Travel is a powerful thing. It’s not only that time seems to move differently and normal routines are completely shaken up, but that perception itself changes.
A week ago we left Budapest, where we’ve been living and writing for the last month. We travelled by sleeper train to Stuttgart and then, at a time of the morning I rarely know exists, transferred to a train to Paris, where we arrive bleary-eyed but delighted to be in Paris for the first few days of December.
Earlier this week we took the train back to London for a couple of days seeing friends and celebrating a family birthday before heading back to Wales today. It’s been an extraordinary six weeks!
1. More than novelty
There’s a cult of novelty in our present culture. From seeking the next dopamine rush of ‘likes’ on Facebook to chasing the exotic in the hope of experiencing the chemical high of ‘newness’. As the outsider living in a place for a only a month, I’m wary of the tendency to romanticise and exoticise a culture that I don’t live in long-term.
The fact that everything is new adds interest to a place and challenges perceptions.
Among the new experiences of this trip have been:
- negotiating a wide range of public transport including long delays and cancellations (okay, not new to anyone who uses trains in the UK, but different in a foreign language a long way from home)
- launching a book with a Hungarian audience, testing my impressions of a tiny slice of Budapest’s history and culture against the reality of those living here
- new foods and shopping at the markets with little or no common language, yet managing fine
- a klezmer concert in Hebrew, Yiddish and Hungarian (with enough English thrown in for me to win a copy of the band’s double CD for being the first to answer to a question about Jewish festivals — theology degrees have to be useful sometimes. And I was the only goy to know all the words to Hava Nagila in Hebrew — not thanks to the theology degrees, but a teen friendship :))
- the view at the end of our street — straight across the Danube to fairy tale, floodlit buildings
- living in a city apartment (rather than a rural village) with much closer (and sometimes noisier) neighbours than we have in Wales
Newness is a wonderful thing as long as it’s linked with some sense of self-transcendence, a willingness to dig deeper than first appearances and openness to other perspectives. As J E Leigh puts it:
This is why we seek out new places…we want to remember a somewhere that gave us the space to expand ourselves, to become a little more of who we truly are.
Novelty can be delightful, but on it’s own it can lack depth. It’s been a privilege of this trip to have conversations, at the book launch in Massolit, in shops and cafes and even at the Christmas market in Vörösmarty Square.
But the most valuable part of novelty is experiencing, in a small way, the wonder we have as children and the joy of not knowing everything. Bill Bryson puts it well in Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.
I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.
2. Creative flexibility
Every time I travel I experience a greater sense of flexibility and openness. I wrote about openness in the summer when we travelled in Spain, particularly in relation to dealing with a different language, new foods, different approaches to time and being open to uncertainty.
Budapest has reinforced this, but I’ve also learnt something else about openness. I tend to travel for writing and to have a ‘plan’. I had a lot of writing I wanted to do and I’ve done a great deal, but not of the kind I expected.
Although I had both non fiction and fiction projects in mind, the fiction didn’t happen. It’s not what I’d describe as writers’ block. I knew that the material hadn’t had long enough to germinate in my unconscious. I had a story arc and a character who’d appeared unbidden at the end of For Hope is Always Born, the last in the Casilda trilogy, which is now being copy edited. But I knew the new novel lacked something crucial and that I couldn’t force it.
Commenting on a recent blog post, Nick Jones put it like this:
For me, some of my best ideas or most inspiring ones come when I don’t force them. They seem to come when I’ve almost turned my back on them and from where I don’t know. The best ones aren’t produced after a ‘sit-in’ but from somewhere else.
This is exactly what I needed to be open to. It wasn’t what I wanted and at first I resisted. I’d come here to start this novel and the material was telling me — not yet. But turn away I did and in the creative hiatus wrote a 25,000 word journaling course for Advent and New Year that took me over, body and mind, and left me dizzy and elated by the time I’d finised it (a week later).
