I am about to start a new writing project as part of my master’s, and I have to decide what it is that I am going to write. Instead of thinking outwards, I think I need to think inwards. I say this because I’m currently reading Sara Wheeler’s Travels Through a Thin Country, which I picked up expecting it to be about Chile and discovered that although the places are Chilean, the writing is disappointingly touristic. It’s not bad writing, but it’s disappointing because I find myself longing for a different texture. I think the problem is my memories don’t align with the writer’s descriptions, not because the book was written over thirty years ago, but because my memories are crammed full of images and Sara Wheeler’s descriptions are not. I miss the small, quirky details that differentiate one place from another.
It’s like describing an English train station. There are often architectural similarities between train stations. The bodyless bins with their clear plastic backs, the strip of yellow marking where to stand, the wrought iron curls that imitate flowers and echoing back to the Romans making a train station, central to any town or city, a peculiar place, especially late in the evening under the fierce electric light. But my memories of English train stations are always different. In York, the train station is on the outside of the city, merely a pause before you cross the fronter into the city itself. If you’re not going to the museum, but heading into the city, you cross the street, pelican crossings seem to hold you up, and find yourself suddenly reminded of death by those gravestones which lie in the verge. My memory says a cholera outbreak, but probably this is my memory playing tricks. Soon you’ll walk through the archway, head under the city walls, amazed when the double-decker buses don’t scrape themselves against as they twist underneath. Then there’s the river to cross. You’ll pass the café on the bridge and think about coffee and something to eat because after all that travelling, you’re already famished even if you’re only just arriving. York is like this to me because I think of York as a day trip, a day off, an adventure. It was one of the first places I travelled without an adult to accompany me.
Of course, like Sara Wheeler, I want to write about Chile, or maybe about me in Chile, or about that process of travelling, and I want to write about being nomadic yet somehow circumvent that frustration with the world of tourism that often paints so many of the stereotypes around me. To write about Chile, I guess I need to write about England, but I’m no longer sure where the differences lie. I’m not sure where the boundary is between being English and being Chilean and as I cook Venezuelan cachapas for my breakfast I realise I’m not sure where that fits either. I pick up a book I bought in Montevideo, written by a Uruguayan woman, and I find myself reading about an autumnal October with the Swedish snow falling thick.
The list of books I’m currently reading is huge. I’m also reading, or was reading before my ebook reader broke, Ariel Dorfman’s Desert Memories, which is another book which involves travelling through Chile. His connection though is one that’s personal and emotional and not always favourable, although his descriptions seem more grounded in a deeper experience. Maybe it’s simply that he writes at a slower pace. Perhaps the problem here is that I like slow and wandering texts more than excitement and action. I’m often torn between writing directly and writing with a more poetic quality. The more I study writing, the more I end up rewriting and the more playful I am with the sentences. Yet, simultaneously, I find myself impressed by sharp, clean sentences.
Whatever I write, it will have to be something personal because that way I’ll remain curious and interested. I think this is what hooks me into Ariel Dorfman’s book: it really is personal. He is biased and unashamedly so. I don’t think there’s any point pretending not to be self-centred, and I like to think that my self is interesting enough to sustain my interest in writing the pieces I intend to write. Writing about myself has sustained this blog for over a decade.
It occurs to me that a difference in this project is that my audience is not you, a fluent reader of English, but my students who are themselves well-acquainted with Chile and learning to speak this language I write. There are crossed purposes here. The content will be chosen by me for me and inevitably just be whatever settles in my mind at the moment I sit down to create that first draft – like all my blog posts. The style though will have to be refined.
This is what lies ahead.