So there was this one time when I was in Sicily on a train, zipping around the coast. I was exhausted, disoriented, and exhilarated. (Typical travel state.)
I knew about eight words of Italian (none of which I could pronounce confidently), and I was feeling far away from my ordinary little county of cornfields in southern Illinois.
Mostly I was trying to absorb everything. Everything. All at once.
I tried to catch the scenery with my crappy little disposable camera (this was a lonnnnnnnng time ago). But the camera couldn't get the smell of the train car, wasn't fast enough to really capture the lemon trees outside, couldn't possibly imprint the mix of emotions among me and my friends.
So I put my camera away. I pulled out my journal.
And I wrote as fast as I could.
I wasn't writing complete, magical sentences. I wasn't framing my experience in lovely, travel-memoir terms. I was just taking notes, as if one of my professors were rapid-fire presenting all this information in class somehow.
Writing fast, jotting nouns and verbs in a mess. Trying to write down everything as quickly as it was happening--
The sheep on the hills, the construction worker pausing as we rattled by, the laundry on wires between houses, the look of the rooftops, all the satellite dishes, the view of the sea.
And now, eleven years later, so many of my memories from Sicily aren't really preserved in the photos I took (though of course they help).
They're in the words. In the frantic-quick phrasing, in the cascade of nouns. The lists-turned-into-paragraphs.
I read that description, and I can remember it exactly, every part of it. The giddiness, the uncertainty, the strangeness, the beauty. And the immediate mad love I felt for the island I somehow found myself on.
So now I never leave home without bringing a notebook (even if it's just a teeny one in my purse). Whenever possible, when I find myself in a strange setting, I try to exercise this creative muscle, this freewriting-meets-notetaking, getting down my raw impressions.
It's one of my favorite-ever practices.
It helps me come up with fresh descriptions. Besides--as any artist will tell you--it's good to paint pictures from life, not from photographs or stale memories.
But the best thing for me is this:
It gets me into my skin.
When I rely on a camera, I see everything in terms of a photograph. I get panicky about missing shots--that one is beautiful, and then, oh this one is perfect, and oh gosh what about that fountain, and maybe if I line up like this...
I find myself moving from photo op to photo op, missing the feeling of actually BEING THERE.
(Anyone else get like this??)
But writing is different. When I sit down with pen and paper to capture my surroundings, I feel entirely present. I am fully there, a pure human recorder, getting every sense impression, everything down.
And it gets me to live more fully.
How great is that? Writing serves your traveling; your traveling serves your writing.
But who says you have to go far from home to practice this?
Here's my creative challenge to you: go somewhere at least slightly unfamiliar--whether it's down the block, somewhere unexplored in your town, or a nearby city.
(Or, hey, I recommend Sicily. Unless you're from there. In which case: have you been to southern Illinois? Because it's super-different.)
Open your journal, grab a good pen, and just get it down.
Use your senses, all of 'em.
Not just the smell and the sounds and the tastes in the air, but--does it make you feel exposed and alone, or is it tight and claustrophobic? Is there tension in the environment, or peace?
What kind of history lurks under the surface? What feels like it's about to happen?
Who knows. You might springboard yourself right into a scene for your novel. Or into a bunch of reflections about your own life.
Or, you just might get a breathless page or two of notes. However it works--it's writing and it's immediate and it's good.
Let's use the unfamiliar as a catalyst. And get really good at capturing the life that's happening around us and in us.
Where will you be writing from?