Over the past few months I’ve compared writing to walking, mixing a drink, cooking, and baseball, and you’ve indulged my metaphorical ramblings. But writing is like going on vacation? No siree. Writing is work, hard work. Work that takes dedication and thought and effort. Lots of effort. I’d rather clean my bathtub grout with a toothbrush than figure out why my main character refuses to confront his brother for embezzling money from the restaurant. Pul-lease. Writing is hard. My head hurts just thinking about it.
But what if it isn’t? What if it’s like making a list, packing a bag, gassing up the car, and zooming away from your life for a while to visit parts unknown? What if it’s a free pass to try out things you’d never do?
Feel like swearing like a longshoreman? Sleeping around? Seeing what it’s like to be a man? Well, maybe you can’t do those last few on vacation without repercussion, but you can on the page. Writing allows us the chance to leave habits and rules and labels behind, in the same way vacation lets us leave behind the routines and rhythms of our lives, the ones that dull our senses over time. We try new food, inhale some wood smoke, get a sunburn, skin a knee, and remember the varieties of experience the world has to offer. We return to our lives with new eyes. So too writing can offer us a creative escape from the parts of our lives that lull and dull. It forces us to see people, places, and motivations clearly.
You get a change of scene.
If those routines are sapping your creative juices, the same old scene probably isn’t helping either. Home to work to the grocery store, Home Depot, maybe Bed Bath and Beyond, might not have time. We vacation to places, far or near, that offer a different view. We look out over the water and our chests expand, our pupils dilate. We feel small. Or large. Or hot. Or strange. We feel different, even if the destination is only an hour away.
If we go further afield, the effect is more acute. Different cultures highlight the assumptions we make about life in our own. Not everyone eats the same cereal for breakfast every day. Not everyone wears shoes. The world fractures into interesting facets again, prismatic shards that lodge in our brains like a splinter. Writing too allows us to feel the strangeness of the world, see it freshly on a more regular basis; whenever we sit down to write.
Choose your own adventure
Remember these books? They were like book vacations, irresistible because they gave you the power of choice at time when you relied on your parents to haul you around everywhere. Not any more! you thought waving your paperback in the air. Finally, you got to choose.
Part of the fun of going on vacation, too, is the choosing; the planning and then the anticipation. You pick your two weeks or more (hopefully) and decide how you want to spend them. You rent a house or car, book a hotel or a tour, cut and paste together an itinerary, the course of your vacation taking shape in your mind as the days approach.
Writing, particularly a book-length work, has the same elements of choice (researching, planning), and anticipation (hoping, investing time and brain power). Often I only know the barest outlines of my plot. I try to pick way stations to write toward, but never know what else is going to happen along the way. I’m not one of those people who think characters write themselves, but I do come to know them as if they are real people and, just like my family, they do surprise me sometimes. I get to the next part of my journey or manuscript by knowing just enough to keep going. As E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Perhaps writing is the ultimate staycation.