12 things I’ve learnt while travelling and writing
I’m currently in Burgos, Spain, in the second week of a month-long writing retreat while travelling to research the third novel in a trilogy. Travel is an extraordinary thing. It makes us change gear, it takes us out of our comfort zones and normal routines, it makes us experience life as the outsider in some small sense.
In short, it teaches us a great deal that should make the writing stronger and deeper. I got a sense of this last year when I had the opportunity to research my latest novel, A Remedy for All Things, the follow-up to This is the End of the Story, in Budapest. But what I’m learning has been massively added to by this trip.
1. Exhilaration changes us
Abraham Maslow describes peak experiences as:
rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.
Experiences that interrupt our routine rhythms, that give us the chance to experience awe and gratitude, result in adjustments to how we perceive the world.
2. Time is precious, yet it’s possible to be time rich
Travelling and taking time out to focus on my own writing and creativity always makes me think deeply about how I want to use my time.
I came back from Budapest last year knowing that I could no longer marginalise my own creativity and expect to be an enthusiastic editor and writing mentor. I came back eager to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press as innovative, outward-looking and independent, but not prepared to sacrifice myself along the way.
Moving from Zaragoza to Burgos and about to head for Toledo, I’m aware of how different time is here in another culture. The day has a different shape and ends much later, more in tune with my pull to a night owl rhythm, but it’s not only the difference in culture and shape of the day that is different. It’s also the sense that in taking time to focus on writing in the unfamiliar places that inform my novels, time expands.
In his poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Andrew Marvell writes an extraordinary ‘carpe diem’ poem:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain.
I would Love you ten years before the Flood…
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity. …
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew, …
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
The more we take control of the short time we have, the more it appears to expand; the more we feel that there is ‘world enough and time’.
3. We see life from a different perspective
Day to day, I’m running an independent publishing house. I’m busy and every decision is up close and personal. Getting into another environment enables me to see my everyday life from a greater distance. And distance can be a wonderful way to see things more clearly.
Your reality is as you perceive it to be. So it is true, that by altering this perception we can alter our reality.
- William Constantine
Each time I travel, I know I will return with a different perspective on how I want to live, how I want to run Cinnamon Press, how I want to use my time.
This can be challenging to those who don’t want me to change. I’m extremely blessed to work with a great many authors who are as delighted that I take time for my own writing as that I spend time editing and publishing theirs. But this, of course, isn’t universally the case. Whenever I change and grow there will be a few people who find it disquieting and unwelcome. Recognising that what’s happening is a perspective shift enables me to stick to my quest without being judgemental of those who find it difficult.
4. We can maintain our boundaries without losing compassion
Travelling for a long period whilst also running a busy small publishing house demands a lot of preparation. To buy the time away means putting in extra hours before I leave to make it work.
The creative people I work with are wonderfully understanding. They have their own sacrosanct creative writing processes and so empathise with my need to be largely incommunicado (barring real emergencies) for a period.
Yet each time there are one or two people who react strongly against the idea that I might not be ‘there for them’ for a few weeks.
I’m all for win-win solutions, but travel and taking focussed, intense periods for my own writing has taught me that there’s a big gap between making sure everything is well set-up for me to take time out and compromising in a way that will eat into that time.
Compromise in this sense is always about lowering our standards. I’ve got four weeks to do a huge amount of writing. If I waste it, the time is gone forever. Of course, some things will demand a modicum of this time away, but I’m always surprised that there will be at least one person who seems affronted that I should be doing my own work. It’s this that we must resist.
We can remain compassionate for those threatened when we announce that this time is for our quest and as such is protected time when we won’t be answering routine emails or questions we’ve already dealt with.
But that compassion shouldn’t make us compromise, not unless we are willing to break promises to ourselves to nurture our creativity and our quest. And if we can’t keep promises even to ourselves, how will we feel about who we are?
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi:
…there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.
Or, as Jim Collins says:
Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, as it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.
5. Physical movement is a metaphor for how far we’ve come
I journal a great deal wherever I am, but especially while travelling. Physical movement makes me mindful of other types of movement in my life. Despite elements of continuity of memory and narrative, I’m not the same person as I was five years ago. Physically, many of the body’s cells regenerate over periods of a few days to fifteen years, and our consciousness of being ‘me’ is also ever-changing, yet this hits me most when I’m in an unfamiliar environment.
