Sunday, January 20, 2008

People Who Never Go Anywhere

We all know somebody like this--people who have rarely, if ever, travelled very far from home, not even to the next town over. Some briefly leave but then return--or they've never left and don't really want to. How dull! To never have gone anywhere and "seen the world". And how pathetic, having seen a bit of the world, to choose not to anymore. This is the type of comment that'll be flung at the "prefer not to" people who opt to opt out of the "Expand Your Horizons!" caravan.

Now, suppose you're a writer and you're one of those "prefer not to" people. Of course, one of the most famous of the opt-outers was Emily Dickinson:

She lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life.... Throughout her adult life she rarely traveled outside of Amherst or very far from home. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence. [1]

Today, thanks to the Internet, we no longer have to hand-write letters and wait for the postman to deliver them. We can log on and "go" anywhere in the world, look at other people's travelogues and photos, watch international videos and hear the music of places we could never afford to visit personally. Granted, it's not the same as being there, but for a reclusive (or poverty-stricken) writer, it's the next best thing.

Another interesting thing about Dickinson was that she deliberately chose to publish less than a dozen of the almost 1,800 poems that she had written.[2] Why only those few, and what made her choose those particular poems over others? Imagine if she were alive today and assembling a chapbook of her best poems. Most poetry contests or publishers seem to want at least 40 poems. If you only had a dozen, it might not qualify.

And, of course, there are the Rules. One must always follow the Rules.
For example, you cannot submit a poem today without a title. If you do, they'll slap on a mandatory one: "Untitled."

The work that was published during her lifetime was typically altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems typically lacked titles ... and often utilized ... unconventional capitalization and punctuation. .[3]

Excessive capping is frowned on nowadays, and "the rules" for submission tell you to edit for punctuation and grammar before you send in your writing. Only the more famous among us (like e. e. cummings) can get away with deliberate, unconventional orthography.

But this is getting off topic a bit. I've sometimes found that people who never go anywhere are often better informed, more open-minded and at times infinitely more interesting than people who have "been there, done that" so often that they've become inured.

If you're a writer, though, and commiserating about a lack of material on which to base your next story or poem, remember Emily Dickinson. She wrote eighteen hundred poems and basically never left her house. Contrast that with the world traveler, coming back from having spent, say, eight months living among fifteen different cultures and all he can think to talk about is the joy or discomforts of his lodgings, or the fabulous or inclement weather, or the food.

Okay, that's unfair. Not everybody who travels is a writer and not every tourist comes back from a trip with a life-changing insight. I'm falling into the Apples and Oranges bin again! I'm just saying that people who never go anywhere may have been to more places than you can ever imagine--depending on how literal your translation of "been to" is. And those who've been "everywhere" (twice) may come back not having had a single reflection, sense of awe or concern, or anything other than "Been there, done that."

The writer, though, would probably milk it for all it's worth. I can see it all now. Everyone's out taking pictures of the magnificent sunset, and he's distracted, haunted by the eyes of the barefoot beggar, who would have gotten a quarter had it not been for his foul mouth and smelly clothes.

What is it you remember about trips you have taken, places you've been to, people you've encountered? It's how that information impacts you, stays with you, maybe changes you, that separates the Apples from the Oranges. (And that's not saying Apples are better than Oranges; only that some writers have a little inner antenna that hones into particular scenes and memories that non-writers may not consider noteworthy.)

It's all in what a writer does with what he has, I guess--and why he does (or does not) feel it necessary to go to (or leave) a place to write about what he "sees".

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