Revision — that essential conduit — isn’t just finding a better word or building a better sentence or re-visualizing a scene. It’s searching a narrative for the emotional truth at its center. By shedding safe layers and any layers of delusion, we writers discover what, exactly, is going on in our own stories, and why, exactly, we write about what we do,
So, what’s the true narrative as I pack and sort and prepare myself for my move to Portugal at the end of the summer, prepare to say goodbye to my house, to easy access to my family and friends, and to my dog, who will soon go off to a new home? What am I feeling? What am I really feeling as I decide on a departure date? Trepidation? Anxiety? Exhilaration? Impatience? All of these?
We humans have this strange huge capacity to feel multiple, often contradictory, emotions simultaneously.
When I look beyond the logistics of leaving, my imagination takes me inside the Coimbra apartments I see available online to what it might be like to live there. My imagination takes me back to the cafes and walkways I discovered in March. To the beaches and gardens and ancient ruins near the city I look forward to exploring. To museums in London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam, all only quick flights away. And my imagination takes me to the terrifying territory of exactly that I’m working toward: total immersion in my writing projects, which means total immersion in my own mind. Oh. My. God.
What if I don’t like it in there!
This isn’t a new concern. When my children were small and constantly interrupting, I complained that they did at the same time I might have secretly thanked them. It was safer pouring juice than wrestling with new stories. When the demands of teaching full time meant shutting down my computer, I could be both bothered and relieved. Now, I can always put a manuscript aside to clean out another closet. Coincidentally, in light of my new book’s title, an artist friend and I refer to the point of complete immersion as the vanishing point, that point on the horizon when the distance between our projects and our selves dissolve. It can be the best place. It can be the worst place. The brightest. The darkest.
Some writers say they don’t like writing, but do like having written. I pretty much like all parts of the process. But I’ve always had diversions. If what lurked behind the vanishing point was too scary, I could always emerge to feed a child or walk a dog or drive to a class. What will writing be like without these excuses? Will I find myself revising the paragraphs and pages of my own mind in order to live there?
I’m kidding. I think.
I can always fly off to Paris.
(Image: Google Images.)
New to blogging, I’ve neglected to take photos of the many wonderful and often helpful people I’ve met here in Portugal. But I have words. Here are a few.
Early on, when I asked a taxi driver in Porto why there were so few dogs, he offered to show me areas outside the city conducive to dog-keeping next time I’m in his cty. “All green!” he said. “Big dogs! German Shepherds! Do you have a German Shepherd?” No, but a big one. “Bring her!”
Here in Coimbra, I found myself beside a woman heading down a steep alley. Unsure I was headed in the right way — the path ahead looked like a dead end — and not wanting to have to climb back up for nothing, I asked her whether it was the way to the Old Cathedral. She turned out to be a professor of medieval history at the University, and so filled me in on the remarkable history of the 12th century fortress on our breathless — there is no other way — descent.
At one point, she glanced at my shoes, worried I hadn’t come prepared. I had: rubber soles. When I suggested the walk kept her healthy, she laughed, and pounded her heart.
There was the woman who, when I asked for directions to the Jardim Botanico da Universidade, looked askance, and, I sensed immediately, pointed the wrong way. I found the right way. It’s gorgeous, even in March. I took my first selfie there, but I’m not sharing. So, magnolias instead.
There was also the woman who pulled up next to me in her car and asked directions in rapid Portuguese! I looked like a native!
My favorite might the earnest young man working as a guard in one of the University buildings. I had peered through a series of windows down into a grandly furnished hall where there seemed to be something important going on. Sure enough: a PhD oral exam.
He led me back to the windows to explain. “The jury, he said, “sits there, and do you see the woman with the robes? She is the judge. In fact, my exam for my Masters is coming up and will be there.” He was becoming flushed and nervous, even sweating. A Masters in . . . “Education. And friends and family sit there.” They can watch? “Oh, yes.” It makes you nervous just talking about it? “Yes. Very much.” You will do beautifully. “Thank you.” He also told me that the room had originally been the Front Room. The Front Room? “Where the king sat on his throne.”
