November 2006

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer by Barbara Sjoholm

For the longest time I was one of those suckers who ended up in the Reference section of the local chain bookstore and fell for any number of titles that involved finding your inner creative demon and unleashing it on a novel hungry world. Although I never did fall for any of the “write a book in a weekend” types, I was still a total sap about writing and writers. After years of trying to figure out why I kept making the same sad $15-$20 mistake over and over again, I think I finally came to a conclusion or two. First, writers are also readers and nine times out of ten, a reader will reach for a book to tell them how or what to do. It’s in our nature to seek out words for every question that comes our way. But for me, I was also looking for books that would show me how you knew you really were a writer. This was mostly because every time I said I wanted to be one I was patted on the head and sent off in the direction of a “real” career.

Everyone else who ended up with a degree in business for no good reason, please raise your hand.

While I saw all those books about how to get published what I was really looking for (and did find occasionally) was books by writers about what the writing life was like. They gave me a peek at how writers thought and how they worked on their craft. They showed me what the writing life could be and how that whole transition from nonwriting person to writer could happen. More than anything though, they were not books focused on being rich and famous. They were just about writing and in more ways than one they kept me sane as I slept through way too many classes on economics and labor relations. Honest to God, it’s a miracle I didn’t lose my mind.

When Barbara Sjoholm’s book arrived on my doorstep I was thrilled just by the subtitle: Icognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer. I also recognized Sjoholm both as the founder of the Seal Press and as a favorite writer, under the name Barbara Wilson, of a very quirky mystery I enjoyed years before, The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonist (as well as the delightful Gaudi Afternoon). Knowing that I enjoyed the writer she became I was intrigued to see how she got there, and how it was travel across Europe that set her on her career path.

Sjoholm left the states for England in 1970, fleeing some personal confusion, a boyfriend and all of the general chaos that was America at that time in history. She had been overseas before, in Germany, and now planned to spend a few weeks alone in London and Paris and then meet a girlfriend in Spain for a more extended period. It was supposed to be a defining experience for her, the trip that would help her to become a writer. Ultimately it did lead her to where she hoped to be, but the route was far longer and complex than she could have imagined. Of course all the angst and confusion and heartbreak were worth it in the end (so easy for me to say) but more importantly for the reader. It all provided excellent source material for a memoir not only about growing up but also about finding the way to your heart’s desire.

There were several aspects of Incognito Street that really particularly appealed to my writing sensibility. At one point Sjoholm recalls watching the French film, (with Spanish subtitles), Un Hiver a Majorque, or Winter in Majorca. The movie is the story of George Sand and Frederic Chopin in 1838-1839. Sjoholm was in Spain at this point and watched the movie with two new friends who saw Sand as “a writer like you.” For the author, even though neither her French nor Spanish were good enough to catch every nuance in the film, the vision of Sand’s life was still a revelation. She writes:

It was, perhaps, the first time I’d seen -- on screen or anywhere else for that matter -- a portrayal of a woman who was stronger than her male lover. It was the first time, too, I’d seen any depiction of a woman writing. I remember Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago, wrapped in wool and fur in the middle of the night, writing lines of poetry in longhand, in a freezing cold villa in the Russian countryside, while Lara slept. But here was George Sand, dressed in trousers and jacket and scarves against the cold. She was stronger, bolder, more productive than her ailing lover Chopin, who huddled under a blanket in his freezing room at the convent, while rain poured down outside. He coughed and wheezed and complained that he was cold and sick. She alternately succored and ignored him. All night George Sand wrote by the light of the candles in her big drafty room: pages and pages. Smoke from her cigar was tawny in the light; her profile was intensely focused, preoccupied.

She was a writer at work.

The fact that this vision of Sand resonated so much with Sjoholm made me immediately and intensely feel like I knew her; I understood her for the girl she was when she watched Sand on the screen and for the woman she became because of that moment. For me, it was Winona Ryder and Jo March, not quite as intense as Sand, but still, enough for me to believe a little more in my dream. And Sjoholm knew what that felt like too; she was the writing buddy I never had.

As she recounts her travels (through the aid of journals she kept at the time), and romances and failures to make the words appear on paper as eloquently as they do in her head, Sjoholm continues to discover more life changing literary moments. Trapped in London without the money to get back home, she lucks into a lecture from Jorge Luis Borges. The acclaimed author recounted some of his travels, including a recent trip to Iceland where he had fallen for the great sagas. Sjoholm recognized him then as a “fellow reader, with a passionate erudition I aspired to, able to cross-reference texts with nimbleness, able to hint at worlds beyond our worlds. Old Norse was somehow linked to Don Quixote and with Japanese and Arab scholars, and with detective fiction, and with the tango, and with the Encyclopedia Britannica, the 11th edition.”

What an excellent moment for a young reader to discover her most inner self. It left Sjoholm with a whole new outlook and confidence. “I felt that my life had changed by hearing him and seeing him, and also that every choice I’d made that had brought me to London the very week he was to speak was fated, in a very Borgesian way.” She still didn’t have the money to go home and it was a bit of a twisted path to eventually get to Gatwick Airport but the delay in leaving provided another literary opportunity. At the Victoria & Albert Museum she was struck by a display of books from the Kelmscott Press. Combined with a new interest in Virginia Woolf and her Hogarth Press it got Sjoholm to thinking about making books. “I had a vision…,” she writes, of standing in the museum; “I seemed to see how my life could be: woven together of many strands, richly colored, all the disparate, confusing patterns re-created into something whole, something meaningful and vivid, a large life, well-lived.”

There was still more traveling ahead of her, a return to the U.S. followed by a return to Europe. She tried harder to be a writer and began tackling the long learning curve to become a publisher, but the die was clearly cast -- no matter how long it took, Sjoholm knew who she was. And she succeeded; she has succeeded in each step of the way.

In remembering all of this about her professional journey, and better yet, writing it down, the author has given a wonderful gift to so many other readers and writers like herself. She has written the book she longed to read once upon a time, a work that “showed me, me and every other girl who desperately needed a role model, something of the nerve and spirit that had helped… write these books and get them published.”

Finally, Incognito Street is the kind of title that can make a writer believe in the creative possibility of success and joy from their chosen profession. In a journey that manages to be both personal and universal, Barbara Sjoholm has conveyed all the fears and triumphs shared by writers everywhere; she has made her own story a most universal of sagas. For me, this book goes on my shelf; I can’t imagine continuing my trip through the world of letters without Sjoholm’s very wise and honest words at my side.

Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer by Barbara Sjoholm
Seal Press
ISBN: 1580051723
256 pages