When I’m out of my environment I’m most acutely aware of how much has changed, in the last five years, in the last five months…
6. Openness is a virtue
Zaragoza and Burgos are cities that seem to have much less English-speaking tourism than many places I’ve visited. Two years ago in Toledo, my woeful lack of Spanish was no barrier to shopping, eating out, negotiating transport… Whilst our wonderful host/apartment-owner, Jesus, in Zaragoza had fantastic English, most people had only a couple of words or less.
The result has been a marked and rapid improvement in my ability to make myself understand, both non-verbally and in a language that I’m sure my accent (or lack of it) is butchering. Nonetheless, the willingness to ‘try’ to speak the local language has elicited a great deal of helpfulness and reciprocal attempts at English.
Travel is a wonderful way to stretch our flexibility. Coming up against new ideas, places, perspectives, shapes to the day and people, demand that we dig deeper for responses. We’re eating different foods at different times of the day. We’re acclimatising to the long shut down during the middle of the day and finding alternate rhythms to match it. We’re taking a more relaxed view of planning travel and trusting it will work (and despite a train strike and different cultural patterns so far it has all worked).
Openness reminds us that we are fallible and limited, things we have thought ‘set in stone’ really aren’t. And it also reminds us to be more tolerant and patient.
Change and the unexpected don’t only happen when we’re travelling. All kinds of circumstances arise in life that require the ability to deal with uncertainty and the unforeseen, but travel is a great way to practice our responses to all the inevitable changes that will come our way.
7. Travel deepens curiosity and creativity
Thrown back on my own resources, with time to think and journal, more sense of openness and flexibility, I find that whenever I travel, my thirst to learn and to use that learning grows.
Writing needs a lot of focus and a great deal of inspiration, and travel provides both. Away from the distractions of the phone or work email and in a place where we have to make sense of unfamiliar environments, we not only become more adaptive, but also more creative.
8. It’s good to be the outsider sometimes
There’s a wonderful humility in not knowing how things are done or what the right words are, especially if we are able to let go of ego and ask for help, however haltingly.
Travel is a great way to learn more about ourselves. Pitted against the unfamiliar or placed in the position of having a lot to learn quickly, how do you react? There are times when feeling unsettled, slightly ill at ease and unsure, helps our creativity and growth.
To quote Nietzsche:
One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.
9. People are good
Anywhere you go, some people will be difficult, but the more I travel, the more convinced I am of the decency and humaneness of the majority of people.
You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. ― Mahatma Gandhi
10. We live more simply
Unlike snails, we don’t carry everything we have with us wherever we go. It’s always interesting what we chose to take. I’ve got a chronic neck injury and also managed to do something dodgy to a hip earlier this year (largely healed, but it still doesn’t want to do too much hefting).
When we travel, we take essentials — a few clothes, the odd book (and maybe an e-reader as back up), a journal and laptop… It’s a good way to realise that ‘stuff’ is just that. I love the pictures on my walls at home, the book collection, the kitchen full of pans and implements I’ve gathered over years. But I’m not synonymous with any of those things and I only appreciate that fully when I’m on the more.
10. We are less sedentary
So many of us spend large amounts of time sitting at desks, working sedentary jobs or hooked to electronic devices. When I’m travelling, even if I spend several hours a day journalling or writing on a laptop, I move much more. I walk miles every day, drinking in new sights and sounds and smells.
11. We have more focus and clarity
When I’m at home there are a thousand potential calls on my time. When I set time aside to travel and write, protect my boundaries and open myself to new places, the focus follows. I do the work.
At the beginning of the second week of travel, I’ve done a second full draft of my novel and written several new scenes incorporating things I’ve learnt from the places we’ve visited so far. I’ve also written a couple of blog posts and masses of journalling.
There’s nothing extraordinary about this. It’s simply that by changing environment I can change what I’m attending to.
12. We make quantum leaps
This brings me full circle. Peak experiences don’t have to be rare. At home or wandering, we can learn ways to change our environments and the way we use time to ensure that we have more moments of epiphany and more moments of deep joy.
But travel is certainly one great way to promote peak experiences. When we become the outsider, risk being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar language, food and customs that demands a change of perspective and a measure of humility, then we shake ourselves up.
We disrupt our body clock, our ideas and our certainties.
We expand our horizons, thinking and experiences.
When we are in such an expansive, open mindset, not only is our writing likely to be more connected and creative but we become more as people. We are more likely to have deep, meaningful and transformative experiences.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.