Italy inspires me. Most writers have particular sources of inspiration and, at least for me, many of them are visual. Italy’s beauty is undisputed – the art, architecture, rolling hills and vineyards and breathtaking flower gardens.
But I also find the narrow, dingy, cobblestone streets and crumbling buildings inspiring. And, when nursing my aperitivo at an outdoor café I’m inspired by the crowds walking and hovering about. Since arriving in Italy, I’ve found that the inspiration that is step one in my writing process is enhanced in ways I never expected.
Any writer’s inspiration is theirs alone, and often won’t be understood by others. (For example, those narrow, dingy streets.) All that matters is identifying your source and indulging your inspiration. Because without it, nothing can be written.
In my new book, “Getting Out,” I share the many challenges of moving to another country as a single, female, sixty-something Black American retiree.
My goal in writing the book was not to discourage aspiring expats. I actually wish everyone could experience the wonders that inspire me here in Italy, but the journey cannot involve rose-colored glasses. I’ve met writers – and even folks who’ve never written a word – who aspire to move to another country and write the Great American Novel.
My hope is that they’ll approach both the moving and the writing from a real-world perspective.
Writing begins with inspiration
Experts say the writing process includes a minimum of four essential steps: prewriting, drafting, revising and editing.
But first, there must be inspiration. Even in my former life as a newspaperwoman, my process always began with inspiration. Whatever I found most beguiling, or horrifying, or surprising about a news story, was also what caught the readers’ attention.
Another step in the writing process is being a good listener—obvious for a journalist, but true for any genre. The beauty and culture of Italy are inspiring, but I’ve learned much more by listening to people I meet, from seniors’ stories and family histories, to students’ career aspirations. I hear what’s being said and how it’s expressed – with joy, wistfulness, etc. – which goes far beyond words.
And, while preconceived notions must be set aside, being a good listener includes hearing your own voice and unique perception.
As a newspaper editor, I always encouraged reporters to use their own voices. They might be telling the same story, but they each had a unique voice that spoke to a particular audience. To be inspired and be a good listener, you must first notice the world around you. Noted essayist David Sedaris, who lives in rural West Sussex, England, describes the importance of being observant, carrying a notebook everywhere he goes, and writing down everything that catches his eye.
And, being observant begins with curiosity. Writing is a good gig for the insatiably curious. Each time I traveled to Italy, and every Renaissance-themed book I read, made me more curious. Curiosity leads to inspiration and listening, which then invariably leads to those “But wait, there’s more” moments. And there is more – research. Here’s the part that’s not so palatable for some, the reminder that being a writer is not for the faint of heart. Inspiration will come, but research won’t. You must put in the hard work of unearthing the facts, especially in nonfiction.
When novelist John Grisham wrote his first work of nonfiction, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” in 2006, he confessed that he hated the necessary research and vowed never to write another nonfiction book. (So far, he’s kept that promise.)
Your job does not include making everyone happy
Writers agree on the importance of discipline, and many employ certain rituals. In “Getting Out,” I discuss knowing yourself and what works for you in your new expat location and lifestyle. Even as a retiree, the same writing rituals still work for me – time of day, minimum daily output, etc.
Finally, being a voracious reader was crucial to my becoming a writer in the first place.
In Stephen King’s classic manual, “On Writing,” he admonishes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Depending on my mood, anyone from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Toni Morrison, Victor Hugo, Jon Meacham, Alexis de Toqueville or James Baldwin can be found hanging out with me on my terrace.
King also warns us not to worry about making everyone else happy. “The least of your concerns should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
(Not being a world-renowned writer with the power and riches of a Stephen King, I almost hate to admit how whole-heartedly I agree with that last statement.)
If writing is in your bones as it is in mine, then of course you must do it. But, doing it as an expat in the place of your dreams, will be more gratifying than ever.
Carla Bastos is a freelance writer and former journalist and newspaper editor. Having lived in developing countries and covered wars and natural disasters, she has written extensively on a variety of related topics. Her new book “Getting Out” chronicles her expat experience, offering suggestions and takeaways that will benefit other aspiring expats
Read more of Carla Bastos’ work for Dispatches here.