Friday, January 17, 2014

Faraway Places and Writing Spaces

I’m good with winter.

I don’t mean to say I’m enjoying it. I’ve had enough - the Polar Vortex, the power outages, the shattered trees, the slush, the salt, the strangulation of scarves – all of it.

I suspect many of you might feel the same, unless of course you’re living in Australia, in which case you might say that you’re good with summer, maybe.

At this time of year, I start to daydream more than usual about the faraway places I long to return to. 

Maybe it’s the cold, or the preponderance of warm holiday destination signage all over the subway platforms.

Aegean Chapel
It may be flu season, but for me it’s also the season of my ‘Aegean Blues’. I long for the dry summer heat, the brilliance of Mediterranean colour, the thrum of cicadas and splash of the sea. Yes, I’ve got it bad.

I also miss Britain, the hill walks, the gnarled trees and frosted hedgerows. I miss having history around every corner, of living in a place to which I feel so connected and inspired by the land and its legends.

My idyllic mornings in Somerset included sipping my coffee and staring out the window to the misty levels with the Tor beyond. Of course, my notepad was right next to me, waiting to be filled.

Ideal writing conditions, no?

The Tor and Somerset Levels
from my window
You might imagine that sitting beneath the loggia of a sundrenched café in Radda in Chianti, savouring a bottle of the local Classico, would set the muse on my shoulder to work. Or that looking out over the Sahara from a balcony in Tozeur while the sun washes red into the west would set my pen on fire.

I could go on and on. There are so many moments I’ve cherished in places I’ve lived and travelled, experiences in which I know I’ve been truly blessed.

When I set out to go to those places, I thought that I would return with a finished first draft of one novel or another because I had ideal writing conditions.

I’ve learned that’s not true, not for me at least.

Saharan Sunset
When I did sit down to write in those magical circumstances, especially when the visits were fleeting, I found that I couldn’t write.

There was too much to see, too many sensations to take in. If I was in my head, bent over the pages, I would have been missing out on the view before me, the people walking by. I wouldn’t have taken in nearly as much.

This reminds me of my first year of university. My grades were not fantastic and at one point I realized that I was missing a lot because I was so intent on writing down everything the professor said. Once I stopped taking copious notes and listened more, my marks got a lot better.

Saharan oasis
I’ve taken the pressure off myself when I travel which, granted, doesn’t happen nearly as much these days. But I think it’s important for a writer to absorb everything, to really take in a place. I mean really feel it and see it so that you can remember it as vividly as the time you were there.

Back to wintry, ice-bound Toronto. Blah! Ideal writing conditions?


I’ve found that longing makes the fiction better.

Wallace monument and
the Highlands beyond, Stirling
Whether I’m writing historical fiction set in Celtic Britain, Ancient Greece, Imperial Rome or North Africa, I miss those faraway places so much that I try to dig up every fragment of memory to satisfy my longing.

Writing away from those places after falling in love with them is essential.

I’ve referred to the phrase ‘Aegean Blues’ before. It’s not mine, but belongs to the author John Fowles. I like it because it is apt for what I’m talking about.

In his preface to The Magus, which is set in Greece (across from the place I usually visit, and where Fowles lived), the author says this:

A novelist has to enter deeper exile still. In most outward ways the experience was depressive, as many young would-be writers and painters who have ever gone to Greece have discovered. We used to have a nickname for the sense of inadequacy and accidie it produced – the ‘Aegean blues’. One has to be a very complete artist to create good work among the purest and most balanced landscapes on the planet…The Greece of the Islands is Circe still; no place for the artist-voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul.

Leaving the island of Spetses
where Fowles lived and worked
From my winter cave, the grass definitely seems greener on the other side of the ocean, but in my exile from paradise the words are definitely more numerous and alive than anywhere else.

Thank you for reading.

What are some of your favourite places of inspiration? I'd love to hear about some of your own travels in the comments!

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