Feeling Stuck in Your Writing? The Answer is Travel.
By Susan Pohlman
Travel is a powerful writing instructor, leading us somewhere that classes and seminars on craft can’t do effectively. It leads us to self knowledge. The outer journey initiates and reveals the inner one. If you are floundering in your writing career, invest in yourself and take a trip.
An agent once told me that the one thing she looks for in a submission is a solid sense of voice. Craft can be taught, editors can be hired, but voice is the real deal. A command of voice and style proclaims to the reader that you can be trusted, that you know who you are and will lead them on a worthwhile journey to a place of truth. Mindful travel will help you develop your voice. How do I know? It happened to me. Travel and adventure deepened my writing and opened the door to publication.
A few years ago I published a memoir about marriage and family set upon the unlikely backdrop of the Italian Riviera. Halfway to Each Other was a surprise; a late-life baby that insisted upon being born. The exquisite irony of it was that I wrote it after "giving up" on writing. I had toiled for years studying the art of screenwriting and was unable to break into film. The rejections finally got under my skin, my creativity dried up and I could not, for the life of me, conjure an original storyline or compelling character. One quiet night I raised the white flag and declared my writing life a dismal failure. I think I even heard a collective sigh of relief echo from the Hollywood Hills.
I closed my computer and moved overseas (I know, so cliche!) with five goals: walk, stare at whatever happened to pass before my eyes, eat great food, listen and drink wine. Not specifically in that order. For the first time in my life I was aimless and storyless.
As the weeks rolled on, to my utter disbelief, my most productive writing experience began. A sea of words poured out of me. It was almost embarrassing. At some point, mid-sentence, I realized that I had had the whole story writing thing backwards. Instead of dreaming up a random tale and forcing it to life on the page, I learned to let go and let the stories find me. And find me they did. Unique characters, rich settings, imagery and metaphor waited around every corner. I wrote simply for the joy of it and experienced real creative flow for an extended period of time and, on that literary journey, found my voice.
The writing life is riddled with anxiety and self-critique. We are constantly measuring ourselves against others, wondering if we are good enough. It is crippling to sit before a computer each day and second-guess every word we write. To develop as writers and human beings we must leave our safe havens and challenge ourselves by heading into the world and experiencing diverse cultures and landscapes firsthand. We must become Joseph Campbell’s Hero and set off on a mythic journey of our own. How can we bring a hero to life in a story if we have not traveled in those shoes ourselves?
Though I was fortunate to take my travels across the sea, it is not necessary to go far. Just far enough from home to open yourself to something new and different. There is a multitude of subcultures in our own countries. Regional differences and dialects, landscapes that range from stretches of cornfields against blue sky to crumbling cities fraught with fear and sorrow. Sit on a subway or a city bus for an hour and watch lives collide. The possibilities are endless.
Though I could fill chapters with the ways that travel instructs and enriches our writing, I will offer just three.
Travel Unleashes Creativity
Routine and boredom are known killers of creativity. Staring at the same four walls day after day might eventually lead us to writer’s block. Feeding our intellect is an important ingredient in writer development.
When we push beyond self-imposed or cultural restraints it opens doors to new ways of thinking, new and exciting combinations of ideas. Through experiential learning we expand our understanding of world cultures, how human beings interpret life in different ways. We are exposed to new lifestyles, struggles and points of view. Our broadened awareness deepens our ability to create layered and realistic story worlds and characters.
Travel Strengthens Craft
Detail wins a reader’s heart. Mindful travel trains us to experience each day as an artist, enabling us to advance from general descriptive detail that anyone can research on Google to the ability to capture subtlety. A certain turn of a phrase, an unexpected combination of color and sound and scent. Locals will know that you are “one of them” if your details are intimate and nuanced. There is nothing like the unexpected metaphor to evoke the precise emotional weight of a scene.
Travel helps us develop a keen ear for dialogue. Dialects, differences in cadence and inflection, idioms and expressions unique to certain cultures. Two old friends on a weathered bench by the sea in Genoa, the straight backed policeman on horseback scolding rowdy teens in Florence, the barista who winked his hello each morning as he whipped up my cappuccino. To my husband’s dismay I have become a chronic eavesdropper.
Studying my own visceral reactions to settings helps me to infuse characters with emotions and actions that interact with story setting in appropriate ways. I can feel brave and strong climbing an emerald hillside in the morning sun, but fearful and vulnerable a few hours later as I make my way down a dimly lit alley to my hotel. Loneliness in a crowded marketplace humming with languages I do not speak is a different loneliness than that born of a sleepless night in a room where others are fast asleep.
Travel Develops Voice
When a reader falls under the spell of a certain writer, it is usually because of the unique way the writer uses language as well as the way he/she interprets the world.
To develop voice as a writer, you must know yourself. You must be able to answer the question Who am I in relation to the world around me? Travel helps us answer this question. The more we experience the more deeply we come to know the mysteries that lie within our own hearts and within the hearts of others.
Heeding the call to write is heeding the call to journey. As writers we are not here to make up stories for the sake of storytelling, rather, we have been blessed with the beautiful burden of interpreting what it means to be human in a world that is both magnificent and heartbreaking through storytelling. If you have the courage to adventure far and wide and deep within, you will always have something valuable to share with your readers.
Susan Pohlman is a freelance writer, writing instructor/coach and Transformational Travel Retreat leader based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her essays have been published in The Washington Times, Family Digest, The Family, Raising Arizona Kids, Guideposts Magazine, Homelife Magazine, AZ Parenting, Goodhousekeeping.com and italiannotebook.com. Her short film, The Misadventures of Matilda Mench, won best screenplay in the 2010 Baltimore 48 Hour Film Project and the 2010 CINE Golden Eagle Award for best Independent Fiction Short. Halfway to Each Other is her first book and winner of the Relationships category and runner-up in the Memoir category in the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Inspy Awards. Visit www.susanpohlman.com to learn more about her Transformational Travel Retreat opportunities.