55 miles to inspiration

There is this whole concept of a “writer’s retreat” where people with enough money (i.e., clearly not me) go to some quiet cabin in Maine or to the middle of the Arizona desert and just write.  Sometimes they go with their profound and clearly talented writer friends, because people who are intimidatingly talented and successful like to band together to maximize the amount of envy they inspire from the rest of us.  The concept seems to be that, unless you are already incredibly inspired and in a state of flow, it is kind of hard to make yourself write when you are surrounded by dishes to wash, piles of clutter that stare at you in a judgmental manner from atop your shelves, or people who seem to think that staring into space while sitting in the general vicinity of a laptop is not important work, so you should come with them to see the latest superhero movie because you clearly have nothing better to do.  In theory, going somewhere quiet takes you away from this and makes it easier for you to write.

On the one hand, I agree that getting out of your routine, that putting yourself in a space that you define as “for writing” can be very helpful to get you out of a rut.  Putting yourself into a place physically can help you to put yourself into an analogous space mentally.  But what kind of space should this be?

Scientific research has shown that when you’re stuck on a problem, going for a walk in nature helps you think of a solution, but there is no similar evidence for benefits of walking in an urban environment.  That doesn’t mean that natural environments specifically spark creativity; maybe just that a change of environments does, since most of us live and work in urban/suburban environments.  There is also ample evidence to back up the idea that novel experiences, especially travel, can be invigorating to creativity because they force you to see things from a different perspective, a tactic that you can then more easily apply to your work.  There is also evidence that the hundreds of daily interactions and intersections occurring in cities lead people to be more productive and more creative than they would have been in isolation.  Having more sights, sounds, and things to serve and nucleation points for your own ideas seems like it would logically lead to a greater quantity and hopefully thus a greater quantity of high-quality ideas.

So, where then, should a writer go when seeking inspiration?  I think all of the above work from time to time.  We don’t all have the time and money for writing retreats, so toting our laptops to the local cafe may have to serve on a regular basis.  Even if you have the money to get away, I wouldn’t want all of my vacations to be to remote areas known for their quiet and solitude; I would also try to explore, to have as many novel and perspective-shifting experiences as possible while I was away because, in addition to being valuable in their own right, they could be the seeds of creativity that I could bring home with me.  I think that the “where” of writing has as much to do with mental maps as physical ones. Maybe putting yourself in country of “just did some yoga and ate some farmers market berries” instead of “just did some dishes and ate some leftovers” can have as much of a profound effect on your work as putting yourself in the south of France versus the southern end of your couch.  If you are worn-out and doing and redoing on the routine in your life, how can you expect your writing not to reflect that?  I’m a big believer that all aspects of our lives are interconnected, from the mental and emotional to the outer, so I always clean my house when I’m feeling scatter-brained and I suggest you put yourself somewhere refreshing and energizing (wherever that is for you) in order to reinvigorate your work.

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4 thoughts on “55 miles to inspiration

  1. I think having a spot set aside for writing is important. For me it is, anyway. I don’t find that I’m overly inspired trying to write elsewhere. The best stuff happens at my writing desk. 🙂

  2. Breaking out of one’s routine can, I think, certainly help, Theresa. But I would suggest these are extraordinary measures. The creative brain is an amazing thing, and can find inspiration in the mundane. I guess the trick is to stop seeing life as mundane, and find the odd and thought-provoking in things we see every day. A change of perspective doesn’t necessarily require a change of physical location–just a change of perception. 🙂

    • I agree that when inspiration strikes you, you can write anywhere, whether on the bus or in the back of a movie theater. I guess I was more trying to talk about where to go when you’re “looking” for inspiration. I think if you have writers’ block, it can be a little hard to stare at the same walls or computer screen for a while and try to change your perspective. Or maybe that’s just the case for restless people like me who don’t like to sit still.

  3. I’m really intrigued by your thoughts here, particularly your comments about nature and the urban environment. And I was particularly taken by this statement: If you are worn-out and doing and redoing on the routine in your life, how can you expect your writing not to reflect that?

    I’ve touched on this topic, too: my days start early to get my family out the door and get myself to work on time. 9 hours later I’m getting everyone back home and starting the nighttime routine – dinner, baths, reading, bedtime. Or running to activities. All while doing laundry, sorting mail and general clutter (there is a LOT of general clutter), and prepping for tomorrow’s round. I usually sit down with a cup of coffee to write about 9:30 pm, and I consider myself lucky if I get 5 hours of sleep. So yes, I’m worn out, and my job as a parent is an important component of who I am, but I relish those moments, days, weekends, whatever, that allow me (just me – when my kids’ routines are interrupted, we have trouble getting back on track) a change in routine and a chance to recharge.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

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