And on the same night that I finished the course, a new character turned up in my dreams and by the end of the next day had overturned everything I thought I knew about the next novel. I have no idea where he came from, but he has given the project exactly what was missing, and I’m excited to be working with him.
3. Personal changes
When we stay in one environment we can become static in how we see ourselves. Shifting environment doesn’t only expose us to the newness of a new place but to ourselves. How do we react when things go wrong? What do we miss? What aspects of life feel most important when you are away from the day to day routines?
Travel reveals an enormous amount about how we see ourselves, what our passions and values are and who we want to be. I never return home quite the same person. It’s not only that I come back shaken out of the humdrum, but that travel makes me question how I spend my time and how I work and live when I return.
What’s most profound about travelling while writing is that we discover ourselves as much as the cities we visit,. Henry Miller puts it like this in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch:
One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.
For me, the centrality of writing and how I pass on a passion for the writing life becomes more and more clear with every trip. In discovering new places I also discover myself, as Alain de Botton says in The Art of Travel:
At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves — that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.
4. The value of experience over things
There’s a gorgeous craft shop in Budapest that hand designs papers, prints them and then uses them to bind journals. As an avid journaler, one is coming home with me. But for the most part, the ‘bring-homes’ are not objects but memories and often the simplest of those are what last:
- standing by the statue of Attila Jozsef facing the Danube
- drinking coffee in our favourite local cafe
- the fact that two people in two different restaurants remembered us from 18 months ago and picked up conversations
- the quirky kitchen knives in the apartment
- buying ground coffee from the wonderful little stall in the Hold Utca market; one word of shared English, one of Hungarian and one of German between us
- the amazing buildings everywhere in Budapest
Placing memory and experience first, makes me live more in my senses, makes me embody days in a different way, and, of course, that impacts on what I write about and how I write.
Most of all, it makes me become a different story. There’s an extraordinary passage in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient when Catherine is alone in the cave of swimmers, that richly conveys how important it is to simply experience … :
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.
5. Connections without controlling it all
I’m someone who lives in my head a lot. I dream characters, stories and even non fiction projects. (I dreamt the structure of my PhD many years ago).
Travel pulls me into the world and into my body and makes me so much more aware of connections. When you know hardly any of a language, tone, facial expressions and body language go a long way. I begin to use my senses differently in an environment that isn’t so easily read. It’s another way to push at the boundaries of our thoughts, expectations and assumptions.
In travel, we have to let go of the notion that we can control everything, that life is a cerebral exercise. John Steinbeck puts this brilliantly in Travels with Charley: In Search of America:
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.
Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
6. Intense time to create
Travel, it seems to me, is valuable to anyone, but my particular interest is in how it effects writing. An important element of my fiction is sense of place and with the trilogy I’ve recently completed I began with masses of reading — place, history, literature from the areas … It made a huge difference to do this research but each time, the visits were crucial.
There’s a texture to place that is physical. Small nuances of local character and mannerisms. A particular wind or colour or scent. Even though a great deal of my material was historical — from Moorish Spain to 50s Budapest — being in place gave me so much more sense of place that made its way into the books.
And the intensity also extends to time. When I’m deep in flow, whatever I’m writing, I lose time. I forget to eat or find myself working at 2. in the morning. Being away and having a run of weeks in which to do this is extraordinary. It makes my normal work schedule more intense when I’m home running Cinnamon Press and it’s only possible because of wonderful people who keep Cinnamon running when we’re away.
But with the logistics in place, the opportunity to work on a project for a whole month brings a depth to writing that I wouldn’t otherwise touch. And being out of my normal environment aids this. We give ourselves a different sort of permission to write or create when
- we shake up our norms
- embrace the new with humility
- allow changes to take place without trying to control everything
- and immerse ourselves in transformative experiences.
Call to become your story
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If you would like to explore becoming your story further, my journaling course Becoming your story will inspire, encourage and support you to develop a writing life that is congruent with your values and your dreams.