Packing Light – a Writer’s Travelogue Part One
I know a lot of people make a living at travel writing, and I must confess the thought crossed my mind as I set off on a week-long, midwinter family break to Lanzarote. I have never visited the Canary Islands, and as my partner is a sun-worshipper, we thought that a brief week away in the sun would be good for all of us. Based on other holidays, and on other reports of the Island, I envisaged long days on the beach and lazy mornings. I anticipated the long wait in the airport and the long walk to the plane, the stress over luggage weight and even a few challenges with food, but the whole experience was more acute and more impactful than I anticipated.
What is it about travel? It always makes me want to write, to record my impressions, but the bitter irony of travel is that there are often fewer opportunities than usual to indulge. The anticipation of a week off with plenty of time to write first affected my packing. I packed my work-in-progress, with the notes from my first edit, and my notebook computer, thinking that I might work on it in the airport or during the slow mornings and hazy evening, perhaps sitting on the balcony of the apartment with a glass of wine, watching the evenings deepen. I packed my diary, a spare notebook, six pens, and plenty of books to read. Reading is my greatest pleasure when travelling. I brought four novels, a book on Jung for research for my next book, and my Kindle with several new books downloaded. I also packed my ipod and of course, the chargers for all the electronic equipment. As for clothes – I packed light – vest . Due to the exorbitant prices for hold baggage, we took only 1 case between the three of us, and otherwise had everything in the hand luggage. I checked and triple checked everything. My teenage son wanted to bring his skateboard, which went into the hold bag, as did a selection of dried food packets to suit my diet (we had planned self-catering so as not to be tied to any timetables).
We rose in the very early hours, shivering through the February night into our clothes, grabbing a quick hot cuppa before checking everything and piling into the car. I have a strange ambiguity about travelling. I hate to leave the cats at the mercy of a visiting cat-sitter, and regret leaving my hoe comforts, but I also long to travel and to explore. I hate the airport, and I hate flying on budget airlines with little space, crammed in with a bunch of strangers and their perfume and assorted noises. But I love to explore new places; it’s a kind of restless hunger for new experiences.
I suppose for the writer, every experience is an opportunity to capture a moment, a sensation, and turn it into fuel for their work. I reconcile the negatives of travel with this concept, which aids me in not only coping with the travel itself but allows me free rein of the imagination, when possible.
After a drive on eerily quiet roads, we arrived early, and waited for check-in. I am a real fan of printing your own boarding pass, but we still had a bag to check. I had tea while we waited, and tried to grab a moment to scribble, but my son was tired and demanding attention. Even at 16, it seems, they need their mothers to help them cope with the early start and the vagaries of airports.
Security feels like an exam, a life-test that everyone must pass; a hurried gauntlet of veiled threat. Having passed this particular test, we convened at some seats in Departures and took turns to go shopping: food for the teenager, drinks for my partner, and for me . . . you guessed it. Books. I glean a particular pleasure from perusing the bookshop at the airport. Titles are displayed differently, and hidden gems can be discovered rapidly. Buy one get one half price never fails to work its magic. In deference to our ‘packing light’ ethos for this holiday, I only bought two books, both novels, chosen rapidly yet surely. In the airport, somehow, my mind focuses in a uniquely peculiar manner, and I never fail to enjoy the rapid selections made at the outset of my journey. With my booty in hand, I settled down to continue reading the pulp sci-fi I had brought with me and started the evening before, ignoring the crowds and quelling the rising tension within me that comes from waiting to hear about the gate, boarding.
Although I could not write at that point – no table, too much stress – my writer’s mind was active, taking in and observing and cataloguing everything around me. The woman who watched me reading, as if fascinated by the way I hold a small paperback, or perhaps by the speed with which I was devouring the book. Yes, I read VERY quickly. I get accused of not reading properly, not absorbing the words. I take in everything about the book, but the better the book, the quicker I read. I’ve always had the capacity to process information rapidly. I wonder if this is perhaps a writerly skill, the ability to put things together with speed and ease.
The general noise of the airport, the horrid smells wafting from the perfume shops, the closeness of so many strangers, all make for an uncomfortable time. Yet I think about characters, about plot, about whether I should give my work-in-progress a predictable or unpredictable ending. I think about the ways in which people behave in public, and this filters through into questions about aspects of the dialogue in writing. During that time, I found myself considering the nature of dialogue in the novel. Do people recall whole conversations as accurately as books suggest? They do not. It is a novelistic falsehood, albeit permitted, to have people recall entire conversations in retrospect. At best we recall a portion of what was said, and how it was said. What we remember most is how we felt, I think, how we reacted to what was said. This makes me think about the ways in which I could represent conversation in my writing.
And so to the plane, to the long, agonising wait for boarding. I hate standing around doing nothing. Standing and reading my book is ok. I put my bags down eventually and sat down, as we were delayed somewhat, going nowhere. I hate that feeling of being stalled. I realised then, as I continued to consume the sci-fi novel (which was surprisingly good), that there were many aspects of travelling that I loathed with a vengeance. Was the end worth the means? Really?
I can view this as an analogy for writing. The initial planning, the excitement, is akin to the first germ of the idea blossoming into a story. The anticipation, the rush, that comes before the hard work. The endurance of the journey itself is like that of the writer, plugging on through difficult conditions, keeping up the energy to continue, somehow, by motivating oneself with the idea that regardless of the difficulties along the way, the end product will be worth it. I wonder if this is harder now, for writers struggling with an almost impossible publishing industry. I fully understand those who take a slightly easier way out by self-publishing. But there is no easy way out, not for anyone, regardless of the end point. There are still steps on the way to beginning the journey, tests to be endured, obstacles to be overcome. And periods of time when nothing happens, there is no forward progress. Yet this is still travelling, this is still writing.
As for packing light? I think I eschewed many of the comforts and luxuries I usually take on holiday, but did not skimp on the essentials. Another good analogy for writing. No luxuries, no indulgences, but don’t skimp on the essentials. Quality rather than quantity. And if that means packing two or three times, repacking, reconsidering, weighing up options, but keeping within the limits specified. I guess setting out on a journey is about discipline and endurance, planning, and having a clear direction and end point. Apply those parameters to writing, and you might just get where you want to go.