The Journey (Pt 2)
On the eve of traveling to Bologna for the book fair, it seems timely to delve a little more specifically into how travel can provide material for writing, directly and indirectly.
This blog and the final Journey Blog, will feature photographs of a journey to Mainland China. This trip was deeply inspiring/nourishing to me as a writer. The photographs were taken by Jan Stolba. In this blog, I have posted pictures of the cities. Next journey blog, the last in the little series, I will take you up Mt Emei...
- again and again, I was struck by the colors of China, and by the serenity and sense of purpose of its people. I did not expect that. In truth, I was ready to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. I did not expect to be able to make out individuals, and yet my mind is full of glimpses of individuals... One of the things I love about travel is how it forces you to reassess your assumptions. I love those little shocks you feel when you realise something is not as you had expected- sometimes, you were not even until that moment aware that you had expected anything...
Now a little true story... (Or as true as anything ever retold can be)
I was staying at the Keesing Studio at the Cite Des Arts in Paris on a small grant a million years ago, (actually in 1996), and I met this Israel painter called Neftali. He was an old man, and a very successful painter. He was very confident and slightly irascible and he painted these landscapes that were definitely landscapes but also, somehow, flesh as well. Not so much in the shapes but in the textures. I loved them. I had been taken to his studio and introduced to him by a mutual friend, and he had made us coffee and gave me a glimpse of a personality that intrigued me. This was in part, perhaps, because he made some pretty striking assumptions about my work, or the sort of work he imagined I would do, based on this brief meeting. His arrogance took my breath away but there was also some childlike directness in him that made it impossible to be offended. He was just so convinced of his very forthright opinions and I might have dismissed them except he had an unerring ability for summing people up. His personality was like a searchlight, and sometimes I had a vague desire to squint when it was turned on me.
He seemed as intrigued by me as I was by him, or perhaps he liked being the object of my intense curiosity. We had coffee after that first meeting, and we sometimes went for walks along the edge of the Seine and across to the islands and to the Notre Dame Cathedral in the very early morning to avoid the constant army of tourists. It was summer and the place was boiling and it seemed as if all the French had left for the coast. He talked about art and life and I learned slowly that he had an adult son who had been killed in a bombing and a wife who was dying of some sickness he never named. Cancer, perhaps. The thing about his paintings that was striking to me is that in the huge works he had on the wall of his studio, there were landscapes that looked diseased. He had rubbed little diry black spots in here and there over these exquisite fleshy landscapes. I have never seen anything like it. He often talked about how everything seemed sick and diseased to him. The world, people's souls. He was very intense and argumentative. Impassioned by painting and politics, though he spoke little of the latter to me.
He asked me for something of mine to read, after a while, and I evaded him for some time, humiliated by my youth and the fantastical nature of my writing, because I feared that he would see only the fantasy and not the dialogue with reality. I feared he would not understand what I was trying to do as a writer. I finally gave him The Pumpkin Eater that was first published by Lucy Sussex in one of her great collections, and later under my own name in Green Monkey Dreams. I gave that one to him because it is one of the stories that captured most exactly what I wanted to say, and because it is about striving for an idea that no one else has defined in advance for you, and I hoped he might understand that. That was what I felt myself to be doing then - striving towards something half formed, intuited rather than known. Hungrily, hopefully, blindly.
Neftali never spoke to me about it, but he later gave me a small painting he had done, inspired by the story. It was a painting about me, writing the story and about him, reading it. It told me without words, that he had understood the essence of the story. He told me he had done three others, but that he could not show them to me because they were too private. To this day, I wonder what he painted. I framed the picture and have it on my wall still.
Anyway, after that I was invited to a conference in Estonia called Artists on the Borders and by the time I got back, he was away, and then I heard he was sick. I did not see him for several months. Then one day he invited me and a few other people staying in the Cite to his studio for an afternoon party. That was when he told me he was headed back to Israel very soon, so this was in the nature of a goodbye. I felt sad because in those early days in the Cite, I would have been very lonely and isolated if I had not got to know him, and I knew I would miss him. I also felt sorry for him. He had always seemed so strong and certain and vigorous on those walks, and now all at once he seemed tired and sad. An old man after all. But still very perceptive, for since I had seen him last, I had fallen irrevocably in love with a Czech poet and when he let me into the studio that last time, Neftali had kissed me on both cheeks and then his eyes had narrowed and he stared at me closely.
Finally he said, ‘What is his name?’
Anyway as I was leaving at the end of the party, Neftali came to the door to see me out and he said to me suddenly and very abruptly, ‘Don’t write about Paris too soon.’ I stared at him and he went on urgently, ‘Wait until it seeps into you, Isobelle. Wait years if you have to. Let it go in before you use it. Let it go deep otherwise what you do with it will be shallow. It will be name-dropping.’
I never saw him again but I never forgot his words and it was truly years before I wrote about Paris, In fact, I wrote about it first in the story I previewed last blog, but the city in that story is not exactly or merely Paris - it is a melding of Paris and Prague. That is what happened to it, deep inside my mind, when it was soaked up by the story I was making. That story needed something more than Paris. It was not Paris, even when my editors wanted it to be Paris by correcting details. It was hard to explain that the place was not the point. It was alchemy of place and story. The Dove Game, which is also in the Metro Winds collection, was another melding of those two cities. The ‘city’ in both stories - and maybe in all of the stories I have written, is not really anything to do with a geographical place so much as being a construction against which certain events are thrown into a particular light.
