As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ll be attending Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program this year. As the trip gets closer (I leave on the 26th), I am realizing how completely unprepared I am. Downstairs, on top of a box of books that I have yet to unpack, there are two pieces of media connected to my impending travels: Derek Sayer’s Coasts of Bohemia and a set of Czech language tapes. I know these resources are available, yet I give them a wide berth.
Last year, I attended the SLS Russia program. Prior to my trip, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and a number of very useful Russian phrases. I knew how to ask for water without bubbles, food without mayonnaise, bathrooms, and nesting dolls. This year, I only know the Czech word for beer and I’m hoping that will be enough to get me by. If not, I have a 5-hour layover at Heathrow to brush up, I guess.
So why go to Prague? Why attend a writing seminar when I’ve just graduated from an MFA program? Shouldn’t I be sick of workshops by now? I’m not sure that I have an answer. When I sent in my application, it seemed like it would be fun to spend a month in Prague. It would be a sort of graduation gift to myself. And I was a finalist for the program’s fellowship award of free tuition, after all. I have since discovered that this is a common ploy—the programs tell a number of applicants that they are finalists or semifinalists for some award and offer these applicants discounted tuition and fees in order to get a commitment, but the applicants still end up paying a considerable amount of money to the program. I’ve often wondered how many (if any) attendees ever end up paying full price for these things. In any case, it worked out well while I was a student—these designations of “finalist” or “semifinalist” were enough to convince my university president and provost to give me money to attend conferences. As a non-student, of course, there are not so many opportunities for supplemental funding.
I don’t believe one has to travel to write. And yet travel has been a highly effective trigger for me. In St. Petersburg, I wrote more in two weeks than I had in an entire semester at UM. And it was quality stuff. In the fall, one of my colleagues actually asked, “What happened to you over the summer” in regard to my work. It was like the time I developed boobs over the summer between 6th and 7th grade. Which begs the question, why do some writers find it so easy to write abroad and so difficult to write at home? There is, I guess, a simple answer; we spell it: J-O-B. When I am abroad, I am not working for pay. In fact, I plan trips abroad in order to avoid work or get away from work. So maybe it’s not all about the mystique of the old world or getting outside one’s comfort zone. Maybe it’s really just about having a little more time for navel gazing.
On a tangentially related note, here's a fun article by Ann Bauer about the stigma that surrounds untravelled writers and the reality of travel vs. the ideal.
So anyway, I’m leaving in 2 weeks. I’ll be posting dispatches from the field. Possibly even pictures.