Beyond Borders: Linda Holeman on Travel and Writing
I grew up in Winnipeg, in a Russian-Irish family deeply rooted in the Manitoba prairies. But for me it was a struggle to stay put; I was never content. It seemed I was born with an ache to know what lay beyond the borders of my life in both the physical and emotional sense. The opening line of Josephine Hart’s novel, Damage, speaks loudly to me: “There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”
As a young adult, when I first left Winnipeg to explore the world my father looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Why do you want to leave home when you have everything you need right here? What are you looking for?” And my answer, the only one I could come up with was: “I don’t know—and that’s why I have to go.” All that wide, open space and the big sky of my home proved claustrophobic for me. I always wanted out, away from the safety of what was a sure thing. And, as often as I could, I plunged myself, many times on my own, into the busy loneliness of foreign cities and incomprehensible languages and unidentifiable food.
It is this search which defines me as a person, and as an author defines what I write. I fully embrace that my need to understand the world – and my own internal landscape—has led me into the landscape of historical fiction. To be able to write about a place convincingly, I recognized that I had to explore the land and meet the people: to experience place first-hand.
I always loved the tilting, slightly off-balance sense of unfamiliarity that comes with finding oneself in new surroundings. It’s hard work to travel; I’m talking about being a traveler, not a tourist. My search has taken me into the Moroccan desert with nomads, sharing chai with holy men on the banks of the Ganges, inhabiting a ger in outer Mongolia, rising at dawn for theyouthful monk processions in Laos, sleeping on the ice in the Antarctic, and buying rounds of vodka on the Trans-Siberian, to name a few of my explorations.
Writing, just like real travel, requires patience and energy and perseverance and the ability to accept whatever unexpected events occur and, at times, to let go of any hope of control. My growth as a writer of historical fiction comes in understanding the wisdom of my own instincts and in being brave. Henry David Thoreau, in his journal of 1851, states: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” It is surely this reason that many writers don’t find their stride until they’ve got a lot of life under their belts.
I often think of the similarities between travelling and writing. There is the knowledge that what lies ahead will require endless energy, sleepless nights, and nagging anxiety that can slip into terror if you give in to it. There are unexpected highs that fill you with wonder. There will be a lot of waiting around, sometimes boredom with your choices, and retracing steps when you realize you haven’t read the map properly. There is the déjà vu of willing your luggage to appear on the airport carousel or hoping for a glimpse of an evasive plot weave.
Writing creatively is a long, hard slog, and the self-doubt and insecurity that plague the artist can make the writing life—like arduous travel—not recommended for the faint-of-heart. The sayings are that travel is glamorous only in retrospect, and the best part of writing is in having just written. For me both of these ring true: there is always the thrill in remembering the romanticism of the journey, and the intense glow in that moment of recognizing the completion of the manuscript.
Linda Holeman is author of the just-published novel The Lost Souls of Angelkov. She lives and writes in Toronto, Canada and Santa Monica, California. She is presently writing her fourteenth book, and always has the next plane ticket on her desk.