Taking a Break by Louise DeSalvo
January 8, 2010
During the time when I was stumped in the process of writing my memoir Adultery, my husband and I were scheduled to take a holiday. We’d saved for it; made plans — booked a flight, arranged for a hotel room. This wasn’t any ordinary trip. We were going to Hawaii where we’d never been. When we first discussed it, I was thrilled. But the closer it came to the time of our departure, the less I wanted to go. I had a book to unravel. Leaving my desk when I was so unsure about this book was crazy, I thought.
“Let’s not go,” I told him one morning at the breakfast table. “I need to work on my book. My work isn’t going well, and I don’t have time to fool around.”
“We’re going,” he said, “if I have to drag you there. If you get away, you’ll figure out what to do with the book when you get back.”
My husband believes in taking time off. I do too — theoretically. But practically, I feel better, safer, more myself when I’m knuckling under at the desk. I don’t think we’ve taken a holiday without me trying to subvert it. Suddenly I don’t feel well. The airports are too busy. There’s a heightened alert. The weather is terrible where we’re going. After years of this resistance, I now think I know why I’d rather stay home and work than take time off.
When I was young, the care of my sister was entrusted to me. My mother was often depressed, out of sorts, incapable of running a house and watching my sister. So I was the one who superintended her during most of my so-called free time. But I noticed that my parents didn’t bother me, didn’t ask me to do what I never wanted to do, when I was doing my homework.
My father had made me a triangular desk that fit into a space at the top of the stairs. When I settled down there to work, my sister was told not to bother me. My parents valued education. And that was my way out. So I was the kind of kid who invented homework. I’d get through whatever was assigned, and then tell my parents that there was even more work to be done. I’d have to read about the Civil War in the encyclopedia; I’d have to practice vocabulary; I’d have to read two novels by the end of the month. Sitting at my desk working, I was safe. Nobody bothered me. Nobody told me what to do. My father was pleased with my industry rather than angry with me. My mother allowed me to study because, no matter how much she needed my help, she nonetheless wanted me to do well in school.
With a history like that, who would ever want to leave a desk piled high with work?
And then I met and married my husband, a man with a far different sense of what life should be. He started dragging me away from my desk soon after we meet, and has been doing so every since.
I know many writers like myself — writers who would rather be writing than doing anything else. Writers like Marcel Proust who have their own equivalent of a cork-lined room. Writers who feel unmoored when they’re anywhere but home. Writers who don’t want to leave a book in progress until it’s finished.
Of course not all writers are like this. There have been many who have traveled often, and to far-flung places. Elizabeth Bishop (whose poems written in Brazil — “Squatter’s Children,” “Questions of Travel,” “A Trip to Vigia” — illustrate how travel was necessary to her art). Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wandered all over Italy and wrote about it. D. H. Lawrence, who went to Mexico, Ceylon, Australia, Germany, Italy, and who used everything he saw, and so many of the people he met, in his work, much to the chagrin of most of them, for his portraits were devastating.
What I learned as I did research on creativity for my book Writing as a Way of Healing is that travel seems to engender creative breakthroughs and, according to Howard Gardner, indeed might even be necessary for the creative mind. And if not travel, exploration nearer to home through walks in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Gardner’s book, Creating Minds (NY: Basic Books, 1993) lists travel as one of the defining features of the creative personality — travel, focusing on one domain, organizing one’s life to do the work, giving something up, among other things.
Once I read Gardner, and I could construe my travels as a kind of homework necessary for writing books, I stopped resisting. I was relaxing, I told myself, but it was necessary. And I began to think about my favorite writers’ travels, recalling how much their journeys contributed to their art. If it was good for them, it could be good for me.
Before Virginia Woolf married, she travelled to Italy in April 1909. She kept a journal of what she saw, writing detailed descriptions of the landscape; portraits of the people she met; observations about how the English lived when they travelled abroad. (There is no record that she ever ate pasta, which I can’t understand.) When she returned to England, she used what she’d seen and heard in the writing of the earlier version of her first novel The Voyage Out, then called Melymbrosia — the landscape, the people, their behavior. After she married Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf was often as unwilling as I am to travel. But her husband insisted: he made her take what she called “official holidays” — six weeks a year away from her work, though, like so many of us, she was never really away from her work. She would read, write in her journal, look, listen, storing away what she would need when she returned to England. She would turn phrases over in her head, unlock conundrums, dream new books.
There are, I’ve learned, measurable shifts in the way the brain works when we’re in an unfamiliar setting. That shift into a different kind of awareness and alertness seems to be what precipitates the changes in writers’ works that often occur after they travel.
D. H. Lawrence was, as his biographer John Worthen describes, an outsider. After he left England, he wandered the globe. And he was one of those writers who seemed to be at his best — less angry, more cheerful, less hostile — when he was en route from one place to another. Without Lawrence’s travels, there would have been no art, there might have been no Lawrence. He wrote about every place he visited, turning all those he met into characters in his novels, very often infuriating his subjects. He wasn’t in Sardinia for very long before he began writing The Sea and Sardinia. A visit to ancient tombs in Tuscany became Etruscan Places. And he never seemed to doubt that in a matter of moments he could learn enough about a place to render it in prose.
My husband and I did take that trip to Hawaii. While we were there, we wandered into a gallery displaying glass works by Dale Chihuly. If you don’t know his work, search online to take a look at it. His work has transformed the art of glass blowing, pushing technique into realms previously unexplored. His pieces are astonishingly beautiful — form, color, and dynamism conjoined.
When we returned home, I bought a video of Chihuly at work. He was coaching those who blow glass for him — you can’t do it forever, glass blowing is dangerous work, damaging the lungs — to go where the glass wanted to go. Rather than forcing the glass into assuming shapes it didn’t want to, Chihuly was insisting that the glass do what glass does when it’s blown. He was working with the material of his art rather than against it.
“Go where the work wants to go; don’t resist; let the work take you.”
I wrote that down on a card after our trip, after seeing Chihuly’s glass, after seeing Chihuly work. My trip, which I’d resisted, provoked me into working on Adultery in a new way. My husband was right. The work found its voice, its shape, its meaning. And with less effort than usual. I worked more freely, more fully, more dangerously. The subject matter found its form. When I was at my desk, Chihuly was standing behind me, shouting at me, as he did to his glassblowers, “Let it go, let it go, let it go.”
I’m going away on Monday. For two weeks. It still isn’t easy for me. I’m still resisting. I think I have a cold. But I’ve learned my lesson well. I’ll go, no matter what. While I’m away, I won’t write (except journal); I won’t read (except for pleasure); I won’t work (except in way writers always work when they take time off , letting lines run through my head, letting scenes move before my eyes, hoping to capture them later). And I trust that, when I get back, something new and unexpected will happen in the book I’m writing about my father. At least I hope it will.
See you in two weeks. And take a break.