Moleskine

The Journey of 1000 Lists: A Writer Travels

The lists that precede a journey. They begin in broad strokes, months in advance: where we will go, how we will get there, where we will stay, those travel Epiphanies that occur as we drain a bottle of wine or ramble along a forest trail. One year, while mapping out cycling routes in Burgundy, we realized we were meant to hike the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland. This year, while choosing a town in Burgundy to base ourselves, we decided it was time to visit Dordogne. Someday, we'll actually make it to Burgundy.  

A plan thus put into motion, the lists multiply, separate, fan out: packing lists; project lists; things to buy in preparation; things to do before we leave; an itinerary; do we want to end our trip in Paris, or visit someplace new? Which cat sitter did we feel most comfortable with?

 

Once scattered on the desk, pinned by magnets to the refrigerator, tucked into a book, the lists merge as the date of departure draws nigh. The big decisions are made. The small ones become a running stream of consciousness: which books to take (no e-readers here, thank you); which shoes—the shoes are everything, aren't they? What happened to the spare phone charger cords? Will Lola spend three weeks under the bed, or will this new cat sitter coax her out and love her a little? I probably won't get around to dusting the furniture before we go . . . Oh God, the milk . . . don't forget to dump the milk.

 

No matter how far in advance I plan—and I'm a planner, bless my heart—these final days are filled with last-minute urgencies and "did you?" and "don't forget!" and "what about?" Timing the loads of laundry, the paying of bills, the meals; must leave the laundry basket empty, the refrigerator hollow and shining.

 

Of all the things on my pre-departure lists—now list, singular, on the kitchen counter, beside the spare house keys for the cat sitter—I haven't planned for writing. Not sure how I feel about that. This isn't an intentional holiday from writing, though I haven't left the page for more than three consecutive days in over two years. Maybe I should.

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I will return in late October and head straight to a writer's conference. The query letter for my first novel is poised to begin its long journey through agent in-boxes. These past two weeks, since learning about a thematic competition for a novel that dovetails perfectly with the theme of my second novel, I have been frantically revising and editing, trying to get it into some sort of shape for a Gonzo submission by the September 30 deadline. Short stories written over the summer still need to find homes. I have work behind and ahead of me. I'm burned out.

 

Yet, this stopping business doesn't feel right. Perhaps it will, when I'm pulled out of this element and routine and settle into another. Days of hiking and castle-hopping in the Dordogne, nights of cooking simple meals in our gîte, drinking supple Cahors and sipping creamy-spicy Armagnac—that should be enough to pull me out of the exigencies of word counts and submission tallies. A break from social media will slow the mind-chatter that insists I should be out there, engaging, commenting, posting, liking.

 

It is time to lift my head and look around, to pull out of the world of my imagination and let another world suffuse my senses. It is time to use a different language, quite literally, so that I may free my intellect from thinking in one so familiar.

 

I've packed one blank book (though that's a bit of a cheat; I have a thing for papeteries and no doubt I'll stock up on Rhodia or Clairefontaine or Calepino). Perhaps I will begin journaling again. Perhaps I will write, simply for writing's sake. Perhaps those pages will remain blank, the Moleskine left forgotten at the bottom of my bag.

 

There's a story idea I've carried around for years. For the first time, I travel to a specific place with the intention of absorbing its details—the contours of land, the quality of light, the aromas of villages and fields, the accents and colors of people—so that I may recall them in the months to come as I sketch out the idea I intend to sculpt into a novel.

 

There. See? I do have a plan, after all. It's just not on my list.

 

Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. - Ibn Battuta

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. - Robert Louis Stevenson

We like lists because we don't want to die. - Umberto Eco

Entering the Wilderness

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.” ― Alan Alda This year - no longer new and fragile, but not yet settled in its skin - has been defined by intuition. I've held my intuition at arm's length, examined it from all sides and shoved it back in the drawer. Only to take it out, shake it out, and embrace it at last.

Intuition is what you turn to when you have exhausted the alternatives. It's the last entry name on your dance card, the partner ready with a firm hand and a sure foot to waltz you into the new day.

We knew, way back that dreadful New Year's Eve day, that moving on was the only option worthy of our consideration. But we argued against it, fearing the unknown; fearful of losing the comfort and security which appeared like magic in our bank account every two weeks; of losing our identities, our community, our friends.

But we knew. I knew the moment I heard Brendan's shaking voice on the telephone telling me he was coming home. He must have known several minutes before, standing up from his chair and standing up for his dignity. We would have to go.

And we did. We moved on, in our own time. In our own way. Ten weeks later - our decisions made, papers signed, notices given, bags packed, boxes filled - we turned faces westward, toward the water, toward the mountains. Toward home.

I gave in to intuition again last week, knowing that no matter how much you hope something will be the right thing, it can often be the wrong time. Or you're not the right person. So I rinsed off my gumboots and set them on the back patio. Yesterday morning, I walked down the hill to a new job, one my gut tells me is the better choice.

Without tapping into intuition, creative writing is about as inspired as a grocery store list. It's what compels a writer return to the page day after day. By releasing our creative unconscious, by listening deeply to our instincts, we connect with our characters and through them, our true stories are revealed.

