Alaska Writer on the Road: Rituals and Departures

Just when you think writers are a strange lot, you discover
they’re even stranger. Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, had an intense connection to snails, which
she bred at home. She once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying a
handbag containing a head of lettuce and a hundred snails as her companions for
the evening. Moving to France, she violated prohibitions against the import of
snails by smuggling her little shelled pets across the border, six to ten at a
time, hidden under each breast.

That unforgettable anecdote comes from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, which I’ve only
just started reading. Aside from her snail smuggling, Highsmith had many other
less bizarre but still distinctive rituals, including starting the day with a
bottle of vodka by her bedside. She’d reach for it as soon as she woke up, have
a morning slug (the other kind) and then mark on the bottle her acceptable limit for the rest of
the day. Many of Currey’s other featured authors have similar habits of hard
drinking, heavy eating, smoking and other forms of drug use—but also early
rising, strict daily word limits, and so on. Just when I’d convinced myself
that successful writers (Hemingway et al. aside) are for the most part healthy
folks, the first dips into Currey’s book have challenged that view.

It seems that a number of our most notable artists lived in
ways that should have killed them. But a surprising number of them lived to a
decently old age. And they were consistent. They figured out what worked to get
the pages out and stuck with it. When it comes to productivity, self-knowledge,
more than universally applicable standards of self-care, may be the most
important lesson of all. (But don’t share that with any of my students, to whom
I continue to preach the benefits of exercise, sleep, and healthy relationships.)

I’ve spent years trying to create rituals and good working
spaces for myself, and this week, I’m ditching most of them. After six months
of preparation, cleaning and purging, we sold our house. It closed just three days
ago. We are now officially “de-homed,” which sounds a little better than
homeless. We have no mixed feelings about this fact. I felt chained to my
mortgage for half of the last fifteen years and would prefer renting to owning
next time we live in Alaska, about a year from now.

Saturday we fly to Vancouver and a few days later we fly to
Thailand for a month. After that, Indonesia. After that, maybe China. My
husband will teach English and I’ll continue writing, teaching, and book
coaching, becoming a true digital nomad. But what will that mean, day to day? Even
as we line up our first accommodations in Thailand, I know I can’t count on
much. We’re staying at a backpacker-style long-term budget hotel for the first
month; will there be a desk? Will there be a way to make a simple breakfast or
will we head out onto the street first thing every day? Will 90 degrees be too
hot to think; will my teenage daughter and I relent and take afternoon naps, as
I used to do on long trips to Mexico, twenty years ago?

Packing up our house over several months was like finishing
a book. At every point, you think you’re about 85% done, you open more
cupboards and dig deeper into the shed and work for days or weeks and realize
that now, you’re only 87% done. I noticed, with a little chagrin, the very last
step I was uncomfortable taking: emptying my office. It was almost empty, but I left for last the
disconnection of my desktop computer and massive printer, and the moving of
several boxes of books and files related to current writing projects. Truth is,
I mostly work on a laptop, and mostly use files stored in the cloud. But
still: there are old documents here and there, and reference books not
available in digital form, and notes to myself, and the simple familiar quality
of sitting at my downstairs desk. That final unplugging of the router took
place about two hours before the realtor walk-through and handover of keys.
Fifteen years of freelancing and writing novels from one location, over. I’m traveling
precisely because I want a complete shakeup of both my external and internal environments,
but still, it’s natural to cling to the familiar. And it’s natural to be a
little anxious. Will currently-incubating fiction projects in my head evaporate
when I reach a new climate and culture? What other interests and ideas will
take the place of ones that suddenly lose their appeal? What experiences will
shake up much of what I currently believe?

As a young man, George Orwell, living in Burma, witnessed
and probably participated in the slaughtering of an aggressive elephant, which
seemed to influence his thoughts about the British Empire forever after—or at
least provided a metaphor and narrative structure for communicating those
long-simmering thoughts and feelings. Patricia Highsmith, emigrating to France,
deepened her passionate relationship with snails. Who the heck knows what will
happen to us when we live in strange lands?

In the meanwhile, I know I will be more grateful than ever for
the connection to Alaska writers and readers via this blog. The boxes are
packed, the strings are cut, but I’m glad for this last one, thanks to all of

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. Her new novel-in-progress is called Behave. She works independently as a book coach and teaches in the low-residency UAA MFA program. Contact her at

3 thoughts on “Alaska Writer on the Road: Rituals and Departures”

  1. Bon voyage–we look forward to occasional reports from the road and will live vicariously through you for the next few months!

  2. De-homing and becoming digital nomads—perfect for creativity!
    Many happy ocean crossings. I look forward to The Lax Reports. AK and 49W will miss you.

  3. I love this post, Andromeda, like so many of yours– random anecdotes and interesting tidbits woven with your own thoughtful wonderings. I hope you keep posting from the road! Kudos to you for taking a leap. I wish you and your family well, and cross my fingers for a desk, a chair by the window, or whatever space you make your own.

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