Colin Hosten on My Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipaul

I often use the second semester of the first-year writing program where I teach as an opportunity to explore rhetoric through different forms of storytelling, including poetry. In particular, I include a short unit of creative nonfiction, primarily as a way to interrogate our expectations of and obligations to truth (whatever that means) in storytelling. I encourage my students to notice how a writer’s “voice” might change from fiction to creative nonfiction—or, more remarkably, how it might not change. V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage provides perfect fodder for our discussion.

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The book is a seminal example of modern travel writing, but I focus on the first two essays in which Naipaul, now living in London, makes the return voyage by sea to the West Indies—the middle passage—and arrives at his birthplace of Trinidad. The island is the backdrop for most of Naipaul’s fiction, including the linked stories of Miguel Street, told in first person by an unnamed narrator who treats the motley crew of characters on his titular street with unassuming respect and appreciation: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.” But in returning to Port-of-Spain in The Middle Passage, Naipaul himself might have been one of those people dismissing it as mere slum, describing the country as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” He portrays the people as “unsure of themselves, having no taste or style of their own.”

Both of these versions of Trinidad seem so real when we read them. Which one is closer to the truth?

This line of questioning allows us to consider the role of storytelling in creative nonfiction, identifying the narrator as a device completely distinct from the writer. What we think of Naipaul the writer should not necessarily color how we read him as a writer. Usually, this idea seems obvious to my students, who are all sophisticated critical thinkers able to separate their emotional reactions from their intellectual work. At this point, I share some more background about Naipaul the writer. In addition to his often scathing, hyper-critical remarks about the West Indies, he has (in)famously said that women are prevented from being the literary equals of men because of their “sentimentality, their narrow view of the world.” Most of my students—and, I’d imagine, most rational people—disagree with this sentiment to the point of disgust.

At this point we read the essay again.

What’s different? How have our impressions changed or not changed? Here, I encourage my students to pay attention to the ways in which language is tied up in identities, how rhetoric can be used to project iterations of our selves onto the page and into the world. It’s a nuance of which I need to constantly remind myself. Naipaul has a complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature. But Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth. Reading Naipaul often leaves me feeling disconnected. I don’t understand how someone who writes so beautifully on the page could say such ugly things about the place where he was born.

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Yet I, too, left the island, and have not returned.

One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” In grad school, I wrote an essay that charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up a fossil fuel industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

And that’s why I love teaching Naipaul’s essay. It reminds me and my students that reading can be complicated and conflicted. It helps me demonstrate the importance of critical reading that acknowledges and embraces the responsibility of the reader to be conscious of her own biases. Every time I read from The Middle Passage I learn something new, about writing, and about myself—which is ultimately what I want for my students.

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HostenColin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, Spry Literary, and the Brevity blog. He is a freelance children’s book writer and editor, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

Lauren Wilson: Writer’s Block While Traveling Abroad

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It has taken me eight months, but I have come to the conclusion that there are three types of writer’s block when studying/spending significant amounts of time abroad. These three types come in stages, and even my non-writer roommates agreed that they went through these stages as well when it came to writing their own blogs to keep family and friends updated. I don’t think everyone experiences these, but I know at least a few people who share the same struggle, so I’m going to break them down and try to figure out how to get over them.

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Street musicians at the Plaza Navona, Rome, Italy

The first stage is “I’m not writing because I am so overwhelmed by all of the new and exciting things around me” type of writer’s block. This stage can actually happen multiple times while abroad. It can happen when you first get to the place where you will be leaving for the next couple of months (in my case, it happened in both India and Ireland), but it can also happen every time you leave that place for a little while and go somewhere new (for me, it happened again in England, Austria, Hungary, Scotland, Greece, Italy, and Spain). It happens when there is so much going on and so much to see that you don’t want to miss anything because you decided to sit down and write about it. It happens when you tell yourself, “I’ll just write about it later.” Then that later turns into three weeks and you suddenly realize you forgot the name of the person you met at the Hungarian baths in Budapest, which is unfortunate since they’re the entire point of the essay you’re trying to write.

