Why it's okay to leave home without your notebook
Writers are a funny bunch. We can usually be found bemoaning the difficulties bestowed upon us by this vocation we are compelled to honour; difficulties such as the cost of coffee, the long hours without daylight, and the pressure to produce something worthy of those long hours which can't ever be lived again. We are quick to verify the divide that exists between non-writers (those not driven to put thoughts into words on paper) and the rest of us (who are), and we do so with an air of having experienced something the former never will – thankfully for them.
Yet for all this moaning – sorry, bemoaning – we never think about leaving our desk behind and just quitting writing for a while. And that’s because writers have heard the horror stories. We know that not writing will either destroy our career or bring out the Edward Hyde in us, and the only way to steer clear of this is to write or think about writing almost every waking hour of every day (and some non-waking ones too). But could we be missing a trick?
Having just returned from a one-week road trip around the lochs, glens and coast of Scotland, the North Coast 500 route, in an old, slow (but thankfully reliable) camper van, I’ve discovered something very useful. Whilst it had been my intention to consciously be alert to anything that would spark my creativity (settings, characters, themes, plots), so lost was I in the moment of the trip, all thoughts of writing and editing left me easily and completely.
Back at my desk on Monday morning, I felt well rested... and, yes okay, a little brain-fogged. But I was also slightly disappointed I perhaps hadn’t made the most of the opportunity I’d been given. Many successful writers extol the virtues of travel, of leaving the desk behind and wandering to pastures new in order to garner new experiences and knowledge with which to enrich their writing. Had I been having such a great time that I had dismissed my responsibilities like an unwelcome guest?
Well, as it turns out, no. As I reflected on the road trip, I realised I had absorbed more data for the writing banks than I had been aware of. I may not have scribbled copious notes in my bumper notebook (wishful thinking!), and I may have been so busy mesmerised by the blue/green hue of the sea along the Highland coast that I failed to spot the significance of the historic building of interest inland, but I did return with a clear head (a slate as blank as my notebook) and a shedload of experiences... oh, and photos too.
In fact, some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve returned with are not what I would have expected at all. For instance, I can now better imagine what it feels like to not know where you might be sleeping from one night to the next; I also know the bizarre and unsettling sensation of half-waking in the night with no idea where you are or where you are supposed to be (home? bedroom? camper van? lakeside? mountains?); I know what it’s like to live only for the present day – to ensure you and your family have all the basics covered (food, water, toilet), to only think about your journey for that day (not what you’re doing next week or next month) and how strangely refreshing and exhilarating that ‘simple’ day-to-day living is.
Perhaps less unexpected, I now know there are areas in Scotland that bring to mind Canada, Alaska, and – yes – Route 66: images imprinted in my mind which would no doubt serve either a Scottish or North American setting for a novel very well. I know how the clarity of the water gives it its beautiful shades, how the sunset can give a warm red glow to the side of an otherwise grey and ominous-looking mountain, and how close to nature you feel when you are separated from it only by pieces of thin metal and glass.
Most of all, I know that we writers don’t have to record everything we see: we don’t even have to constantly be looking. If something catches our imagination and sparks ideas, then fine, but otherwise it is life’s experiences themselves – those that enter the memory banks rather than the notebooks – that will some day emerge in our writing. And probably when we least expect it.