I was recently a guest on the Writer’s Digest podcast—for a special episode about what makes a great beach read—with fellow novelist Stephen Rowley (award-winning author of Lily and the Octopus and The Guncle).
We were wrapping up the conversation when the hosts asked Stephen and me how our writing routines change when we’re on vacation.
I was instantly flooded with that guilt we all know too well. The guilt that comes when you fall short of your daily word count goal or find yourself reorganizing your pantry instead of working on your synopsis.
“Um,” I stammered, intelligently. “When I’m on vacation, I try to be, you know… on vacation?”
I felt instantly better when Stephen chimed in to say a week at the beach is a great way to refill the creative well—and that’s progress enough.
But it got me thinking. What does it say about our culture that the question even came up? Stephen and I both write for a living. Would you ask someone in another profession how they manage to keep working on vacation? (And have you ever been on vacation with someone who can’t stop checking in at the office? It gets old for both of you, fast.)
If we are lucky enough to work in creative, fulfilling jobs (and believe me, we recognize that we are!), does that mean we should be happy doing it All. The. Time? And what about those of us working tirelessly after hours in pursuit of a publication goal? If you’re dedicated and driven, does that require that you never let up, even for a week away?
Of course, we understood completely why they had asked. Our hosts from Writer’s Digest, after all, are both writers too. Soon, we were all laughing about how our Instagram feeds are full of status updates from writers celebrating how well their manuscripts are coming along underneath their beach umbrellas.
Here’s what’s important to know: Those posts can be misleading. Sometimes those writers are on a writing retreat (which is very different from a vacation!). Sometimes they’re working remotely in a picturesque location for an extended period of time (snowbirds, for instance). Sometimes, that beach is thirty minutes from their house and they can go there every day.
Let’s get this out of the way: Maybe you do want to write on vacation. Maybe your writing time at home is very limited, and a free day poolside, for you, is a chance to finally let the words flow. Maybe your kids are grown and your vacation is more about a change of scenery than a week away to unplug and reconnect. Or maybe you’re on deadline, and you can’t take a break. In all these scenarios, I applaud your approach: Let the words flow!
If, however, you can take a break but you still feel that guilt hanging on? If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission that it’s okay, even good, to leave your computer at home? Permission granted.
The secret is in what Steven said about refilling the well. Because your writer’s mind is doing plenty on vacation. Consider…
The People You Meet
A couple years ago, I was on my way to speak at a writing conference in the midst of a revision deadline for my novel A Million Reasons Why. I set a goal to finish rewriting a pivotal chapter on the last leg of my flight, so when I boarded the plane, I made sure to send signals that I was there to work, not make small talk with my seatmate. I wore headphones. I buried my head in notes until we reached our cruising altitude and I could open my laptop.
In this particular chapter, one of my protagonists was at a doctor’s appointment for her chronic kidney disease, and a nurse was urging her to be more proactive about finding a kidney donor. I finished the revision just in time to put my laptop away for our descent into Albuquerque. At which point I did begin chatting with the sweet older lady sitting next to me.
Who mentioned this was her first time flying since she’d received a kidney transplant, thanks to the selflessness of her amazing daughter-in-law.
Reader, I ask you: What are the odds?
More to the point: What was the most productive thing I really could have been doing on that flight?
Part of what makes travel so special is that we never know who we’re going to meet. If you’re hyper focused on producing words, wherever you are, you might close yourself off… and you never know what you might miss.
The Places You Go
Vacation is all about setting. We never want to forget how it feels to be smelling the salty air, looking out at a perfect sunset, the breeze cooling our hot skin. And the best way to remember is to let yourself experience it.
You might not be writing about this particular spot now, but you might later. Soak it all up. Take pictures. Take notes, if you want. Scribble a few lines of a poem, even if you don’t write poetry. There’s a big difference between letting a place inspire you to write and making yourself write 500 words before you leave your hotel room.
The Things You See
A very real looking pirate ship just off the coast? A line of beach erosion taller than you are, from the hurricane that just came through? A marriage proposal written in the sand?
Some things you have to see to believe.
We hope you will. Your writing will be waiting for you when you get home. And we can’t wait to see what you come up with next.