Thursday, November 7, 2013

Alaska Writer on the Road: Rituals and Departures

Just when you think writers are a strange lot, you discover they’re even stranger. Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, had an intense connection to snails, which she bred at home. She once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying a handbag containing a head of lettuce and a hundred snails as her companions for the evening. Moving to France, she violated prohibitions against the import of snails by smuggling her little shelled pets across the border, six to ten at a time, hidden under each breast.
That unforgettable anecdote comes from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, which I’ve only just started reading. Aside from her snail smuggling, Highsmith had many other less bizarre but still distinctive rituals, including starting the day with a bottle of vodka by her bedside. She’d reach for it as soon as she woke up, have a morning slug (the other kind) and then mark on the bottle her acceptable limit for the rest of the day. Many of Currey’s other featured authors have similar habits of hard drinking, heavy eating, smoking and other forms of drug use—but also early rising, strict daily word limits, and so on. Just when I’d convinced myself that successful writers (Hemingway et al. aside) are for the most part healthy folks, the first dips into Currey’s book have challenged that view.

It seems that a number of our most notable artists lived in ways that should have killed them. But a surprising number of them lived to a decently old age. And they were consistent. They figured out what worked to get the pages out and stuck with it. When it comes to productivity, self-knowledge, more than universally applicable standards of self-care, may be the most important lesson of all. (But don’t share that with any of my students, to whom I continue to preach the benefits of exercise, sleep, and healthy relationships.)
I’ve spent years trying to create rituals and good working spaces for myself, and this week, I’m ditching most of them. After six months of preparation, cleaning and purging, we sold our house. It closed just three days ago. We are now officially “de-homed,” which sounds a little better than homeless. We have no mixed feelings about this fact. I felt chained to my mortgage for half of the last fifteen years and would prefer renting to owning next time we live in Alaska, about a year from now.

Saturday we fly to Vancouver and a few days later we fly to Thailand for a month. After that, Indonesia. After that, maybe China. My husband will teach English and I’ll continue writing, teaching, and book coaching, becoming a true digital nomad. But what will that mean, day to day? Even as we line up our first accommodations in Thailand, I know I can’t count on much. We’re staying at a backpacker-style long-term budget hotel for the first month; will there be a desk? Will there be a way to make a simple breakfast or will we head out onto the street first thing every day? Will 90 degrees be too hot to think; will my teenage daughter and I relent and take afternoon naps, as I used to do on long trips to Mexico, twenty years ago?
Packing up our house over several months was like finishing a book. At every point, you think you’re about 85% done, you open more cupboards and dig deeper into the shed and work for days or weeks and realize that now, you’re only 87% done. I noticed, with a little chagrin, the very last step I was uncomfortable taking: emptying my office. It was almost empty, but I left for last the disconnection of my desktop computer and massive printer, and the moving of several boxes of books and files related to current writing projects. Truth is, I mostly work on a laptop, and mostly use files stored in the cloud. But still: there are old documents here and there, and reference books not available in digital form, and notes to myself, and the simple familiar quality of sitting at my downstairs desk. That final unplugging of the router took place about two hours before the realtor walk-through and handover of keys. Fifteen years of freelancing and writing novels from one location, over. I’m traveling precisely because I want a complete shakeup of both my external and internal environments, but still, it’s natural to cling to the familiar. And it’s natural to be a little anxious. Will currently-incubating fiction projects in my head evaporate when I reach a new climate and culture? What other interests and ideas will take the place of ones that suddenly lose their appeal? What experiences will shake up much of what I currently believe?

As a young man, George Orwell, living in Burma, witnessed and probably participated in the slaughtering of an aggressive elephant, which seemed to influence his thoughts about the British Empire forever after—or at least provided a metaphor and narrative structure for communicating those long-simmering thoughts and feelings. Patricia Highsmith, emigrating to France, deepened her passionate relationship with snails. Who the heck knows what will happen to us when we live in strange lands?
In the meanwhile, I know I will be more grateful than ever for the connection to Alaska writers and readers via this blog. The boxes are packed, the strings are cut, but I’m glad for this last one, thanks to all of you.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. Her new novel-in-progress is called Behave. She works independently as a book coach and teaches in the low-residency UAA MFA program. Contact her at


Linda said...

Bon voyage--we look forward to occasional reports from the road and will live vicariously through you for the next few months!

Kathleen Tarr said...

De-homing and becoming digital nomads---perfect for creativity!
Many happy ocean crossings. I look forward to The Lax Reports. AK and 49W will miss you.

Anonymous said...

I love this post, Andromeda, like so many of yours-- random anecdotes and interesting tidbits woven with your own thoughtful wonderings. I hope you keep posting from the road! Kudos to you for taking a leap. I wish you and your family well, and cross my fingers for a desk, a chair by the window, or whatever space you make your own.