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Writing On The Road

On being productive when you're away from home

· Travel,Writing Tips,Writers Life

When I was in college, I spent a few weeks traveling in Europe during my semester abroad. In my backpack, I brought only the essentials: scrubby clothes for hiking and nicer ones for museums; tiny bottles of shampoo and laundry detergent; a journal to record my adventures. I packed and unpacked and rearranged until everything was in just the right place.

My travel partner? Not so much.

He threw in some clothes and toiletries, and then gave up the rest of the valuable real estate in his pack for...books. Giant, hardcover Medieval history books. Not because he loved history or books all that much. I love books, but I'm not deranged enough to lug thirty pounds of them all over Italy and France. No, my boyfriend (now husband) brought all those books because he'd procrastinated on his term paper, and had to write the entire thing on the trip. The history books would serve as his portable library of references. He figured he'd have plenty of time on the trains. It became a running gag. You going to work on that paper today? A pause. Um...Let's get a beer instead. Of course, he waited until the very last week of the trip to get started, and wound up drafting furiously in the airport. Did he get it done? Yes. But from my perspective it looked very, very painful.

When you decide to write a novel, writing becomes work. And some work while traveling is unavoidable. I get that. (Generally I'm talking about vacations here, not business trips; though the tips below could apply to either).

But every time I try to write when I'm traveling, I don't think back to my little journal--I think of that giant backpack full of library books. A burden. Something that slows me down, instead of enhancing the trip. Does writing on the road really have to be so difficult? Is it just about meeting deadlines, or can you actually have fun and find inspiration--that illusive, all-important "flow"--while you're away from home?

I think the answer is yes. But it's all about mindset.

Setting the Right Goals

Traveling can open up so much creativity. It's a great way to get out of an artistic rut, and to find new paths into the heads of our characters. In unfamiliar places, we see the everyday from a new perspective. As our worldly experience broadens, our empathy grows in equal proportions. Visions of Jack Kerouac and Hemingway, Bill Bryson and Elizabeth Gilbert start to dance in our heads.

But that's an idealized version of writing on the road. We all know that traveling in real life rarely goes so smoothly. There are flight delays; kids have bathroom emergencies or low blood sugar freak-outs; we forget our headphones. (Gah! The worst!) And any kind of nonessential work--especially emotionally taxing work like writing--is the first to go out the tiny airplane window when we're stressed.

Real-world travel often ends up resembling the cautionary tale instead of the glamorous ideal. But somehow, time after time, I always seem to base my writing goals on that glossy travel magazine fantasy. I think, Hey, I'll be sitting in an airport, or relaxing in a hotel for hours, while my child colors beside me in perfect silence. I can get in another three chapters, no problem! I should have 10,000 words done by the end of the weekend! Yes!

Deep down, I know there's no way I can actually make that happen. But I ignore the whisper of reason; the shouts of perfectionism are much too loud.

So what does end up happening? I procrastinate, not doing any writing at all as day after day of my trip slips away. And I hear that voice--my merciless inner critic--nagging me from the backseat of my mind, asking why I'm letting such valuable writing time go to waste. I think of my husband and his pack of books, weighing him down from Rome to Barcelona; no wonder he didn't want to work on that term paper!

But the problem isn't really my work ethic. It's the unrealistic goals that I set for myself. And I'm guessing that other recovering perfectionists out there can relate.

Instead of maxing out my writing goals (and then epically failing), instead of striving for perfection only to beat myself up, I'm working on changing my mindset. I'm going for "good enough." It's being happy with 85-90%, instead of beating myself up for not reaching 110% every day. Not obsessing over all the things that I can't control. This goes beyond just my writing goals for traveling; but my trip goals have been a great place to start.

When I'm traveling, "good enough" is making some kind of progress on my writing. It's about spending just half an hour--even fifteen minutes--jotting down character notes in the airport waiting area. Or reading my latest draft on my Kindle for some big-picture revisions. Or maybe reading a novel by an author who really inspires my own practice, or studying a book on writing craft.

When I manage to focus on "good enough" instead of "perfect," the stress around writing disappears. And when the stress goes away, there's room for the magic to work its way in. Fifteen minutes becomes an hour. A rough outline of your next chapter might lead to an epiphany about the novel's climax. Suddenly the words are just coming to you. You've found the flow.

And then your kiddo spills cranberry juice all over his new shorts just before boarding begins, and it's back to reality. But minus the guilt. Because you met your writing goal for that day. You did something, and for today, that was good enough. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and avoiding writing the next day of your trip and the next, you might just wake up early to work on a new story idea. Or stroll along the beach with your family while visualizing the scene you'll jot down quickly after dinner.

Writing while you travel will actually be fun, instead of a burden. That relaxed attitude might even carry over to your writing practice when you return home, refreshed and inspired. Isn't that the whole point of vacation, anyway?

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