What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Busman’s Holiday: (n) a holiday spent in following or observing the practice of one’s usual occupation.

[September 2009] What does a writer do on vacation? A better question might be: is it really possible for a writer to take a vacation?

A writer is always gathering material, no matter what else he is doing. I’m not sure what triggers this process. Though I would like to think that I’ve always been a writer, the truth is that I spent a lot of years not writing, and not thinking about writing, either. However, once I decided that I’d procrastinated long enough, a switch flipped inside my brain that turned me into a sponge, constantly absorbing details and processing them as fodder for stories.

Case in point: my wife and I spent Labor Day weekend at a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico. It was a complete getaway. No cell phones, no computers, no internet. Off the grid, as they say. No one knew where we were. We had no idea what was going on in the world—we didn’t even turn on the TV. For four days, we enjoyed quiet time, mostly spent watching people frolic on the beach and listening to the waves crashing on the sand.

We weren’t there for more than three hours before my mind started conjuring up a scene inspired by something trivial I observed. The details coalesced. I knew who the observer was and why he was there, and I extrapolated the real situation into a purely fictional event. One minute I was sitting on the balcony watching someone on the beach and the next I had this little nugget of fantasy, fully formed.

When I went to sleep that night, my mind continued to work, painting in the real-life details that would make the scene more concrete and vivid, and creating the fictional tapestry that differentiates the process from simply recording an observation.

We were supposed to be on vacation, though. I had no tools of the trade—not even a journal or a notepad. Besides, I wasn’t supposed to spend our time writing—I was supposed to be recharging my batteries and relaxing. That’s what a vacation is for, right?

Fortunately, my wife understands. The next morning, when we went to a nearby department store to stock up on provisions, she encouraged me to get a notebook so I could write down my inspirations. I plucked a 15-cent spiral notebook from the back-to-school sale pile and, when we got back to the townhouse, composed four hand-written pages.

The scene was still as vivid as when I had first conceived it. The words flowed out without interruption. There are only a couple of scratch-outs where I started sentences backwards and took a second stab at them. There’s a smudge on the first page from a raindrop. I was sitting on the balcony at the time and a brief sun-shower passed over, but I didn’t stop. (According to an old saying, if it rains when the sun is shining, the devil is beating his wife. Now there’s an idea for a story waiting to happen. But wait! One idea at a time!)

Having transcribed the scene onto the page, I was able to go back to soaking up the sun’s rays, breathing in the fresh air, absorbing the mesmerizing sound of the sea, and generally enjoying the time with my wife.

And yet . . . the scene ended but the story didn’t. It was just getting under way. There were numerous implications for the main character. Things were bound to develop as a result of what he had seen and done. Why had another character acted as she had? Those thoughts rolled around in my mind for the rest of the vacation, off and on. It wasn’t a distraction, though. It didn’t keep me from relaxing. But if there’s a second switch that lets you turn off that kind of mental activity, I haven’t yet found it. I worried at that ribbon of story the way a puppy chews on a dangling thread. I came up with a couple of ideas for what happens next, and I’m biding my time until I have the opportunity to explore them. I still have no idea whether I have the beginning of a short story or a scene from a novel, but I know that it will be used sometime.

So that’s what I did on my summer vacation: I wrote part of a short story and came up with the idea for this essay. I wonder if that makes it tax deductible . . .

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