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The Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

There are two ways to combat this stage of writer’s block, I believe. The first is to just make yourself sit down and write down a few quick notes—nothing too in-depth, but enough to jog your memory when the time comes. The second way is to occasionally pull out your smart phone (because we all know you have one) and type a few notes into that about what you’re experiencing while you experience it. I carry a paper notebook with me all the time, but sometimes I prefer to use my phone for little blurbs because it is not as obtrusive and obvious in some situations as taking out my notebook. For example, in a street market it’s a lot easier for me to type a quick line into my phone than it is to stop and use my notebook. If someone at a street market said something that stood out to you, jot it down and expand upon it later. Something as simple as “Falafel guy, ‘Hey princess come back… I give you good price and my number, too’” is more helpful than keeping no record of it at all.

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A pedestrian street in Barcelona, Spain

The second type of writer’s block is the “I’ve been living here for a month and nothing is really that new or exceptional-seeming anymore” kind. It’s when you feel like you’ve explored everything there is to explore and are just living a normal life. It’s the stage where writing about the place seems like someone is asking you to write an exciting travel essay on your hometown and what goes on there. My solution for this stage of writer’s block is simple: find the seemingly ordinary things that make your place exceptional. Write about the everyday moments that aren’t so common anywhere else. In Galway, seeing someone have a beer after breakfast isn’t that unordinary. In Moorhead, Minnesota, that would be a little strange. To get past this stage of writer’s block, you need to regain the awe and excitement that you originally had about the place.

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Low tide on the coast near Doolin, County Clare, Ireland

The last stage of writer’s block here is the “Wait I only have a month left and have to do all the things” kind. It’s what happens when you realize you are leaving soon and haven’t ticked off nearly enough boxes on your bucket list for this place, and you suddenly feel an intense panic and fear of missing out. You suddenly put everything else on hold to go to that one pub you’ve walked by countless times but never actually walked in to, or to take the long way home because you’ve always thought about it but never have. It’s what happens when you’re suddenly impulse buying bus tickets to places you’ve heard about, but just never made the trip to. It’s the kind of writer’s block where you avoid writing because you’re scared you’re going to miss something memorable.

This, I think, is the trickiest stage of writer’s block. In a couple of months I probably won’t think so and will have half a dozen solutions that I could rattle off easily, but right now I’m stuck in this stage of writer’s block, and can’t seem to find an easy way out of it. For now, the best I can do is copy my ways of dealing with the first stage of writer’s block, and hope that I don’t miss out on too much while I’m here.

Editor’s Note: All photographs by Lauren Wilson.

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LaurenWilson

Editorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

 

The Travel-Writer-In-Process by Lauren Wilson

[Editor’s Note: Though you’ll notice that Lauren wrote this prior to her travels, we’re posting it after her trip, so we can include Lauren’s photographs from Vienna and Budapest.]

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Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna

There are few things I enjoy more than visiting a new city. The new sites, smells, flavors, and languages all give me an electric feeling. I buzz with excitement. I love the blank canvas that is an unexplored city.

But, if I had to choose something I love more than my first time in a city, I would say the time leading up to getting there. The time spent learning as much as I possibly can about that city, finding any travel writing people have done about it, figuring out where I’m going to stay, what I want to see, what kinds of food I will get to try. I love the anticipation it builds, and also the background knowledge it helps me to have of the places I visit. When I haven’t yet been to a place, everything is completely open to my imagination and what I can find online or in a book. I don’t yet know how suffocatingly hot it gets in the middle of the afternoon, or how the fish market smells, or how beautifully green the parks really are. I don’t know for sure how much I will or will not like the place.

In less than a week, I will be heading off on a five-day trip to Vienna and Budapest. I have never been to either city, the list of people I know who have been is pretty short. So I’ve had to turn to other resources for what to do/see/expect while I’m there.

