The Problem with Being a Travelling Writer

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The Problem with Travel Writing
When I set off travelling, I imagined myself creating art while on the move.

With so much inspiration around me, I assumed that tapping into a creative headspace would be a piece-o-cake. On trains and planes, in the back of a campervan, in airport lounges, dingy diners, and pho restaurants, there I would be with my fingers curled over my laptop and a look of intense concentration on my face. My mind would be as crisp and fluid as a glacial river. Ideas would flow forth like… um… like… ummmmm…

Shit.

Turns out, creating and travelling clash. While both activities enrich each other, they cannot be performed simultaneously. At least, not by me.

I don’t know what it’s like for other people, but in order to create I need to go deeply inwards. This often means losing touch with my surroundings. The deeper I go into my imagination, the more my reality fades into non-existence. Time slips away and everything real becomes peripheral.  After an intensive day of writing or painting, I sometimes ‘wake’ to wonder where I am and where I’ve been all day.

In contrast with this, travel forces you to be on high alert to your surroundings. When you’re out of your comfort zone, this kind of heightened awareness is essential for survival. There are other pressing needs to take care of, like shelter, food, health and personal safety. Dreaming is an indulgence only for those who have their survival needs taken care of.

So while living as a nomad, I find it hard to draw my attention inwards; to let go, to lose touch with my physical self, to tap into a creative space. Drifting into the imagination is like falling into a dream—in order to do that, I need a safe and cosy bed to surrender to. Being creative while travelling is like trying to fall asleep on the shoulder of a busy highway.

I find myself continually pulled between wanting to stay put to create and wanting to travel.

What about you? Do you need a certain kind of space in order to be creative, or can you create from anywhere? 

Leave a Comment

  • William Peregoy May 3, 2013, 9:32 am

    Good point. I’m still trying to find the balance as well. That is why I tend to stay in big cities though – office space, plenty of cafes, WiFi readily available. Some times its good to get out and just see nature – and relax a bit – a day on the beach, a day hiking through the mountains.. would like to do more of it.

    Reply
  • Katie @ Domestiphobia.net May 3, 2013, 11:41 am

    I run into the same problem. Often I find the best thing to do is to carry a small notebook with you — one in which you can jot down snippets of inspiration when they come while your mind is temporarily at rest — like on a train or a plane or at a corner cafe. Then just keep your fingers crossed that when you *do* have time to sit and write, you understand what the hell you were writing about when you reference that crazy notebook of yours.

    P.S. I’m halfway through your book and loooooving it! Surprisingly favorite part so far? Your description of your sailing “instructor.” Ha!

    Reply
  • Kim May 3, 2013, 11:44 am

    I agree. I can create and travel as long as I have a home-base, like you had in Thailand. I need to have a place to just work, spread my shit out, zone out and get stuff done. Personally, I think I’ve found the balance where I’ll stay put for a few months and work well, travel a little, then stay put again. I’m beginning more and more to see the possibility of having a few homes (rented apartments, places I like and feel comfortable in) around the world and moving between them.

    Reply
  • Carina May 3, 2013, 1:05 pm

    I’m not creative, but I know what you mean. For me, it’s others’ creative process that draws me in. I think I was one of the first people to read Da Vinci Code and I was in Warsaw at the time (we were in Paris a few weeks later and at the church they’d never heard of the book, a few months later there were organized DVC tours and everything). I was holed up in my hotel by the river with the book and I was so irritated with myself for “wasting” my limited time there by reading. So I took the book with me. I read at the zoo, in a cafe, and on the bus. On the bus, I missed my stop and didn’t look up until the end of the line. The driver didn’t speak any of my languages (English, Italian, French) and was very creepy and we were in the middle of no where. He wouldn’t open the doors, but I didn’t really want to get off anyway since it was remote. He slept for about an hour, I kept reading, then he restarted the bus and we drove the route again backwards — that time I put the book away and got off at my stop! But completely absorbing.

