Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


NYC always dazzles me. I’ve been there numerous times — Boston isn’t so far away, and I used to travel there regularly for business. But I always feel a bit like Country Mouse, showing up with a battered suitcase and stars in my eyes, gaping at the towering buildings and at the rush of life all around me. Inevitably I trip over the sidewalk at some point, or walk into a wall, or narrowly miss getting hit by a cab, because I am so in awe.

Last week’s whirlwind visit was a particularly glamorous trip for me because I was a) traveling solo, for the first time in a long time, and b) meeting with my publisher to discuss revisions, and c) celebrating my City Mouse friend’s birthday and getting to see her adorable baby girl. The perfect mix of business and pleasure. Oh, and I was flying down for the first time, on the Jet Blue shuttle, rather than creeping down on the train or the bus. What a difference! What efficiency! What civilized comfort! Country Mouse may never travel to New York any other way from now on.

I started my adventure at Rockefeller Center, where I popped into Minamoto Kitchoan, my favorite Japanese pastry shop in New York. Actually it’s now the only Japanese pastry shop in New York, as the other one recently closed. It is a wonderful little slice of Japan, with an array of seasonal confections (wagashi) that instantly transports me back to Kyoto.

I bought a box of some goodies as a gift for my editors, and bought two other wagashi just for myself, for breakfast. (Signs posted around the store assure you that their wagashi, made with legumes and glutinous rice, are healthier than Western sweets; they contain fewer calories and many vitamins. I chose to believe this. I also chose to believe that Spring is here, as I purchased an assortment of Spring wagashi wrapped in crisp green paper. Basically whatever the lovely people at Minamoto Kitchoan tell me, I will believe! It is a place of great optimism).

I sat in a pool of sunlight at Rockefeller Center, watched skaters, and ate about 600 calories worth of healthy and vitamin-filled wagashi. Which I did not have to share with a toddler. I’m sure any mother can appreciate how rare and lovely it is to just sit in the sun and eat something entirely by yourself. Slowly.

I then ambled over to Kinokuniya Books, where I browsed to my heart’s content. Another luxury, as no small person was exhorting me to buy everything in sight. I found two manga titles that directly relate to something in my novel. I made a list of fifteen books I’m now dying to read. I browsed through the craft section and drooled over Japanese paper, and briefly contemplated learning a craft — until I remembered that if I got sucked into something like origami or sumi brush painting, I’d probably never write another word.

The highlight of the bookstore visit was an impressive exhibit of book art, featuring the Japanese Young Artists’ Books Fair. (Yes, I keep wanting to rewrite that as “Young Japanese Artists’ Book Fair.” But this is how it appears in the promotional materials).

This artist collective is a group of young, emerging artists who live or work in Japan. They are exhibiting works related to book art: comics, graphic novels, art objects related to books, art books, etc. Works from the Tokyo exhibit are currently on display at Kinokuniya in NY and at several other bookstores in the city. (Click on the link above for more info). The most astounding work I saw was that of an artist who knit with books. She cut Japanese books into vertical strips (following the characters, which appear vertically on the page) and then knit them — really — into sweaters, blankets, mittens, hats, scarves. WOW. It was also fun to watch an artist work on an elaborately detailed mural painting on the wall of the store, by the stairwell. And it was fun to see the creative interpretations of book art all around the exhibit. One artist showed blank white books, and his explanatory note said that images would appear in them over time, as a result of temperature or humidity. “If you can’t wait to appear,” it went on, “you lightly toast with dryer or fire. But take care when using fire!” Another work by the same artist played with images of hands on books, reminding us of the tactile sensation of reading and how the outside world disappears except for the book and our hands. This series also involved some optical illusions with black and white vertical stripes, which were a bit painful to look at after awhile. I was grateful for the artist’s warning to “keep your eyes apart” to protect them!

In the afternoon, I went to the Penguin Offices to meet with my editorial team. I had to pause before the building and just marvel for a moment at how far I’ve come with my novel. Years ago, toiling in solitude, on the verge of giving up, I never would have imagined I would someday stand before the Penguin offices on Hudson Street. It is really beyond my wildest dreams. I was alone, but not alone, because I don’t feel I got there alone. I was pushed along to that destination, to that moment, by a great number of people, including my agent, my critique group, my writer friends, my supportive family. I don’t think any writer or artist gets very far alone.

At that rather emotional moment, Country Mouse took over my body and made me take a picture of the address on the building to memorialize the day:

After passing a wonderful afternoon talking about my book, and books in general, with my amazing editorial team (oh, and eating some more of that vitamin-filled wagashi with them), I went on to the West Village to meet my dear friend, City Mouse. She’s from my hometown of Seattle, but has been living in NYC for almost a decade, and now navigates the Big Apple with ease and grace. It’s good when she’s around because then I’m less likely to trip over the sidewalk or bang into buildings; she’s got my back.