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Museum Quarter, Vienna

I first got the idea for this trip in the European history class I am currently taken. I’ve never taken European history before (small town public school problem, I suppose), so this was my first real introduction to the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian empire. We didn’t talk about the culture of the place at all, but the fact that this region of the world—which I had never thought that much about before—had once ruled so much of it. I decided I had to see it for myself. So I booked a couple of plane tickets and one bus ticket and started to plan my trip. I got in touch with the few people I know who’ve been there and heard everything they had to say, and then I took to the Internet.

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Wiener Eistraum, Vienna

Travel essays are a traveler’s best friend. It was easy enough to find writing on Vienna. “Return to Vienna: Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again,” by Janna Graber is my favorite so far about that city. The way she describes the culture, and the way Vienna became her home while she was there, has filled me with an ache to experience the same things. I won’t have the time she did, but who knows, maybe I will feel something similar?

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St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

Budapest, on the other hand, was a lot harder to find essays about. It took a piece published in The Telegraph, for me to find anything that wasn’t a tourist guide to the city. “Just Back: Check Mate in Budapest,” by Ally Gale is a short blurb that won The Telegraph’s travel writing competition back in May of 2015. In less than 500 words, Gale paints a short, vivid picture of the tiniest piece of Hungarian society. Even though her essay tells nothing of the culture of Budapest, it makes me want to do nothing more than sit at the train station and see if someone will invite me to a game of chess. Her story could have taken place in any city, but now it is inextricably linked to Budapest and it has flavored the way I look at the city, and the way I will explore it.

With those essays stuck in my head, and a few Wikipedia searches on what to eat and see saved on my phone, I’m ready to go and explore. Maybe I’ll even add to the limited travel writing on Budapest.

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View from Buda Castle, Budapest

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LaurenWilsonEditorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

The Travel Writer-in-Process by Lauren Wilson

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For a 21-year-old from Fosston, Minnesota, I’ve done a lot of international travel. I have seen plenty of places and spent time in Asia, Europe, and Central America. One thing I have never done though is go back to a place I have visited before. Since I’m in Europe for such an extended period of time this spring, I’m going to change that. In one week, I’ll be revisiting London—the site of last year’s spring break trip—and two weeks from then I’ll be in Scotland, retracing part of my hike up the West Highland Way.

I have written about my experiences in both Scotland and London. I’ve revisited my photos and journal entries from those trips time and time again, looking for something more I could write about. So far, I haven’t found anything new calling out to me. That’s why I’m returning to both places. I’ve been to each place once, so now when I go back I know what to look for, and what to not. I know that the walk from Leicester Square to the Victoria theatre is much, much farther than it looks on the map of the tube. I also know that I should make that walk again, but this time without the deadline of a show looming over my head. I know that the British Museum has the Rosetta Stone and the crowds that inevitably flock to it. But there again I know that there is also an extensive clock exhibit that draws a very select group of people to it. Let’s just say the room isn’t very crowded. I know where to get fish and chips in Scotland and where—if I ask nicely—a bartender will teach me how to play the bagpipes. I also know that it’s not necessary to take a picture of every waterfall I see.

By going back, I’m not just giving myself a good dose of nostalgia, I’m giving myself a chance to slow down and look for the things I missed. What was it about the man’s accent that made it so hard for me to understand his directions to the theatre? The clock exhibit is huge and expensive and beautiful, but why does it only draw a few people? And why these people? What about the clocks interests them? Are these really the best fish and chips, or am I just so hungry after walking that anything would taste like “the best” of its kind? How does one actually play the bagpipes? Is it hard to learn? By going back and looking for the things I missed the first time around, I’m opening up the opportunity for a new story (or two, or three..). I am going back to see the details, to see what I didn’t see the first time, to enrich my experience in each place by adding a little more to the picture that I already have in my head.

