As someone who travels frequently, I find that a change of scenery can inspire and inform your writing, but often doesn’t make for the best work habits. Whether you’re trying to take in museums on holiday or traveling on business, the following tips will help you to get your work done anywhere in the world.
Set a routine and stick to it. This is true for home as well as on the road, but it’s especially important to carve out time when you’re traveling. Are you really enjoying what you see when you have ten items on your daily itinerary or do you feel like you’re on a conveyor belt, snapping pictures of things you’re not looking at? Can you whittle it down to two or three places? Wake up early and don’t leave your hotel until eleven or leave early and try to return from sightseeing by four. If you need to, plan writing around your work or meetings.
Whenever it is – make sure it’s a time that works for you personally – whether that’s early in the morning, afternoon or evening. Just like the gym – some people get better workouts at different times. I don’t like to work out in the morning – my blood sugar is low and I don’t like to do anything strenuous until I’ve had a cup of coffee – but it’s a great time for me to write. Plane travel and long train rides can also be a great time to get work done, as you don’t have any distractions – no Wifi, nothing to clean, no errands to run. It’s free time. If you can, try to write at the same time every day and for the same length of time. Making your writing time like a regular appointment will help you stick to your routine.
Set up your workspace – whether that’s a desk, a bed or an airplane tray table – to be conducive to your habits. Have the supplies that you use often – paper, pens, research notes, your coffee cup – within reach. Lie out or tack up postcards of art that inspire you. Discard the idea that your desk has to be super neat and organized – as long as it’s not a distraction and procrastination doesn’t drive you to cleaning – lots of writers and artists thrive on a little chaos.
If you’re in a hotel or at home, light a candle when you write. You can use scent to evoke different emotions in scenes or to help strengthen setting (Lavender and Mimosa remind me of Southern France, for example). People use candles for religious purposes, to get into meditative states or to set a certain mood, but they’re also a way of establishing ritual. Candles and postcards can also easily be thrown into a suitcase and not take up too much room – just maybe don’t pack matches or a lighter.
Writing is a largely free activity, in that your main tool is your imagination. But unfortunately, as imagination doesn’t come with ink or a laser printer, you will eventually need to invest in supplies. When purchasing, find out what’s negotiable to you when it comes to price. For example, you can write just as well on a cheap, used laptop that has a word-processing app, but maybe you won’t compromise about using a particular brand of fountain pen or notebook. (Using the same tools can also help you establish routine and a sense of ritual.)
You might want consider having several notebooks for different purposes – one for research and notes, one for journal entries, one for quick observations. As for portability, it’s easy to pack a laptop, but if you’re buying one, try to find a lighter model. Same goes for notebooks, though you might want to limit yourself to two or three when traveling, as more than can take up too much weight.
4. A Map/Plan!
Whether you’re at home or on a train, have a clear idea of where you’re going. That is, know what you’re going to work on before you work on it. Just like traveling, take a minute to orient yourself. Find out where you’re headed, so you don’t end up wandering. (Not that beautiful things can’t arise out of wandering or getting lost – but in writing ‘taking a walk’ can more often than not lead to dead-ends and unfinished projects.) Get rid of the idea of having a rigid word-count or page goal each day – this often leads to disappointment and discouragement when we don’t reach an arbitrary number (just like the number when you step on the scale isn’t a full reflection of your health, strength or ability.) It’s just a number.
Instead, set a specific, achievable goal. This can something as simple as fixing the sagging tension in a scene or writing a specific scene or working out the dialogue between two characters. It doesn’t have to be writing either, it can also be editing, researching or outlining. You may want to break down your time into blocks – for example, for every one hour of research, you’ll do two hours of writing. Or for every one hour of writing, you’ll do half an hour of editing.
5. Make Time.
The hour (or two or three) that you sit down to write is sacred. It’s your gym time. It’s your church service. Maybe, it’s your indulgent bath or glass of wine. The point is, we make time for lots of things in our lives and writing needs to be one of them. Make writing non-negotiable. You need that time. Don’t feel selfish for needing or asking for it. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t make excuses.
I had a friend who was a regular gym-goer, but wasn’t particularly self-motivated. Her trick was to get dressed, drive to the gym and tell herself all she needed to do was touch the door. If she touched the door and she still didn’t want to work out, she gave herself permission to leave. But, more often than not, she ended up staying. She’d already dressed and spent the gas money and was already there so it seemed silly not to work out. Same with writing. All you need to do is touch the door. All you need to do is set yourself an hour (or two or three) and sit down at your desk with the intention of writing. Some days, you won’t write anything. Some days you may write two words. Some days, you’ll write a lot, but it will all seem terrible. The point isn’t what you write. It’s that you show up every day.
Let the people in your life know what you’re doing. Let them know you’re not to be disturbed during your writing time. Whether you live with roommates, a spouse or family – it’s not unreasonable to ask someone not to loudly blend a smoothie or blast music or knock on your door to complain about work for an hour a day. And if your family or roommates object or if you have young kids that constantly demand your attention – find somewhere you can work – a library or café, away from your house. Even if you live or travel alone, let the people in your life know your working hours so they don’t call or show up during that time.
There are a lot of psychology studies that say announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them, but you don’t have to announce any big plans. You don’t have to give all the details of your project to someone. You’re not setting yourself up for failure by telling someone a goal you’ll fail to follow through on. All you need to communicate is the need for time and space. That’s it. You don’t have to say, “Mummy needs an hour alone every day to write Star Wars fan fiction.” Instead say something like, “I need the hours of 6 AM-8 AM to be quiet time because those are the hours I get my best work done.”
7. Buddy up.
Have an accountability partner (or several) to keep you on track. As much as writing is a solitary activity, writers exist as a part of larger community. Give up the idea you can do it alone. It’s not more noble or true. It’s just impractical. You need people – if for nothing else, because people give us material. Nobody is interested in a person’s experience sitting in their own room and nobody is interested in a character that exists in a vacuum.
We need to people to shape us and to shape our characters. Find a friend, family member or fellow writer who’s willing to read your work or exchange work with you. If you’re traveling or you live far away from the person, you can still Facetime, Skype, text or email about your work. If you can, join a writing group. Or several. Surround yourself with other creatives and other makers. Having a circle of other writers and artists will keep you inspired and in the loop.
Are there any other tips you’ve found work for you when you’re traveling?