Queen of the Road

Caption: Doris (clutching her handbag) wasn’t the only one who dreaded the days when it was Vivan’s turn to host the Book Club.

Yes, that was me, not showing up for my Friday blog last week: I’m so sorry about that. I kept meaning to get to it but I had sooooo much to deal with — it was 71 freaking degrees on Long Island!!!  And it seems that my brain hits its melting point at 70 degrees. 

So I drove to the Port Washington library (the mother lode — this library is so plush that it was featured in a New York Times article about how the hippest “new” libraries are part arty cafe, part hipster new media supermarket) and I found about 100 books in the Travel Narrative section (Dewy Decimal 910.4 etc.) that I haven’t read yet and I spent the day splayed on the patio furniture in the backyard, ripping through first-person stories of traveling in England in 1938, the Ottoman Empire in 1824, and Dubai in 2005. 

All that, and white wine, too.  The only way that Heaven can be better than that is if God lets our old pets keep us company there.

And then it was night and I reached for my bedside books, and I started reading Larry McMurty’s memoir, called Books. Larry McMurtry is the author of Horseman, Pass By (made into the movie Hud), The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, and 20 other books; he has also been a rare-and-second-hand books dealer for 40 years. He estimates that he’s handled about a million books in his lifetime and currently owns about 200,000 books, both in his shops and in his personal library. Safe to say, the guy knows a thing or two about cowboys, Hollywood, and books.

And in this book about books, I read that Larry McMurtry collects travel narratives. What a coincidence! I marveled to myself; I’m writing a travel narrative!   Or, I should say, trying to write a travel narrative; I’m still stuck in Bayeux…still flummoxed by the huge task of writing about my favorite town in France without getting too overwrought, too sentimental, too gushing, too weirdly personal and cliche and all the rest.

And then, reading this book called Books, I read something that made my job as a writer seem much, muchless daunting than I’d been making it out to be, with all my panic about saying the right, important thing about Bayeux, France: I read that in his collection of travel narratives,  Larry McMurtry has 200 books about travelers’  journeys through Siberia.

Let’s let that sink in: Two hundred travel narratives about Siberia

So, now that that has sunk in, which thought floats up in your mind first? : 

1. That’s a tad many travel narratives about Siberia, for chrissake.

2. If that’s how many travel stories there are about Siberia, for crissake, then there must be like hundreds of thousands of travel narratives about France

3. So for crissake, why are you thinking that you have something new to say about Bayeux???

4. Lighten up, for crissake.

Thank you, Larry McMurtry, for teaching me something crucial about my process.  

What I learned from Larry McMurtry is:  The worst thing you can do for your process is to take yourself too seriously.

Unless you’re writing the Declaration of Independence or the new health care bill, that is.

And just a last word about Showing and Telling in writing:

If you want to read a book that does a superlative job about showing, read Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. She is so good at showing (rather than telling) that, although I have almost zero interest in reading any other book about Italy, India, and/or Indonesia (no judgment about those cultures, just a matter of personal taste), I couldn’t put down her book about her travels in Italy, India, and Indonesia.  I think that the reason her book was such a huge best seller is because of the masterful way Elizabeth Gilbert shows you her world, her life, her travels, her challenges, her happiness; it just goes to show you how much the world loves show, not tell.

If you want to read a book that does too much telling, read any celebrity memoir. Celebrities get away with telling because they can usually drop enough names to make these books mildly interesting for a reader — otherwise, since all they do is tell, tell, tell their books tend to be very dull (even if the celebrity was once married to a Beatle, or used to be the governor of Alaska).

Speaking of celebrity memoirs, I’ve just started reading Richard Chamberlain’s book Shattered Love because I had such a crush on R.C. when I was a teenager…and I spent my 20th birthday  (1976) in New York City watching him play the priest in Night of the Iguana on Broadway. I don’t care how bad the book is: as long as there are lots of pictures R. C. can tell and tell and tell…I’m easy.

6 comments to Queen of the Road

  • I looked for you on Friday, but I knew right away; you DO have other things to do. Top Cat and hobos and all…
    We all know that, and of course you SHOULD take care of your own life FIRST. We’ll be happy when you take time to show us how to do OUR books, in our brains and hearts somewhere. You will help us bring it out.

    Three days a week, two days, once a week; doesn’t matter.Just keep DOING it for us, Vivian….

  • Janet

    I have a writer friend who is friends with Larry McMurtry. He and I were commiserating about writers’ block last week, and he said Larry once told him to just WRITE, that the good stuff will just come. Larry told my friend when he writes his novels, the characters just develop and he has no idea what they ultimately are going to do and how his books will progress or end. He also said when he finishes a book, he goes through a grieving process because he’s no longer with the characters every day that he has created but who somehow go on to develop a life of their own.

    I, for one, am looking forward to your Damn France Book because you do have the chops to make us feel that we are with you without being boring, pedantic or trite. You’ll find your Bayeux muse whenever she feels like showing up — perhaps she was only waiting for spring.

  • candice

    It was in the 70s here for 4 straight days! I planted pansies and croaked from allergies. I discovered a Neti pot which helps AND entertains the cat who watches the water go in one nostril and come out the other.

    Before I got halfway through your post I was gonna say, Get over yourself, Vivian. This happens in fiction, too. Here’s what I do when I’m stuck at a crucial point: I ignore it. Walk away, pretend it isn’t there. Write another part of the book. Sneak up on it, circle back and pounce when that part least expects it.

    Which travel book is set in England in 1938? Morton’s? And we have one of those new hip libraries too and I hate it. Too many computers, too few books propped up like it’s Borders. I prefer big dusty stacks I can paw through.

  • Deborah

    My gut reaction (aka ‘unsolicited advice’) is a variation of #4: just go ahead and write the most sentimental, gushing, weirdly personal, cliched version of Bayeux that you can. Then tie it up with a pretty ribbon and stick it in a drawer or suitcase. There! It’s out of your system. And somehow I think I would enjoy reading that version in some venue (an article about why it didn’t fit in the book, say).

    When we left the Louisville area for Rochester MN last Sat., it was 67 degrees and my daffodils & star magnolia tree were blooming. By the time we got to Peoria (5 hrs later), it was 37 degrees. A few miles later, I was driving through snow. Crossing into MN the next day (overnight in Iowa City), the lakes were still frozen — the contrasts in terrain and weather that traveling exposes.

  • Rachel

    Vivian, you were right there when I needed you. Yesterday I spent 3 hours (and gasp $700) in the dentist’s chair. I have two new crowns, waiting to welcome the two more coming in April. I started the process with about an hour wait at my local library, where I got a good start on McMurtry’s *Books.* There were occasional *breaks* in the dentaling, and at each I pulled the book out from under my knees and continued. It was PERFECT. I remember some of the shops he spoke of. The 1-2 page chapters were just the right length. The stories interesting enough to keep me distracted and mindless enough to not mind stopping. Thank you for directing me to this dental companion. Any suggestions for next time?

  • Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t really understand (in concrete terms) what you mean by showing vs. telling in writing. Could you give an example?

You must be logged in to post a comment.