Not only am I going back with a bit of previous experience behind me, I’m going back with some new resources and a different frame of mind. Living in the U.S. and traveling to Europe from there is a hassle and a half to say the least. Now that I’m in Europe though, the worst part of the trip will be the bus ride from Glasgow to Dublin. The ease of travel here not only makes it more convenient to get to a place, but keeps me from feeling like a zombie for my entire trip as I try to fight off jetlag and general travel exhaustion. Also, my roommate introduced me to an app called CityMaps2Go. It allows you to download a map of a city to your phone and (without using data) it tracks where you’re at so you don’t have to get lost if you’re not trying to. Armed with that and a map to all of the privately owned bookshops in London, I’m set to wander the streets of the city like never before. As far as a new frame of mind goes, when I was in both Scotland and London I was on a strict schedule. Be here by this time on this day for this long. I had the mindset of a tourist who is trying as hard as possible to not act like one. Now, I’m returning on my own terms. I don’t have to do anything but sit in a bookshop or pub the entire time. I am free to experience these places as I want, and to experience the things that matter the most to me. And then, I’ll write about it.

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LaurenWilson

Editorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

The Travel Writer-in-Process by Lauren Wilson

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I used to think that spending two weeks at home is more than enough time for a Christmas break—I’m usually more than ready to go back to school and my friends and enjoy the freedom that college allows.

That was before I had spent four months living in India though, and long before I had wrapped my head around the fact that I was about to leave for Ireland for another five months. With those facts looming over my head, two weeks was a terrifyingly short amount of time. Between the holiday celebrations, shopping trips I needed to make to get the necessary gear for Ireland (I somehow still managed to get to Galway without a rain jacket though…), and all of the different relatives I had to see, it felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of time for anything—much less writing.

I have now been in Ireland for a little less than a month and I haven’t written a single thing. Nothing about India, Ireland, or the holidays. I haven’t even done proper journaling. My poor little red moleskin journal who has followed me so faithfully around the world hasn’t seen more than a few quick scribbles here and there, much less any formulated notes on my experience. There are too many new things to see, too many bookshops to visit, pubs to try out, too many streets to wander down. The lure of Galway’s Latin Quarter with cobblestoned streets and musicians at every turn is one that I am unable to ignore. I have finally got a normal class schedule again (I’m back to lectures that take place twice a week, rather than four hours of the same class every morning), but none of my classes require writing until the end of the semester. Even then, none of it is creative writing. So it would seem as though I’m in the same situation as last semester—stuck with no incentive to write while I’m in Ireland. So I’ve had to come up with a few reasons of my own.

With stable access to Internet comes the ability to look for journals looking for student submissions. Some of them even pay, and Lord knows any college student could use that. So, to help give myself some incentive, most of my time spent on the computer is used looking for where I can send my next piece, and especially what topics editors are looking for submissions in. Even if nothing gets accepted, having a deadline to work with and a new topic that someone wants me to write about is enough of a challenge for my overly-competitive self to sit down and get to work. Even if nothing gets published, it’s still a good way to make myself write about new things and even look for new ways to do so. So far, I’ve found two that look like something I can do (if anyone has any ideas on others, I’d love to hear about them), and in addition to that, I’ve set a goal to fill the new journal I brought with. I might not specifically write about everything I’m experiencing here now, but if I can write it all down now, then I will be able to write about it all later. My journal has found itself a new home inside my purse, and if I have a few minutes between classes all start to catch up on things I haven’t jotted down yet. Also, I have no shame in pulling out my journal when sitting in a pub. I’m working on getting details of all of my favorite pubs and cafes while I’m sitting in them. Who knows, it could make an interesting essay someday.

So for now, I’m going to write what I can, read as much as possible (you have to read good writing to write good writing, according to Concordia’s English department), and have as many new experiences as I possibly can. I’m already planning adventures for the coming months (Greece for Easter break? Sounds good to me!) and my reading list for the classes I’m taking is long enough without adding my own books to the list. Between genre studies and a class on modernist/postmodernist writing, I’ve joined a sort of Book-a-Week club. AroundtheWorldcvrOn my shelf I currently have The Time Machine, Around the World in Eighty Days, Hamlet, The Driver’s Seat, Silas Marner, Mrs. Dalloway, Pale Fire, Herland, Ten Days in a Mad House, and Alice in Wonderland.

