On a recent business trip, I packed my portable office—a pink backpack loaded with pens, paper, laptop (and power cord), and phone (and cord)—and sat in the black vinyl seats at the airport gate, waiting to catch my first flight. I arrived early enough to score a spot next to the plug and settled in to work on an upcoming assignment.
My draft was in Evernote, so I opened the app after I boarded and settled into my seat. By the time I landed, I’d managed to write a chunk of the article. I doubt I would have made this much progress while working at my home office simply because I’d be juggling more activities, fielding phone calls, running errands, tidying as I pass through a room. Preparing for travel means I prepared to be away from everyday distractions; separated from those obligations and responsibilities, my brain was free to focus on the writing. Also, at home I’d be tempted by social media. In the airport I chose to ignore social media, and in flight, I had to.
When traveling alone, I have some down time in the airport and on the plane, to think, read (research) and write, and I have down time in the car, to noodle ideas as I drive. When traveling with others, conversations help me think differently about existing ideas.
On RV trips my husband drives, so I work as I ride shotgun down the highway, using my hotspot when I need Internet access. When we arrive at our destination and begin our activities, I might take notes on my phone if an idea comes to me, or jot a thought in a notebook.
While in the middle of family camp one summer, I wrote some chapter drafts for my second book about slowing down in our fast-paced world, interacting with other parents about their own pace of life. Their input added depth and insight to several chapters and I ended up featuring a husband and wife, sharing their slow-down philosophy.
At the same camp a few years later, I composed several sections of my third book after spending long afternoons doing nothing but sit around in the honey-colored Adirondack chairs on the porch overlooking Lake Huron. I walked paths through the wooded areas. I took long naps in the camper. And then something finally clicked, and I pulled out my laptop to write. The restful ambiance seeming to tease out ideas that had been tamped down by the incessantness of daily life back home.
People might argue that I should be unplugging on vacation instead of working, and I agree that vacations are set aside for rest, recreation, sightseeing, and diving into activities with family and friends. At the same time, for a writer, sometimes work doesn’t feel quite like work, especially when traveling frees my mind to stop trying so hard and simply play.
I’ve seen the power of habits—of routine—contribute to my creative output, but I’ve also seen how routine-disruption shakes out images and stories from the recesses of my mind or opens me up to new experiences to capture and share.
When traveling, I’m taking in new stimuli and pondering new ideas—the raw materials for new invention. In fact, instead of complicating the writing process, the novelty of a new location and sensory input often results in bursts of unrestrainable creativity and productivity. FastCompany author Don Peppers explains that new environments help us overcome “information entropy”:
So if you want to generate more innovative ideas, then you should purposely expose your mind to radically different facts and unusual, often conflicting concepts. Creative ideas…don’t conform to the context of your current thinking.
Peppers offers ideas such as moving to a different apartment or office location to change your environment—the change, he says, improves capacity for creativity. Traveling naturally changes things up, offering a creativity boost. I like to write while that creative energy surges—in the middle of the trip, rather than when I’m back home and the energy fades.
Don’t worry; I don’t write all day on my travels. I do vacate, staring in blissful, unproductive silence at the rolling waves of the sea or snapping photos of the hazy morning light spilling over the edge of the Grand Canyon. I’m present those times, not writing. I’m soaking it in, making eye contact with family, so grateful to share the moment with them. Often the middle of traveling is in the middle of a moment, a scene, an event, a tour. I don’t write in the middle of those times.
I must confess, however, I skipped touring an air museum in Florida and stayed in the RV to write. I probably should have gone, but I did meet my deadline that week, and because I didn’t go, the rest of the family could come back and describe every angular shape and high-performance feature of their favorite planes.
Traveling is often just … traveling, with its wait times and transit-times, which open up space and time for some keyboard-tapping, pen-scratching story-telling. By staying organized, mobile, and flexible, I manage to get a lot of words down in the middle of traveling.
A few practical details to consider:
- Practice being flexible even when you’re not on vacation, to get used to writing in different settings; once a month write at a coffee shop to see if you can tune out surrounding noise or if you need to invest in noise-canceling headphones.
- If you stay in hotels, you can tune things out or use headphones to write in bed or at a desk while traveling companions watch TV.
- Be sure to bring chargers if you write on a laptop or iPad.
- Consider investing in a hotspot on your cell phone to have WiFi (and avoid the dangers of using public WiFi).
- Bring pen and paper for an analog option.
- Organize yourself by bringing appropriate files, either physically lugging along what you need, or taking time before the trip to transfer paper documents onto your computer or readily accessible cloud storage like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Evernote.
- Bring books you need for research.
- Consider taking notes and writing drafts in a system like Evernote or Google Drive so you have it backed up and accessible by phone or a borrowed computer.
- If you don’t have access to WiFi, use Word or Scrivener offline for greater flexibility, though you risk not having it backed up until you get home.
I’ve learned to write in the middle of traveling for business or pleasure: at retreats, conferences, and vacation destinations—even overseas and camping vacations!
On my latest trip, I sat on the plane, seatbelt fastened, WiFi on my phone and computer turned off, pink backpack at my feet. I didn’t chat with my neighbor, who wore Bose headphones over his ears and slept most of the way with his head resting on the seat-back tray in front of him.
As for me, I looked out the window at the layer of quilted clouds, and when they thinned out, I admired pencil-line highways curving around hills mounded as if for The Game of Life, and lakes that looked like coffee spills.
Traveling wakes me up, helping me see the world from a different angle. It feeds my hungry, curious mind, and drives me to the keyboard.
* * *
For further reading:
- Write in the Middle: How to Write in the Midst of Motherhood
- Write in the Middle of Everyday Distractions: 7 Strategies for Getting Back on Track
- Write in the Middle: Yes, You Can Maximize Distraction-Free Writing
- Write in the Middle of Chaos
- Stuck in the Middle (podcast)
Image with words designed by Isabelle Kroeker.
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