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Here’s Why Travel Makes You A Better Writer – Forbes

What if your world travels could make you a better writer? