Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing Logjam

It's been over two months since I returned from my cruise, and I'm still trying to finish an essay about it. The problem with this writing project is that it's keeping me from getting to lots of other projects I plan to do. It's creating a logjam in my creative process.

Sometimes this happens with reading projects, too. I'll be in the middle of a book, and although it's not very engaging, I'll be determined to finish it before I start something else. So I slowly slog through it. Once I finish it, I can turn my attention to the logjam of other reading material that has piled up in the meantime.

You see, when I went on my solo cruise, I took notes. Way too many notes. I filled up 30 pages of a hotel notepad with them. And now I'm struggling with what to do with all my witty, insightful, navel-gazing, personal, and boring thoughts (with pictures!) I guess this is the right venue for that kind of thing, but I'm also trying to write an article for a local online magazine. And that's the logjam. Writing out random thoughts on a blog is one thing, but publishing something for a wider audience requires more focus and better writing.

I'm suffering from that old writer's tension between wanting to include all my brilliant insights and having a coherent theme throughout. It's already way too long, and it's only half written. I wish I could just finish it already so that I could get on to other writing projects.

Besides that, real life keeps getting in the way: work, chores and errands, and trying to have a social life.

So, I figured I would put the first draft of the first part here, just to show that I have been doing something the past two months. Maybe breaking it up into a series of blog posts will make it more manageable.


Meta-Cruising With David Foster Wallace


“So how was your cruise?”

I knew the question was coming. I spent the entire trip home, as I hopped from ship to bus to airport to airplane, trying to come up with a good answer for it. I couldn’t in good conscience give the pat “It was fun!” answer, in part because I refused to succumb to Carnival’s constant propaganda to put the word FUN! on my brain. More importantly, there was simply no one word to describe the experience. It was collection of conflicting adjectives: warm, cold, calm, windy, huge, tiny, lonely, crowded, cheesy, grand, gluttonous, eventful, drunken, sobering, relaxing, exhausting, boring, and, yes: fun.

Because I traveled alone and didn’t have anyone to tell my witty and insightful observations to, I took what I thought were copious notes on my five-day Western Caribbean cruise in January. I filled up 30 sheets of my Applebutter Inn notepad (a souvenir from an earlier vacation to Vermont.)

Once I got back and told people about my notepad bursting with insights, three people pointed me to David Foster Wallace’s essay about his own cruise experience, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” For that essay, which is 97 pages long, Wallace filled up almost three entire Mead notebooks with his observations.

Okay, so I’m no David Foster Wallace. He was a tortured genius, and I’m just an uncomfortable creative type.

I’m not as profound or eloquent or loquacious as David Foster Wallace. For example, all the death and despair themes from his essay? I didn’t pick up on that. But Wallace and I were both curmudgeonly curious Midwestern outsiders who traveled solo and viewed the whole thing with a critical eye. We shared a liberal guilt over the decadence and class distinctions of the experience.

I’ve enjoyed comparing and contrasting our two experiences. And just like the food and the parties and the blue seas and the weather and the rocking boat and the tourism and the Mayan ruins, DFW’s essay has now become part of my own cruise experience.

Perhaps the biggest difference between my cruise and DFW’s was the purpose. I took this solo tropical vacation because I had three weeks off over the winter holidays (I work in academia and don’t work when classes are out of session), I was newly single, and I needed a distraction from the soul-sucking Midwestern winter.

I was, however, ambivalent about it. The week before I had met with an adviser about getting involved in socially responsible investing. I didn’t quite have enough of a nest egg to start investing, so what do I do instead? I take a socially irresponsible vacation aboard a floating luxury hotel designed for decadent pleasure. Some liberal I am.

DFW, on the other hand, took a cruise because a magazine paid him to.

When Wallace overhears other cruisers in the waiting area talk about why they’re going on a cruise, no one says they’re going on a cruise just to go on one. “Everybody characterizes the upcoming week as either a long-put-off reward or a last-ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure.” He says this is evidence of the “subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence.”

I guess I’m not that different from other people after all.


Read Part Two of this essay here.

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