Where did I pack my pen?

For someone who considers herself a homebody, I sure do a lot of traveling.  In 2010 I traveled to Seattle (2x), New Orleans (2x), Boston, the British Virgin Islands, England, Scotland, and Spain.  And that’s just the trips I remember.  I figure I spent at least a quarter of the year away from home (and thus away from my desk).  And, for the first two months of 2011 alone, I have trips planned to New Orleans (where I am as I write this), Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

Travel presents a range of delights and agonies, but perhaps one of the most challenging for me is not losing momentum on my writing.  There’s the trip itself, which, if it’s a vacation, can mean getting nothing done, but also the lead-up and unwinding after you get back — all lethal to my writing output.

Sometimes being out and seeing the world is a source of inspiration, prompting unexpected visits from the writing Beast, and the experiences accrued from traveling most certainly benefit us writers.  Getting away from daily life and leaving behind your mundane worries and tasks can be mentally liberating, too.  But, just as often, even if you pack your laptop and best intentions, the writing well remains dry…or ignored altogether.

Here are 2 things I do every time I travel, which unfailingly result in a productivity rate of zero:

1. print out draft versions of short stories or novels with the intent of line-editing them on the plane.  Because you wouldn’t want to be stuck with nothing to do but watch all those free movies on the seat-back screen.  Riiiiiight.

2. pack a blank notebook with the idea that all my “downtime” (cause there’s always so much of that on the road) will be ideal for world-building/brainstorming/plotting.  I have a lot of blank notebooks, many of them now yellowed around the edges.

So far, the only thing I’ve found that works in the slightest is to just stuff the ole’ laptop into my purse (yes, I have a huge purse) and carry it around.  When a free moment or two strikes, I pull it out and keep working on whatever I’d be working on if I was at home.  Pretty prosaic, and pretty hit-and-miss in terms of productivity (also, that shoulder bag gets heavy).  But it’s the best I’ve got so far.

A few other observations: when I’m traveling alone and staying in a hotel, I’m quite productive at night and/or early in the morning.  Along these lines, when I attended Readercon last year I got a ton of writing done.  Being around other writers and attending writing panels was really inspiring.  I’ll be at the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake later this month and I’m hoping I find the same thing to be true there.

But, given how much I travel, I’d really like to develop more consistent strategies for keeping up with my writing.  So, I’m asking for your input, advice, and tips.  What works for you when you travel, and what tactics are a bust?

Those voices in your head

As many of us know, the act of getting a story out of our heads and onto the page requires forcing the two unruly siblings living our in our brains — the uptight, fussy Internal Editor and the wild, emotive, elusive Beast — to work together.

I’ve long known (and squabbled with) my old frenemy, the Internal Editor, but I didn’t have a term for describing the Beast until I went to Viable Paradise and heard Laura Mixon lecture about the ancient, buried part of your brain that plucks patterns from a web of emotions, sensations, and evolutionary cunning.   It is from here that the well of creativity springs to nourish our storytelling.

For me, activating the Internal Editor is a breeze.  In fact, sometimes it’s a bit too easy; before I know it I’m putting off advancing the plot in favor of obsessing over the structure of a single paragraph.  As I’ve already blogged about, this year I’m trying NaNoWriMo for the first time, and the experience has brought the push and pull between the Editor and the Beast into even sharper focus.  After all, the point of NaNo is to shut the Editor up altogether and let the Beast have free reign to drive the story along at top speed.

On the one hand, I’ve found it physically painful not to go back over what I’ve written.  It’s hardwired in my DNA (perhaps a hold-over from grad school days?) to tweak the wording, revise the dialogue, and insert new scenes to shed better light on the characters and their behavior.  Plus, I staunchly maintain there’s solid value in this type of revision — more often than not, editing can help illuminate the path ahead and open doors to new plot developments you wouldn’t have otherwise found.

On the other hand, embracing the NaNo approach (as best I can) has liberated my Beast.  Telling the Editor to shut up and just pour the story onto the page without looking back is thrilling.  And the stuff that comes out is often surprising.  Of course, it can also lead thousands of words in the wrong direction, fingers taping in a frenzy of Beast-driven madness.  When I come back to myself, I find my characters have said stupid things and done even stupider things, and the Internal Editor is waiting, hands on his hips, saying “I told you so.”  Which sucks.

The real trick, I think, is to get your Beast to talk to you while you aren’t writing.  Coaxing him out and encouraging him to whisper yet-unrevealed plot secrets is about as hard as getting a cat to perform tricks.  I find it happens (the coaxing of the Beast, that is, not the cat tricks) most often when I’m in the thick of working on a project but am currently doing something else – especially something requiring minimal active engagement with the world around me.

For instance, in the last week, my Beast has visited me with gifts while I was:

  • sitting on the subway staring at my own reflection in the window against the blackness of the tunnel
  • sitting under a dryer at the hair salon with my head full of color foils (and without my glasses on, rendering me essentially blind)
  • walking outside on a route so familiar I didn’t need to look where I was going

In all three instances, I fell into a sort of trance and followed the Beast down new and deliciously twisty avenues of storytelling in my novel.  When I snapped out of it, for a moment I had forgotten where I was.  It’s possible I was even talking to myself (which on the New York City subway would put me in good company).

Thus far, my Beast flat-out refuses to appear when directly invoked, so, naturally, none of these episodes of Beast-contact were activated on purpose.  Nor did any of them happen when I had a pen and paper convenient to hand.  Thanks a lot, Beast.

Though, I’m finding there are certain activities that will usually lure him from hiding – including long walks and (ugh) trips to the gym.  Washing dishes, folding laundry, and ironing are also good bets.  Maybe the Beast just likes a clean house?

What are your tricks for getting your Beast to communicate with you?