High on the Hill Strode the Whining Writer

In last week’s trip to a national mountain park, our plan was simple: By day, the ToolMaster and Frank would bike the highway while I wrote to my self-imposed deadline. At night we’d have family time.

I loved this arrangement. I thought it especially great because this book I’m drafting still has sizeable gaps, and since it takes place in an alpine community, my surroundings would inspire me through osmosis.

Great ideas, but have you noticed when you’re desperate for writing content, every activity becomes imbued with Deep and Artificial Significance? For example, while handing over cash for a pastry, you will be struck with that act’s sheer profundity: “OMG! That lacklustre scene in chapter ten was only missing a quarrel over cinnamon buns! This is it. This is the missing ingredient.”

Yeah. Need I elaborate?

So there I was by week’s end, frustrated from continuous and trivial revelations, telling myself to just relax already because no one can be creative when they are this uptight. To add insult to injury, while I’d been in the mountains, I hadn’t been of the mountains, if you know what I mean. They felt academic, removed. Since Kootenay Park is one of my absolute favourite places to recharge, this felt almost psychically wounding.

Thank goodness for the drive home.

We stopped briefly at MarbleCanyon, intending to use the facilities and continue, but the trail called me. It’s only a 1 km hike which snakes along the top of a deep canyon carved by the Tokumm Creek, but oh the scents, peeps. Sun-warmed pine needles, ripe raspberries, glacial water whipped and foamed by a series of falls…

I started on the trail, still pushing to find literary merit in everything I encountered. I wrote brilliant prose in my head about the blushing pink of clover juxtaposed against the violet of fireweed. I plotted murder while leaning against the railing of the trestle bridge that traversed the canyon. I debated, if I were going to push someone over, which side would suffice. (The west side. Definitely. Fewer ledges for a resourceful victim to discover a handhold, less forensic evidence.) I watched water race over the falls and while I inhaled mist, tested words to describe the rococo nature of the spume.

Maybe ten minutes later it struck me: somewhere between committing murder and observing the water, I had slipped into holiday mode.

So, a few conclusions about writing and holidays from all of this:

  1. Cinnamon buns, in themselves, do not great plot-holes-filler make. (For more thorough analysis, I’ll experiment with cinnamon raisin and get back to you.)
  2. While you can put butt in chair or feet on trail, you probably can’t will yourself into inspiration or relaxation. There is a certain element of surrender involved and I’m still learning what allows me to let go of self-consciousness and let my muse swoop into action.
  3. In retrospect, it wasn’t the brightest decision to push through this book during a family holiday. (See #2.)
  4. For me, writing a piece can be a bit like walking this path. You can be absorbed in minutia, certain you are getting nowhere, then blammo. You’re not certain which specific element pushed you from the level of detail to summative experience, but suddenly you have yourself a book, or a holiday, or a contented state of mind.
  5. Nature is a huge asset in determining your compatibility with a non-writing partner. For instance, when you want to know if the hollow-melon sound of a head striking rock can be heard above the thundering falls, can your companion render a scientifically valid verdict? Afterwards, will they accompany you across the bridge or scurry back to the car? When you settle down to write upon a boulder at the melting toe of a glacier, where will your companion’s attention rest? Upon the birthplace of a true Canadian wonder? Or on the river, source of the drinking water for a hundred million people?

Let nature help you sort the wheat from the chaff.

Now, fellow Unboxeders, I’d love to hear about your holiday-born writing insights. And I can’t be alone in my ghoulish tendencies – what was the best murder you plotted in the most inappropriate setting?

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

  1. says

    “In retrospect, it wasn’t the brightest decision to push through this book during a family holiday.”

    Yeah, I do this, and I either always regret it or never get any decent writing done.

    I haven’t been very good at it, but I’m trying to enjoy the holiday without the niggling feeling that I should be writing. When I AM able to turn off the voice, I’m usually flooded with inspiration.

    Funny how that works. :-)

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  2. says

    Lovely post, Jan, and thanks for the reminder that reaching too hard for inspiration is the surest way to writer’s block there is! Yes, I’m a firm believer in the ‘showing up’ philosophy of sitting your behind down at the keyboard every day until the book is done. But there’s definitely an element of surrender, too, of simply opening yourself up to the story and letting it flow through you.

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  3. Vaughn Roycroft says

    As usual, you had me in stitches, Doc. ;-) But I don’t have much for you along the holiday lines, Jan. Early on, for better or worse, I determined I suck at writing anywhere but at my desk, in my office. Although it’s restrictive, I think it’s been good in the sense that there’s a certain seriousness to sitting here. And that I never even think to try to write while on holiday.

