The campervan conversion is finished, its maiden voyage (versions one and two) are successfully completed, and now it’s time for my campervan to fulfill one of its main roles in my life: as a mobile writing studio.
It’s no secret that writing is my ‘thing’. I mean, forests and hiking and camping are all my ‘things’ too, but through 25+ years of travel, writing has been what ties it all together. I’ve kept a journal, off and on (but mostly on) through most of my adult life and, as a result, I have a box of writing, ready to distill into something publishable.
That’s my goal for 2018: to complete and submit to agents a creative non-fiction book about (and likely called) ‘Going Alone‘. I’m writing about living alone, travelling alone, camping and hiking alone, and ultimately being alone —un-partnered and un-childed, the latter entirely through choice— well into my 40s. Of course, I have plenty of friends, and I also write about the role and nature of friendships when one sails alone. So it’s a book about different ways of conceptualizing friendship, as well as about our atomistic, 21st century ‘society’ in which more people than ever live alone and in which it’s perfectly possible for women to be financially independent of men.
This is new. As late as the 1960s, women were entered onto men’s passports and could not own property or take out mortgages in their own names. My book is a memoir of twenty-five years of living in ways that our grandmothers could never have imagined: travelling, hiking, camping, and being alone. For example, here’s a chapter about SCUBA diving. Throughout the book, I make a distinction between solitude (=a good thing) and loneliness (=not a good thing). This perspective is a choice. My being alone is badass rather than sadsack; a space of of possibilities rather than pitfalls. The writing, as a result, feels very ‘can do’ and empowering.
My status as a writer, though, is unusual: although I have written and published two books (one on Westerners teaching English in China and one on learning Spanish and voluntourism in Latin America), I’m yet to venture into trade publishing. ‘Trade’ means publishing for a non-specialist audience; if you can buy it in a high street bookstore, it’s probably a trade book (one exception is textbooks). That is to say, my publishing, although it’s been through legit presses (and not, say, self publishing or vanity presses), has all been academic.
In many ways, academic writing is easier to publish: it’s a sellers’ market for good ideas, good research, and good writing, although it IS still famously hard to get published even as an academic. In contrast, or rather, at a more extreme point in the continuum of easy-to-difficult, I understand that the trade publishing world is waaaay more capricious and can be frustratingly impossible: JK Rowling was famously turned down many times before finding an outlet for Harry Potter, and plenty of other bestsellers almost didn’t make it to print.
The trade publishing world does seem to look for and appreciate good ideas and good writing, though. A couple of years ago at a Christmas barbecue in Sydney, I met Ali Land. I was excited as I’d just submitted my manuscript for my Latin America book, and she was excited as she had just signed Good Me Bad Me with Penguin. My friend Sam introduced us and mentioned that we were both writers, and immediately we started talking about our books and about the processes of writing and publishing them. The differences we found between trade and academic publishing could not be more stark, but the common theme —that publishers exist to make money, and will in every case publish something they can sell— seems to hold true.
Ali had been a pediatric mental health nurse (in Edinburgh, my home city, actually) and was burning with ideas, stories, and the ‘voice’ of a young girl, a former patient, who was a sociopath. Wanting —or rather, needing— to write her story, she had signed up with Faber Academy’s novel course in London, during which she produced a few thousand words of manuscript, in which she nailed the voice of Milly, Good Me Bad Me‘s central character and narrator. Part of the course was pitching to agents, and her work was signed there and then. She wasn’t ‘connected’ in the industry; she wasn’t a ‘name’. She was just a powerful writer telling a current, worthwhile story through a compelling character and a strong voice. She had written her novel at a tiny desk in her flat.
In contrast, I’d had a sabbatical from work in 2015 and, ravenous for travel after eight years of desk-bound lockdown and workaholism in Australia, I researched and wrote my book at a variety of borrowed/rented tables around the world. Some places were connected to the research but others were pure whimsy. Along the way I found perfect and not-so-perfect writing cafes, chose AirBnB houses by the writing-suitability of the tables in their photos, and scavenged quiet moments everywhere to get words down on the page.
My homespun writing retreats included the Trans Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow (nothing to do with my fieldwork, I just wanted to do it)…
…writing in cafes in Antigua, Guatemala, which is a cafe-lined colonial city near one of my research fieldwork sites…
…writing in a rented flat in Xela, Guatemala, which was one of my fieldwork sites…
…writing in a beachside cafe on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua (again, nothing to do with the research, I just wanted to go there)…
…writing at a writing conference and plenty of cafes in Vermont, USA…
…writing in a rented apartment in the old, wooden city of Tallinn, Estonia…
…writing in another AirBNB in Stone Town, Zanzibar…
…and I finished writing the book back at my livingroom table in Sydney.
Looking back, it was preposterous, really. At one point, before I left, I was booking a flight on IcelandAir on one screen, one on Copa Panama on another, and a flight to Vladivostok on Korean, and my bank rang me:
- We’ve stopped your credit card. You’ll need to call us to activate it.
- Umm, why?
- Well, we believe someone’s skimmed it, and is using it fradulently.
- Oh, would that be to buy flights in a bunch of different places?
- Yes, actually. That’s what they’re doing. We’ve intercepted activity from Panama, the US, Peru, Russia, Iceland, Tanzania, and Korea, all within the last couple of hours.
- Yep, that’s me actually, I’m booking flights.
- But, but, who travels like that? I mean, those are pretty spread out…?
- Well, me. I do.
The resulting trip was as absurd as it was wonderful, and I did get the book written. Doing it again I wouldn’t try to combine nearly as much travel with the serious, involved, brain-taxing task of putting together a coherent, 90,000-word, linear manuscript. But I did it that way, and it worked.
So writing in odd places is something that has a precedent for me. And getting out of my usual routine, mixing up the creativity and giving myself new places seems to feed my writing in ways I don’t fully understand. But it does.
But back to Ali Land. She wrote a book at a small desk in the corner of a room while I fannied around, having fun but probably wasting a lot of time and energy, all over the globe. Both our books were published. Either way it can be done but, crucially, taking a sabbatical and dancing around the planet with tons of free time are not necessary pre-conditions for writing. Who knew?!
This feels massively inspiring. I’ve long thought that although the stodgy kind of academic writing happens as a matter of course (as it’s part of my job), other, ‘proper’, writing –like the Latin America book (which was part academic stodge but mainly creative non fiction/autoethnography)– somehow needs its own breathing space, both in time and in geography. There I was, trapped in the belief that I needed physical and temporal separation from ‘real life’ in order to do ‘real writing’. And, it turns out, that isn’t necessary.
And so. 2018 is the year of real writing, in my own (real) writing space: my van. It’s not Ali Land’s little desk in her room*, but it feels similar. It’s my own little space in which I write, working the words into daily living without feeling the need to chase dreams all over the bloody planet in order to get anything creative done. I’m not saying that I’m not going anywhere this year — I have a couple of conference trips lined up (Auckland and Santiago), and I’m thinking of heading back to Vermont again in August to catch up with some of the inspirational creative non-fiction writers I met there. But mostly, this year, I’m staying put, and putting down words. I’ve started the Faber creative non-fiction course here in Sydney, and I’ve set myself a NaNoWriMo-like weekly word target. My book is happening. And it’s happening thanks, in part, to my campervan.
*Paradoxically, though, Ali Land (who I only met that one time, but who I follow on Instagram) is writing in Bali now. This is because Good Me Bad Me has been crazy successful, seemingly selling more copies, in more languages, than the bible. And so she is no longer writing at the little desk but is, instead, hanging out in paradise. Good on her 😀