Friday, August 10, 2007

A Mid-Atlantic Turning Point in My Writing

(This is the opening section of an essay I wrote a few years back about an Atlantic crossing on the QE2 that altered me and my writing, that gave me greater resolution and courage. The piece was published in The Spectator in Raleigh and won an honorable mention in literary magazine Rosebud's creative nonfiction contest. A Washington Post travel editor asked to publish it, but changed her mind when I told her it had come out in a local paper, and that I was writing about a subsidized press trip. I will be publishing this here as a serial. This is Part One.)

Even from the farthest reach of the dock on New York's 53rd Street, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was too long to photograph. I couldn't, with a wide-angle lens, get the whole ship into the frame at once. So I shot it by halves, the front and then the back, not sure what I'd do with two mismatched ship halves when I got home.

This ship, the QE2, is the last of the world's transatlantic liners. The Cunard brochure had described it as three football fields long. I don't measure things in football fields. I keep score in numbers of words, copy-inches, books. It's as a writer that I was heading to sea, and not only as a travel writer with a notebook, but as a novelist bringing along a manuscript that had been too long in progress. I was running late, by years, in getting another book out, felt pressed, frustrated, discouraged. I planned to look at the manuscript, away from my usual life, see where I stood with it. (Working aboard the QE2 was an idea that had also occurred to Francis Ford Coppola, Ray Bradbury, and other writers I would soon meet toting manuscripts on this voyage.)

But there was still another reason for my taking this trip: I am approaching the anniversary of my 25th year as a freelance writer, two and a half decades typing out of one little office or another in Raleigh, North Carolina. This crossing was to be both a celebration and, optimistically, the start of my career's second half, another 25 years. I wanted to spend a week living the writer's life the way it's supposed to be, working onboard ship in a grand, leisurely way ...And heading for new territory. My destination on this voyage was the country of Wales, a place I'd never been. One of my tasks there was to research an article on the struggle of the Welsh people to keep their language alive. I sympathized with their cause; after so many years of writing for publication, I'd come to wonder how much of my own voice was alive.

(Note: I'd love to hear from anyone who has had such a question about his or her voice...and how you've dealt with the issue. )


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Heather said...

What a lovely essay; I look forward to reading the rest. I've definitely struggled with my own voice and writing preferences since I started writing for publication about 14 years ago. It was with an odd jolt that I realized fiction wasn't my calling, and that more than anything I enjoy reviewing.

At least for now. Who knows what I'll find in another 15 years. :)

Peggy said...

I think it's terrific that you realized reviewing is your current calling. It's hard to shake loose of what we're supposed to want.

When I was a reporter just after college, I took news beats because that was what had more prestige there. I should have been writing features, would have liked it so much better. But I didn't have the independence then to make that choice.

Glad you like my turning point essay. Next installment will be Friday.

Heather said...

That really is hard, isn't it? Writing is in many ways very territorial. This sort of writing is more prestigious than that sort of writing. This sort of writing is worthy of respect while that sort isn't "real" writing.

I think it can take a lot of soul-searching and guts, sometimes, to break out of that and just do what you darn well please!

Peggy said...

With the situation I had years ago at the newspaper, it was complicated by gender politics. Men were more often in news and women in features--which were then called women's pages, and considered more fluffy. I certainly didn't want to write anything fluffy. And that was in the early 70s, when the women's movement was just getting rolling again.

There's probably often some "reason" that one category is "better" than another.