Guest Author: Julia Kastner, Nonfiction ‘19
In November, I moved out of my house. In December, I hit the road (from central Texas) in my 1995 Chevy van, named Foxy. In January, I attended my final residency at Wesleyan. February, turned in the final deposit of my thesis. End of March, I celebrate four months on the road−a life that suits me awfully well−and think about what kind of writer I've become.
When friends ask, I tell them, "I haven't written anything new since November." That is, the last time I did any new composing of what we call "creative writing" was when I was wrapping up the thesis (to move into final editing rounds). After that point, there was one thing and another: editing the thesis, preparing the seminar I would teach at January's residency, moving out of the house, prepping the van. To be more honest, my creative well had run dry. Two years in our MFA program had been exhilarating, some of the best and most productive times of my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But by the end, I felt wrung out. I can't speak for other genres, but I speculate that nonfiction can be especially draining because it draws on the writer's personal life. My thesis had been, at least on its face, about the present tense−about moving out of my house and into my van (with hidden undercurrents, of course). By the time I'd written it and lived it, I was ready for this next chapter: windshield time, new-to-me mountain bike trails, visits with old friends, hikes with my dog.
Asked to reflect on what my writing life looks like on the road, I felt a little shamed. "It looks like nothing, I'm afraid," I'd say. But that's not quite true. For one thing, I'm still working as a book reviewer, in my ninth year now. I'm reading constantly, and writing about everything I read. That's my paid work; there's also my book blog (pagesofjulia.com), where I post twice a week. I've got a travel blog for the van trip (foxylikeaturtle.com), which posts once or twice or seven days a week. I write a lot of postcards. And oh yeah, I wrote a poem in west Texas while getting my oil changed.
The book review gig is as thrilling now as it was when I was first hired. I love looking at the lists of books I might get to read, picking and choosing; I love getting them in the mail and seeing all their different galley formats, the odd surprise from my editor (and friend) Dave thrown in. These days it's a more complicated process: when I request books for review I also have to figure out where to have them sent. Several of the friends who have loaned me their mailboxes have been friends made in this program. I show up on a doorstep to hugs and exclamations, glad to see a smiling face, and with the bonus of bookish mail to open and share around. (I always have the galleys I'm done with to pass along.)
My life feels very full, and not a little busy. People ask about vanlife boredom, which amazes me: when would I have time to get bored? It's nearly a full-time job to figure out where I'm going next and where I'll sleep, and try not to miss the best brewery, trail, or other feature along the way. I play solitaire (with real playing cards!), I read a lot, I walk my dog. I don't spend enough time just staring up at the trees. I don't spend enough time writing, but when people ask, I still include "writer" among the identities I claim. I'm a mountain biker, a solo traveler, a dog mom, a beer drinker. I'm a book reviewer, and I'm a writer. One of these days, I expect I'll get back to writing again.
For now, we'll call it research. There's so much world out there, and all of it material. The newlywed couple on their honeymoon at a campsite neighboring mine in Florabama, who fought all weekend and left very early their second morning. The civil rights museums and monuments of Montgomery and Birmingham; memories of the first time my parents took me to one in particular. The odd wastefulness of Bryson City, North Carolina's "Road to Nowhere." The people I meet and their wildly contrasting understandings of what the hell I'm doing out here. The glorious, glittering variety of trail design, my joy in whooping downhill, and my dog's pell-mell hell-for-leather sprints.
It can't all be butt-in-chair time, or what would we have to write about? I'm justifying, I know. But with all this world out there−all this road, trail, city, country, forest and desert and beach−I can't justify sitting still just yet. I'm living. I trust that the urge to write will strike again; and then I'll have plenty to write about.