Last week, I went away on a mini-vacation.
With my work having kept me exceptionally busy of late (with the promise of this trend continuing at least until the end of May) and the advent of the Easter long weekend, I decided I was due for a much-deserved stretch of R&R.
And so, for six days, I visited sunny San Francisco, California where I spent time catching up with a dear friend and doing all manner of fun, relaxing things:
I had lunch in the artsy Mission district;
I climbed the hills of Sausalito and gazed down upon the waters and islands of the San Francisco Bay;
I hiked in Muir Woods National Monument and craned my neck at the giant Redwood trees;
I spent a day in nearby Berkeley where I walked the campus of UC Berkeley, visited the renowned (yet very grungy) People’s Park, bought rare CDs at the popular Rasputin Music, bought dresses at second-hand stores, and tried Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for the first time;
I had a family Easter dinner in the Central Valley and afterward sat on a deck
overlooking the water while I soaked up sunlight that was far warmer than Vancouver, BC, yet in true West Coast fashion, still turned chilly enough to warrant firing up the furnace once night finally fell.
I did a lot of different things. Pretty much everything except a lot of writing.
I wasn’t a total delinquent; I did do a little bit. But 463 words in six days is hardly an achievement, even for a slow-paced writer like me. And there were lots of opportunities in amongst my frolicking and gallivanting about where I could have done more.
My low word count wasn’t due to a lack in inspiration to write. Indeed, I found the time spent living and playing outside of my day-to-day routine to be very inspiring, if for no better reason than the usual tasks and concerns that take up much of my thoughts temporarily ceased to exist, thereby freeing up space for new ideas and stories and future projects to take hold.
As a viable tool for getting actual writing done, however, inspiration doesn’t excite me that much. I instead tend to take the same view on the subject as Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials series. In response to the question How far is inspiration a factor in the process of writing?, Pullman replies,
Less than non-writers think…. [I]f you’re going to write anything that will last[,] you have to realize that a lot of time, you’re going to be writing without inspiration. The trick is to write just as well without it as with it. Of course, you write less readily and fluently without it; but the interesting thing is to look at the private journals and letters of great writers and see how much of the time they just had to do without inspiration…. Amateurs think if they were inspired all the time, they could be professionals. Professionals know that if they relied on inspiration, they’d be amateurs.
For me, writing is less about inspiration and more about habit. Whether the words come readily and fluently or not, my best method for making them come at all is through what I’ve conditioned myself to associate with the act of putting in work on a tale.
I typically write at home, seated in one of two locations (either my dining table or my bed) at a fairly set time of night (usually between 8:00 and 9:30pm), listening to only certain types of music, often already changed into my pajamas, and with a cup of water or homemade ice tea within easy reach.
Much like one of Pavlov’s salivating dogs, setting up this particular environment acts as a signal to my subconscious that it’s now time to write – time to scale back on all other considerations and bring my characters and story to the fore.
But when I try to write in different, unconditioned surroundings (like my friend’s San Fran apartment, for example, or even a coffee shop, where many writers find success), unless it is the most barren, un-stimulating setting in the world, my mind will latch onto (with the desperation of a drowning man, I might add) anything and everything else it could possibly pay attention to other than the business at hand.
So, while vacations are great for respite and recharging the wellspring of inspiration for writing, when it comes to the literal act of writing, I accomplish far more when I just stay home.
Dull, repetitive, and unglamorous as it may be, in some regards, there truly is no place like it*.
*I just hope that Work doesn’t find out, or else I might never get another vacation again!