    I am inspired by nature, and contemplate my work on my daily walks. Funny, I almost never think about the violent scenes before I sit to write them, although they sometimes haunt me after. When the time comes, violence just seems to flow out of me. Not sure what that says about me. Maybe I don’t want to examine it.

    Sounds like you had a nice time, in spite of the writing issue. Good luck following through on your newly found inspiration, and your pastry experimentation. ;-) Nice post.

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    • says

      Vaughn, sadly, all that plotting with an eye to violence will not serve this manuscript. It was gratuitous — not necessarily a bad thing. ;)

      I think it’s fantastic to have a steady place to write. Alas, in a home where four people compete for a computer and that sports two teenagers, that’s not always possible.

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  4. says

    I’m a master of ruined vacation syndrome. And actually, (as if I don’t already have enough to be angsty about) I am getting wound up in knots thinking about my upcoming vacation.

    At last! I get a week off from work. First vacation in a year. I can’t go anywhere, I’ll just be around the house. But already I’m starting to pile up a creative-related to do list for my week of vacation. How can you help it? It’s so hard to find time to write between the day job and other responsibilities that wear you out.

    But I’ve been down this road before. I set such high expectations for myself that I neither relax on vacation NOR get any substantive writing, research or plotting done.

    So I’m hoping I’ll at last learn to strike a balance and have a little fun and relaxation and let the solid ideas flow.

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    • says

      I won’t presume to give advice, but it sounds like you’re actively experimenting to find what works best for you. I hope you find your balance!

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  5. says

    Somebody please give this woman a book deal!

    I love everything you write, Jan. Seriously. I’m not sure what genre you’re working on, but have you considered comedy? Just sayin’.

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    • says

      Aw, Anne, what a totally sweet thing to say. (I’m keeping this comment to pet from time to time, just so you know.)

      It’s romantic WF. I’m hoping there are comedic elements, but I have little ability to judge my writing.

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  6. says

    What Anne said.

    Also I feel ripples of empathy for you. I can’t seem to take a vacation without bringing along work, yet I wonder why I don’t feel rejuvenated–or inspired–by my vacation. I think the trick is not to bring the work at all, let vacation refill the tanks, then go back to work when it’s over. Yet I still bring my work, so do as I say…

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    • says

      It’s hard when the work is so close to the play, isn’t it? This is where medicine was easier, because I couldn’t haul the hospital or charts in my suitcase.

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  7. says

    I think you were just using the wrong fuel, Jan. Cider donuts work much better. : )

    I’ve tried writing on vacation (bc there’s another adult to watch the kids) and the guilt always gets me in the end. And the cider donuts.

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    • says

      Ah guilt, my faithful sidekick. ;)

      Do you know I’ve never had a cider donut in my life, Liz? Is that a regional favorite? I need to know more about this plot fuel.

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  8. says

    I’m like Vaughn. I only seriously write here at my desk. I can’t work anywhere else. When I go on vacation, or even a day trip into the mountains, I’ll take a research book or a wad of hard copy pages to edit. And plenty of paper to jot down the bits of dialogue, plot twists and character arc stuff that inevitably drops out of nowhere while I’m hiking a trail or practicing my Twister moves to reach the next bush of huckleberries hiding behind tangled spider-webby brush.

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  9. says

    I’m like Vaughn–I can only write at my desk in my attic surrounded by my uncatloged CDs and piles of newspaper clippings.

    When we’re on vacation (that’s what we call them here in the US of A–holidays are, like, Christmas, the 4th of July and my birthday–I don’t even try to write. I take along a book or two and a bunch of magazines I should have read during the previous year. I don’t even allow myself to have ideas about what might fix a writing problem I’ve been having.

    However…this year I was amazed to find a topic for my own blog in Bibilical Archaeology Review, even though my blog is not about the Bible, archaeology or reviews! http://manwritingaromance.blogspot.com/

    I’m glad you had a chance to get away and commune with nature, Jan. Most of my communing with nature was on a sunny beach on an inland lake. Excellent.

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  10. says

    Love this. You’d think I’d have learned by now that vacations + writing = me not enjoying either. I can only be truly productive when I’m at home. Doesn’t stop me from pining for inspiration elsewhere, alas.

    And now you’ve made me more impatient than ever to get hiking again this season.

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  11. Kari says

    Jan, hello from a fellow hiker :-) I always get inspiration from nature, and I think it’s unavoidable.

    I don’t write while on vacation, as I”m usually in some far flung place over seas, but I do get bombarded wtih ideas, both in waking life and in sleep. It’s fun :-) Next up: Fiji!

