I’m always delighted to read anything by the philosopher, Alain de Botton. In his engaging book, The Art of Travel, he distinguishes between the anticipation and recollection of travel versus the reality of actually traveling.
When we anticipate, we study travel brochures and create in our imagination all sorts of exotic adventures, lying ahead of us. Once really there, we photograph the Eiffel Tower with our friends or family, their arms slung over one another’s shoulders and grinning into the camera. That forms the recollection, the moments we choose to remember.
Magically gone from memory are the delayed flight, the lousy food and the hotel room overlooking the alley, where the garbage collectors banged tins at 5am. But, if we otherwise enjoy ourselves, we select those ‘good moments’ and photograph them to construct a different reality from the real reality.
De Botton’s next idea is fascinating. He says that’s exactly what the artist does. Whether writing a novel, painting a picture or scoring a symphony, the artist imagines the outline of the work [anticipates the delights of the trip] then selects that which is felt to have artistic value [forgets the garbage men and includes friends at the Eiffel Tower]. Just as the traveler now has a fine and satisfying memory of the trip, the artist has a wonderful novel, painting or musical score. The artist has created art through imagination, selection, rejection and combination of artistic elements resulting in something new. The happy traveler has created a wonderful trip.
Then he tells of a man who had a very peculiar experience. After feasting his eyes upon paintings by Jan Steen and Rembrandt, this traveler anticipated beauty, joviality and simplicity in Holland. Many paintings of laughing, carousing cavaliers had fixed this image in his mind, along with quaint houses and canals. But on a trip to Amsterdam and Haarlem, he was strangely disappointed.
No, according to De Botton, the paintings had not lied. Certainly, there were a number of jovial people and pretty maids pouring milk, but the images of them were diluted in this traveler’s mind, by all the other ordinary, boring things he saw. Such commonplace items simply did not fit his mental picture. Thus, reality did not compare to an afternoon of viewing the works of Rembrandt in a gallery. And why not? Because Rembrandt and Steen had, by selecting and combining elements, captured the essence of the beauty of Holland, thereby intensifying it.
This is exactly what a writer or any artist tries to do and as a traveler, you may do much the same thing.
When writing about a day in your protagonist’s life, you don’t start with what he had for breakfast or that his car wouldn’t start unless it’s germane to the plot or his character. You compress. You select and embellish. You toss out. All the details of your story must combine to intensify real life in order to create something interesting and of artistic merit.
When I started writing the first novel in the Osgoode Trilogy, Conduct in Question, I had to learn it wasn’t necessary to build the whole city with lengthy descriptions of setting and character, before Harry Jenkins [the protagonist lawyer] could do anything. But many nineteenth century novelists did write numerous pages with glowing descriptions of the Scottish moors or a county hamlet. And that was necessary because, with the difficulty of travel, a reader might well need help in picturing the setting. But today, with the ease of travel, the surfeit of film, web and television images, no reader needs more than the briefest description. Just write walking down Fifth Avenue and the reader immediately gets the picture.
In a novel, usually only the most meaningful, coherent thoughts are included, unless you are James Joyce, the brilliant stream of consciousness writer. And so, you as the writer can order your protagonists thoughts so as to make complete and utter sense apparently the first time. In the Osgoode Trilogy, the protagonist, Harry Jenkins, does lots of thinking and analyzing [the novels are mysteries, after all]. But his coherence of thought is only produced after much editing and revising. Not much like real life, you say?
In the writing of The Drawing Lesson, the first in the Trilogy of Remembrance, I spent a lot of time with the imagined thoughts of the very great artist, Alexander Wainwright, my protagonist. If you were to meet this man yourself, you might wonder just how coherent he was about his visionary way of seeing the world. But in the editing process, I spent untold hours trying to create a cohesive way of showing what an artist with deep visionary insight must think. Only by shaping and molding the expression of his thoughts, was I able to give a coherent account of his thought patterns. After all, I did have more than three hundred pages to do so!
Same for dialogue. Interesting characters in books speak better and much more on point than people really do, partly because the writer is able to take back words. In real life, we often wish in retrospect, if only I had said this or that to set him straight. No problem for the writer. Hit the delete button and let him say something truly sharp and incisive.
And so, after comparing what the traveler and the writer do, what can we conclude? I quote De Botton in the Art of Travel:
The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress, they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying or embellishing, thus lend to life vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.
And so therein lies the difference between Art and Life! And so, the similarity between the traveler and writer.
RESOURCE BOX: This is the first in a series of articles about travel and writing by Mary E. Martin, the author of the Osgoode Trilogy [Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One]. To sample her writing, please visit