear a crunch, though she has teeth, so I don't know how she eats it. Her trunk is gently, and she welcomes a tender pat.

I suppose I could focus on the more typical sights. This week is the deepa festival, during which the great Shree Padmanabhaswami Temple will be lit up for several days. The display is magnificence, and i wanted to just stand in front of the gorgeous lighting and stare up at it, but I was with friends, it was late, and the crowd moved in and out of my view.

Seeing the temple lit up was a lovely experience, but being eye to eye with Darshini was a moving experience. She watched me while I fed her, looked me in the eye, and seemed to be memorizing my appearance. Getting that close to an elephant outside a zoo will be the high point of my trip this year.

What sort of traveler are you? What do you look for? What are you drawn to?

Note: This post was supposed to include three photographs, but I'm in India and can't seem to upload them. Maybe next time.