Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

Einstein Should Have Warned Time Travelers About Motion Sickness

If you shop in Panama, these guys will help carry the groceries

Traveling to somewhere you’ve never been, especially when you stay for more than a few days, exerts odd temporal and spatial pressures on your consciousness. That Heraclitus quote about never being able to step twice in the same river is of a piece with what I’m talking about: your traveled self is not the same self untraveled. And extending upon that, the “home” you return to seems a little slippery too: I keep glancing around here like there’s a joke being played, like the walls of the house are hastily thrown up curtains with a corner out of plumb.

For three of the last nine months, my gal Alice and I have been living outside the US: a two-month stint in the Bahamas last fall, and now just back from a month in Panama. Among all the things that bit me in those thermal zones must have been an unbalance bug, because my thinking has been just a wee bit off since then. Nothing major: just the usual “Is the life I’m living real or just a series of disconnected contingencies?”

If This Life Isn’t Real, Would You Mind Adjusting the Sound Track?
Rack one up for the contingency corner. It’s not that I’ve ever doubted that our scraping skating on this little ice chip of a planet was held together by hand-tightened screws (and punctuated by pratfalls and whoopee cushion sounds), but going and living in other cultures, even insulated by the knowledge that you’ll return to your own, is oddly jarring. Or maybe it’s just that the literal jarring of crashing my host’s car into a high-grass-concealed curb and smashing the front suspension while there torqued my steaming cranium a mite.

To the point (god, man, finally—this ramble is wearing on me): I’ve begun to write some of the literal (and some merely mental) adventures that took place overseas, out of my alleged comfort zones, because if I continue to wait, I fear that whatever lies and distortions I do distill in that writing might not bear even a shadowy relationship to fact. The fish-out-of-water story—when the gaspings of the fish are sharply rendered—can still provoke interest. It’s just odd to come back and have the home water taste just a little weird.

Godspeed Brother Ray
Ray Bradbury died this past Tuesday, at 91. If you have read his writing (and by golly you should), you know he was a fine, imaginative storyteller. If you have read of him discussing his writing, you know he was an enthusiastic advocate for the work, for getting after it every day, and every day discovering what the work can pull out of you, and what you can pull out of it. See you later, Ray. I’ll bet the green dudes on Mars are raising a glass of something potent in your honor this week too.