A Nomad’s Guide To Writing On The Road

In my author bio, I refer to myself as pathologically nomadic. This is not an attempt to be cutesy, (the line about being a fishing goddess covers that). I have lost track of the number of times I’ve moved, but in the last decade alone I have lived in the Bahamas, Florida, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Cook Islands, and several locations in Canada, including Ucluelet. If there’s one skill I have perfected it’s asking where the restroom is in a foreign language, followed closely by how to write while on the move.

At this moment, I’m writing this post in a travel trailer, in Oceanside, California. A week ago I was in Joshua Tree National Park. Before that, Las Vegas. And in less than two weeks I’ll be pulling up stakes and heading to Baja, Mexico. Most writers can sympathize with the struggle to keep your butt in the chair but what if the chair is on an airplane, a bus, or the passenger seat of a Toyota Tundra?

I believe strongly that every writer has to find their own process but since it’s 8:19pm on a Sunday night, and the internet at this RV park is crappy, which means I can’t watch 30 Rock on Netflix or talk to my Breakfast Squad pals, I thought I’d send out a few tips that might help you keep scribbling while you’re traveling.

Warning: I am not an expert, I’m just a gal who can’t stay in one place. So, in no particular order, here are my tips for writing while traveling, …

1. Be honest with yourself

If this is your only two weeks of vacation for the entire year, and you’re going to the Wanna-Drinkee-Like-A-Fishee all inclusive resort in the south pacific, do you really think you’re going to get any writing done? The palm trees will inspire me! you say. Yes, they will inspire you to spend too much time getting intimate with your beach towel and you’ll probably end up with a second degree burn. There’s travel and then there’s vacation, which category will your trip fall into?

If you fill your head with the idea you’re going to spend your tropical vacation writing, then you’re setting yourself up for a hammock-load of guilt and self-loathing when it doesn’t happen. Without the expectations, however, any work you manage to crank out between snorkeling and siesta-ing will make you feel like a superstar. Remember, it’s okay to take time off, relax, recharge your batteries, embarrass yourself by trying to dance like the locals; we all need that sometimes.

Which leads me to the next tip…

2. Front end loading

When I know I’m going to a place where work is unlikely to happen (see also: Worldcon, I never got to bed before 3am while I was at), I’ll increase my writing work load in the weeks before I leave. Front end loading can be as simple as adding an extra hour of writing per day or, for the more extreme types/masochists, forgoing extras like lunch, sleeping, or bathing.

In the weeks leading up to World Fantasy con, this November, I expect to look and smell like Mel Gibson on a bender, but my trip will be guilt-free!

3. Repeat after me: There is no normal

When I hear writers talk about how they can only write at a mahogany desk, facing southwest, with a gardenia scented Yankee Candle burning six feet away, and a hot cup of fair trade, organic Cuban coffee they can reach without straightening their arm fully, I chuckle a little bit. Writing on the go means writing wherever, whenever, with whatever local insects may be buzzing and/or stinging you. Let go of the “I can only write if ________” mentality. Buh Bye.

My office while traveling in a trailer

My office dujour

In the Cook Islands, summers were so hot that just thinking about writing made me sweat. The only time it was cool enough to hunker over my laptop without danger of electrocution was between the hours of 1am and 4am…so guess who became a night owl? (Hint: it’s someone who’s writing this post).

Embrace the rawness of you and the words. What else do you really need? All the caveats and stipulations are merely the security blanket we knit out of our fear of failure. You’re a writer not Linus, for codsake. Learn to block out everything but you and the work.

Unless of course you run out of chocolate or gin. Then, throw a tantrum, this is acceptable.

4. Cultivate your inner drill sergeant

I once read this funny quote about how writers are working even when they’re staring out the window. Except the thing is that at some point there’s a line between “writer” and “person who stares out the window a lot”. Writing amid the chaos of travel (oh yes, expect chaos, lots and lots and lots of chaos) requires a black belt in self discipline. Start training now.

Discipline is like any other skill, enough practice and it becomes a habit. I am currently in southern California in January. The rest of the country is being polar vortexed, but just outside my trailer is sun, sand, surfers with well-defined abdominal muscles and…

What were we talking about again?

Oh, yes, discipline. The point is that travel is novelty and temptation. The sooner you learn to crack the whip on yourself in the comfort of your home, the easier it will be to stick to a writing schedule when men with oiled, tanned bodies are just a short walk away.


I’ll be right back.

5. Plan, plan, plan, plan, plan and…plan

Spontaneity is wonderful. I love spontaneity! Look, I just decided to put in that exclamation point at the last minute! And another one! Wacky! But if you want to write while you travel, take some time to figure out the logistics.

When would be the best times in your schedule to write? If you’ll need a reliable internet connection, will that be available? (Don’t count on this anywhere except big hotels in major cities—notice I am not watching 30 Rock on Netflix right now). Will you have privacy or will there be a quiet place to work? What will you be writing on? Will you need power and, if so, will it be readily available? What type of writing would you find easiest while you’re traveling—editing, outlining, researching, first draft?

The more prepared you are before you leave, the more efficient you’ll be when you’re stuck in some backwoods airport for ten hours because your flight was cancelled when your plane hit a moose on the runway.

6. State your intentions and be shamelessly selfish

I seldom travel alone. My long-suffering, saintly spouse is most often my road buddy. And while he is now well-versed in the particular challenges of traveling with a writer (aka “person who ignores him at regular intervals”), this didn’t happen overnight. Imagine my shock when he did not simply read my mind and know that I needed alone-time to write on our earlier adventures. And after I made it so clear with my facial expressions!

When you travel with other people, taking time away to write can feel like a supremely selfish act, especially if your travel partner is your partner-partner. Ask yourself: Do I want this to be a job or a hobby? If the answer is job, treat it like one. If you were running your own business while traveling, no one would question your need for work time. Hammer that mentality into your cranium. Be selfish. Go on, you have my official permission.*

*valid in all Canadian provinces and US states except Alaska and Quebec.

But make sure your travel partner(s) knows your intentions before you depart. Be as specific as possible. “On this trip, I will need to spend at least ______ (time) writing and I will require _______ (ounces) of gin while I do so.”

Stating your intentions clearly and out loud also has the unexpected side effect of solidifying them in your own mind. Oh, and hearing your travel partner say, “Weren’t you going to write today?” makes it a whole lot more difficult to shrug off your work. Peer pressure can be your friend.

7. Get one of these…

Lap desk

You’ll always have a desk.

8. And some of these…

ear plugs for writers

Instant privacy.

9. Don’t forget this…

external hard drive

Just in case the same crappy internet that won’t let you watch 30 Rock also won’t let you get online to save your work in the cloud.

10. Pack your sleep aid(s) of choice

Long flights, time changes, drastic temperature fluctuations, and all kinds of disruptions to your routine can run you down, make you sick, and sabotage your writing goals. Over the years, I’ve found my best defense is sound sleep and lots of it. This isn’t always possible through sheer will power alone. These are my sleep-enhancement tools:

  • earplugs
  • eyeshades
  • travel pillow
  • melatonin – natural sleep aid that won’t leave you drowsy the next day.
  • Nytol, etc – when melatonin just won’t cut it.
  • gin – don’t judge me!

I hope these help you with your travel and writing plans. Please feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section. And now, since the internet has resumed service (and my glass of gin is empty), I’ll say goodbye, bon voyage, and happy scribbling.

This entry was posted in On Scribbling, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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