In 1962 John Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley, the account of his journey across the country with his dog in a truck converted into a mobile home. Born in California, settled in Long Island, but having recently spent years in Europe, the writer wanted to reconnect with the source of his inspiration. Stevenson wrote Travels with a Donkey; Belloc took the Path to Rome. The traveling writer book is, by way of being, a literary genre of its own.
My own career as a writer—as distinct from philosopher—began when I vowed to write every day. Each night I went down into the basement at about 10p.m. and wrote until 2a.m. It was an unadorned place in which the hum and whir of furnaces, hot water heaters, and other domestic equivalents of the taxi-meter spurred me on. My desk was a workbench, L-shaped, on which I placed my typewriter.
It was there that I learned to write fiction. Before my eyes was a typed reminder: No one owes you a reading. With the passage of time, the place and hours of the day I wrote changed, but I acquired the habit of doing my daily stint religiously. My basement digs altered over the years, with the addition of more and more bookshelves, an easy chair, an old TV, a regular desk, but I could see the shock in the eye of those to whom I showed my working quarters. They were, in a word, squalid. And perhaps for that reason conducive to writing and reading.
I tell you this so that when I go on now to speak of my own writing vacations you will not think that it was thus that my serious writing began. During sabbatical years in Europe, usually in Rome, I improvised a place to work, and stayed on schedule, both academic and literary. Ten years or so ago, thanks to the perks of increasing seniority, I was able to get away for weeks to do nothing but write. I would go to Italy, sometimes to France or Spain, where in a rented car I would simply set out, moving from place to place. My requirements were simple: a hotel with good lighting, restaurants, a church. In recent years, I have often ended in Sicily, in Agrigento.
Once I arrived in Trapani on the west coast of Sicily and drove to the harbor where a boat was readying for departure. Where was it headed? Pantaleria. I bought a ticket and drove on. The following morning, I disembarked on a little volcanic island off the African coast, but as we came into the harbor I could see a church, a hotel, and restaurants. And not much else. The seas kept me there longer than I had planned; the walls of my room were chalk white, the lighting wonderful, and I wrote.
What has this to do with Steinbeck? Last spring I was in Italy; next fall I will be going to Scotland for academic reasons. I had thought of going to Spain this year for my writing vacation, but two things changed my mind. When I attended a medieval colloquium at Sewanee University in Tennessee I was picked up at the Chattanooga airport and driven not quite a hundred miles to the university along a road I had been down before, a road of breathtaking beauty. Second, I reread Steinbeck’s travel book. This year I decided I would do at home what I have been doing in Europe.
Not that one would want to get hooked on the idea of optimum writing conditions. Neurosis is right around the corner for a writer, and it is all too easy to think that such and such a place, or hour, or instrument, is essential. Some writers get blocked. I never have. Early on I read some advice of Adela Rogers St. John. She would put a sheet of paper in her typewriter and type, writing to herself about what she was there to do, what she hoped to write, and for whom. Invariably, she said, before she was halfway down the page, she was embarked on a story. It works. Infallibly. In basements or in exotic places. I pass it on to you.
So tomorrow we are off to Illinois, for the first communion of a granddaughter, then on to visit another daughter, and then I am off. During the next three weeks, somewhere in America, holed up in a motel, with his laptop where it etymologically belongs, your servant will be doing what writers are supposed to do. Write.