Besides writing and reading, traveling is probably the most important activity for my writing career. Anyone who knows me knows I love to travel--I'm always packing up my ridiculously oversized hiking backpack for a weekend trip to a different city in the Northeast or for some European extravaganza. But although I love to travel, I don't equate it with going on vacation: for me, traveling is part of my work, an opportunity to overload my senses with new places, buildings, natural vistas, people, food, etc., then go back to my hotel/hostel/friend's couch at the end of the day and scribble new story ideas and observations in my notebook until I collapse into sleep. I think some people view traveling as a frivolous activity, but for me, it's an integral part of my writing process. I'm a visual, setting-oriented writer, and I don't think I would have written 90 percent of the fiction words I've written if I hadn't invested so much time and money in traveling over the years.
On that note, I visited Philadelphia for the first time last weekend, to spend time with my dear friend Laura who moved there for graduate school and to see the city. While there, I visited two museums: the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Mutter Museum.
At the UPenn Museum, my friend and fellow Odfellow Brad Hafford showed me around the collections. I learned about the culture of ancient Ur and about Ur's tombs, such as the "great death pit" where archaeologists found dozens of bodies of people who may or may not have committed suicide so they could journey to the after life with their queen. Naturally, these tombs, combined with the culture's overall aesthetic (limestone statues, ram's heads on the arms of throne chairs, make-up pigment stored in shells, lapis and carnelian cloak-pins) gave me an idea for a story called Girl Guards of the Afterlife, which I will be working on this week.
The next day it was off to the Mutter Museum, the famous museum of medical oddities that I had been waiting forever to attend. This 19-century-style museum features cramped shelves and rooms full of objects of the macabre, creepy and just plain gross variety.
I saw a liver that had been mutilated by a corset; the body of the Soap Lady, a woman whose body turned entirely to soap after she died; the largest skeleton on display in North America; dozens and dozens of white polished inner ears displayed in tiny bell jars; and, perhaps the most macabre part, fetuses with birth defects, all floating in glass jars and displayed in one corner of the museum's downstairs room.
One of my favorite parts of the museum was the wall of skulls, collected by a 19th century scientist in Eastern Europe. Each of the skulls had a placard describing what was known about these people before they shuffled off their mortal coils. Some of my favorites:
-Prague, age 19, suicide by potassium cyanide because of unfaithfulness of his mistress. -Famous criminal, guilty of many atrocities, captured with his band of 10 and hanged in a castle. -Ravenna, age 20, embroiderer in silk, died of tuberculosis.
Needless to say, I came up with some story ideas at the Mutter Museum as well.
I spent the rest of the weekend strolling the streets of Philadelphia with my lovely friends. Philadelphia's City Hall has ravens on it! Ravens, I tell you! (They're up around the base of the tower, in case you can't tell from this picture).
So yes, this is why I travel: because it invariably piques my imagination and leaves me pondering new story ideas on the bus/train/airplane/car ride home.
Of course, it's not always practical to live the life of a traveler: we all have homes, and responsibilities. But I think it's possible to live as a traveler even in your own city: keen observation, curiosity and a sense of adventure can turn up inspiration in even the most familiar of places.