The list of my own books is a little shorter. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman is there, along with Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino, and I have my eye on Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold, and a book on maps and how they affect our lives. It’s only a matter of time before I cave and pick those two up to add to my collection. With all of this going on, I’m going to focus on enjoying my time here, and I’ll write about it all eventually.

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LaurenWilsonEditorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

A Moveable Feast #PorteOuverte by Jen Palmares Meadows

When you hear of the Paris attacks, you read what you can from your computer, of the urgency to apprehend shooters, to save hostages, to care for victims. You have never known war, but know that in instances of despair, stories of hope and heroism will begin to emerge. You search for them amongst the carnage, and they come, without fail. A man pulling wounded from Bataclan Concert Hall. Taxicabs shepherding people home without fare. Parisians offering shelter to strangers, with the hashtag #PorteOuverte, meaning ‘open door.’

You don’t know anyone in Paris, nor have you ever been. In your mind, Paris is breathtakingly beautiful, but what you know of it is croissants and berets, and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Still, because you are a narcissist, you imagine yourself in Paris, imagine the absolute fear. As a writer, as a human, this is often the first step one takes towards empathy, towards understanding…

Her tweet would have read:

27 rue de fleurus. My salon is open. #porteouverte

Gertrude Stein would have opened her doors to you. Her voice would have carried in the darkness, her thick hand pulling you inside, leaving only a moment to slide locks into place. “Come away from the windows,” she might say, motioning you deeper into her salon, where others have sought shelter.

“Don’t let them in. They might be one of the terrorists,” a shadow calls from behind a hat stand.

“Are you mad?” Another voice. “We must let them in! We must!”

“Here,” Ms. Stein says, pointing to the wall farthest from the street, and you join those huddled on the floor. Ms. Stein hands you a coat, one she says was left by a patron. It is itchy and durable, smelling like oranges and the sea.

In the dim light, some read news updates on their phones, and text their mothers. Others use their phones to illuminate the pages of books they have taken from Ms. Stein’s shelves. You see her collection is massive, having grown over many decades. There are new works, you had not expected, but should have known would be there: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Eula Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land. And there is work from Svetlana Alexievich, Junot Diaz, Carole Maso, Sherman Alexie, Chinua Achebe. Books, so many books.

You pull from the shelf, A Moveable Feast. You first read Ernest Hemingway’s short memoir, of his years as a struggling, young, expatriate in the 1920s, when you were in graduate school, and you loved it then, loved wandering Paris with Hemingway and hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald.a-moveable-feast

In the safety of Ms. Stein’s salon, you read, and your heart is with Hemingway and Paris. You drink with him at La Closerie des Lilas and watch fishermen along the banks. Looking over the water, Hemingway tells you, “We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.” And you agree, because this Spring cannot be everlasting.

You chat with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, and borrow books from her lending library. You “ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” You attend horse races, drinking champagne, and calling obscenities from the stands. Hemingway displays much of his famed chauvinism, sharing odd conversations with Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. His overt sexism is obnoxious, particularly when he describes his falling out with Ms. Stein.

“There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.”

After that, you wonder why you are on this walk with him at all. Despite countless oysters, countless bottles, with Hemingway, your thirst and hunger is never assuaged. You and he wander Paris with a lasting dissatisfaction, an endless hunger, so common to the lost generation to which Hemingway belonged.

Shouting from the street frightens you. A look around Ms. Stein’s salon reveals that many others have begun to read A Moveable Feast as well. Now, they too ramble along with you and Hemingway, a veritable Parisian cafe crawl.

Of the crawl, there is much to enjoy, much to learn about writing. Hemingway shares his theory of omission, in which, “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” You see merit in his theory, see how it applies well to flash fiction and micro essays.