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  • Britany May 3, 2013, 1:33 pm

    Right on. Before I left for South America, I kept telling myself that it would be so much easier to write once I was traveling — but the amount of time that I require to sit and do nothing (brainstorm, fight writers block, eat cookies) before good stuff happens on the keyboard creates this sense of guilt for doing nothing on the road, when I should be accumulating more experiences to sit at my laptop with and do nothing for awhile again. Its a tough cycle but now I´m really looking forward to a few weeks at home to write about this trip before my next one begins!

    Reply
  • Rease May 3, 2013, 3:18 pm

    I can certainly relate. The sensory overload can be an issue. You are experiencing new and amazing things multiple times a day, so it’s very difficult to sit down and express it. I often take notes on things I want to write posts about and then write them when I am back home in a very quiet coffee shop or library.

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  • Sol May 3, 2013, 5:25 pm

    So true! A few months ago I walked for 5 weeks over 550 miles across Spain. The experience was unbelievably rich and life changing that I kept telling myself I had to document every single moment, write it all down! quick! But all my senses were so overwhelmed taking the whole experience in that I almost felt blocked creatively, or maybe it was the fact that by the end of an 8 hr hiking day I didn’t have enough energy to even pick up a pen. Be that as it may, I do feel I can be more creative in the safety of my own space. This article came just in time for me not to delude myself again as I sit here planning another big trip and already telling myself I’m going to be writing all about it! thanks for the reminder of the difficulties of the travel writing trade. :)

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  • Antonia Murphy May 3, 2013, 7:27 pm

    Yep, definitely. I travel with a notebook, a camera and an audio recorder. While on the go, I can only crate rough notes. But that first, raw impression is crucial material for when I’m writing later… in my bathrobe… in bed.

    Reply
  • Patricia Sands May 3, 2013, 8:26 pm

    I can’t stop the flow … and travel just seems to speed it up! Maybe because I’m of a certain age where I know I’ve got to make hay when …, etc, etc or perhaps it’s because I travel to places that I want to write about. My travel is … ahem … shall we say, less adventuresome than yours so there’s always time to scribble a few lines or pages and I am one of those people able to fall asleep on the shoulder of a busy highway. Different strokes for different folks! Keep on doing what you do, Torre … I’m already in line for your next book!

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  • Carmel May 3, 2013, 8:46 pm

    This might sound weird, but the creative process reminds me of what I’ve heard about how babies learn things. They process a lot during their sleep because they are just absorbing so much when they’re awake, they need the rest and downtime to process it. I think creativity requires a certain amount of hiding out to do the work, but I think you must have experience to draw from when creating. It’s a tricky balance, I’m sure.

    I create mostly in the kitchen, so this will be a new experience for me not having a home in which to create. Guess it’s time to find a new outlet!

    Reply
  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures May 3, 2013, 9:15 pm

    I am the exact same way, which is why I don’t travel full-time. I’m happy taking a trip here and there. I need a balance to be my best!

    Reply
  • Victoria May 3, 2013, 10:52 pm

    I was about to say I agree wholeheartedly but then I remembered that the best thing I have ever written was done on the tube in London. Perhaps I need to try writing on the move more often.

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    • Tracey May 4, 2013, 3:40 am

      Yes to the dreaming, yes to losing the day, yes to finding it hard to create while on the go. It’s good to know i’m not alone in my travel/create wrangling. I’ve noticed there are times of the day when I’m better – usually after exercise.

      Reply
  • Tracey May 4, 2013, 12:27 pm

    All of what I feel is my best writing, the stuff with feeling and passion and personality happens when things are happening around me. The more action the better. My greatest barrier is quiet time, when I have the time and space the words come slowly and are over edited. I can’t wait to get on the road because of this:)

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  • denise May 5, 2013, 11:39 pm

    Couldn’t have said it better. I am travelling in Japan for 3 weeks and have not touched the huge pile of papers I brought with me which contain the first part of my novel – I planned to go through them and edit them, but how can I when there is so much out there which I need to absorb?
    Having said that, I believe that travelling works wonders in then giving you ideas for art when you’re back home. There are already some elements of this trip which I will eventually want to incorporate in a story/

