It’s probably not surprising that I like to travel. Place tends to be integral in my work, and when readers tell me that they see the setting as its own character, it’s one of the highest compliments I can get.
My parents’ shelves had books on travel– and not those little brochures written by tourism departments, but hefty, novel-length efforts chronicling an individual’s progress through a foreign or unfamiliar land. Around the time I first visited a good friend in Miami for a week, my mother would update me on her quest to get through a travelogue by a man trekking across pre-WWI Europe, and how amazed she was by his perfect timing. He was able to record, in detail, what the places he’d visited in Germany, Austria, and dozens of smaller countries that ceased to exist after the World Wars were like.
What about travel writing now? These days, it seems like everything important has been documented already, stored, and protected. It’s weird to think of places becoming history, and not just in the literal way, but the figurative one as well: being so annihilated that the only way we can get to them is through secondary sources.
I visited Miami for the first time in 2012, on spring break. My friend had a two bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen, floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in the dining room, and ocean-facing balcony (supposedly where you could see manatees from but we never did) that she shared with a fellow student in the creative writing program. In contrast, back then I lived in a miserable apartment in South Carolina by myself with a balcony too small to use and littered with my neighbor’s stray cigarette butts and cigarillo mouthpieces.
My friend was pursuing her MFA, and although our spring breaks didn’t align we hatched a brilliant plan: I would pretend to be considering MFA programs, specifically hers, so I could hang with her as she was in school. We went to the beach, read, and one day we went to the department interviewing a potential new faculty member.
It was a sort of lecture-audition: as part of her job interview, she had to give a seminar so that the grad students and faculty could observe her teaching style. The small room was packed, and the speaker talked about the necessity of living in a place eight months before you could begin to write about it.
I took notes religiously. Yes, of course you had to actually live in a place to get to know it. Of course that took time. Eight months sounded like a commandment.
But three years later, ask me what I know about South Carolina. I can tell you about stray cats sleeping on steam tunnel covers in the early hours before class starts, how mold chokes up the library’s columns by the lake. I can talk a big game about boiled peanuts and meat-and-threes, tell you how gameday traffic snarls every highway even remotely close to campus, how you better slow down if you have northern plates. I can even tell you how it is completely not uncommon to go into a bathroom and find out that some jokestore has installed the bathroom stalls or the cabinets upside-fucking-down and no one’s fixed it because effort and that’s just the way it is.
I can tell you all this but not much more. I lived there for a year, and the better part of the city, the sports, the slang, all that’s stuff I never got to.
Miami, though, is different.
I went back earlier this year to visit the same friend, and more than ever it’s just a place that I like: the wide, bright expanse of Calle Ocho with its restaurants, car dealerships, lines and lines of celebratory palm trees opening toward the sun, the terracotta roofs and little lizards skirting over stucco, brick walkways, and Spanish still too quick for me to keep up. Storm clouds puff themselves up into sky-scraper battleships around four to five in the afternoon, parade over the highways when you go home and then morph into lilac-blue-pink soft-core clouds over the bridge to the keys at sunset.
(This is to say nothing of jellyfish season and man-of-war season, which are different, how the trick is to have friends with keys to their relatives’ private beaches, that there is really no good way to keep sand fleas off you, even at a classy lakeside restaurant, and that yes, you really do need sunglasses.)
The city speaks two languages, dipping back and forth as easily as you shift your weight walking. You can still move places fine using only one foot; it’s just easier with two.
During my last night there, my (now graduated) MFA friend and I hung out on a soft sand beach, watching planes and shooting stars in the clear night, and talked again about her old program. She mentioned that another applicant had been hired instead of the travel writing speaker.
“I didn’t like her very much,” she said. “That eight month thing was a load of bullshit.”
I didn’t realize until she said it how much I agreed.
Sometimes living in a city is like a marriage. Some people settle in places for life. Some people move a lot, divorce their places; some nomads can visit the old places and others need for it to be a clean and final break.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of living in a place and getting to know it. Sometimes you have to be creative. You follow local instagrams, blogs, and news accounts, you go through all the local state school’s online orientation prep that you can find like you’re about to be a freshman again, and watch 45-minute monster tours through the French Quarter someone’s posted to youtube. You work backwards and it works.
And on the flip side, sometimes you hate the place you’re living so much you don’t want to commit any of it to memory. You want to obliterate it, to strike off its letters from the annuls of your life so thoroughly that no historian would be able to reconstruct it.
You do the best with what you have, because sometimes you have to call bullshit when people tell you “write what you know.” Because really, it means less “write only things you have experienced” and more “find likenesses in the things you have experienced and the things you haven’t, and use those to write about the latter.”
Travel writing isn’t easy, and maybe that’s really what the speaker meant when she talked about eight months as a necessary minimum. You have to find an affinity with your chosen place. Because hey, I may not be a native, but if I can fool you when I write to make you think that I am, that’s enough.