I’m a cowardly traveller. I’m not afraid of trains, planes, cars — just of change, and of elsewhere. Months ago I agreed to go with my colleagues from Bath Spa University to a conference of creative writing programmes in Chicago. As the time approaches, I resent that past self who said yes: foolishly enthusiastic, deluded about my own character. The prospect of travel makes the days leading up to it feel insubstantial, as if they are only a preparation. I have no interest in Chicago, where I’ve never been. There’s a metaphysical puzzle about time which has gripped me since I was a child — faced, say, with a school morning of maths and double Latin. Why does this moment I’m in have to be now? Why can’t it be then, when the trip is over?
When we emerge from the tunnel of unreality that is air travel, Chicago is overwhelming, beautiful. Its boldly cut-out shapes against the sky are satisfying as a city built in children’s blocks; the skyscrapers’ sumptuous lobbies are secular temples, unaristocratic palaces. We have pancakes for breakfast in a café where policemen really do sit in shirtsleeves bantering with talky waitresses topping up their coffee. The city seems saturated with its blue-collar past, stockyards and grain and steel. Perhaps American visitors to London or Cardiff intuit an old-fashioned substratum which the natives can’t feel. (Or perhaps it’s my nostalgic illusion.) In the Art Institute my husband and I seek out American paintings: Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones’s women trying on shoes in a shop, in a brilliant fuss of vivid brushstrokes; Eldzier Cortor’s angular black sleepers on the floor of a boarding house room. My past self (the self before the one who wished I wasn’t coming) was right after all: travel is good for me, elsewhere is a revelation.
The conference, however, shrivels me. I’m no good at it. There are ten thousand delegates, filling and spilling out of two vast hotels — writers and would-be writers and teachers of writing. The programme of panels and papers is as thick as a telephone directory. This can’t be right. I’m surely a writer because I’m not a joiner; I always longed to belong to clubs (Brownies, ballet, university) but I had no talent for it, I couldn’t fit in, I’m uncomfortable en masse. (Is it an imbalance in literature, that it’s the misfits, the oddballs, the watchers, who get to tell the story in the end?) On the whole writers aren’t joiners: so what’s happening here? Ten thousand misfits wishing they were somewhere else, commenting dyspeptically? But they look as if they’re having a good time, pouring like a tide through the hotel lobby in their branded nametags and tote bags.
In the argument over creative writing courses, I’m mostly a believer, despite my dyspepsia (and I went on one myself). Learning to write is an apprenticeship, and it’s useful working alongside other people who can advise; before courses were invented, writers sought out kindred spirits to show their work to. The course provides an audience — you learn so much more effectively and quickly, writing for the ear and the response of particular readers. At moments during this conference, however, I begin to doubt whether I even like writing, let alone ‘creative writing’, let alone teaching it. In a vast hotel basement with no windows, floridly carpeted, a thousand stalls are set up, promoting courses, small presses, writing associations, fiction magazines; by the third day attendees are glazed and feverish with networking. I overhear a couple of girls saying they ‘feel faint’ because they’ve just seen Jane Smiley. The idea of writing is bandied about with semi-religious fervour: it’s moral quest and community activism, it’s a journey towards self-fulfilment. My fear is that the mysteries can lose their power, if they’re handled too much and too reverently.
We visit the dioramas in the Chicago History Museum: lit scale models of significant moments in the city’s history. Why is it delicious, peering through glass at these tiny scenes? The pleasure feels innocent as something from childhood — though everything in the scenes is ideological and problematic. In a cabin in 1808, John Kinzie trades furs with Native Americans; through his cabin window we see the Chicago river and the open spaces of the land. On the opposite wall the gargantuan World Exhibition of 1893 is moonlit: Versailles-size palaces around an artificial lake. Turning between these two, it’s disconcerting to feel the short scale of time between then, and then, and now — and the vast differences in the texture of life.
Tessa Hadley’s most recent book is Married Love.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2012