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  • Colleen May 6, 2013, 4:54 am

    You summed it up perfectly. I need routine, safety, security in my surroundings to write fiction. Short travel narratives and character sketches I can do just fine (or better) on the go, but to work on long pieces I need the right environment. On the other hand living/traveling in inexpensive countries is the only way I can sustain myself while I write. Still struggling to find the balance. Conundrums conundrums…

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  • Annching May 6, 2013, 5:20 am

    I don’t think I need a specific space to be creative (although it definitely helps the less clutter I have around me), but I definitely need to be in the right mind space. I usually find that I write better at night because there are generally fewer distractions around me, which seems like the same kind of issue you’re dealing with! Especially being an introvert, I really need to be focused inward to create. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get distracted.

    However, living and getting out there is GREAT for gathering material to write about. I’m always getting ideas so it helps to have a notebook or even my iphone on hand just to jot down things for later, when I do get back into a quiet space to actually create.

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  • Ashley May 6, 2013, 6:55 pm

    Agreed. I usually write a week, or month…or year…after I’ve been somewhere and had time to properly digest. BTW, I love your blog.

    Reply
  • Jaryd @ Aus Globetrotter May 7, 2013, 2:04 am

    I find that like anybody you have times where you can create and times were those juices aren’t flowing with ease as you wish they would. Whilst on the go i find that so many funny and great things happen everyday and each day I write those down in point form. When I feel as though a creative streak is about to happen I refer back to those notes, remembering each moment vividly I can punch out a story as though I am talking amongst mates. I do find that being busy traveling slows the process down and when I have a good few days to chill, clear my mind and regain energy I can write a lot better. You just have to find what works for you and stick to it

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  • Angela May 7, 2013, 9:01 am

    We were just talking about this yesterday. We really need to have a home-base to be able to create our most awesome work. We’re not writers but designers but I guess the creative flow is not that different. Traveling is so overwhelming it leaves no room for other things.
    ‘Being creative while travelling is like trying to fall asleep on the shoulder of a busy highway.’ is the best way to describe it!

    Reply
  • Sophie | Spark Your Self May 7, 2013, 11:07 am

    I’m not sure I need a certain space as much as I need a certain ritual. I need routine. I set time of day to write – usually when everyone else is still asleep! It’s hard to create and maintain that routine when you’re bouncing around from place to place.

    That said, I often find myself being the most inspired and writing stories in my head whenever I travel, and so usually take a notebook with to catch the thoughts as they come (or jot them down on the Notes app of my iPhone).

    Reply
  • TammyOnTheMove May 9, 2013, 5:37 am

    I can usually work from everywhere, but need some kind of inspiration to get the creative juices flowing first. And for me travelling is the perfect way to do that. If I am stuck in the same place all the time I get blockages, so need the odd change of scenery to become creative again.

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  • David May 9, 2013, 9:48 am

    Thanks for expressing this — I travel often and feel exactly the same. The only creative work I can manage while on the road, other than travel photography, are brief reflections, a few lines in a journal here and there. I find that travel is one of the best ways to be inspired while deepening perspective on my own life and the world at large, but I can’t unleash that inspiration into a serious project until I’m back in my comfort zone. Thankfully, I can usually write down a few notes while on the road and tap into the inspiration later on. Travel is exhausting. In my experience, creativity doesn’t flow from an exhausted mind. And while “work from anywhere” websites like to make people think otherwise by showing photos of smiling writers tapping at their keyboards while sitting on a beach blanket, I personally need at least a half-decent desk to write at. As I’m sure you’re aware, mattresses draped in mosquito nets on the floor of bamboo bungalows don’t qualify as work spaces.

