The Power of Small Journeys
November 3, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
I wasn’t visiting Manhattan to discover the tiny waterfall park on 51st Street, or the set of hidden stairs off Beekman Place leading to the East River.
No, I’d gone there in August for a research fellowship at the New York Public Library.
But stumbling upon the waterfall on my first night in town (and later the hidden staircase), I felt as though I’d never been to New York before, and this discovery was a reward for making the journey. The wall of water appears to spill from an apartment terrace overhead, bestowing the quiet of the woods on a busy corner of Midtown Manhattan.
Other things that sparked my interest during the trip: the art deco GE building on Lexington Avenue whose spires in the form of lightning bolts are aimed at celebrating the power of electricity and the petanque players I observed one day in Bryant Park who appeared to have arrived directly from France that morning. The public library’s main branch on 42nd Street is, of course, exquisite in its own right: the frescoed-ceilings in the main reading room are so ethereal they seem to be not just from another era, but the temporal equivalent of another planet.
Walking from my hotel to the library each day, I marveled over the variety of observations emerging from the same route done different ways. I had to walk eight blocks south and three avenues over, and each time I did so, I’d invent a new route: two blocks down, then one avenue over, now six blocks further south and two avenues over. The next time, I might walk four blocks south, and two avenues over, followed by four more blocks south, and so forth.
And it wasn’t long before I got that feeling, that urge. The urge to record my observations. In other words: The need to write.
Change of scenery, change of energy.
The energy that fuels writing.
I hadn’t visited New York since the first Covid lockdown in 2020, and I felt estranged from the city that, as a native Long Islander, I had had in my backyard growing up.
But I think the feeling that surged through me wasn’t simply a hankering for Gotham. It was more akin to the gift traveling anywhere bestows on everyone, but perhaps especially writers. The jolt that new discoveries afford us. Travel encourages us to pay attention, and to paraphrase Anne Lamott, writing is all about learning how to pay attention.
It reminded me of a trip to Montreal, where I fell under the spell of French simply by seeing a road sign on the highway for “hebergement” (lodging). This was back before Covid, but at a time when traveling farther afield wasn’t possible. So we jumped in the car and drove up from our home in Connecticut. Dusting off my high school French, I was thrilled when I managed to complete a simple transaction in a bakery. We were staying in a residential neighborhood called Rosemount-La Petite Patrie which is full of delightful duplexes with second floor balconies facing the street that overflowed with flowers, bikes and the odd pair of running shoes. On a whim one evening, I took a walk at sunset. As the sky turned purple, I craned my neck to get a better view. On a sliver of park land I glimpsed between duplexes I could see soccer players practicing, while bike commuters ambled by me. And notebook in hand, I began taking an inventory of the neighborhood’s businesses: a grocer, an off-license, a hair salon, a book shop, a toy emporium, a real estate office, the plumber, a driving school (automatique and manuelle) and so on.
Why would I do that? Well, I just felt so alive I needed to note everything I was seeing.
For some people, this swooning would move them to look at real estate brochures, and imagine a new life in the vacation destination.
For us writers, the swooning means one thing: new writing. Which, for us, is a new life. A new lease on life.
Perhaps it’s the discovery of something that seems hidden. A similar sensation occurred one morning when I dropped off my son at school in our suburban Connecticut town. Along the route is a glorious waterfall that’s largely hidden from the road. I turned on the first road after the waterfall only to discover not a creek feeding the falls as I had expected but a small pond surrounded by stately homes and long, manicured lawns dotted with canoes. A tiny neighborhood nestled in a de facto nature preserve I knew nothing about in my own town. By the pond was a bench next to a Little Library so I sat down and got to work.
If I said going to Paris — or Tokyo or Rio — will awake the writing muse within you, it wouldn’t sound like a major discovery. It also wouldn’t be of much use to writers who for a variety of reasons can’t jet off to these far-flung places.
Instead, what I’ve found is small journeys are often enough to get me writing again or writing in a new way.
Ideally on the journey I discover a waterfall park in Midtown Manhattan, or trot out my rusty French to order a croissant in Montreal “comme ça.” But even simply making a detour after school dropoff and finding a new writing nook at the edge of a pond will do. And it’s a relief knowing a short trip – one that’s within practically anyone’s reach – will provide a jolt. The jolt we writers so desperately need – the one that gets us writing.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.