“What is that?”

“You would like it.”

“I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel,” he admitted. “It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

There is comfort in this.

And throughout, Paris is with you, its trees and its rivers, its landscape. When Hemingway describes a Paris spring threatened by rains, you become silent:

“Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat [Spring] back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life…But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.” (Here you begin to cry.)

“In those days, though,” he went on, “the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

Later, A Moveable Feast will make the French bestseller list, a half century after its publication. Adam Biles, the current manager at Shakespeare and Company, will call A Moveable Feast, “a symbol of optimism…a symbol of Paris as Paris should be. It’s a symbol of cafe culture. It’s a symbol of literary culture…It’s everything that, in many ways, was attacked.”

“This is a love letter to Paris,” the woman next to you says, clutching the book to her chest.

Still reading, you rub the wet from your face, and agree.

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Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

The Travel Writer-in-Progress — by Lauren Wilson

Political_World_MapTwo new struggles of being a travel writing student abroad: First, you have to be your own teacher. Second, you really have to be your own teacher and actually make yourself finish a piece once you start it.

The first issue of having to be my own teacher while abroad is trying to figure out what to do when I get stuck. With a 10.5 hour time difference between myself and everyone who I look to for writing advice, I can’t run by my advisor W. Scott Olsen’s office or expect a quick email back from one of my writing professors after just a few minutes. I either have to wait several hours to hear back (by which time I’ve probably forgotten what I was even trying to communicate), or I have to try to figure it out myself. I’ll come back to that later.

The second issue comes with having to make myself actually write about the experiences I am having. I keep telling myself that I am just taking everything in right now so I have more to write about, but honestly, I could use that excuse for the rest of my life. Without a deadline looming over my head, I have turned into the ultimate procrastinator. And you know what they say—if you don’t use it you lose it. By that, I am saying two things. First, a person only becomes a better writer by actually writing. It is something that comes with practice like shooting free throws or parallel parking. Second, if I don’t write down what I’m seeing/hearing/smelling/tasting/feeling, I’m likely to forget it. The details will become less sharp and the quality of any writing I do about it later will be much worse than if I had written something down right away.

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10,000-year-old temple in Lepakshi (photo by Lauren Wilson)

I have been in India for sixty days now and only have forty-nine left. I have visited six different states and seen countless amazing things. I also haven’t finished a single essay. I have multiple half-baked pieces that just sort of peter out at the end, but for all my time here I have not written anything I’m proud of. Part of it is writer’s block, and another is laziness. With no teachers here to help me overcome these two hurdles, I’ve had to rely on myself to figure out what I should do. In the cases of writer’s block, I thought hard about what my advisor W. Scott Olsen would say. I could almost picture the scene: I would be sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of his office, right in between the miniature chess set and the bookshelf filled mostly with travel writing. He would be sitting in his desk chair, his hands folded on top of his stomach as he leaned back and waited for me to stumble upon the solution to my problem. After a few minutes of me floundering he would eventually tell me, as though it were obvious, “Read,” he would say. “Look at what the people you admire have written, see what they’ve done and find some inspiration there.” And so I did. Rachel Friedman, Andrew McCarthy, Mark Jenkins, and Cheryl Strayed—I looked to all of them and more, looking for some inspiration, for a new way of looking at or doing things. Once the gears started turning though, it was time to find the solution for my bigger problem: laziness.