But a formal exam in an arena taken seriously. Education taken seriously. Education that matters. A degree that matters. Degrees earned from a university proud on its hill since 1537. No gift grades in Coimbra.
I do have one people picture, this one of the fine chef Eva and her crew at Maria Portuguese.
When you come to visit me in Coimbra, we will feast there. She’s turning me into a foodie!
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For months I’ve imagined two of us on the upcoming Portugal trip, but, alas, a family emergency necessitates my friend Susan’s staying home. When word of this came, I worried about her situation, and her disappointment. She had been such an eager participant. It took me two or three days to fully comprehend I’d be landing in Porto alone, renting a car alone, navigating alone, considering how I might turn a few-day foray into a long-term stay alone. To process, as they say, the change. She says the same thing happened to her. She was still imagining herself on the plane long after it was evident our plans had dissolved.
I’ve traveled alone before. Quite a lot. But this trip is different, because it’s not for business, not for sightseeing — although there will be plenty of that, too. This is a reconnaissance trip. An exploration. I expect it to be fulfilling. But I expected it to be shared.
I’m okay. I’m not okay that her family is in emergency mode, but I’m happy to report there’s steady improvement on her home front. I have stopped imagining how we might spend the seven-hour flight, and started downloading podcasts and music to stay occupied. I’ve stopped imagining us getting lost on back roads together, and decided to invest in the GPS option on the car rental. I’ll be a different sort of explorer. This situation better mimics what living in a new country alone might feel like — just as, I might add, a low-residency MFA program might better duplicate the frequently solitude writer’s life better than full residency when one is surrounded with like minds.
Susan has left me with two pieces of advice, fulfilling her role as navigator in a different way: As I drive, be calm, be patient. wait for the right exit, wait for the right turn. But, if I exit too soon, turn left instead of right, simply change my destination.
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Leaving a comfort zone means boarding a roller coaster. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to receive updates about my whereabouts and adventures in your e-mail.
My plans – traveling, writing full time – necessitates giving up this house, the only house I’ve ever felt truly at home, with its Narnia of tall trees and stone walls and its funky floor plan with loads of bookshelves and interesting spaces. There’s more. House hunting at the same time I was working on Vanishing Point, this property popped up for sale the same week I began searching in earnest. Central to the story is a studio located in the main character’s backyard. In the back corner of this yard, a studio, nearly identical to the one in my book. I looked no further, and finished Vanishing Point at its windows.
I’ve loved all that teaching has provided these ten years, all the sharing with and learning from scores of marvelous students, but for thirty years I’ve wanted to be more totally immersed – the words ‘more totally indulged’ also come to mind – in writing.
Rodin’s belief that to work is to avoid dying while living is now mine. I’d begun to feel I was dying a little bit each day, not because I was teaching, but because I was teaching too much while not writing enough, not reading or painting or walking or looking around me enough. As I write this, I have some forty essays to grade – some semesters I’ve had a hundred. But now, with a book about to be released and a new book started, I’m on the verge of a better balance.
But a better balance means selling the house and paring my belongings down to a bare minimum since I long to travel and live in faraway places. So, at the same time I’m giving myself permission to assume the right life, I’m relinquishing elements of identity embedded in this quirky, lovely, very-me cottage and studio, elements of identity embedded in possessions saturated with memory.
Some days go better than others. I’ve carted odds and ends to Goodwill. Donated some books to a nearby prison for women. Decided what will be stored – very little – what will be sold – a lot. Severing ties with objects rich with pleasant memories is difficult; severing ties with objects that carry mixed memories, with thorns in the skin of their beauty and warmth, liberating.
But, there are questions. Will I easily and often recall love and family and laughter without these particular Christmas decorations, this particular table around which my family gathered for twenty years? Or, is the important question whether dumping all that’s tainted will wash away regret and pain?
Only time will tell.