On Writing and Pay Toilets

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I am embarking on a new writing project. I intend to spend the next three weeks focusing on a topic that is much on my mind of late. I don’t know what will become of the finished product – whether I will share it with you or keep it to myself – but I feel compelled to spend time working on it. There are two reasons for my compulsion: frustration and a desire to learn.

Beginning this new project means I’m taking a hiatus from another. Specifically, I’m putting my “Witty Reflections on Travels in Europe” book project on hold. I may be giving myself too much credit by saying I’m putting it “on hold.” In truth, I’m merely going to continue making absolutely no progress on that book. As much I assumed it would be fun to recall, reflect on, and write about my family’s travels through Switzerland, Paris, London, and Edinburgh two summers ago, the process has filled me with frustration and dread.

I feel a responsibility to get the story right – which is a good rule of thumb for any memoirist – and that means a lot of research is required. My notebook from the trip is filled with daily schedules, anecdotes, and descriptions of meals – always a priority for me – but lacks historical, architectural, and geographic particulars. In order to flesh out my droll tales of a very American group of eight travelers representing three generations of my family traveling by bus and train through Europe, I need to study the cities, restaurants, cathedrals, artwork, and other attractions that we saw. I enjoy research on principle; learning things is a joy in and of itself. However, applying that research to my travel diary has been a tedious chore. Even diving no deeper than the easily accessed, if dubious, information in Wikipedia has been grueling. My books about running and heavy metal didn’t require such in depth study. I knew enough about those topics that I could focus on the writing without stopping mid-paragraph to check a detail. This interruptive approach to writing has been enervating. I haven’t been able – and by “able” I mean “willing” – to get the research done up front and absorb it all before writing, as others do (I’m looking at you, Kurt). Nor have I chosen to follow my own advice and just write, going back later to sprinkle in all the minutiae. I’ve spent more time fretting about not writing than I have actually putting fingers to the keyboard. It’s not fun, so I’m stopping. I will return to that project, as I feel the need to tell you all about the pizza restaurants, Starbucks stores, hotel rooms, and, most importantly, bathrooms – those with a fee and those without – across Europe, but, for now, I’m putting it aside.

A desire to learn has inspired me to put Europe on hold and focus my attention elsewhere. I’m keeping the specific subject matter a secret so as not to generate a lot of expectations, as I don’t have any plans to share the results of this new writing effort. It’s enough to say that the subject I want to write about now is something I want to learn about, and one of the ways I learn is by writing. When research is not an issue – when I have enough reference material in my head to get started – I use the writing process to make sense of it all. Through writing, I can put shape to ideas and emotions and make decisions about what it all means. It’s intellectual creativity.

In college, I took a writing class that featured a book by William Zinsser called Writing to Learn. His premise is that writing about a subject is a good way to learn about and immerse yourself in it. The book provides examples of writing from various academic disciplines to make the point that any field of study, no matter how inscrutable, can be made accessible by accurate, clear prose. While the specific lessons of Zinsser’s book are lost in the deep recesses of my memory, the simple notion conveyed by the title has stuck with me. At those times I feel acutely confounded by some problem or mound of data – whether at work or home – I write about it. Most often, I write from the perspective of a person preparing a presentation for an audience who doesn’t know anything about the subject. How can I convey these complicated ideas to someone who doesn’t have any context? How would I explain it to my mom? Writing to learn has been a wonderful tool to crystallize my thinking on a subject. I encourage you to try it the next time you feel stuck. It’s certainly a more productive option than whining.

So, that’s what I’m going to do for the next three weeks. With luck, I will achieve a greater understanding than I have today about the subject that is vexing me. After that, I may spend some time writing to learn about why I’m having such a hard time writing about Europe. It’s important for me to figure that out, because, before you go to Europe, you need to understand the profound importance of having two euros in your pocket when you need to pee.

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