At a Creative Impasse? Move to an Island.

Islands are different. For some reason size matters; social interactions reverberate more loudly when there are fewer people arranged in a small, insulated geographic space. Islands enable sturm und drang, since everyone’s business is, well…everyone’s business. On the mainland inter-personal relations are somehow diluted, with more space to disperse and more people with whom to mix.

And this is perhaps the irony of island life: if you live on a populated island (not a Robinson Crusoe-esque redoubt) you actually get to interact more, and more intensely, with the other islanders. For a writer this means enhanced human interaction, not necessarily more or less, but deeper, and while that may fly in the face of the writer-as-solitary cliché, it can provide fuel for the literary imagination as all of life’s diversity is delivered up to your doorstep, daily.

And island ecosystems, whether human or otherwise, are diverse and unique, as Darwin found in the Galapagos. If they are habitable, islands attract an interesting array of individuals. Non-indigenous islanders actively choose to live on an island, pursuing something about insularity that calls to them. Others may be fleeing to the islands, licking wounds from the mainland — divorces, failures, vulnerabilities, maybe even crimes.

I grew up on a 400- acre island (Osea Island) off the east coast of England. We used it mainly as a summer and weekend retreat when I was young, but later my parents moved there permanently, and I spent college vacations there. The population in winter was about six. In summer it reached 20–30. There was a tidal causeway connecting us to the mainland, open for four hours, shut for eight, daily. People showed up to live there from time to time, renting cottages. One year there was a Russian journalist with a dubious background. He took long walks around the sea wall, and always stopped in for a drink with whomever else was around. A permanent fixture was another writer, this time of crime fiction. He also liked his drink, but was drawn to the big city, and had many friends in London where he went frequently to stay in touch with the literary and publishing scene. Another fixture was a boat builder who occupied a small shed. It was chock-full of boats and bits of boats, the walls decorated with designs of hulls, and mottos such as “To master the art, practice the craft!”

I Recently moved to Chebeague island, off the coast of Maine, an hour’s ferry ride from Portland. I had been living on the mainland, about six miles away, for the previous eight years before making the leap. The prevalence of two things immediately reminded me of home: boats and alcohol. For many of those summers I had been visiting the island, sometimes fishing off its coast, picnicking on its beaches, sometimes staying with friends who had houses there, “summer folk.” Like most Maine islands, this one is bifurcated, socially speaking, between “year-rounders” and summer folk. The summer population here is about 3000. In winter that drops to about 300. But within those two broad categories of islanders, there are multiple sub-categories, cross-overs, and exceptions.

There is a way of thinking amongst many of the islanders that casts summer folk as eccentric, even annoying, disturbances from “away.” An old lobsterman, rowing out to his boat, lamented to me late in September, “Used to be they all left come Labor Day. Now they’re here ’til Columbus!” This summer I saw the distinction many times; one day a group of summer people and their kids were busy cavorting on the ferry dock. Some were jumping off, others lounging in the sun and chatting — about Brooklyn, books, movies and food — metrosexual stuff. Watching all this gaiety from away were four year-rounders, burly, bearded men in dirty clothes (lumbersexuals), waiting by their trucks to pick up goods brought by the ferry — along with the deliveries from Whole Foods, for the summer people.

Summer folk, even if pushing the calendar to its limits these days, are connected to other, easier places, ensconced in the white collar world of the mighty dollar, which allows them to buy instead of make, to replace instead of fix, consume rather than produce. They are flighty, fleeing when the weather turns bad, for warmer climes and better-insulated houses. They are only partially connected to the island and all its nuanced moods.

But the divide between summer and year-round does not only mean a distinction between white and blue collar. There are some year-rounders who are non-native (however you define that). These (like myself, now) are people who make their livings off-island, but who have moved here as a lifestyle choice. To a certain extent such people are cross overs, but they will never make it as real locals, that will be the privilege of their children (perhaps) who, having grown up on the island, will be more eligible for native status, should they want it.

Then there are the retiring baby-boomers. These may have been full-on summer people in their working lives, but now in their golden years, they are able to relocate fully to their dream place, where they volunteer for the schools, fire department or town government, winterize their houses and tough it out for the full year (with a few weeks in Florida in the dead of winter).

Among the human fauna we have discovered so far: an emeritus German professor, a female Muslim Intern at the fire department, from an Indian family in Los Angeles; a business development specialist with IBM, and long distance sailor and his family; a “barefoot” gardener who winters in Mexico, a divorcee with three children from Massachusetts; a fisherman-turned-farmer with a distinct resemblance to Aliki from Portlandia.

Ultimately, two themes inform life on the island (apart from boats and alcohol). The first is cross-pollination. A wealthy Middle Eastern philanthropist who married an island girl, shares a baked haddock lunch with an elderly lobsterman, while discussing issues before the planning board. Not only do interactions on the island cut across classes, but across generations, religious affiliations and (occasionally) racial boundaries. What all these people have in common is the island — perhaps the only thing they have in common — something that would be lost on the mainland where they would not need to interact. The ferry, which has more than once been likened to a British pub (or what that hallowed institution used to be), is the place where gossip is exchanged, opinions aired and news traded between all islanders (although in all truth, there is less tonsil hockey on the ferry). For the duration of the trip to the mainland relationships are developed on a daily basis.

The other theme is community. This is key to a writer, because good writers are, I believe, also good livers. This may not be so true for, lets say, technical writing as it is for travel writing. The travel writer — in the old-school, British tradition at least — conveys experience that needs to be lived before written. One thinks here of Norman Lewis (Voices of the Old Sea) or Graham Greene (Travels Without Maps), or even Dervla Murphy (Eight Feet in The Andes). Island community with its enhanced colors and sounds, its intense reverb, provides community in all of its multifaceted glory, and on an island, community is like family — you cannot choose it.

Writers are as much products of their environments as any other profession; our daily interactions and experiences inform our ideas, perspectives and actions. But like all artists, sometimes the creative force meets a blockage, ideas dry up, inspiration flees. Not to say that an island home will bring this all flooding back, but geography has a determining affect on your average human — that largely explains cultural differences, in my humble opinion — island sociology shuffles the deck just enough to allow the juices to flow again.

So rather than move to an island — not everybody is cut out for life here, and we don’t need any more writers on my island — I suggest cultivating one’s inner island. What this means is isolating the particular qualities of island life that benefit the writing life. These are the aforementioned cross-pollination and community which provide creative fodder and inspiration, and then of course just enough solitude to enable you to get something done.

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