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  • Rachel @ Reality Chick May 10, 2013, 6:31 am

    You know I’ve thought about this a lot while travelling and I think I’m the same. Travel is absorbing and so is writing and I need to do them separately.
    In terms of the every day kind of writing I do, I absolutely need my home office to be creative. I don’t know what it is. I can do first drafts in bed, but all the spit’n’polish must be done on my main computer, surrounded by a gazillion post-it notes and travel souvenirs and a lamp that hurts my eyes because it needs a brighter bulb … and, you know, general disarray.
    In a way, it a bit crap because I feel like I have boxed myself into this creative space and can’t really work effectively out of it. I love the dream of penning a novel on the back of a bus on Nepal while chickens in a basket squawk at my feet, but the closest I’ve come to it is taking crazy, scribbled notes. Which are thrown together once I get home!

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  • DEK May 10, 2013, 9:17 pm

    When I am traveling I can’t do much more than take notes. But when I travel I tend to go to just a few places and I am able to take a hotel for a week or so — or rent an apartment — give myself the time and space to write and, being away from home, I have stability in my of living arrangements and freedom from the distractions that would plague me at home. (I also travel completely unplugged from home and the web, but that is another issue.)

    The unfamiliarity of a foreign place and language insulates my mind from distraction and on a hot afternoon stories to flow out unbidden.

    I don’t think air conditioning helps my creativity, either. The dream-like state I drift into in a hot, humid country beneath a slow-turning ceiling fan is an interesting time to discover what might be lurking in the recesses of my unconscious.

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  • Wil @ Where's Wil May 15, 2013, 2:07 am

    I’ve found it hard to balance work and play when traveling. There’s just so much to do, so much to see and experience, that at the end of the day, I just want to sleep and my income has been hurt as a result.

    I think I’m going to need to travel slower, or just hold up in a bungalow for awhile to get some work done.

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  • Craig Van Waardenburg May 15, 2013, 4:54 am

    Hi Torre, funnily this was the exact conversation I was having with my wife tonight over a delicious Italian meal in San Luis Obispo. We’ve been travelling for nearly four months with our two boys with another six months to go. I started off happily putting my blog posts together in between our travel adventures but it has now got to the stage that to be creative, relevant and productive it’s taking up every available spare second. I wish we could just stop in a place for a month or so to settle in and tap a bit deeper but too much to do. No complaints though. Plenty of time to write more in six months.

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  • Clayton Elliott May 16, 2013, 12:19 am

    “Turns out, creating and travelling clash. While both activities enrich each other, they cannot be performed simultaneously. At least, not by me.”

    This could not be truer for me as well! It’s like to you took the thoughts right out of my mind! I’ve traveled so much and find it ridiculously hard to write and travel. I can do one or the other rather well, but attempting both simultaneously is still something I’m trying to figure out.

    I appreciate your words and am glad that I’m not the only one. I wish you the very best at becoming proficient at blending both passions. You’re clearly great at both :)

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  • Ash May 17, 2013, 2:53 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I actually had a website prior to travelling that I had prepared for the purpose of updating as I travelled around New Zealand – I ended up shutting it down during my journey because I just couldn’t get into the writing zone. I found it as difficult as you seem to have to switch off from your surroundings and bust out a day of solid writing; travel writing is a skill I’m yet to hone. It’s only now that I’m home that I can finally start to work into setting up the website again! Great post, just came across your website and really looking forward to reading more!

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  • Alex Sheehan May 20, 2013, 4:55 pm

    Really interesting! I actually never thought of it this way – the fact that when you write, you lose your surroundings and how this conflicts with your alertness when traveling in an unknown place. For me, it is easier for me to write as I travel. My travels enable me to find new and untapped inspiring spaces. Also, some of my best writing has come from those overnights in foreign airports and long bus rides through vast countrysides.

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  • cheap nike dunk mid June 6, 2013, 10:08 am

    The site is excellent. I just like it all.

    Reply
  • Janice Stringer June 10, 2013, 5:38 pm

    Torres,
    with this you have finally put words to what I too experience. When travelling I find I can’t connect with myself as deeply – I can post when something comes to mind but can’t delve deeply into my psyche without having space and time alone.
    Which is maybe why I feel the need to be both home and away. One in turn gives time and space to the other.
    Thanks for the insight…
    Janice

    Reply
  • Morgan Rhodes June 10, 2013, 9:08 pm

    As a future globetrotter and travel blogger, this post strikes the heart. Finding time, space, and instant inspiration may be a bit more difficult than I expected. Allocating time and creating a schedule for writing seems to be the best bet for travels on the go, especially when you’re in and out of the hostel system. Thanks for all the great ideas.

