One of my main personal goals for the round-the-world trip was to work on my writing career. By getting away from the daily grind of a commute, a job, and a mortgage I meant to spend more time doing what I love and hone my craft. Before departure I had started building a foundation for an eventual book with the blog American Robotnik and self-published Guerrilla Yardwork: The First-Time Home Owner’s Handbook. On the trip I intended to keep the momentum by
- writing this blog to develop material for a book about how to feel at home anywhere in the world;
- writing a memoir of becoming a man in Czechoslovakia during the transition to democracy; and
Aside from a growing blog, it didn’t quite work out that way: the memoir is out and a mystery novel in; I’ve concocted a couple of other long-term writing projects; I only managed to land a handful of freelance articles and only had two literary non-fiction pieces published, albeit one as a winning piece of a prestigious contest. The biggest lesson: Writing while traveling is much, much harder than I thought.
Roadblocks to writing while traveling
The traveling writer faces several obstacles to being a writer.
- Travel. Including travel in the list of obstacles to writing may sound counter-intuitive. After all, having all that free time creates a lot of extra time for creativity. In addition, we set out to travel slowly, spending more time in one place, to make more room for writing. But first you need to get there—transportation eats up a good amount of time from your schedule. Once at the destination, it makes no sense to not experience it as a place. Even if you divide your day into a writing part and an adventure part, writing gets bumped by all-day tours, inflexible opening hours, or limited time at a place. That travel actually gets in the way of writing is one of the biggest surprises of the trip for me.
- Disruptions and distractions. Most authors agree that the writing life requires developing and sticking to a routine. Butt-in-seat rules the successful writer’s schedule. Day in and day out you must do the same thing over and over—write. Routines create regularity so that you can focus on your writing. By contrast, traveling disrupts routines to no end. Instead of focusing creative energy on your story, you are forced to think creatively about how to get from A to B, make decisions about where to stay, adjust to new weather and smells and sounds. In 12 months of the trip I slept in 71 beds, each of which required a new adjustment.
- Exhaustion. All those sensory stimuli, all those adjustments you have to make, they’re tiresome. By reducing the amount of new information your brain must process, routines take much of decision-making out of the day, saving energy for creativity. Travel fatigue, the sheer exhaustion travel can create, is a common ailment among travelers, including those that travel slowly. A tired brain can’t concentrate on writing.
- Beer. I love good craft beer and I enjoy writing about beer. Many famous writers were alcoholics, and though I can’t and don’t intend to add myself to that list, even in small amounts beer always makes my body sluggish, my mind slow, and my self lazy—hardly a recipe for the kind of hard work writing requires.
Alternative routes to writing while traveling
Writing is hard work. You must sit down to write not only when the words come out easily but also when you’re feeling empty or blocked; and you must write not only under your ideal conditions but also when you’re traveling, distracted, tired, or full of beer. So how do you do it? I’ve found the following three tactics helpful (which isn’t to say I’ve always succeeded—as with most advice, it’s easier said than done).
- Think like a machine. In my hometown Košice, Slovakia, I met a French artist who introduced me to a friend with, “Il fait des mots,” which translates as, “He makes words.” To be a wordsmith, you must manufacture words every day, so rather than thinking of your work in vacuous terms of inspiration, it’s more helpful to imagine it as a mechanical process of producing a text that stands in for your story. For many, it helps to set daily word count limits. I’ve found it most helpful to just sit down, wherever I am, and produce words until, for whatever reason, I can’t produce no more. Sometimes it was a 1,000 words in an hour, other times 200 in two, most times I didn’t even count the words or keep track of time. The word count itself didn’t matter because it all adds up in the end. What mattered was that I did it.
- Write anywhere, any how, any time. I tend to think that in order to write I need a desk and a chair in a quiet space and a good chunk of the morning, my most productive time, at my disposal to type on my laptop. But that outlook limits my production. In fact, all I need is a writing implement and paper. I can write with laptop while sitting up in a lumpy bed. I can write in my journal at a loud cafe. Conditions will never be perfect and if I wait for perfection I will never write.
- Do Morning Pages every day. Even though I never got far in the Artist’s Way program based on the eponymous bestselling book by Julia Cameron, I did continue with the first habit she recommends for fostering creativity. First thing in the morning every day, I write 2-5 pages (Cameron’s limit is 3) of whatever comes to my mind. I draft blog posts, list to-do items to complete, process essay or article ideas, describe my surroundings without using adjectives, or discuss the logistics of my writing life. In the Morning Pages, you can write whatever you want and, in fact, you need not limit yourself to the morning—do it whenever it’s best for you. I guarantee Morning Pages will become indispensable, effective, and helpful in more than just your craft.
What other barriers to writing did you encounter on your travels? How did you overcome them? What’s your most effective method for writing while traveling?
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This is such an interesting post. Before leaving the UK to travel I was working as an online journalist in London as well as blogging and taking creative writing evening classes; I thought that once I was on the road I’d have so much time for new writing projects. In reality, I’ve barely had time to keep up my travel blog and complete the freelance writing contracts I’d lined up before leaving the UK. My biggest obstacles were not having a routine or a comfy place to write as well as suffering from travel fatigue. Balancing travel and writing is hard!
So true. Traveling around the world for a year opened my eyes in so many ways. Many expectations proved wrong, especially about having so much extra time for writing. Writing’s hard work and often the pull of a beach or a hike or a walk in the park is much stronger. You have to make time.
Hi Peter, I need to agree with your suggestion to write any time and any how. Especially while travelling, if I would rely just on my memory and not writing any notes in the train, bus, boat, whilst waiting for a train, bus or boat, there would be much less material and info covered in our travel stories and posts.
Now, what hinders me to write more often, or more, or better? There two things: HEAT and THE LANGUAGE. I am extremely tired in tropics, when the temperature hits 30 C, I am done and I need to wait for sunset to ‘wake up’ again.
And naturally, language. My mother tongues are Ukrainian and Slovak, so, obviously, to express myself in English is not the same.
But, as far as we are all willing to learn and improve, there is always a hope that things will get better, isn’t it?
Hope you can get more time for your writings now when you are back HOME!
Taking notes all the time is one habit that I’m still working on. It’s similar to taking photos: sometimes I just put the camera away to have a true in-the-moment experience. So when I’m out there in the world I prefer to be in it rather than write it all down. Work in progress…
Back home working a day job I will have less time for writing, but I know I will be more efficient with the time I do have. As they say, work stretches itself to the time allotted, which is why with more time available writing is actually more difficult. It’s a mental thing.
Trying to write consistently with any semblance of normal quality (or productivity level) while traveling is crazy difficult! I used to go back home every year and take a month or two off the road, and that is when I would get the most of my writing done. But now that I’ve sold my house and am living as a permanent nomad, my level of writing has dropped significantly — mainly because of the reasons that you’ve already mentioned.
Good luck find a balance that works for you! 🙂
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