On Writing and Travel (A Love Letter)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

Here I am in France, an American in Paris (having just spent three weeks down south, in the lovely town of Collioure).

One of the first things people ask me when I tell them about my annual jaunts to Paris is, “Do you speak the language?” And the answer is, I do not. I took French in college and can sort of read it, but when natives speak it, forget it.  And my halting pronunciation brings either a smile or a grimace from the locals.  Furthermore, I do not look like a French woman. I am short and round.  Every single French woman on the planet is tall and thin. (I think it’s a law they passed a while ago.) And its for certain I don’t have the classic French personality, which I think of as elegant and reserved.  I tend toward the, the put it charitably, exuberant.

So I am different when I am in France.  And I’m constantly aware of it. (One of the most fun things about travel is arriving to a U.S. airport and suddenly realizing I can understand what people are saying around me.)

But I have come to appreciate that feeling this difference is a good thing. I live in my comfort zone way too much.  I like my comfort zone.  But the job of the writer is (at least partially) to bring a different point of view to their reader. To teach them about something they might not otherwise have known about.  To open new worlds.  And how can we do that if we’re not venturing out beyond our own usual world?

Funnily enough, though so many of us shy away from putting ourselves in a situation where we are different, there are some advantages to it.  Because you can’t interact as readily, you can observe others more clearly.  You may only be able to find your way through observing! And because you are constantly straining to understand, you listen better.  Being different in a different world keeps you pretty much always in the present moment.  You don’t waste time pondering the past or worrying about the future when you are trying to figure out what the hell is going on right where you are at the moment.

Finally, you can be bold. Nobody knows who you are, so you can act anyway you want. (But please leave the Ugly American act at home.)

All these thoughts about being different lead me to ponder how we need to celebrate differences between characters in our work.  I’m painfully aware of how often my characters tend to reflect me, a white middle-class woman of a certain age, and this is something I’m trying to change.  Being in France makes me remember that, too.

But being home is going to be wonderful also!

Do you like to travel? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

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