I interviewed the famous and fabulous Martin Crosbie on my blog recently, and realised that he was the second Scot-transplanted-to-Canada to feature in a podcast. Then there’s me, a Londoner in Ontario. I asked him if he thought the whole emigration thing had contributed to his writing, and we mused about outsiderness for a while. Intrigued, I had a look at the Indies Bio Page and found that about half of us have moved from somewhere to somewhere else.
Not a scientific survey I’ll grant you but I wondered about the connection. I asked some of the minions, “Did you become a writer because you travelled, or did you travel because you’re a writer?”
and “Writers often consider themselves to be outsiders, observing life. Did learning to adapt to new cultures foster this aspect of your personality?”
Here are some of their answers. Let’s start with Martin…
“Yes, I have always felt like an outsider. I told my kids growing up that the last thing they ever wanted to be was normal. Normal is boring. Now, the trick is to find the line between eccentric and weird and be careful not to cross it. I think most days I stay on the right side of the line and that’s all part of being a writer or outsider I think. We have license to sit back and mumble to ourselves and fill in the blanks that life gives us. Where other people see a man crossing the street, I see him rushing to keep an appointment with his mistress while his wife is at home checking his email. So, yes, I’m an outsider and growing up as a kid in a different country/culture certainly gave me lots of practice.
I think of John Irving’s books and I read an interview he did and he said that the new, blank page is unfamiliar with your previous work but no matter what he does he always manages to integrate elements from his previous books. So, Vienna, wrestling, bears, and other opinions etc always surface. And, I’ll bet he was exposed to all of those things when he was a kid.
I can relate to that because Scotland and Canada and the contrasts will always be in my writing somewhere. I used to dislike change but as I’ve grown older I realize how fortunate I was to be able to experience such different places and ideas. Now, when change happens I brace myself and get ready for the ride, and try to enjoy it.”
The questions took Chris James in a direction that both bothers and encourages me as I try to settle in different places:
“I became a writer because I travelled. I’d never felt that I had much in common with other people when I lived in the UK, but when I moved to Poland – to raise a family with my Polish wife – I was staggered by the similarities between Polish people and those in the UK.
Here again was everything I thought I might leave behind: the indifference, the arrogance, the racism. Especially striking is the “patriotism” – how otherwise intelligent people can subscribe to the belief that their nation state is somehow superior to all other nation states – even at the same time as they acknowledge their own state’s failings. Many people in both the UK and Poland are incredibly limited in their ability to comprehend, and this limitation is also easy to see in people in other states. This realisation used to amaze me, until I considered that it is likely the same in all countries.”
Dv Berkom told me about outsiderness:
“My family moved around a lot when I was growing up so I always felt like the odd person out. You learn to adapt to each new culture (you have to or life really sucks–especially when you’re a kid) which most definitely helped me grow as a writer. The same thing applies when traveling–you gain a fresh perspective as an outsider, seeing the color and shading of a place that residents often miss because of familiarity.”
And Melissa Pearl added a dimension I’d not considered, travelling for inspiration:
“I think writers are fantastic observers. We love to study people. The way they react to different situations fascinates us, because when we build our own worlds we want to use real life emotions. I love studying people and travelling the world has taught me so much about the human race. I have lived among several different cultures now and I can attest to how different they all are. It has definitely given breadth to my story telling. I personally think every writer in the world should travel if they have the opportunity to do so.”
David Antrobus, favourite Indies Alumnus and my first podcast emigrant interviewee deepened the issue. (As he generally does!)
“I think at heart I was a writer before I emigrated, but it wasn’t until I’d gained a new perspective after some considerable time in a new culture that I felt confident or experienced enough to allow others to read my stuff.”
And Kathy Rowe, who has been all over the place, added the research angle:
“I didn’t start writing seriously until high school. I traveled as a youngster (US and Mexico). I had a lot of great adventures and I’m not sure if they contributed to my writing or not, but I’m sure it couldn’t have hurt! As an adult, I’ve lived in the UK and traveled to France, Germany, Majorca, and did a mad dash through Belgium’s airport. I think being a traveler gave me a taste of the world from a different perspective. I know now in my writing I make sure if writing about another country, to accurately portray the people, culture and language.
Much of the time I do consider myself an outsider observing life. My Mother was an avid “people watcher” and she passed a bit of that onto me. I try to be observant because you never know what kind of human behavior you can quietly observe that will help with writing.”
Me? I became a writer because I travelled too, and I can still only write when I’m ‘away’. There is no inspiration for me in habitual surroundings but as soon as I’m out of my comfort zone I spot the tiny things that make our expectations of ‘normal’ so different. While, of course, our need for the reassurance (and sometimes superiority) of our own version of ‘normal’ ties us all together.
I’m not saying that writers have to travel, plenty of us don’t. I’m not sure what I’m saying really, I have more thinking to do. Maybe as both traversing the world and publishing words get easier some of us discover writing accidentally. As opposed to the brilliant souls (and I admire and envy you all) who write because they already know they have a story to tell.
And maybe, if you’re stuck for inspiration anytime, try going somewhere. Anywhere. Just away. It might make a difference you can write about.