The program that I am studying on is not like your conventional study abroad program. I’m not attending a university in India, or even staying on a campus or in an apartment. Instead, I am staying with other students from Concordia and Gustavus Adolphus College at an NGO dedicated to peace studies, and we have one professor from Gustavus teaching us along with one instructor from India. We are at the NGO for a week at a time and then we leave to go on field visits to the rest of India. Because of our irregular schedule and the fact that it is pretty inconvenient to bring a computer along on field visits, I have just told myself that I am too busy and I’ll get to it later. But then I realized I was forgetting things and I could hear my advisor’s voice in the back of my head, “Journal every day. I don’t care f you are a writer or not—you’re going to want to remember these things someday.” It was advice from a previous trip I had taken with him to London and Paris, but it held just as true for this trip as it did then. I may not be able to always have my computer with me, and I may not always write a lot, but my journal can go anywhere, and I can pull it out at a moment’s notice to write down something I smell or hear that I think is interesting. Or, if I have time, I can begin writing an essay, working through ideas that I formulated while reading some of my favorite authors. I may not be very good at it yet, and I know I’m stealing lines from other professors, but I’m slowly learning how to teach myself how to be a better writer.

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LaurenWilsonEditorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

The Travel Writer-in-Progress — by Lauren Wilson

I have been a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, for 768 days. I have been a creative writing student for 637 of those days. I’ve been a student and aspiring travel writer living in India for 36 days. Looking at those first two numbers makes me feel like I should be at least somewhat confident in what I’m doing. Thirty-six days in India have shown me otherwise though.

Political_World_MapSince arriving in Bengaluru, India at the beginning of September, I have been confronted with multiple opportunities and topics for writing. Bengaluru is a city of over nine million people, religion, class, and caste run into each other at every over-crowded street corner. The traffic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and stereotypes are both met and destroyed on a daily basis. But I can’t seem to write anything about any of it. Or at least I couldn’t.

I would sit at my desk and start essay after essay about the incredible poverty or the cows that cause traffic jams, but every time I tried to put those things into words it came out sounding cliché and forced. I couldn’t find the language to really show anyone who read my work what I was seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling. The sensory overload I was experiencing was something I didn’t know how to put down on paper, and eventually it just made me want to give up.

Then I met my seventh graders.

It took a group of twelve-year-olds to break through my writer’s block. Twelve-year-olds and the familiarity of what it is to be an awkward middle-schooler just trying to make it through a school day. The realization that I didn’t need to be looking for the exotic and different to be a travel writer was what helped me to start writing at a pace I haven’t seen since finals week when I had a forty-page manuscript due the next day. I have stopped trying to shock my readers with things they’ve never experienced, and I am instead focusing on taking an experience just about everyone can relate to and showing it in an entirely new light. We all know what it’s like to be a pre-pubescent middle-schooler. We don’t know what it’s like to also be a member of the untouchable caste. We’ve all heard horror stories about strict Catholic schools. In the U.S. students at those Catholic schools don’t have to ask for permission to enter a room, leave a room, stand up, answer a question (even after they’ve been called on), or to approach the blackboard. It’s the unordinary ordinary that I am looking for now, because it’s all I can digest at this point.

I know that eventually I will find a time and a place to write about the 1,500 year old temple I visited, and the priest there whose sister lives in LA and works for a marketing company. I will someday be able to write about the poverty and the pollution and everything else about India that is so hard for me to digest and understand. But that will take more time than I have so far committed to learning. It will take a lot more of confusion and writer’s block and drafts sent to professors back in the States. So for now, I can write about the things that I recognize, but that are also still completely foreign to me. Thirty-six days in India and the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to stop looking for the story that shows just how different India is from the United States and instead focus on how it’s similar, and how I can relate.

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LaurenWilsonEditorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

Topic: Maps and Mapping

IMG_7690Thanks to Julija Šukys for this list on maps and mapping! Add your suggestions in the comments below!

AWP2015: The Stepmother Tongue: Crossing Languages in Creative Non Fiction

 Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMWhat challenges do authors that work in a second language, English being primary, face in the creative process? Panelists crossed linguistic and geographical borders, and transitioned into English from Lithuanian, Spanish, Cuban, Yiddish, Serb Croatian, and Greek. They discussed their experience in a rich, personal way, from the perspective of acquiring a second language (Julija Sukys,) or using an ancestral language (Ruth Behar, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jennifer Zoble, and Joanna Eleftheriou.)

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