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Mixing Work and Play

A writer’s work is never done, even during vacations.

If a writer is not looking for ideas, then he or she is doing research, people watching for character types, eavesdropping for speech patterns, or conjuring plots. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction writers. And it was definitely true for me the past ten or twelve days.

My vacation, plotted out by my baby daughter and her husband, with input from my wife and me, took us on a Western trek, a repeat in miniature of a trip another family and mine took when I was only five years old. It involved a roughly 4,000-mile journey over ten states and five national parks. Along the way, we experienced every imaginable form of weather (from heat and humidity when we left the South to tornadoes in Arkansas, floods in Oklahoma, near-whiteout conditions in Vail and Aspen, slushy snow in Colorado Springs, and hail in Denver) and every imaginable type of geography (from watery rice fields in Arkansas to dry desert to mountain grandeur).

The primary destination was the Grand Canyon, which no one in our entourage (except I) had ever seen. In fact, the farthest west my wife had been was Paducah, Kentucky, and she was particularly excited about seeing first the Mississippi River and then (even more so) the Grand Canyon. But en route we allowed sufficient time for many serendipitous stops along the way. In addition to the planned visits to Sequoyah Cabin Museum, Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Pike’s Peak, we stopped at Fort Reno Cavalry Museum, El Morro National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Monument, the Focus on the Family headquarters, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. All of those stops, every mile along the way, and even the airport experiences provided abundant fodder for the story mill.

A highlight of the trip for me was reconstructing an event from my first trip West as a kid. During that trip, we stopped at the Petrified Forest, where Daddy took a picture of me sitting astride the trunk of a huge petrified tree. I related the event to my family members, accentuating how large the root end of the tree had been. I wanted to find that tree.

They all tried to dissuade my search, not wanting me to be disappointed when I didn’t find it among the myriad pieces of petrified wood scattered throughout the scores of square miles of the park. They downplayed my claims of its size, saying that I was just imagining it as I had experienced it as a kid. It surely wasn’t as big as I claimed.

As we climbed the dry, dusty, tree trunk-filled hill behind the welcome center, my eyes scanned the landscape hopefully. And then I saw it.

“There it is!” I exclaimed, pointing to a long trunk in the distance. “That’s it! I know that’s it!”

I hurried up the hill (as fast as an old man can when motivated by such excitement). I stood at the base of the monolith and looked triumphantly back at my family members as they struggled to catch up with me.

“I told you!” I proclaimed. “Here it is, just like I remembered it!” They had to admit that my descriptions had been no exaggeration. Then I relived that moment nearly 60 years to the month earlier when Daddy had snapped the photo of me beside the trunk, and my family photographed on old man where the five-year-old had been.

The key to getting good material is to get a abundance of it. I returned home with a camera card filled with 1,748 photos and a journal filled with innumerable notations and ideas. I know that much (perhaps even most) of them will be deleted or discarded, never to be used. But I also know that I will, over time, glean much useful material from them. Even if only a handful of material is useful, the experience of collecting it will have been well worth the effort.

On the other hand, it also has its price. I had to maintain a nearly two-week moratorium from media: no email (I didn’t even take my computer, which explains my missing blog posts), no FaceBook, very little news contact, which I limited to the brief moments I had at breakfast to scan the newspaper or watch on the delayed closed captioning on a muted television. But it actually felt good to put the world and its disturbing “news” behind me and focus instead on what was right before my eyes. And then I returned home to 578 e-mails, most of which I dealt with handily using the “Delete” key!

Vacations are typically thought of as a putting aside of all work and focusing on some sort of mindless recreation. Not so for the serious writer. Oh, recreation is fine, but the serious writer is always working in some way. And that’s how it should be.

What work are you planning for your next vacation?

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