And she’s got a great eye for art, which is why she’s terrific in her job as a corporate art curator. Immediately after we met up in her neighborhood, she directed my attention to an arresting framed picture set out with some trash. It may have been a graphic for magazine, or an advertisement for an art show; the writing on it was all in Japanese. But the model’s expression — sort of inviting and defiant — grabbed my attention. And I was struck by the way the art seemed “set out,” even displayed, rather than thrown out, even though it was next to the trash.

It was a powerful image for me, on many levels. It reminded me of my earlier destinations in the day, and how you can still find Japan in NYC, despite so many recent closings of Japanese businesses there. And the picture made me think about perseverance, and hope . . . how even when you’re hitting a wall with your work, or feeling like your art is worthless or destined for the trash, if you keep at it, it will improve, and eventually someone will notice. When it’s time, the right people will lift you up and help you get to where you need to go.

I’ve always loved writing about adventures abroad. I spent my 20’s and early 30’s with a suitcase constantly packed, and brought home more words about the places I went to than photos or souvenirs. But what’s a travel writer to do when she’s grounded? When she has a family and can’t fly so far?

I’ve been wrestling with this issue because my current work in progress is partially set in another country. Wondering if my journals and photos were enough to jog my memories and provide the details to bring scenes to life, I thought about returning. It might be good to check some facts. Update my information. Smell the diesel fumes again, eat the local food. Record the sights and sounds anew. Then I remembered I had a three-year-old. And not the most adaptable sort of three-year-old either. The kind who loves to curl up on the couch with his beloved Pixar movies, and who won’t eat unless his particular brands of mac n cheese and sliced cheese squares and cheesey chicken nuggets are available. (Hmm . . . is Wisconsin in our future?) Well, in other words, I have a very typical three-year-old. I hear mythic, romantic tales of people who travel the world with their toddlers, strapping cheerful babes to their backs and setting off for a lengthy hike, or zipping around Europe with them babbling contentedly in a bicycle trailer. Right. Not happening here.

                                          Source: www.freedigitalphotos.net

And leaving my family to jet off on a research trip? At this stage, it’s unimaginable. I’ve never left my son for more than one night, and the one time I had to board a plane without him — for a one-day business trip to Washington, D.C. — I was consumed with visions of a plane crash leaving him motherless. 

Yes, I’m grounded for the time being. It’s a temporary state; I know I’ll travel again, both solo and with my family. Just not in the next six months. This has left me with decisions to make about how to update my information about the setting of my work-in-progress.

Fortunately, so much is available online now. Travelers post photos and videos daily. Travelers write blogs. Local news stations broadcast online around the world. Webcams show the weather as it’s actually happening. And guidebooks, both hard copies and online, can provide a lot of the basic information I need to stay current.

What I was craving, I realized, was a sense of the mood of this region these days, since the political and economic climate has altered. I also wanted to get a sense of the pulse of life for young people there now. Where they hang out, where they avoid. Where they meet locals, where they meet expats. How their perceptions of the country have been challenged or changed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I dragged my family there for a week, I wouldn’t necessarily get that information. Not sealed up in an air-conditioned Marriott drinking our bottled water. I had a sense of youth culture and the pulse and pace of life by actually living and working in that country, years ago. If I went there now, it would be a different trip altogether.

It occurred to me that an avatar would be useful. Some ability to send a version of myself to walk those streets and absorb the culture there today, without leaving home. But wait — couldn’t technology make that possible? I got to work.

I designed a three-page questionnaire for people under 30, living and working in that country. I got in touch with schools I had worked with in the past and organizations that cater to young expats. I offered Amazon gift certificates in exchange for thoughtful answers to my questions about life there today. I got a fair number of respondents, and the surveys are flying back to me now, with useful and insightful information — exactly the kind of word-on-the-street stuff I wanted to absorb. Collectively, the responses are giving me a picture of the place right now; they also jog more memories of my own experiences there. Everyone so far has offered to be available to answer further questions. At some point in the story I’m writing I’ll need to figure out a certain type of travel route, and I hope one of my avatars, or ground troops there, will be willing to test it out for me.

I’d love to hear from others who set their works in distant places: how do you jog your memories or take virtual trips? How important do you feel it is to actually visit the places you write about?

Lately I’ve been diving into old journals I kept while traveling and living in another country. I’m setting a good portion of my novel-in-progress in that locale, so I am grateful for the detailed records I kept. While I experienced a number of exciting, dramatic events there (including being in city bus that drove into a bank window, and hitchhiking to the ocean with friends on the back of a Coca-Cola delivery truck), it is the most mundane details that now grab my attention. What I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where I shopped for groceries. What the mornings smelled like. The wild pointsetta trees that burst into red blooms in plazas, like little explosions of Christmas. And the interesting characters who made cameo appearances in my day-to-day life: a peace-loving military official whom I used to tutor, and a business executive who studied jujitsu and farmed ostriches. These are the kinds of details I can comb through now to help bring a story to life.

Surprisingly less useful to me now: profound insights I had about Life at the time. Whining about culture shock, bureaucracy, and general frustrations. Sights and experiences that blew me away, described in glowing abstractions. Actually, the whole narrative of my journeys to this country — two visits and a nine-month stint working there — are almost completely useless to me as a fiction writer.