I had a word count goal in mind for this first draft - something in the 110-115,000 range. A complete novel. Not a long one, but something of substance. Not that word count much matters in the dung heap of first drafts, but it gave me an end point from which I could see across a chasm of edits to less crappy drafts. I also allowed for Plan B - the Intuition Plan - that gave me an out if I felt Draft 1 was ready to be pillaged and plundered by my red pen in search of treasure worth salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the Intuition Plan was put into effect 'round about the time I unpacked the last box, set my office to rights, and this long winter of our discontent came to a close. I had a beginning, a bunch of middles, and an end. I had started to write circles around myself, falling into plot holes and bringing the earth down around me in my attempt to clamber out. It was time to bring scenes together, to strategize and lay out, in systematic fashion, the story's arc. And to shake out the bogeys. IMG_0183

April 1, (no foolin'!), 90,000 words of Draft 1 became (magically!) Draft 2. While I was upending all other constants in my life, why not toss my writing routine into the mix?

Early morning sessions with my blue Pilot and Moleskine, scribbling to fill blank pages with scenes and silliness became, after a few awkward attempts, early morning sessions with my red Pilot and 8.5 x 11 Helvetica-filled Hammermill.

And hours - at all hours - of retyping and tweaking, shuffling pages and shaking my head.

I worried that editing would mean an end to creating. Yet, despite the taking away that is inherent to the revision process, Draft 2 finds itself 5,000 new words the richer. And I'm still in the early scenes. I'm have a sense of what Draft 3 will entail (You didn't think this would be over any time soon did you? Honey, we're just getting started): the fleshing out and enriching of detail, the gathering of historical minutiae, most of which will be discarded in...Draft 4? I jest. Or not.

But Draft 1 - there it is, on the table, in black and white. Now being sliced and diced into something resembling a story by my fine point red pen.

I'm still a bit wobbly - one month into this new life - my emotions giddy but uncertain, like a colt taking his first steps. The world around me is so fresh, brimming with the vibrant colors of new growth, the richness of blossoms and sea air, the madness of wind and the changing tides. I feel that delicious disconnect of being far away on holiday, in a place that is so beautiful you feel simultaneously calmed and energized. But I'm not on holiday. I'm in the wilderness of my intuition. And I think I'll stay here awhile.

The Story Takes Flight

  I clicked on "Compile" and Scrivener, the writing project management program I'm using to write my novel (italicized because I feel so goofy saying it, the cliché that I am as I tap away on my laptop in this Seattle coffee shop, with my travel mug at hand. At least it's not raining and I am drinking decaf) pulled together a multitude of scenes, a handful of chapters and the lump of Part One into a WORD document, formatted, paginated, appearing to be something so much more than it is.

And now it sits beside me, 159 pages in dreadful Times New Roman font, the 31,900 words I have written since July 7. I just had to see what all those words looked like on 8.5 x 11.

If I flip through the pages and don't read the actual sentences, it looks like a real manuscript. Paragraphs are indented, quote marks indicate dialogue, there are even chapter headings. Scrivener helpfully (hopefully?) created a title page for me, though I do believe I changed the "A" in my title to "The". Hmm. Scrivener. Must fix that. One simple word shifts the meaning and tone of the story.

If I read the pages more carefully, I see scenes that end in mid-paragraph, ellipses where I left a sentence dangling. I see "NAME", which stands in for a character (as in, "NAME crouched next to de Castelnau's supine form") who is a John Doe until I decide what he should be called. I see tenses that shift mid-page, I see notes to myself typed in a scene instead of into Scrivener's handy sidebar. I see what Anne Lamott assures writers they will create in a project's early days. I see a shitty first draft. The first third of a shitty first draft. There is far more excrement to be written before I even attempt revision.

But I see some wonderful things, too: tension and surprise, attraction and intrigue. I see darlings I'm certain I'll have to murder in future drafts - those bits and pieces a writer thinks are the best things they've written, those clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions that really only get in the way of the story. But they are fun to look at. I'll save the assassinations for later.

I compiled and printed this happy mess out of curiosity, but also out of anxiety. I am stepping out of rhythm with the tango my story and I practice every day. It's holiday time. In a short while (I've since left the coffee shop and type at you now in the dark of my living room, the wee light of dawn still hours away), I will heft a bag full of hiking gear into the trunk of a car and Brendan and I will make our way to the airport, through security, and onto the train that will whisk us to the North Satellite and our flight to Dublin.

I fear I will lose my characters along the way, that the momentum which has carried me these past two months will stall somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean and slip beneath its cold, grey waters. So, in addition to my writing practice notebook - a brand new Moleskine with pages so white and fresh my hand trembles in anticipation - I am packing these 159 pages (double-faced, not to worry - tucked into a manila enveloped and slipped in the outside pocket of my carry-on, you'd hardly feel the weight). Just in case.

I may never once open the envelope in the sixteen days we are away. In fact, I probably shouldn't. We take vacations to escape from our current life, perhaps to rest the body or challenge it in new ways, but certainly always to rest and reinvigorate the mind. Getting some distance from my story's cast and setting, from the sticky plot points I haven't determined how to resolve, may be the best way to ensure I'll see this thing through to the end of its beginning. Because that's all it is. A beginning. My obligatory shitty first draft.

So I bid you farewell. It's 3:30 a.m., finally time for more coffee - the full throttle stuff this time. I've got my morning writing to get done, in my brand new Moleskine. Then I've got a flight to catch.