Quite often, I find myself in a position known as that of the "Visiting Writer." I have to admit, I have a fondness for the title. It seems so deliciously appropriate. What is a writer if not a visitor? One who arrives, looks around, settles in, makes herself temporarily at home; then tries to find out as much as she can about her surroundings and the characters in them, observing, chatting, teasing, asking, touring, wondering, inserting, pondering; she tries, amazed, eager, hungry, to register, to record, to remember, remember, remember and keep vivid, make real, begin to understand; she may fall in love, develop decided opinions, nurse occasional antipathies, feel foolish, ungainly, rude, clumsy, tongue-tied--what form of the verb does one use here?--then slowly, or sometimes quickly, she strikes out, strikes in, makes friends, makes discoveries, embarrasses herself, triumphs over a looming obstacle, envisions an ending, doesn't want to leave, doesn't, doesn't, but must, because there are other countries to see, and new maps to draw, and so with relief, or regret, or renewed, she parts, leaving the worn book on the table behind her.
In the mid 1990's I was a Visiting Writer at the National Autonomous University of Chiapas in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico. My duties during the day were to teach literature to advanced students of English. I began with an e. e. cummings poem:
We watched the language flutter this way and that, and talked about playing with words that were strange to us, and that played in ways that were strange. We talked about loneliness, and what the word meant, in the poem. Single? Loose? Tumbling? At night, I wrote my first novel high in a mirador, a cupola at the top of the house. My novel was set not in Mexico, but in a faraway country; every night I would write from my lofty perch, atop one of the mountains of San Cristobal, mistress of all I surveyed; and in the morning the students would bring me down to earth again. I mixed up the Spanish words caballo and cabello. I told them I was looking for a good place to cut my horse. They looked horrified, then laughed at me. We'll straighten you out. The novel, which had been very serious, grew funnier. There can be a tendency, when you are a visitor, toward over-confidence, at first. You don't mean it. But you try too hard, assume too much.
After the turn of the millennium I found myself as a Visiting Writer in Austin, Texas. I had lived in Texas, but never in its capital. And I had never been a writer in a place so vast as the University of Texas. The students came to my classes from large auditoriums, and squinted down at the table where there were only fifteen of us. I had to teach them how to look at each other, to speak across the table when they discussed each others' stories. One day, I said I was cancelling class because I needed to attend an anti-war protest. I apologized, but I did not approve of our country starting a war in Iraq, and I had to do this, and anyone who wanted to was welcome to join me. The students, all of them, stayed seated. I thought we were speaking the same language, sitting the same way, but we were not. The novel I was working on then had been quite funny, but grew more serious.
Once I was a Visiting Writer in Columbus, Georgia, and I got to live in the house of Carson McCullers, the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I had few courses to teach, meeting with a group of writing students only once a week and speaking at a few additional classes. I could have spent my time almost entirely alone (a le af fa ll s), picking away at my fourth novel while McCullers' glass-cased typewriter sat silently, unhelpfully, next to me. Instead, like McCullers, I wanted to walk and ride my bike everywhere, and look around. It was obvious to the locals I was from somewhere else. When I walked strangers stopped their cars, politely, to ask me if I had been in some accident and needed a lift; when I rode I was a danger, something to be momentarily appalled at, then forgiven. But after I was forgiven I was welcomed in. I learned the correct way to say "Fort Benning," where the soldiers bound for Iraq were coming and going. I tried a species of soft, white chalk that is eaten as a delicacy--or maybe my hosts were just making fun of me? The novel I was writing fell to pieces, went soft, and I had to admit it and start all over again. There is nothing about a visit that guarantees success. I wept to leave that house in a way I did not weep in Chiapas or Texas. On my flight out, I sat next to a soldier who did not at all support the war. But he was obliged to go. There was nothing about him, decked in camouflage from head to toe, to suggest he was Visiting.
I have been a Visiting Writer in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have taken up residence on an island in Puget Sound, and on a cattle ranch in the Hill Country. I was never invited to stay at any of these places; nor did I want to. There are writers who are afraid of stasis. I have always been one of those. I'm afraid of a home, of not being a visitor, the way some people are afraid of wolves. To keep moving, keep seeing, keep reading, keep turning the page as you write it, keep at the edge of the narrative, at the far side, the out-side, is to live. Or so I've always thought.
Enter North Carolina.
I am all discombobulated. Is that how the word is spelled? Spanish: Tortuoso.
I am once again a Visiting Writer. But something has changed. Something about the way the light falls. Or how old I am. Or how kind the faces are, people I would have left in the dust before.
McCullers wandered a great deal, and was most at home when she was not at home. In Brooklyn she shared a house with W.H. Auden and Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy had a place of her own but preferred being in Brooklyn while she worked on her novel (she was writing a novel then); Auden gave up on Great Britain and became an American. He fell in love. The expatriate is the visitor who never leaves.
My current students hug me. It's that sort of place, this new college of mine. They make me want to stick around long enough to see them graduate. I have a corner office, and outside of it a maple tree. A poet lives across the hall. She lets me hug her. (Writers can be prickly, and do not always let you do this.) The novel that had been torturing me stopped doing so last month and straightened itself out like an elm. I am learning the local language. The barbecue here is made with vinegar. Pine needles can be purchased in bales, from forests as far away as Florida. I have bought a house, and put down needles. If I have been prickly in the past, let the ground be so now.
A writer may walk on pins. She may rest on laurels. She may visit a mountain. She may sit in the street and wait for the police to come. A writer may go. A writer may stay. No one much notices. There is really only one requirement for the job, one Permanent Position:
She must be surprised.