    Reply
  • Peter Korchnak June 15, 2013, 2:00 am

    Thank you for sharing, Torre. I agree it’s tough while traveling to find the time and the space and the headspace. What helps me is thinking of the traveling part as the filling of the well and writing (my art) as the emptying of it. The flow becomes constant and the art happens as the equilibrium works to establish itself.

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  • Nichole June 21, 2013, 9:57 pm

    I personally needs lots of time and space around my creative periods. Sometimes I have to spend days ALONE doing nothing: sleeping, eating, thinking. And then it’s all on me like a lightening bolt and BOOM! it pours out. And then I have to go back into hibernation mode, rejuvenating for the next rush.

    I have a really hard time being creative while working full-time, usually inspiration hits in the mid-morning while I’m knee-deep in my day job. I find my job extremely draining, which is probably why I need so much downtime before and after.

    And, yeah, while traveling? Not gonna happen. I’m lucky to Instagram a few times. I definitely have to get home and chew on my experiences for a while before something tangible comes out of it.

    Great post! Glad I’m not the only one. I see other people posting on the road all the time and it makes me feel like a loser.

    Reply
  • Wade July 2, 2013, 10:23 pm

    About to set out with my girlfriend on our first RTW year-long adventure, and of all the things that I could/should be fretting about, having the time and energy to update the blog is the only thing I’m truly scared about. I guess there are worse problems to have (long sigh…)

    Reply
  • Lauren @ AllThingsGo.co.uk July 7, 2013, 5:51 am

    I totally agree! I have been able to keep up with my blog, but my attempts at writing a novel have been sporadic and I prefer to stay in one place and isolate myself in order to be able to write, which isn’t easy when you’re on the move all the time!

    Reply
  • Harmony (SV Serenity) July 22, 2013, 4:52 pm

    Makes me think of this beautiful and honest poem by Charles Bukowski…my husband introduced me to it and it’s now the tagline on our blog. Boy is it the truth. I’m glad you found space and time – can’t wait to read your book!

    air and light and time and space

    “— you know, I’ve either had a family, a job, something
    has always been in the
    way
    but now
    I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
    place, a large studio, you should see the space and
    the light.
    for the first time in my life I’m going to have a place and the time to
    create.”

    no baby, if you’re going to create
    you’re going to create whether you work
    16 hours a day in a coal mine
    or
    you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
    while you’re on
    welfare,
    you’re going to create with part of your mind and your
    body blown
    away,
    you’re going to create blind
    crippled
    demented,
    you’re giong to create with a cat crawling up your
    back while
    the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
    flood and fire.
    baby, air and light and time and space
    have nothing to do with it
    and don’t create anything
    except maybe a longer life to find
    new excuses
    for.

    Reply
  • Michelle Elle August 19, 2013, 1:14 pm

    I’m very much the same way. When I travel, whether it’s for work or pleasure, I tend to put my writing on hiatus. I mean, an idea will pop up here and again, but I’ll jot it down in my planner instead of developing it as I just can’t concentrate in new surroundings! Instead, I’ll absorb as much as I can, and I find that weeks, even months and years later, something I heard or observed during that time will come rushing back to me – just when I need it most.

    Reply
  • Simone @ www.theconstantwanderings.com August 27, 2013, 8:20 pm

    This is so on point I almost thought I had written it myself. My best travel writing has occurred before or after trips when I’m preparing and researching, or when I’m meditative and reflecting. I found it near to impossible to articulate my surroundings and emotions while on the road (for 10 months!) It tears away when writer’s block is suddenly your worst enemy. Most importantly, I didn’t know how to explain this to outsiders, or my editor for that matter. Being in the most serene places should inspire creativity, but it also requires presence and immediacy. It’s good to find a balance – Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  • Noel | Stories On Travel September 18, 2013, 11:36 am

    I think the right theme or story will come out naturally. It will pop out when we least expect it. When the time to write down the supporting details comes, it can be easy, intermediate or hard. Others can create at once. Some may take sometime, most particularly when they feel the pressure or the need to write something about their travel experiences. Me, sometimes I can do it in a few hours, in a day, several days, or weeks depending on my mood, distraction, the topic (if not a priority, I set it aside not yet finished ) and the length of the post.

