Monday, June 10, 2013

How to Travel Like a Writer

One of my most absolute favorite things to do is travel, especially if it's to a place that's new and completely out of my comfort zone. If the people there speak another language, all the better. If it's a bit rough and wild and has a lot of really cool wildlife--perfect!

If you're going to be a writer, it's essential that you try new things, whether it's food, books, or places. In my opinion, one of the best ways to ignite the creative spark and lure your muse from hiding is by traveling. There's something about a totally new environment that opens our eyes and our writing pores so that we can't help but be inspired.

I believe that I do my best writing when I'm not at home. I drew more inspiration from a month in Kyoto or a week in Germany than I ever did in an entire year in my hometown. I think there's a kind of shutting down of the senses that happens when you're in one place for a long time, when you start to see less, hear less, notice less, because everything around you is so familiar and expected. And noticing what's around you is absolutely critical to good writing, because before we can write interesting things, we have to see and learn and do interesting things. That inspiration has to come from somewhere. Even if every book you ever write is set within a two-block radius of your current address, you can still benefit from getting away and seeing the world. Travel opens your mind and expands your capacity for creativity in a way few other things can--it's like the ultimate imagination steroid!

Here are some ways that you, as a writer, can best utilize your travel-time:

This is a must. When you're out and about wandering new streets and trying new foods whose names you can't pronounce, the writer in you is guaranteed to stir. It's essential that you capture the flavors and emotions of these new experiences right away, before their impact fades and the details become blurry in your memory. Carry a journal at all times, and never let a day pass without describing everything you can think of, even the silly little occurrences that appear to have no significance. Even if you never use the exact information you recorded, I promise you this exercise will not have been in vain. This discipline--particularly if carried out every day, even at home--teaches your brain to turn what you see, hear, and otherwise experience into words, sentences, stories. This is what differentiates you from the other tourists, who are there to simply consume an experience. As a writer, you can never just consume--you have to go on to create. By journaling as you go, you are becoming better at transforming experiences into art.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the new-ness of a place and simply let it wash over you while you sit passively by. But don't let that happen! Engage with your surroundings. If you have the benefit of a tour guide or local companion, pepper them with questions. You might feel silly--and yes, you might look a bit silly too--but who cares, really? I've never met anyone who wasn't delighted to expound on the stories and details of their hometown or country. We want to share our worlds with other people, so don't be shy. Anyway, if you meet some rare disgruntled local who doesn't want to talk you can always run away and find someone more approachable. You've got to learn all you can, because it's entirely possible that your next great story will be inspired by some crucial piece of information you don't yet know--but the bus driver or the waiter or the fruit vendor on the street corner does. Always live with the expectation that the next person you meet will lead you to your next great story--and you'll only find that story by asking questions.

This makes me think of the writer played by Jodi Foster in the film Nim's Island, who writes fantastic adventure stories--but is terrified of even leaving her own apartment! You mustn't let fear stop you from living new experiences. Push yourself and actively seek to step outside your comfort zone. Does the thought of talking to a stranger scare you? Does the prospect of a country where everyone speaks another language put a knot in your stomach? Are you terrified of sleeping outdoors or jumping out of airplanes or eating a squid with its tentacles still intact? Then these are the things you must do. Your writing should terrify you. It should stretch you and lure you into frightening new territory. Face these fears physically, and your daring will be reflected in your writing.

It's easy to get caught up in cheesy commercial tourism. You know what I mean--the places that are built specifically to cater to wide-eyed, slack-jawed tourists with the floral shirts and oversized cameras and sunscreen rubbed not quite all the way into their faces. This sort of travel can certainly be inspiring, and I won't say that it can't be fun--because it can be--but if possible, take the road less traveled. Seek authentic experiences instead of the ones that might be a tad bit, um, how shall we say, exaggerated or even entirely manufactured to feed the expectations of tourists. I'm talking about shows, tours, or attractions that are based on stereotypes instead of a country or region's actual cultural or ecological circumstances. Hokey imitations will never be as fulfilling as the genuine article, whether we're talking about purses from Dooney and Bourke or safaris in the Serengeti. Wander off the beaten path, get in touch with a country's true heartbeat, talk to the real people who live there, find the unexplored places and the wild countryside. Authentic writing, even if it's ultimately set on the fantasy moon of the planet Gilgorax, is based on authentic people, places, and stories.

Tourism both fuels and kills economies, cultures, and ecosystems. Though it can create a lot of jobs and financially stimulate an area, it has the unfortunate possibility of destroying the very thing that makes it such a desirable travel location. Mt. Everest is called "the highest junkyard on Earth" due to the amounts of garbage left on its slopes. Yellowstone is riddled with tourists' names carved on trees and landmarks. The Great Wall of China is being slowly eroded by tourists taking pieces home and developers turning parts of it into theme park-like areas. Mass tourism to certain wildernesses can ultimately drive away the wild game that was the original attraction. Tourism growth can drive up property values in a town, making it much more difficult for the town's native residents to live there. Thankfully, there are alternative ways to travel that are both fun, inspiring, and environmentally and culturally responsible. Some of these are ecotourism, agritourism, and voluntourism. If you're looking into traveling in the near future, I encourage you to look up these alternatives to mass, commercial tourism, and the advantages they offer to you, the local communities, and the local ecosystems. I'll admit, this point doesn't have as much tie-in with writing--it's just something I am passionate about! =) And just to prove how amazing ecotourism can be, check out this list of amazing ecolodges around the world!

I hope you'll consider the advantages and inspiration that traveling can offer you as a writer, and that wherever your road takes you, you'll be ready with a journal in hand! Happy traveling and happy writing!


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