This morning as I was catching up on MobyLives I came across a video of David Foster Wallace discussing the productive failure of traveling. It was filmed in 2006 while he was in Italy and if you watch it you will hear DFW say, “Everything that is a failure is also a victory,” and you will see Jonathan Franzen chuckling to himself and leaning back in his chair, which, as we all know, is Jonathan Franzen’s favorite pastime. In any case, 2006 was the first (as only?) time that DFW had been to a country where English was not the predominate language and his failure to be able communicate caused him to feel like a child, or more accurately an infant. He had to pay closer attention to others faces and gestures. He had to slow down.
I am leaving the country on Wednesday and I won’t be back until winter has left this hemisphere. I’m doing this for a number of reasons but the most interesting of which is to write. I suppose what I’m writing doesn’t matter much because any plans I have now are sure to change. The point, I think, is to put myself in an environment where I am clueless, where I have to pay closer attention to the banal, where I am forced to adapt, to learn and to fail.
The first time I spent a significant chunk of time around non-English speakers was in 2003 when I was alone in Japan for a summer. I felt a little like a famous dog then– everyone petting my hair and stopping me in the street to take a picture– but I think my mind fundamentally changed then and I started writing not just for fun but as if my life depended on it. This is what travel and/or solitude have done for me since then– made me feel like a failure and forced me to find a way to not feel like one.
This time I’m going where they speak English, New Zealand, but I’ll be alone and secluded most of the time and working on farms. I hope I will fail enough during this trip to make it worthwhile.
How do you fail in your everyday life as a way to fuel writing? Does anyone else feel the need to compulsively travel? If so, what does it do to your work?