- People laughed so much and so unrestrainedly and joyously. I heard a lot of laughter like that in China. Another thing I had not expected.
- Jan took many pictures of crowds and we were fascinated after to see how, no matter how subtle he was, someone was always watching him. This is the beauty of photographs- they remind you of places but they also see things your mind did not...
- the smog was truly dreadful in some of the cities, but this created strangely beautiful effects of light and color
As writers we must be sponges. We must see the world clearly and profoundly and truthfully and we must take it in deeply.
- Traveling deep into the mainland, I had not expected to find the cities so urban and sophisticated, but we were always conscious of being strangers in a strange land. They were never like Western Cities. Yet never once were people in China anything but kind and helpful where they could be. Once an old lady led us streets and streets out of her way to bring us where she thought we wanted to go. It seemed to me they took the need to look after us as a National pride.
- we were often stuck by the sight of people profoundly asleep somewhere in public. I kept thinking of sleeping beauty, for some reason- that enforced sleep has always intrigued me...
We should not go to a place and then instantly expect to set a story there, unless we are planning to produce a travelogue, and even then, letting a place settle into you might be wiser than leaping into writing about it at once.
For me one of the big problems of residencies and research is that if a writer goes to a place, they often seem to me to feel they must write about that place – or they are expected to do so - immediately. But unless you let it soak in deep, the place will be no more to your work and your readers someday, than name-dropping. All the more if it is a famous place like Paris, about which so much has been written, good and bad.
- We always had this feeling of being welcomed, which is such a contrast to life in the Czech Republic, with its grim unfriendliness. In Prague, beautiful as the city is, I always feel the people are turning away from me, turning inward to friends and family, protectively, secretively, suspiciously. I never felt that sense of exclusion in China. Sometimes, when a stranger smiled at me, I would feel almost intoxicated with delight
- again and again the colors of China pleased me aesthetically. Again and again, people smiled- at us, at life, at one another.
We need to let a real place and the interactions we have with people, sink into us and then come up again, transformed by our lives and perceptions and preoccupations- only then it they have anything meaningful to offer our stories. Only then will they allow a writer produce a strange, quirky, compelling sense of place, full of messages and what the Venetians called secretos (places where messages from one lover are hidden, to be furtively collected by the other)
- another of the things that struck me was the juxtapositions of old and new/ modern and ancient
- always there was this feeling of purpose in people, of knowing what they are doing and doing it- I never found this in India - there I was often stuck by the inertia of people, and of poor people in particular. That utter stillness which is not beautiful but a distillation of the most profound boredom
Pretty much everything I have written reflects in very great detail, the places I have journeyed to and through in the real world and often the experiences I have had there. But that travel - those experiences - have been transformed by the inward journey they makes into me, and by what happens when they begin to be digested by my life experiences, and then transformed by whatever story it is that I use to bring them back out.
When I write China back out of me, it will be my creation, my creature, my China...
I have no doubt China will come out. It was too strong an experience, too full of wonder and thought and detail, not to make the outward journey in story, though perhaps, it will be recognizable only to me. China went deep and it roused so many questions in me, which I will need to write it in order to understand what I learned, what I saw.
But not yet...
Just to give you one small example of how a place can be used in a story- Greylands was very much a reflection of my first trip to countries that had been under the lid of Communism when I was struck over and over by the grey, grimness of the people- their bitter woundedness and feelings of suspicion. My impressions about those countries, and the Czech Republic in particular, in those first days here, merged with what I was beginning to write- a story that explored the country of grief- from which there sometimes truly feels like no escape. I wanted to find out how one could negotiate that land, if one could ever be free of it. Slowly it came to me that groups of people as well as individuals might have to negotiate the grey lands of grief. too - even countries...
But places change and we change too, to the alchemy is never fixed. Next time I write about the Czech Republic I have not doubt that it will be the anger and hostility and aggression here, that I will engage and by this means, try to understand.
- the strangeness of places is always shown most vividly in the details
- every now and again an image will strike you so strongly that you know this will one day end up in a story- this man playing a pipe, seated in the middle of busy moving feet, was such a one
- again and again we were astonished to find people dancing in public spaces. The dancing was never loud or raucous, but there was much quiet pleasure not only in moving but also in doing so in concert with other people.
The stories in Metro Winds are very much arising from journeys I have made in the real world. You can see glimpses of the real world in them, refracting light. The title story happens in Paris and on the wild Southern Coast of Australia where I live when I am in Australia (see Blog 1). The Wolf Prince happens in an alternative Venice. The Stranger happens in Athens and on Santorini Island - actually - in the very place I go to stay every couple of years - and the idea for it came from a paragraph in a battered out of print guide book I read there. The Girl Who Could See the Wind is set in Australia (though set back a little in time) and in an unspecified part of old Europe. The Man Who Lost his Shadow features Australia and Prague. Place in these stories is very very important, but only in so far as it serves the story.
- terrible pollution and yet there is a surreal beauty in it that strikes me all the more because in a way it is ugly or at least borne of ugliness- I find I am often attracted to the surreal beauty of very bleak, barren, arid vistas whether they be industrial wastelands or deserts...