I spent a month in Cambridge (UK) in May/June. It was a magical time to be there–the weather was sunny, bright, warmer in fact than I’ve ever known it in England. :-) Cambridge, always a beautiful city, looked even more stunning set against the bright blue of the sky, with flowers rioting everywhere and people in light summer clothes strolling by the river banks.
But I wasn’t only there on holiday; I was there to write. Working on my PhD in Creative Practice (which means I’m basically in the happy position of writing a novel plus an academic exegesis–a kind of mini-thesis), I was also in Cambridge as a ‘Visiting Scholar’ in the Children’s Literature Centre based within the Faculty of Education and Homerton College, which meant I could use University facilities, including the libraries, as I wished. And my time there was extraordinarily productive, despite or actually perhaps because of the many cultural, historical and natural pleasures Cambridge and its environs has to offer–and which I fully indulged in.
I worked on the second draft of the novel, added to the exegesis, wrote two short stories, and delivered both a seminar paper and a conference paper. The working environment was perfect, it must be said. Sitting at a desk in the pleasant faculty library, looking out at a lovely peaceful garden complete with the occasional visit from deer and squirrels, was a perfect spot to get into the writing mode; but so was the table in the upstairs flat we rented a block from the city center, where you could watch the world go by on their bicycle. The atmosphere of Cambridge itself is immensely conducive to both thought and relaxation; both lively and laid-back, it has an energy that feels both creative yet peaceful. And it got me thinking about how working in an unfamiliar setting, away from home, affects a writer’s work.
For me, it’s something absolutely necessary, now and again. I need to get away, far away, to recharge batteries, to be in a place I don’t know but that is full of interesting things. It feels like the green sap rising; like a refreshing drink on a hot day, with my mind and heart open and all senses prickling with awareness. Being away has often resulted, for me, in new insights, new ideas, and reinvention of old ones. Of course it doesn’t always work: The atmosphere can be wrong, life can intervene, stresses can happen. But by and large, for me it’s been a positive thing. Yet I know that for some other writers, being away from home can have the opposite effect. They need to have familiar things around them, to work in tranquility un-distracted by new experiences; not to do so can shrivel the creative urge for them.
Here, from my own experience, are a few things I’ve learned to help minimize stress and make the away-from-your-desk experience as creatively rich as possible.
- Don’t force yourself into the same writing routine as at home, but do set aside specific days to write. Be ready to be flexible if necessary.
- Don’t buy a new computer just to take away. Best to have the one you normally use; its familiarity helps the creative muscles fall into their natural pattern.
- Take a short walk even on writing days.
- Work facing a nice view if possible.
- Allow your new surroundings to infuse into your work but don’t feel obliged to use it overtly.
- Give yourself time to enjoy your surroundings, and don’t feel guilty if a holiday feeling creeps over you–that sense of relaxation can actually help to free up new ideas. And if it doesn’t–well, you will have had a holiday and that’s, as the saying goes, as good as a rest!
Over to you–what are your experiences of writing away from home?