So this summer I had the amazing pleasure of leaving the country for the first time and going to England, where I got to study for five weeks at Oxford University, one of the oldest universities in the world. I haven’t gotten to talk much about my experiences there, since I made a blog but never kept up with it (oops), but I’d like to share something that I started thinking about when I came back to the University of Michigan.
It’s weird, because when I got to Oxford, I knew the history behind it, that there were thousands upon thousands of people that had walked the exact same pathways I did, that lived and breathed Oxford. It seemed like every day I learned something new; President Clinton once smoked weed at the Turf, Lewis Carroll taught here. There’s obviously something magical about walking in the footsteps of those who came before you (although, no, I didn’t smoke weed at the Turf – I just got a pint of cider, as per usual).
I’ve thought about this more, too, as the semester has gone on and I’ve been studying the works of James Joyce, who will forever be imprinted in Irish literary history. I had the chance to go to Dublin – there were some other people that wanted to go too – but I instead chose Paris. And even there, I found the quintessential tourist stop for an English major: Shakespeare and Company, the amazing bookstore that you just have to see to believe.
I found out in my Joyce class that Ulysses, his famous epic, was actually first published through Shakespeare and Company, and I had walked those halls, and I had taken a picture of the mural they have on the wall with James Joyce, proud on the wall. Joyce had gone to Paris and written in Paris a number of times – you could say I made that same pilgrimage.
But as I think about these things, about how these great writers have come before me, how I merely spent not even half my summer at this famed university whereas they devoted themselves to it – I don’t necessarily feel special. Sure, I loved it beyond all measure; this year marks the 100 year anniversary of the publishing of Alice in Wonderland. And it’s astounding that I even got accepted, much less had the money to go over there and spend five weeks essentially frolicking across Europe.
But I didn’t feel particularly magical. I know there are people who spend their time trekking across Dublin to find the spots Joyce mentions in Ulysses, or they go overseas to write because that’s what T.S. Eliot did. But nothing’s going to change if I write my novel here or if I write my novel in Paris, emulating some famous author. He’s not going to come back to life and help me revise those 300 pages, or give me inspiration for my next book.
I don’t mean to be too didactic, but I realized that following art isn’t what makes you any better – it’s doing your own art. By having my own experiences in Europe, I define who I am as me, not as someone else. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to Paris and perhaps write there (because I loved Paris. I loved it). But I’ll do it because it’s what I want to do – not because Joyce did it a century earlier.
And if there’s any true moral of the story it’s this: travel, get outside your box, go somewhere. It’s totally worth it.