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Finding the Balance: Writing Time & Travel

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‘Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.’

– Jack Bickham –

I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I found out that there were people who wrote stories for a job, I’ve wanted to be one of them.

When I was about 4, when we’d been learning about jobs in school, I proudly announced to my mum on the car ride home that I wanted to be an author. She looked across at me as we turned down into our lane, and said slightly consolingly that that was all very well, but I’d need another job as well, because most authors don’t make very much money.

I frowned. At 4 years old, the concept of having one job was alien enough, never mind having two. I went away and thought about what else I might want to do.

About a week later, we were sitting in the kitchen, and I thought the time was ripe for another announcement. ‘I still want to be an author,’ I told my mum, ‘but I know what job I want to do to earn money as well.’

My mum smiled over at me, clearly relieved that I’d alighted on something more financial stable as a career, ‘What’s that?’

I puffed up my chest and grinned: ‘I want to be an actress.’

Obviously my mum then went into mild panic about how I’d be living in parental-supported poverty my whole life.

It’s true that writing hasn’t made me rich. I’m no J K Rowling or E L James. But that’s ok. For me, writing isn’t about the money. (Let’s face it, whoever became a writer because of the money? Especially not a poet…) For me, writing is a form of discovery.

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I recently had to come up with a statement about why I write. At first, I wanted to put, ‘Because I must,’ and leave it at that – but something told me that the submission-readers were looking for a little more than that.

It was difficult. Although I’ve had the urge to write & create for over two decades, I’d never really thought before about why I do it. I just do it because it feels right. It’s like eating or breathing or going to the loo. My body just tells me that it’s a thing I have to do.

What I eventually wrote in this statement was about how writing helps me understand. It helps me understand myself, my situation, the world around me. I don’t write about easy subjects (particularly in my poetry / fiction). Where’s the fun in that? I write about things I don’t fully understand. I write about questions I can’t answer.

The same is true of travel. While I love making lists & itineraries, I also love discovering new places. I love the unexpected.

In this way, I think that my writing and my travel feed into one another. Each keeps me challenged and aware. Each one forces me to consider fresh points of view. Mentally and emotionally, balancing myself between my two passions is a piece of cake.

Time-wise, it’s a little more challenging.

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Of course, it depends on the trip. Sometimes when I travel, I write loads – particularly if I’m travelling solo and it’s a slower pace of trip.

When I was in New York in October, I wrote almost as much as I’d have written at home – thanks in part to an abundance of lovely coffee shops and the splendid facility of New York Public Library.

If I’m in a place for more than a couple of days, I try to devote at least one session (a morning, or an afternoon, or a couple of hours here and there) to writing. There’s something about being in unfamiliar surroundings that can bring a freshness to my work. It’s as if somebody’s pressed a reboot button.

Taking this time away from being a tourist also helps my travel style. It helps me see the more local side of a place. I hang out where the locals hang out. I sit in a café and work, just as many locals are doing. I’ve lost count of the times in New York that people assumed I lived there – even after they heard my accent.

This is something I love about solo travel. Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling with friends as well – especially when they’re the kind of friends who inspire me and get me thinking more about my writing. But it’s when I’m travelling solo that the travel / writing balance really works.

And the rest of the time? All of those experiences (shared or solo) have to go somewhere. I think they filter through, and settle like sediment at the bottom of the brain, just waiting for something to stir them up.

I’ll return to normal non-travel routine, of work and home and poetry and theatre and fiction. Then suddenly – weeks, months or even years later – I’ll end up writing about something I’ve seen on my travels: elephant seals fighting, or the wide expanse of the prairies, or the maze of the Marrakech souks.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is what my brain needs: stimulus and challenging new experiences, alternated with periods of focussed calm. The inspiration and the work. For me, this is how I exercise the creative mind. This is my balance.

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