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Four Writing Lessons Travel Taught Me

Please welcome my friend and fellow writer Beverly Army to the blog today, as she makes us drool with envy over her vacation in France--and gives practical tips on how to maintain a writerly attitude while away from home.

Four Writing Lessons Travel Taught Me

by Beverly Army Williams

Beverly1862Ahhh, summertime. The season of slowing down, of garden-fresh veggies, of tart lemonade, bike rides, and salty beaches. The season of lofty writing goals. And traveling*.

I don’t know about you, but my guilt-o-meter bounces about when it comes to writing and traveling. On the one hand, there’s all that beautiful time yawning ahead of me, ripe for setting word after word after word. On the other hand, the adventures to be had! The extra sleep to sleep! The long, luxurious dinners to eat!

What is a creative person to do? How can a writer make the most of vacation without losing the groove, enraging the muse, ignoring the story gods?

I returned recently from three weeks in France. Originally my plan was to work two hours a day on my novel. But then I didn’t want to carry the keyboard for my iPad. And then the days were filled with adventures and late, late dinners that left me too tired to work. Instead, I gave myself permission to use the three weeks to fill my creative well.  Let me share what I learned:

Embrace Being an Outsider (this isn’t permission to be an obnoxious! Manners matter! See the next paragraph!) I spent weeks before the trip planning what I would pack, checking the weather, reading posts from fashionable expats in Paris. I did not want to stick out as a tourist. I wanted to blend, to see the country as though I belonged. 

But, here’s the wonderful thing about traveling: we do not, in fact, belong. When we travel, we are outsiders. We are foreign, whether we travel to the next state or another continent. We may have mastered the manners of a region (always, always say “bonjour” when walking into a shop in France), still, we don’t quite fit in.

During this trip, I realized that the not-fitting-in was like a pebble in my shoe. Awareness of my surroundings—the glow of the church in Auvers after it rained, the smell of the Canal St-Martin in the early morning, the taste of cheese (oh, the cheese!), the sound of a language I could just barely understand—filled me with new ways of seeing and describing.

Beverly2171Try a New Medium My observations and experiences were one way to do just that. For years I’ve messed around with paint, but the I’m-a-writer-not-a-visual-artist self talk limited me. I packed a watercolor journal and a small box of paints. While I didn’t journal every day, I did make efforts to paint frequently and to add little ink and wash images to the narrative pages. Journaling in a new medium helped me to see better and made me think about my observations in a different way. Score another one for filling the creative well!

Quiet Time Can be Lively Even the most adventurous, active vacations have some quiet time built in. I spent many hours on planes and trains during my trip. If I’d been home, I would have felt obliged to fill that time: run errands, write a new scene, or clean the house. But five hours in the quiet car of a train left me with little but my imagination. Sure, I read, knit, and wrote in my journal, yet I also indulged in staring out the window, imagining the inhabitants’ lives as we zoomed past farms and villages. The conductor didn’t scold me for being too noisy, but he might have if he’d been inside my imagination!

Love Every Language I can read French passably. I can be polite in French, even if I can’t converse about more than the weather. I embraced being an outsider, and at the same time, I wanted to communicate. That is, after all, the goal of every writer. I pulled out my high school French, and I made efforts. I bought and struggled through French fashion magazines. I thought ahead about what I wanted to say and practiced it. I asked my French-speaking pals to repeat words so I could understand the nuances of pronunciation. I listened with great care to conversation before I admitted how little I understood. Beverly1901

By loving the language of the place—which might mean a different language or simply a dialect or regionalisms—a writer can learn about her own language (ah, so that type of sentence construction is common in English, but not in French) and develop an ear for authentic dialog (a French speaker “takes” a decision; an English speaker “makes” a decision).  Everything we learn about language emerges in our writing.

Travel and vacation are meant to recharge, and if that means not writing every day, accept it, and find your own ways to fill the creative well.

*humor me and let “traveling” and “vacation” mean the same thing. Even a staycation can be an opportunity to travel outside of regular routines! 

What have you learned about writing from travel?

BeverlyBeverly Army Williams blogs and coaches writing at PoMo Golightly. You can follow her on Twitter.

 All photos by Beverly Army Williams.  Top to bottom:

--View of Albi from the Toulouse Lautrec museum

--Journal page

--A Nutella crepe, enjoyed during the French tradition of "taking a pause."