I didn’t have a very coherent plan when I left for Colombia last year. We don’t tend to make very good decisions when we’re reacting to a bad situation, or at least I don’t.
You could write a whole book on what I didn’t know, but what I didn’t anticipate that I didn’t know going in was that a trip out of the country would be great for my creativity, and not just because of a sudden lack of responsibilities. It opened up new pathways in my head that hadn’t been active before. I think that for a lot of people, learning really does end in school, and that this is a result of our biology. As a species, we sort of don’t believe we need to be discovering and retaining new things as we age. At some point, we think we’ve got it all figured out, even though intellectually we must know that we haven’t.
Except for “grown-ups,” of course; they don’t intellectually suspect there is anything to know that they haven’t already deemed tiresome.
I never felt as if I was prepared to really write something as I began to grow into novel-writing age because I felt I lacked experience. I’ve discovered this is both true in a sense and in another quite false. It is entirely possible to write awesome stuff without ever having left the boundaries of your own sleepy home town, as Robert E. Howard, he of Conan, could have told you. And might still be around to, had he not died at a shockingly young age.
On the other, I have always wanted my writing to matter, and when I was younger and writing up things for my friends or classmates to read, it all just seemed so lightweight and silly, like I was incapable of coming up with anything that had meaning for anybody beyond myself. It was why I got into journalism as a career, in a sort of indirect way. If I go talk to all sorts of people and go on adventures and see new places, then I’ll know about more stuff, and everybody will have to read what I write! That’ll work! Right?
It did work out that way and it didn’t: The existential loneliness of my first semester of college solidifed the idea of Long September, the experience of being a stranger in downstate Illinois provided me with the setting I needed to make the novel’s sense of that isolation ring true (to me anyway, I have no idea if anybody else will like it), and it was the day-to-day practice and frustration of being a professional that gave me some other quality to work on it. Maybe discipline. Maybe just personal confidence. There were a lot of milestones in those first few years in Decatur, but not finishing a book.
From the moment I touched down at El Edén in Colombia, I knew I was going to get some kind of experience out of the bargain. On the first night, in a hotel in the touristy mountain town of Salento, I slept in a hotel room, bundled up against the chill mountain air as rain beat the cobblestone streets outside, accompanied by the sound of horse’s hooves clattering along. I thought I had landed on another planet.
Some months later I made an off-hand mention of my time in Colombia to a class of journalism students my friend the professor asked me to speak in front of and interest sort of perked up.
“What was it like reporting there?” one of them asked.
I told them that it was remarkably like reporting here, and that is the other thing that is so very valuable about travel. You see the differences, but also the comforting similarities. There is an “American” character, as in, a character shared among people of the Americas, and I told them that this was very apparent to me as I reported, and that it filled me with a kind of feeling of fellowship.
A case in point: As I walked through a mall one day in Santiago de Cali, I realized I had gained enough Spanish to overhear conversations. This dawned on me as I passed the escalator leading up to the movie theater. A family strode by me and the son, no more than a toddler, pointed up to the theater and made some general sound of wanting.
“No,” the father said in a tone stern and matter-of-fact, a tone precisely the one I might use with my nieces, “because your behavior has been very bad.”
The child went from zero to tantrum in an instant and I had to step onto the escalator so I could get away from them fast enough to contain my laughter. There was nothing humorous about this, and I didn’t want them to think I was laughing at them, right? It was just that I had understood so perfectly, and that the exchange was so unremarkable, so precisely what it would have been in English, that it pushed some button in my head and I just completely lost it for a second. One of my better writing instructors once explained to me that humor is a thought process and not an emotion, and that situation seemed to prove it, because it really makes no sense otherwise. I’m sure you don’t even think it’s funny to hear me relate it.
And then there were the other things. Hiking the mountains while trying to explain the Second Amendment in Spanish. Looking down onto fog-shrouded Bogotá, or watching the rains sweep in to Popayán and then dry so quickly that I could see them steam off the cobblestones. I don’t know where it will end up, but it will end up somewhere in what I write.
My father told me that if I become a good writer, I will write about Decatur. This was during one of my many sessions bitching to him about not wanting to be there.
But as he has been with more things than I’d like to admit, I guess he was right.