Linda Ketchum | Thoughts of an Itinerant Writer

Explaining what I have been doing in Europe for the last eight months has proved almost as difficult as articulating what I write. (Umm…travel memoir? Personal essays about identity and place?) Since October I have rented apartments in Vienna, Madrid, and Cáceres, so I can explore these cities at leisure and write about my experiences. Eventually, I hit on the description “itinerant writing retreat” to characterize these slow travels. I’m not “on holiday” and bristle at the suggestion. I don’t consider myself a tourist, because even when I nip off on short side trips to places such as Seville and Lisbon, I no longer make a frenetic effort to check the main sights off a “Top Ten” list; instead I just walk around to get the lay of the land and discover for myself what is worth noticing. So more of a reconnoiter than a getaway.

As one writer friend of mine reminded me, quite rightly, “It’s called living.” But not everyone sees it that way. As humans, we feel compelled to categorize everything. Lawrence Durrell, the English writer who lived abroad almost all his life and rejected the label “travel writer,” described himself as a “residence writer” – someone who gets to know a place well over time by living in it. Not a writer-in-residence or a resident writer. The former implies an institutional attachment of finite duration and, in my mind, a resident is someone who declares a place their primary abode. I’m leaning towards the flexibility of “a writer based in __________.”

A year ago, my bio noted that I had completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Alaska Anchorage and immediately stopped writing. This attempt at humor was the bald truth, and I fretted about letting my creative side wither away. I could always find a reason to do something else with my time and, more worrying, there were no ideas bouncing around my brain urging me to write. I berated myself for being lazy, unimaginative, cowardly. But I could imagine giving reign to my curiosity about other parts of the world (a curiosity that had led me to Alaska in 1985). This would mean leaving my current life and its obligations behind to become responsible only for myself and my writing. I did possess the courage to do that.

I have been living in Cáceres, a small Spanish city equidistant from Madrid and Lisbon, since the middle of January. In October I started blogging privately, figuring that the informal nature of a blog would be a great way to warm up creaky writing muscles and establish a voice. It seemed important to develop the habit of writing regularly first, and the blog turned out to be a great tool for me: Choose a post title, insert a photograph, and thoughts start flowing. Once I settled into an undemanding daily routine here, serious writing momentum built. I’ve written about Extremadura, the history of Cáceres, birding in Monfragüe National Park, the Spanish Habsburgs, the appreciation of art, and more. The result is not exactly literature but I’ve put time into researching these embryonic pieces and am now thinking about each of them in greater depth. Essays are emerging and I am submitting to journals at last.

Just recently I moved into a new apartment, a casita reformada in the Old Town close to the Plaza Mayor. Life here agrees with me and I want to stay on. Slowly, I have adjusted to losing both the spectacular view across the city from the balcony of a fourth-floor walkup and 24-hour wifi. The removal of these distractions has focused my mind wonderfully. Now I stare at blank white walls for inspiration or gaze at the birds passing across my sheet of sky, as I sit in my writing chair in the patio doorway. Once a day I make the 15-minute walk to the public library with my MacBook to check and send messages and look up information.

Downhill from the library, the Paseo de Cánovas is another favorite destination – a long park strip where you can promenade under an umbrella of mature greenery and find respite from the sun on one of its many wrought iron benches. The unexpected appearance there of waxy magnolia flowers at the end of January delighted me. Last month, blowsy rambling roses of all hues wrapped themselves around tree trunks with abandon. I don’t usually care for roses but these contrasted charmingly with the spiritless bushes in Scottish gardens that are ruthlessly secatured into respectability. The tall trees with heart-shaped leaves, sweet-smelling white blossoms, and long pods that dangled elegantly from the branches turned out to be the catalpa or bean tree. At the moment, a riot of magenta hibiscus is blooming, competing for attention with the delicate lavender flowers of the jacaranda tree that towers over the Kiosko Colón, a busy little café where I sometimes enjoy breakfast outside.

I am living alone but not lonely. Unseen neighbors, whose disembodied Spanish chatter periodically breaks the silence of my high-walled back patio, cook with garlic and listen to classic Rolling Stones. The usual business of life – shopping, getting a haircut, going to the post office, topping up my mobile – brings me into contact with people daily. Yesterday a woman on an adjacent bench in the Plaza Mayor struck up a conversation with me. People still ask me for directions, as they did in Madrid. On Friday afternoons, a regular group meets up at the café-bar of a small hotel, and now that I know many of them through my first landlady, I run into these acquaintances often around town. And the internet keeps me connected to family, friends, and a writing community spread across three continents.

Birds feature in my life too. Each morning I wake to the dulcet notes of a blackbird’s dawn song; its upward-lilting bars suggest that he, too, is questioning life. This melody is so engrained in memory it transports me back to childhood gardens in a heartbeat. The storks that nest a street away in the Iglesia de Santiago clapper their bills at all hours but appear to be most active when the stars fade from the sky. I lie in bed listening to their muted rat-a-tat drift through the wooden blinds at the open window and imagine them extending their slender necks backwards to emit this extraordinary sound, their only vocalization. Soon it’s the turn of a collared dove to croon its insistent refrain. When I get up to make coffee, the now-blue sky has thickened with swifts scything the air in their first feeding frenzy of the day. Every so often a lesser kestrel flits into view – a graceful bird that nests in protected urban colonies throughout Extremadura. Then the raucous caw of a jackdaw interrupts my thoughts. It’s not even 8 am and the day already feels rich.

Linda Ketchum, a former executive director of 49 Writers, currently lives and writes in Spain. She has work forthcoming in Elsewhere: A Journal of Place.

2 thoughts on “Linda Ketchum | Thoughts of an Itinerant Writer”

  1. Thank you for sharing a snapshot of the writer’s life in Spain. And congratulations on your renewed writing aspirations. 49 Writers continues to benefit from your past leadership and from the creative energy you poured into the organization. Best wishes on your pending work.

  2. Thomas, thank you so much for your kind comments. I miss Alaska’s literary tribe!

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