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  12. says

    teehee-you’re too funny, Jan. I KNOW I don’t write well out of my normal routine and I think you’ve hit it. There is just too much unusual stimulation. I can’t get out of my own way anymore. For me the formula is this:

    Get naked
    Get in the tub
    drink a glass of wine
    do a Sudoku

    and GO. (three things to relax and one to get my brain going again on a non-reality plane)

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    • says

      Well that naked meme seems to work well for you, Hart. And it’s definitely an alternative approach to the desk-lovers in the crowd. ;)

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  13. says

    Soooo funny!

    I will admit though, I usually do manage to do some writing on vacations. A little. When it’s a traveling trip, I tend to blog about it, something I actually really enjoy.

    Mostly, for me, though sometimes taking a break from a WIP is what I need to creatively problem-solve, most of the time it just makes it even harder for me to get back into gear. So I try to do a little bit, consistently.

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    • says

      Thank you, Kelly!

      Can you believe I didn’t even take a picture? It seemed like one more filter between me and the mountains and I was done with filters.

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  14. says

    Yes, definitely hard to write while on vacation. (but your writing about it AFTER the vacation is very funny!)
    I think vacations need to be “filling the creative well” time.

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  15. says

    Oh how I love this post. I relate to your experiences, especially finding epiphanies in the most unusual places. Sometimes I get so confused about what I’m working on (writing fiction) and decide to either paint a scene or write a melody, which are obviously my very sneaky inner-self procrastinating.

    I do most of my writing either on my computer in my messy study or long hand when I am “on vacation” sitting by the pool or something.

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  16. Leanan says

    I love your description of the mountains! Makes me want to go hiking. *wistful sigh*

    Whenever I’m on vacation, I take setting notes in case I ever want to place a novel there. That’s about all the writing I can manage. :)

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    • says

      You know, I haven’t taken setting notes for years, but I should. I tend to take pictures if it’s a place I won’t be able to revisit or that isn’t well photographed.

      Hope you get an alpine jaunt of your own.

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  17. says

    Like your title Jan! Would echo the yodel response from Sound of Music if I could…alas, not possible.
    You had great intentions but sometimes the best laid plans do not lead where we intend.
    Thanks for sharing something that many of us have also experienced when planning our time.
    –Patricia

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  18. says

    Jan,

    Thank you for writing about your vacation / writing mis-adventures. Though I always feel compelled to write, it’s never really worked for me either. I think I might finally be figuring out that vacation is for indulging in those really rich experiences (family, location, delectable pastries), taking time to process, and letting them pop up from the Muse later, while in regular writing chair. Thank you again, and all the best to you with your w-i-p!

    -Jennifer

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  19. says

    Great post, Jan. I needed the entertainment.

    These days work and vacation go hand in hand. I need to learn to slip into holiday mode and turn the rest off.

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  20. says

    So very often I’ve excitedly launched into a family vacation with the best writerly intentions. I am an expert at packing up my various writer tools and never taking them out because either the mood or moment never arrives. It seems I am far, too, adept at distracting myself with the reality that I’m out of my accustomed element and any blocks I throw up are that internal stuff that keeps reminding me that my brain doesn’t work so well away from my desk. And although they will vehemently deny it, there’s that clearly bristly current passing along the family members, silent but very clearly saying “Can you believer her? Writing on our vacation?” Ah, but the car ride? That’s writing gold!

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    • says

      In this case I was fortunate; the ToolMaster and Frank had their day planned and I was more or less a tagalong, so no conflicting expectations. But I have been there and done that, and like you, found it better for all to ditch the work in favor of the family.

      I love those car rides, too. Muse food.

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    • says

      In this case I was fortunate; the ToolMaster and Frank had their day planned and I was more or less a tagalong, so no conflicting expectations. But I have been there and done that, and like you, found it better for all to ditch the work in favor of the family.

      I love those car rides, too. Muse food.

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  21. says

    A particularly relevant post to me as I was in Waterton Lakes Park last week and trying to work on a second draft of my current mystery! However, in-between bear sightings, the clear lake waters, and the sun, I convinced myself that writing would have to wait for home. But I will admit that whether it would be possible to incite a wild animal to attack and kill someone in a way that no one would suspect a thing (murder by mountain lion?) did cross my mind… Thanks for the post!

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  22. says

    I almost never in “the zone”, whether I am at my desk, on vacation, or naked in a tub. I am just as unsuccessful on vacation as not, which frees me up to not write wherever I’d like.

    As far as vacation murder, I did write a story during a holiday (4th of July) with a theme based on that holiday that involved murders. However, I was not technically on vacation.

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    • says

      “I am just as unsuccessful on vacation as not, which frees me up to not write wherever I’d like.”

      Oh dear. I’m not sure whether to feel sorrow that you seldom experience the zone or be stunned at your resilience. Crazy people, we writers. ;)

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