Sunday, July 17, 2011

Taking Along Your Writing: How to Keep Your Creativity Alive during Your Summer Vacation

I am packing my suitcases this week, wondering about where to fit my writing.  Clothes, check.  Great book, check.  Camera, check.  Teaching materials, check.  The pile is big, the suitcase is small.  Can I take my printout for the novel that's haunting my days and nights right now?  Will these characters, who are living with me every moment, fit in a side

As a traveling instructor, I'm used to summer teaching.  I like the chance to get away and see new places, meet new writers, help them take their books to the next step.  It's work for me, but quite enjoyable as jobs go.  But it's all too easy to forget my own creativity when I'm busy with everyone else's.  Even though I have the time, it's much easier to "vacate" and do nothing while I'm away.  After all, there's no writing desk to remind me to sit down and face the empty page.  I'm away from my normal reminders and routine.  Forgetting is simple. 

I do find that being away from home gives me some of that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison talks about, that magical element that lets the over-busy self slow down and relax, lets us take in new images and ideas.  The well begins to fill again as I leave behind regular-life responsibilities, as I rest in the rhythm of lake, mountains, and passing clouds.   

But these characters, this book!  Do they need to be left behind too?  Will they still be waiting for me when I show up again?  Probably not, at least not in the same way as when I left.  Long ago, a writing colleague clued me into why:  After three days, writing threads fade.  They are filtered out by other things, not even noticed.  The characters' voices start to get fainter and the writer begins to be quite disconnected from the the flow of these voices.  She can even lose track of the bigger structure of her project, especially if it's a book.  She can forget the key questions that keep her creativity alive and cranking out new scenes.

I don't want this.  I've worked hard all winter and spring to get my momentum moving.

Travel Systems to Keep the Creativity Alive
It makes sense that when we leave our supportive routines, we have to set up systems that let us "hold" our books-in-progress in our hearts and heads, keeping it cooking, even if the desk, chair, computer, and regular writing time isn't in front of us as reminders.
 How do we do this?

Once when I was studying painting intensively, my teacher said to get an artist's notebook, a small sketchbook, and carry it everywhere.  Make it fun.  Each day, sketch a few ideas, nothing serious, just play.  If I'm reading a magazine and see a juicy color that inspires me, tear a piece and paste it into my notebook.  Collect postcards from art museums, add them too.  Make lists of wishes that have to do with art.  Draw a series of empty frames and slowly fill them in with composition ideas.

It worked.  I came home from that two-week trip more inspired than when I left, aching to get back to my studio and start painting.  (I actually couldn't wait; I bought a travel kit of watercolors and began using them midway through the vacation.)

So I got the idea to do this with my writing.  Forget the computer, but don't forget a writer's notebook.  I got myself a cool one, and a great pen.  I began doodling, just as a warm up, just to keep in the spirit of vacation.  Then I started making lists of images that appealed to me, often things I was seeing on the trip.  Cloud shapes, the particularly purple dusky color of a distant hill at sunset, the smell of lemonade with lavender.  New impressions to my senses, like how the dusty southern French road felt under my thin American sandals.  I let myself play, but I let myself stay connected to my writing.

Then one day I began writing questions about my story-in-progress.  This was fun too.  Letting myself dream into the book I had left behind on my desk at home, remembering what confused me about it, imagining ways out of that maze.  You can guess where this step led:  freewriting.  I began writing each morning, when no one else was up yet, over my tea and croissants.  Short, fun freewrites, exploring the questions and images I'd listed.

Travel became an open door.  Like with my artist's notebook, my traveling writer's notebook captured moments I never would've experienced at home.  They made their way into my book, plus several short stories that came to life when I returned home.

Don't feel you have to abandon your writing when you "vacate" this summer.  It can travel with you, in a new form that fits the holiday atmosphere.  Creativity is never something you have to leave behind.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Before you travel this summer, or while you're on the road (if you already are), get a writer's notebook and a pen you love.

2.  Spend time each day with it, 5-10 minutes, doodling.  Mindless stuff, no purpose, no productivity.

3.  Graduate to images.  What's in front of you?  The ocean, the rolling hills, the desert, the prairie?  A small seaside town?  The cafe on the busy boulevard?  Write down two or three things you notice, as if you were writing a postcard home.

4.  Next, try lists.  Begin to list questions, things you're still wondering about your book.

5.  Finally, get some private time and write the possible answer to one of these questions or freewrite from one of the images, for 10-30 minutes.  Nothing in mind but words on the page.

You may be surprised at where you travel!


  1. I love this post, Mary. I do similar things when I travel, and it really does keep a creative thread going. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Cindy! I am on the road right now, enjoying my writer's notebook so much!

  3. I loved this post also. I just came home from a three vacation. The scenery inspired my creativity and opened up some new images for my book where I felt stalled. I am excited to be home and ready to write again. Great suggestion.

  4. BarbaraRathHoover@gmail.comFriday, July 22, 2011

    Thanks for this post! A very productive June let to a decent draft for the first leg of my W. Now I am settled in at a lake trying to pick up the lost threads. Today I will find that special notebook and pen, read my June writings and start doodling. Perhaps my boring main character will do something interesting...

  5. Thanks for reading, Barbara! Enjoy the lake...