    Reply
  • Tracy November 30, 2013, 4:23 pm

    I totally agree. I often find that it is easier to write when I am experiencing something new or unusual. On my trip to South America, I found myself blogging about oddities like foreign bathrooms or strange bus experiences. It sometimes turns out that the little things can be the most inspirational.

    Reply
  • Nathan December 28, 2013, 3:25 pm

    Great article. I definitely need space and time to ponder/think before I create any type of writing because distractions are abundant!

    - Nathan

    Reply
  • Jeremy Hall December 30, 2013, 8:38 pm

    When I travel I get inspiration from my surroundings, this inspiration helps me create my writings. I will find a comfortable place like a cafe or a busy market and find a table, sit down, and just write till my heart is content. One time while in the south of France I went out to get my breakfast, sat down in the busy cafe and wrote till I noticed it was getting dark out and just kept writing. All these people around me talking in a luanguage that I barely understood inspired me.

    Reply
  • Luke January 8, 2014, 9:44 am

    Make notes and make a schedule.

    For me personally, the 30-45 minutes spent over the first hot drink of the day are the best time to get at least solid impressions and observations down. No phone. No Internet. Just notes from the previous day. If a few days worth of writing add up to something coherent I spend a couple mornings assembling and polishing. Do that most days of the week and you get a lot done.

    Maybe you’ll have to get up extra early to make it happen. Or go to bed after everyone else. But you wanna write, don’t you?

    Happy travels everyone :)

    Reply
  • Ross January 14, 2014, 4:27 pm

    Good point. I have only recently started blogging but I find it very difficult to do both at the same time having spent years travelling and only travelling. I, like you, need some time and quietness to write which is not always easy to find on the road.

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  • Jaryd January 20, 2014, 11:45 am

    I can totally understand with where you are coming from but I am not quite the same. Not that I consider myself to be creative, but when I get a great (writing) idea it happens to me on a plane, train, bus, even in mid conversation sometimes. To which I pull out my super handy smart phone and start punching the letters in, to form the words that are coming to my brain quicker than Usain Bolt on roids. I find this works best for me when I am out of my element for when I sit down to create something, its as though I am forcing it. I find that the best pieces of art are created when they want to be created. But thats just me.

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  • Kyra March 5, 2014, 7:28 pm

    I can can definitely relate to what you’ve written! I’ve lived on my sailboat for 7 years but always had a studio to work in. We left Canadian shores 2 1/2 years ago, I thought I’d be painting/drawing aboard all the time… I didn’t. I wrote, but I stopped doing art. Like you said, inspiration is everywhere when you travel but I was too busy “absorbing” it. Now that we’re staying put for a while in NZ to replenish the cruising kitty, I feel myself picking up that sketchbook again. I hope to find a better balance when we venture offshore once more!

    Reply
  • Marcello Arrambide March 6, 2014, 2:06 pm

    I’m not really the creative type, but I get why you feel this way. It’s like you can’t turn off your brain when you’re traveling and you get overwhelmed by all these experiences, that by the time you’re about to write, POOF! All of a sudden you don’t have much to say.

    Try taking some relaxing moments in between :-) Maybe that will refresh your creative juices.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Travelholic Nomad June 6, 2014, 4:02 pm

      A side of me agrees with you, but the other doesn’t.. The truth is when I’m not traveling I have a really hard time trying to write inspiring stuff, or posts that please me. But in the other hand, it’s really hard to keep track of the work you have to do when you are in a new country, falling in love with everything you see at first sight, because you’ve never been there. I think every travel writer needs to find a balance between both things, which I know is hard to do, but it’s the only way you will feel good about it.

      Reply