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It’s hot here on Long Island. 100 degrees hot. And Top Cat and I are too snotty to use air conditioning because it doesn’t go with our judgemental attitude against all our maniac pampered Styrofoam-McMansion central-air/Hummer driving/labradoodling neighbors. We have plenty of better, alternative, zero-carbon ways to stay cool.


The one in  front is my in-house air conditioning unit; the one in back is my portable (fold-up) traveling personal air conditioning apparatus.

Now, where was I? On the verge of running away to Paris to meet my long lost love?

The situation here is muchless dramatic than that: Top Cat is as interested in meeting the old BF as I am, because the old BF spends a lot of time in China for business and Top Cat is very interested in first-hand info on the economic pulse of the place. I meant to write about how swell I am at keeping my writerly focus sacred and I still have more to say about that because I think it’s one of the hardest things to manage when you’re trying to write several ten thousand words about a topic. Most of good writing is knowing what to leave out, and I have a good example to show you:

Seth Stevenson, a young but much awarded (Prizes: he’s won a lot of prizes) travel writer, went around the world without getting on an airplane. This book is the story of that journey, and it is remarkable for the focus he keeps all through the book. I hope he wins another award for it. It’s amazing that throughout the whole book, there is hardly any digression from the actual travel part of his story; 99% of the narrative takes place on the actual conveyances by which he is in contact with the surface of the earth: ship, bus, train, taxi, ferry, rented car, etc.

This meticulous focus on the movement involved in getting from one place to another is very rare in travel writing, which is a genre that is mostly not about travel but about being there and free associating. Which is just fine by me, provided that the free associations are done by someone whose wit, frames of reference, personality, and associations are entertaining or enlightening. And not about Germany.

I picked up Tramps Abroad by Mark Twain, whose The Innocents Abroad is still one of the best travel books ever, and I could not read past page 20. It’s all about Germany, and that’s one country I just can’t bear to spend any time in, even abstractly.

The other thing that came to me when reading Grounded was how hard it is to integrate a traveling companion into a narrative. Seth Stevenson traveled around the world with his girl friend, and the few instances when he mentions her is when the story bogs down. For some reason, I didn’t find her sympathetic. In fact, she came off as rather annoying — and I’m sure she’s a lovely, smart, fun, competent partner in real life. It’s just not a good idea to bring along a traveling companion you are in love with, stylistically speaking.

You know how when one of your friends falls in love and raves to you about how marvvy and dishy the Love Object is? And she’s all fluttery and excited and cooing over the guy, and she keeps telling you how cute he is when he (fill in blank), how smart he is because he (fill in blank), how funny he is when he said (fill in blank). You get really fed up, right? Especially when you meet him, finally, and you think, Sheesh.

That’s the problem in print, too, when the writer keeps telling you how smart, cute, and fun the traveling companion is. And you, as a smart, fun, cute reader keep thinking: Show Me for god’s sake. (Back to that old Tell-Show problem again.)

Read any one of a dozen books about an American woman traveling to Italy and falling in love with some suave foreigner and you’ll know what I mean. It’s always kind of icky.

The best use of a traveling companion, for a writer, is as a foil. Bill Bryson used his pal, Katz, to timeless comic advantage in two books: Neither Here Nor There and A Walk in the Woods.William Least Heat Moon used his ex-girlfriend as a kind of nemesis in Blue Highways (you never had to like her at all and thank goodnesshe spares us the details of his looooove, which he did not do in his latest book about Q) and one of the reasons that Travels with Charlie (by John Steinbeck) is such a failure is because good old Charley hardly shows up in the tale. 

So I’m hacking away at my Damn France Book, keeping the focus and trying to make my readers not loathe the cuteness, smartness, and fun of my dear traveling companion, Top Cat.

In other words, I’m going to have to tone down the Top Cat. And focuson the few times when we weren’t speaking to each other, for what the fiction writers call “plot”. (It’s not easy traveling with another person, even if you love them. That’s why Martha Gellhorn called her book Travels With Myself and Another. That barely acknowledged, passive-aggressively annonymoused ” Another” was Ernest Hemingway.)

2 comments to Stay focused.

  • Bill Bryson and Katz are the best! They never cease to make me laugh out loud. I think they’re a good example of what you’re talking about.
    I must say I’m getting pretty curious about Top Cat.
    I don’t think I would loathe the cuteness. Bring it on !

  • Shelley

    There’s no need to tone down Top Cat’s great qualities as a traveling companion in my opinion.

    There seems to be an abundance of “snark” in the world these days while cuteness, smartness, and fun are often in short supply.

    So, as Barbara said…Bring it on!!

    Eagerly anticipating,
    Shelley

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