So here’s the story, and the parallel to our lives as writers.You know how hard it is to decide when to tell people you’re writing a book? Or trying to sell a book?
The pros of sharing: increased sense of commitment and self-motivation (I’m going to finish this thing!), community support, sometimes unexpected or serendipitous assistance, the general joy of sharing the ups and downs of a long and uncertain process.The cons of sharing: Wait, you’re still working on that thing you were writing last year/ten years ago/back in graduate school? Or: No agent/editor is biting? Oh. (Cue funereal sound effects.) Or any version of: What are you working on? Still that?
The last time I announced via email, with some fanfare, that I had finished a first draft of a novel, my own mother misunderstood and wrote back along the lines of, “Congrats on getting published.” It surprised me that I needed to explain after all these years that finishing an early draft and getting a book in the bookstore are not the same thing. At best, there’s a two-year lag between those events, and at worst, there’s no connection at all.Alas, traveling can be the same way: unpredictable, complex, with a long lead time.
We started pining for a major international adventure several years ago, feeling like we’d started reverting to a risk-averse, less purposeful life, only exaggerated by the recession. In March 2012, we committed to a long trip in a family meeting. We started telling people, perhaps a few months later, saying that we planned to de-enroll our teen daughter from public high school (she couldn’t wait and is the most eager member of our three-member team) and travel beginning in mid-2013. We didn’t want to overtalk it, but nor did we want to keep secrets.There were a few things to get out of the way first: two graduate degrees to finish (my husband and I both went back to school in our 40s), a summer residency, several job assignments, working extra hours to pay for extra expenses to come, making more headway on a novel-in-progress that has nothing to do with the upcoming trip. All of 2013 was spent doing minor repairs and purging our belongings—twenty years of family mementos and clutter, including boxes after boxes of book and article research as well as college and grad school academic files (pre-Internet!) as well as endless homeschool projects, thousands of childhood drawings, old baby clothes and toys stored just in case. I’d always put off cleaning out a closet or desk drawer; cleaning out much of my adult past was nearly overwhelming. Only in mid-July was there enough “free” time to do the hardest stuff. Day after day, evening after evening, weekend after weekend. A different Craigslist furniture ad or garage sale or trip to the recycling center or trip to the dump—over and over.
For Brian and me, it was the summer that wasn’t. Every hour and every dollar was so spoken for (so doubly spoken for, in many cases) that when Brian was invited to go salmon dipnetting for a few days, I went into a minor panic, having already spent many weeks cleaning and repairing mostly solo while he was occupied with job- and graduate school-related in-state travel.I’ve spent hours each week for over a year learning the ins and outs of foreign EFL job-seeking. Our house officially listed today. One storage shed is almost full. We’re still re-homing a dog, which has taken longer than expected. We might be in Alaska for many months yet. We might travel between Alaska and the Lower 48 several times before we head for more exotic terrain. (Yes, officially, Alaska will remain our home base, and it’s where we’ll return at the end of our travels, and if we decide to come back repeatedly over the course of a year, then darn yes, we’ll do that.) One of our highest priorities, even before crossing the big Pacific, is to catch up with family in the Lower 48 and Canada. We have two close family members dealing with long-term illnesses. A nephew we’ve never met. Another nephew we haven’t seen in five years. One reason we wanted a flexible year, with no mortgage to pay, is that we wanted the freedom to catch up with people we love in lots of places.
We want to see Asia. It’s another very expensive hop, but we’d really like to see Africa. We want to swim with whale sharks and sea turtles, struggle to communicate in several foreign tongues, try surfing, see places that inspired George Orwell and Somerset Maugham and Barbara Kingsolver and Paul Theroux, eat and cook unfamiliar foods, maybe rise above ancient temples in a hot-air balloon, maybe kayak along the Southeast Asia coast, teach and volunteer in several educational settings, learn more than we teach, be endlessly surprised, and remind ourselves that we don’t need so much stuff—practically close to nothing at all—to be happy.
But most of all, we want to take it just one step at a time. So when people ask for our itinerary, we toss out a few country names (sure, we’ve been reading about specific countries, temp-teaching job markets, and visas, ad nauseum), but an itinerary gives the wrong impression. For at least a year, we don’t want to live according to a plan. We want to reorient every few months. We want to break our own rules, most of all.
Again, it’s like writing a book. There can’t be a strict outline, or an itinerary, or a fixed schedule.
When people ask you what your novel or memoir is about, you want to tell them – you want to share—but in your heart you know that there’d better be surprises ahead, for the reader and for the writer.
P.S. I’ll continue blogging here, once a month. Next stop—most likely, but one never knows!—Toronto in early October.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour.