Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

One would think that we might better know the writers who “dig in” than those who “move.” That is to say, we can picture them at their desks, in their studies, working. Proust’s cork-lined room and the bed in which he composed his masterpiece affords one an imaginative notion of the writer’s interior world, if not the creative effort itself. Once, while in London, traipsing around Bloomsbury, I sought out Virginia Woolf’s home. The expected brass plate confirmed the find. But the house is not open to the public, and is now converted office space. I was reduced to peering in through a barred street window. There were fax machines and furniture, a woman in a beige sweater pounding away on a computer and the flurry of activity one associates with commerce. I tried to imagine Mrs. Woolf there but failed–a “dug in” writer who slipped through my fingers. The failure was particularly poignant in that she had so famously observed, “A woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Likewise, I once made an effort to find Gertrude Stein’s Paris house, her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, the place shared with Alice B. Tolkas. Stein called Alice “Pussy” and Gertrude was “Lovey.” Also not open to the public. There is that awful scene in A Moveable Feast, where the young Hemingway, standing in the foyer of Miss Stein’s house, overhears her upstairs: “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.’” She was dead eighteen years when Hemingway’s memoir of Paris and being hungry was published–“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Of his writing, Miss Stein said, “Hemingway’s remarks are not literature.” I did not so much think of that passage while standing at the front door, as feel the lapsed presence of so many with such promise, Gertrude’s lost generation. Hemingway, likewise, is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by the hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.

I went to Prague seeking Kafka, but he too had disappeared. The City of a Thousand Spires, however, remained true to a fashion and I gave myself to its dark alleys and endless cobblestone streets while intoning the spirit of the writer–“Prague doesn’t let go.”– who, perhaps more than any other, ushered us into the modern era. Though Prague invites an exercise of such transmutations, to this pilgrim the city is more given to music. Smetana and Dvorak are easier to find than the man of The Castle. I do not think this unusual as music, once released abides ripe in the atmosphere, whereas the written word must be sought out.

The spirit of Joyce is to be found in Dublin, though ironically he wrote in self-exile. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden is lost to history, but Emerson’s house in Concord remains and it is easy to imagine the great man dug in, to use Chatwin’s phrase, surrounded by his books and working intently.

All this is a way of working round back to Chatwin’s observation, that there are writers who dig in and writers who move. I did not find the writers I sought. The men and women who had dug in did not remain, but for the Sage of Concord. Even in my home town of Portland, Maine, the spirit of Longfellow is not found at his restored museum-home, but rather at the outlook at Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, where he would sit and watch the restless ocean break over the granite coast.

The peripatetic writers, the ones who “move,” should elude us, their scent long ago gone extinguished. But instead, perhaps for this very reason, because they did not dig in, they are more ready instruments of the imagination. While traveling through India I came to rest in the village Rohet, in the state of Rajasthan. It was in the garden after a hot day of travel that I sat to rest and opened my Lonely Plant Guide to Rajasthan. Rohet warrants just one short paragraph in the current guide. It is devoted to a brief description of Rohet Garh, a 350 year-old manor, now a heritage hotel. And in that single paragraph one sentence lit me afire. To wit, “Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines here.” Parenthetically, the guide offered the room number: 15. I was staying at hotel Rohet Garh. I looked across the garden. A peacock posed against a hedge. Behind the hedge, there were stairs and at the top of the stairs room number fifteen.

I used to find Chatwin a difficult go. I took In Patagonia with me the first time I went to, well, to Patagonia. And although I read it, it did not come easily. I re-read it on a return trip two years later and like many good books it gave up a bit more the next time round. I find his style now welcoming and accessible, lending credence to my observation that there are right times and wrong times to pursue an author.

Chatwin is an interesting study. Known not only for his writing, Chatwin is Chatwin because of the life he carved out and promoted. Like Hemingway, Chatwin was known as much for his peripatetic life as his writing. I find this appealing beyond resistance, as I not so much read a book, as co-construct the reading experience with the writer’s existence. I know this is an inappropriate approach to a “text” in some circles and therefore I do not travel in those circles. That the writing life is as much a curiosity to me as the text is edifying, is a connection I reinforce, not deconstruct.

Room fifteen was occupied the day I arrived. I kept my eye on it and the next morning it was open for cleaning and empty of guests. I crept up the stairs and went in as the maid was changing the bed. It was larger than my room and more elegant and I imagined spending time here, months even. The sun shone in through a large three-paned window. I could do this, I thought, thoroughly kidding myself. I could stay here and forget the world and write and be productive, happy even. “I adore it here,” Chatwin wrote of Rohet. “Lunch yesterday, for example, consisted of a light little bustard curry, a puree of peas, another of aubergine and coriander, yoghurt and a kind of whole-meal bread the size of a potato and baked in ashes. A sadhu with a knotted beard down to his kneecaps has occupied the shrine a stone’s throw from my balcony; and after a few puffs of his ganja I found myself reciting, in Sanskrit, some stanzas of the Bhagavad Gita. I work away for eight hours at a stretch, go for cycle rides in the cool of the evening, and come back to Proust.” I wonder if he was reading Proust in French? As I say, the writer’s life is a great curiosity to me.

“A cool blue study overlooking the garden,” Chatwin wrote to a friend about room fifteen. “A saloon with ancestral portraits. Bedroom giving out onto the terrace. Unbelievably beautiful girls who come with hot water, with real coffee, with papayas, with a mango milkshake. In short, I’m really feeling quite contented. The cold and cough has been hard to shake off. A dry cough always is. But thanks to an ayurvedic cough preparation, it really does seem to be on the wane.”

Chatwin was ill during this stay in India. He would die three years later from complications due to HIV. Songlines was finished north of here, near the Nepal border. I asked the manager if there was anyone around who might remember Chatwin’s stay. “That would be the owner,” he said. The Thakur, I presumed, the Rajasthani gentleman of the Champawat clan, the family upon whom the fiefdom of Rohet had been bestowed in 1622. Regrettably, the gentleman never appeared.

Seeking Chatwin’s footsteps I visited a nearby Bishnoi village the next morning. It was early and the sun was still low on the horizon. The village walls were painted blue. A morning religious ritual, with opium as the instrument of sacrament, was beginning–again. The village elders had already enjoyed one righteous ceremony that morning and were anticipating the next. They ushered me around a wall and begged me to sit. An elder with a short gray beard, welcomed me, pressing his palms together. He had glassy, red-rimmed eyes and sported a Cheshire cat grin. Opium is not smoked here. It is drunk, prepared like coffee. Water is filtered through it, turning it a brown-amber; then it is pored into the palm of the elder. An assistant dips his finger into the liquid and flecks it into the air as an offering to Shiva. The repository palm, brimming with the tea-colored intoxicant, is offered to the pious participants who slurp it from the outstretched hand. It is consumed in a heady ritual, a holy wine, blood of the ubiquitous gods. Repeat as desired. Chatwin was an enthusiastic cultural participant. He sought experience. I encouraged my imagination and pictured him here, in his charismatic splendor, getting high with the locals, returning to his blue room and reading Proust, head spinning. When it came round to my place in the circle, I put away my hesitation—that would be specifically, not the drink, but the vessel, the rust-stained palm of my host—and joined in communion. It takes, I was informed, a couple months before the full benefit of the practice can be appreciated. Benefit? “Why yes. Just look at him,” Rahul, my guide said, pointing to the officiating elder. “He is seventy-two years old.” The man sat cross-legged in his stoned glory looking not a day over sixty. “Opium keeps you young. But of course it is addictive and that is a problem.”

Pascal, in a particularly gloomy mood, said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I disagree. It is (sometimes) not a problem to leave one’s room, to move. I seek experiences that afford me a connection to things I deem important–connections manifesting a notion of value and worth. Sometimes those experiences are made in my room, reading–but the deeper pathways are created when we move, I believe. That is probably why I seek out the haunts of writers, not just their work, reading being so personally profound an experience. Pursuing the path of those who have gone before affords me a degree of justification in my own pursuits. Chatwin has a line in The Songlines that captures this idea, I think. “My reason for coming to Australia was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men’s books…” It is in the world that experience thickens, making life more savory, like adding a roux to a sauce.

Yes, the world can be presented in the books we read and write from our dug in places. Both moving and digging in afford one the opportunity to learn for one’s self, in fact, to connect. Indeed, I reflect sometimes that if we understood better the connectedness of existence to the world, regardless of how it is garnered, we might all be gods, omniscient and mindful, mixing with the immortals. To this point, I recall reading that with a day of breathing we likely inhale a molecule that had been exhaled by Napoleon—therein lies the proof that we are indeed surrounded, that we walk and we sit among the living and the dead.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

15 responses to “In Search of Writers (and their haunts)”

  1. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    “I did not so much think of that passage while standing at the front door, as feel the lapsed presence of so many with such promise, Gertrude’s lost generation. Hemingway, likewise, is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by the hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.”

    I love how you go and seek out these places. And I agree that the writers’ spirits have left. For Kafka, who stayed home, as well as for The Lost Generation, which crossed the Atlantic, the cities they lived in were cheap and breathing. Now Prague and Paris are expensive and museums to the ones that came before.

    I once stayed in a hotel in Toronto where Hemingway had lived for a while, working for the Star. I loved the proximity, and yet, it was a self-conscious moment, not the place to breathe.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      The economies have beat the writers out of the best places. This is true. I can’t image writing in Saigon, sweating and all that…

      I have a friend, French, who has been to all the Hemingway homes. I mention he’s that he’s French because getting to Cuba to see Papa’s place there was not a problem. But not Toronto. That is very cool. I fished the Little Manistee in Michigan. He fished there.

      Thanks for reading and the comment. And beware of the self-conscious moment–unless you’re seeking the self-conscious moment…

  2. Brian Eckert says:

    Doug, I have always appreciated the link between travel and writing. At one point, when I was about 20 and high on Kerouac, I believed it was NECESSARY to travel in order to write. I’ve shed that view, but can’t deny that new experiences make my mind flow in a way that only drugs can match(opium in particular).

    If a writer serves any purpose (which I believe, and I suppose, I have to believe if I’m to lend any credence to my own craft) it is to unify many disparate circumstances into a cohesive narrative. Said in another way, writers know how to frame a singular object or scene out of a much larger context in the same way a photographer does.

    Some of my favorite writers (Hemingway, Henry Miller, various Beats) were not only writers…they burned with a spark of life in them…they knew something about living. I’ve often wondered the point of literature if its purpose is only to recreate what is around us every day…why not skip the devices and plunge straight into the heart of the matter…which is to say, reality….

    • Doug Bruns says:

      B ~ Man, you’re firing on a lot of cylinders here: travel, writing, purpose (that’s a big one), “the heart of the matter”…and reality. A very dense comment, indeed. Thanks for the thought provocation. This business you mention, that of the “spark of life,” now that is a thing rich and multifarious. I know I have done–and do–all of the things of which you write in pursuit of it, the spark of life. If one could toss overboard all the devices and, as you say, plunge straight into the heart of that matter, that would be, well, that would be something. Everything seems a device to that end. But two things seem best about all that. One, I love the devices. That is to say, I love to write and to read and to study those who have done and do these verbs. And, two, I wish to plunge to the heart of it all, in some straight away fashion, without the devices I love, to penetrate the surface and get to that place of which you speak: reality. But this is as good as I can do and for that alone I carry on.
      Thanks for reading and the comment and the insight.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    There’s something to be said for both, I think, the writing of experience, and the experience of writing. I’ve found that my own writing can sometimes feel right when drawing from experience, or sometimes right when constructing flights of imagination that have no basis in reality whatsoever.

    Intriguingly, a friend and co-writer here, Chris Kennett, said that he was completely depressed by the Kafka museum.

    ‘Jesus,’ Chris said (last night, actually), ‘Kafka was a miserable fuck.’

    I’ve heard that Hunter S. Thompson typed out more than one manuscript in order to get the feel of writing the words. Have you ever done anything similar, Doug?

    • Doug Bruns says:

      S ~ Thanks for reading, and the comment. I went through the Kafka museum, but don’t recall it being particularly depressing. Now that I think back on it, though, I could see it being just that. More, I recall rushing through, put off by the crowds and the sparkle of it all, something I suspect the man himself would have laughed at, if he was given to laughing (which I recall reading he was, surprisingly).

      You comment on HS Thompson sounds vaguely familiar…not that I know anything about him or his writing, but there is another writer, who escapes me right now, that I recall did the same thing. It sounds like a way of kick-starting the engine, which I completely understand. For me, to avoid the kick-start, I try to follow Hemingway’s advice of stopping when I know I can carry on. It is, admittedly, a tease, but it does make it easier to pick it up and run with it the next day.

      As always, thanks for checking in.

  4. I agree with Pascal, Doug. But I would rephrase it as “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone accepting the fact that they are inessential.”

    I really related with this essay. Having formerly been a writer on the move and now one that is decidedly dug in, I’ve been feeling the need to travel mightily these days. But, of course, travel is addictive, and that is a problem. Either way, maybe I can recover my essential-ness in the Ganges.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      S ~ If nothing else, reflecting on one’s possible “inessential” nature might likely drive one into one’s room. Regardless, as the old adage says, Everyone is expendable–a notion I probably spend too much time dancing around.

      Travel is addictive, I agree. I’ve spent the better part of the last year battling my addition and I think I have turned a corner. I moved to Maine a year and a half ago, and the addition seemed to taper off with that event. As a friend observed not long ago, “You’ve arrived at your destination.” More to my experience, travel is like malaria: Once you contract it, you’ll always be a host. You know the disease will flare up on occasion and you’ve got to address it accordingly.

      Good luck with the Ganges essential-ness recovery effort. I look forward to hearing how that goes.
      Thanks for reading and the comment.

  5. Brad Listi says:

    another good one, doug. and once again i find myself nodding along. i seek out writers’ haunts, too. when i was in cuba i went to hemingway’s place in san francisco de paula. then i went down to cojimar and asked a bartender in town how to get to gregorio fuentes’ house. fuentes was hemingway’s ship captain and the model for the protagonist in ‘the old man & the sea.’ i went to his house. i feel silly even saying that. i feel silly for doing any kind of hemingway tourism.

    fuentes was about 102 years old then. his great-grandson greeted us (i was with some friends) and then went back into the bedroom and wheeled gregorio out in a wheelchair. he had no teeth and couldn’t speak. we gave him a cojiba and he bit the tip off with his gums, lit it, and smoked it. he had hemingway’s old fishing pole, and an old fishing knife. there was a painting of he and hemingway on the wall…old photos. i felt terrible the whole time i was there. like it was a mistake. this poor old bastard was ancient, and he was sitting there slumped over, like a museum piece.

    he died a few months later.

    anyway. i think my problem is that i’m somewhere in the middle. i’m a dig in/move writer. i have both impulses.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      B ~ As always, I appreciate you reading my work and your kind words. Your story of Hemingway’s Fuentes is very interesting and heartbreaking. A few years ago I was studying with Steve McCurry, the National Geographic photographer who shot the famous Afgan Girl image. As you may be aware, many years after the shot was taken and all the money was counted National Geo and Steve came to the conclusion that something was owed back. He went back and, seeking and finding the needle in the haystack, found her. He and NG took care of her and her family and her village. She was clueless, BTW, had no idea her youthful image was famous around the world. I enjoy this story, for many reasons, not least is how he and NG did the right thing. In this context I’ve wondered over the years about Fuentes and Hemingway and wondered if Papa did anything for the old man, like McCurry did for his subject. I suspect the research is out there, maybe it’s not a difficult question to answer. I hope he did. But don’t know. Perhaps you know? Regardless, your tale is equal parts heart-rending and fascinating. Thanks for checking in.

  6. Becky Palapala says:

    Woolf is a slick example here.

    Because of course, somewhat against her model, in order to move, one needs the means. At least to some degree. It doesn’t cost much to walk to a local park or coffee shop or body of water, but “home,” “place,” “entrenched”–they’re all sort of “relative to what?”

    I find myself mystified, often, when I wonder what some of my fellow writers actually do. What do they do that they can fly around the country and the world and still afford to write full time? What could possibly be happening that allows them this liberty?

    I know some have “normal” jobs. I feel like it’s in poor taste, of course, to ask the others, “Where the fuck is all this money coming from????”

    It’s not meant to be accusatory. The question implicit is “and how can I get in on that?”

    I can only conclude that writers have some kind of blessed karmic luck when it comes to winning the lottery. Or having wealthy parents. Or maybe, perhaps against intuition, most writers (who are not me) are just extremely good at managing money.

    At any rate. The point of my Woolf mention is that sometimes all one can afford is a room of one’s own. At least nowadays. I’m suddenly thinking about globalization and all that. Xenophilia. How that changes the inherent worth of being a dig-in or move writer.

    That said, even if I had a million dollars, I would probably be a dig-in writer. Digging in, maybe, wherever I was, but digging in anyway.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      B ~ Thanks for reading–and your thoughts. You bring up an essential point: “Where the fuck is all this money coming from????” Yes, the economics of writing. Some of my favorite writers had it, money, that is. I think of Montaigne, Proust, Tolstoy. Just as many didn’t. It makes no difference to the writing, but certainly does to the writer, eh? So, my own dark secrete, is that I have made some, enough to go to those places I mentioned and enough to afford me to write and read all the time or none of the time, as I wish. I have been a writer all my life. I have not written all my life. I wrote early on and then some, then stopped, had to stop, raised a family and started a business, from nothing. All the while, related to the business, I knew I was doing it so I wouldn’t have to do it–work–forever. I wrote during this period, but not with serious intent really, more to keep the tools sharp. But unlike so many goals, this one actually worked out. Not without ups and downs, which continue. But, in the main, worked out. You put the question in an interesting context, however. What would one do, being a writer, if one won the lottery? It is a question I can somewhat answer. I read and write, a lot. AND I don’t take it for granted. It is a remarkable place to be and I recognize that. All that is a short take on a long(er) question and one I think warrants deeper consideration of lifestyle for the writer, goals and aspirations and all that entails. Stay tuned.
      Thanks so much for writing and your thought provoking questions.
      ps. I agree, trying it both ways, digging in is the life for me.

      • dwoz says:

        On the topic of “where does the money come from…”

        Just took a trip to LA (from Boston). Round-trip: $280 bucks. Friend’s couch: $0. Tank of gas for his car (it IS Los Angeles!) $60. Food: $100.-ish.

        Point being, it was a burn rate of less than $100 bucks per day. My HOME burn rate is more than $100 bucks per day.

        Final analysis: Don’t buy shit, and you can live like a King in the most expensive place on earth.

        • Doug Bruns says:

          D ~ Good point. Years ago, when Prague just opened up, after the wall came down, my wife and I jumped on a plane and flew to the Czech Republic. We stayed in a little B&B out of the city, took the metro into town, ate on the streets. We spent ten days. All told, two people, ten days in Prague including airfare: $1800 ($900 a person, or $90/day!). Of course, Prague has since become really expensive, but I’m certain I could get close to that again if I worked at it. We did the same thing in London and Paris. One can travel on the cheap. I remember my mother saying something like, “wouldn’t it be better to take the $1800 and put it into a retirement fund.” I guess, I should have expected that.

        • dwoz says:

          That is a tempting tradeoff your mother offers…ten days in Prague for $1800 bucks, or one day on life support for the same dosh.

          What a conundrum, choosing the right choice.

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