that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

setting goals

This morning I had the TED radio hour podcast on while I washed the dishes. It was last week’s episode (I think) about Champions, and in a way it became a meditation on the mentality and habits of successful people. Athletes, in this case.

I’ve been thinking about life goals over the last couple of weeks, and this podcast kind of ran with that theme. Athletes have concrete goals. They know what they want, and they have a training schedule to get them there.

So I stood there with soapy hands thinking, what does my goal look like? Smell like? Taste like? Because if I can’t picture it in glowing technicolour, in all five senses, how am I ever going to know it when I meet it?

And, I realize, the goal can’t be “getting published,” because I have no control over that. The goal can’t be external validation, it has to be internal.

So, what does this mean in a concrete sense? I’m not sure yet. ‘Become a better travel writer’ is valid, but vague. Maybe it needs to be ‘finish these five pieces you’re in the middle of, even if all you ever do with them is post them on this blog.’ Maybe it’s ‘learn from what you didn’t get right last time.’ Maybe it’s ‘travel for two months out of every year.’ Maybe it’s ‘stop going back to the same damn places over and over so you can stretch a little.’ Maybe it’s ‘keep going back to that one place until you’ve said everything you want to say about it.’

I’m beginning to understand that it might be time to sit down and actually think through what the big goal is. What do I want to achieve? What does that end point feel like? And what little goals will lead me down the path to that big one?

I need to do some research, and a lot of thinking.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar in an effort to broaden my travel reading beyond country guides, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson. The Lonely Planet book recommended Paul Theroux as a ‘contemporary master of travel writing,’ so it seemed like a good place to start.

This book represents the kind of travel writing that I’m most interested in: I’m going on a journey and I’m going to take you with me. Not so different from Michael Palin or Bill Bryson for that matter. There wasn’t a larger point or any kind of manifesto – just the details of an interesting journey.

Paul Theroux’s descriptions were wonderful, more evocative, more visceral, more poetic than other travel writing I have yet encountered, and I’m sure that’s why the Lonely Planet folk recommended him. But, to be quite frank, I’d rather skip the carefully tailored words and spend the time with Messrs. Palin and Bryson instead. The narrator of The Great Railway Bazaar was a condescending, racist dick. And the complete and utter lack of women as people rather than as sexualized objects was truly appalling.

A masochistic part of me, however, is debating reading his follow up, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he reprises the same journey thirty years later, just to see if he has grown as a person at all.

changing gears

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning more about travel writing. I bought the “Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing” – because what better authority would there be, I suppose – as a happy-birthday-to-me present at the end of March. I’m still working my way through it.

I seem to swing back and forth on whether this is a kind of writing I want to delve into. I find the idea of writing endless click-bait pieces on the ‘5 Hottest Party Cities’, or the ’10 Most Undiscovered Gems’, or whatever, incredibly depressing. But I love to travel, and I love to write, and there is an area of longform travel writing that crosses over with creative non-fiction, so I’m nibbling around the edges of that.

Maybe all I really want to do is travel and blog. I loved writing those little posts while I was in Paris. I found it helped in contextualizing and remembering my experiences. I regret that I didn’t keep them up while I travelled around Greece, but I just ran out of hours in the day. And I was struggling with travel burn-out around the time I stayed overnight in Milan, so for a couple of days it all just kind of became about endurance.

I did continue to take photographs, though, so maybe before the memories grow too faint I’ll find some favourites and tell the stories behind them.

I’m going in…

I finished the first draft of a story on new year’s eve and then metaphorically shoved it in a drawer. That draft is a mess, so I had intended to let it sit and percolate in there for several weeks and hope that I could magically work out how to fix it in the meantime.

I realized this past week, though, that the deadline for submitting it to the place I want to submit it is the beginning of February and not the end of February, so I’ve had to shuffle up the timeline a bit. In order to get a readable draft out to my first reader so that I can get notes back and still have time to revise it again, the story has to come out of the drawer today.

I printed it out this morning, and I’m about to wade in. Sharpening the red pen, as it were. Wish me luck.

My story in print!

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The issue of PRISM with my story in it spotted in the wild.

I meant to post this ages ago, of course, back when it came out. But I wanted to include a photo of the magazine actually in a store, and though I visited several branches I couldn’t find it anywhere in the time before I left on my adventure. By the time I got back in late November, it didn’t seem worth posting anymore. Although I did go back to the bookstore to snap my coveted photo.

But this whole year-in-review time seems to be as good as any for remembering that someone paid me for a story I wrote for the very first time this year. It came out in PRISM 53.1, the Fall 2014 issue. I’m delighted with the cover art on the issue, too, which is both classy and whimsical. The little blurb on their page about my piece reads:

“On the non-fiction side, PRISM 53:1 includes K.A. MacKinnon’s “Character Sketch,” a uniquely-structured piece about two women traveling through Europe as circus employees.”

I also wanted to include a link to Ayelet Tsabari’s web page. (If you haven’t read her stuff, you really should. ‘Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes’ is my favourite.) She taught me in the two Continuing Ed. creative non-fiction courses I took last year. Those classes turned out to provide exactly the right information at exactly the right time for me, in terms of the progress of my writing, and the piece PRISM published originally started as an assignment in one of those classes.

Anyway, Ayelet wrote a lovely post recently in which she bragged on behalf of a few of her students who are doing well, and I was one of them.

In other writing-related news, I have two stories out being considered at the moment. For one, I should hear sometime in January, for the other they’re saying ‘the first quarter of 2015’, so sometime before April, I guess.

I’ve been writing with reasonable dedication this month and I have another story that is about 500 words from being finished. I have sworn the first draft will be done this month, so that’s mostly my plan for this evening.