I write a lot of fiction based on my travel experiences, perhaps as homages to the countries I’ve loved. The end result is always quite different from what I actually experienced. It’s tempting to mine my travel journals for the story itself. I often think, reaching for an old journal: Hey, this trip had a beginning, a middle, and an end! Lots of stuff happened! I can write about it!  The story’s practically already written!

But that’s dangerous thinking. Most of us, when we travel, do not have a neat narrative arc to our journeys. The travel journal typically records highs and lows, twists and turns, that are not necessarily compelling as a story or novel. For example, browsing through a journal of a 12-day trip to Turkey, I see that I experienced the following high and low points: a tumble down a flight of marble stairs, a deeply spiritual experience in a mosque, a persistent foot infection, the most heavenly breakfast, three nights in a cave, a brief spat with my husband (which involved an ice cream cone being flung out a car window at high speed, for reasons that now elude me), a breathtaking trek through village ruins led by an eight-year-old boy (and goat), and thugs attempting to break into our car and lure us into a jewelry store. All fascinating stuff that still makes my heart beat faster when I read it. Yet using the travelogue as the basis for a story or a book requires a lot of work. The material must be sifted through and reshaped, and much of it rejected altogether.

Another danger of relying too heavily on travel journals is the temptation to bend the story to follow events from the journal, or to let geography dictate the plot. In my forthcoming novel The Frame Game, I spent years, and about fifty pages, agonizing over how to get my heroines to a remote Japanese mountain village where they could stay in an ancient thatch-roof house where silkworms were once farmed. Cool place, right? I thought so. Simply because I had traveled there, and been blown away by the village and these houses, and devoted pages and pages of my journal to this place.

It was a huge revelation when one day I realized: there is no earthly reason for these girls to go to this village or to the silkworm houses! My traveler’s memory had been insisting on this destination, but the story resisted it. Everything they needed to accomplish could be done right were they already were.

In revisiting my old travel journals, then, it helps to try to read them through my main character’s lens. What would my character — not me — notice or take away from these experiences? What would my character  be interested in? Do the places, events, and details I recorded for posterity actually serve the story? If I want to include some events, what happens if I present them in a different order? Can I imagine a totally different premise or outcome than what I journaled? What if they happened to a person who is very different from myself?

Beginning a blog, something I’ve intended to do for years, now feels like arriving late at a party. Everyone’s already engaged in fascinating conversations, working the room, and I’m hovering by the cheese dip, clutching my plastic wine glass with both hands, wondering whether to stay or to bolt. Everyone seems to have fancier party clothes — custom-designed templates, frilly CSS, lush backgrounds dripping with multimedia accessories, while I’m wearing stuff from TJ Maxx — the sale rack at TJ Maxx.

Entering the blogosphere in late 2010 can also feel daunting simply because all the best blog names are already taken. I had about ten excellent titles in mind, but when I saw the table with the good name tags here, they were gone.

But there, in the corner of the table — there’s an untaken title. Writing the Distance. As someone who loves to travel and to write about travel, it feels appropriate. I also try to “go the distance” in my writing, to cross the finish lines I envision for myself and accomplish my writing goals. My biggest finish line lately, a bright yellow line not too far off in the distance, is the publication of my novel, a life dream of mine. I hope you’ll come along for the ride on my journey to publication in 2012. But I have smaller finish lines I race toward as well, every day. Some days it’s completing a chapter on my new novel. Or a scene. A paragraph. A page. Or it’s submitting an essay to a magazine and getting shorter material in circulation again. The point is, I decided a while ago to be a writer who gets things done, rather than just talking about writing or lamenting my limited time. It’s a choice I have to make daily, as so many other things clamor for attention. I hope this blog will attract other writers — and artists in other media — so that we can share tips and motivate each other along the way.

On this blog, I’ll be writing about books that have inspired me or that have fueled my creative process. I’ll also be interviewing and profiling writers and artists in different media, as I believe writers can learn a great deal from people who aren’t primarily wordsmiths. There will be a bit of travel writing; stay tuned for dispatches from Norway in Summer 2011. And there will be some blogging about taiko drumming, a newfound passion of mine. (Don’t know what taiko is? Come back. I’ll explain it). Now and then I’ll throw out some writing prompts or some questions, and I hope readers will feel comfortable sharing their responses and coming into a conversation. (OK, I used to teach, and I guess the urge to motivate class participation never really goes away!)

I’ve added links here to pages and blogs that I find useful and/or inspiring. I’ll be adding more to these lists and updating them as I go, though will try to keep them to a manageable size. I don’t know about you, but I tend to feel overwhelmed by long lists of links — and by the amount of information on some web sites in general — and I hope to minimize the need to scroll endlessly up and down. (Besides, that endless scrolling, and diving into other websites, ultimately takes us away from our own work, right?)

So thanks for keeping me company over here at the cheese dip. I think we can move on to crackers and crudites and make our way into this party. And your name is . . . ?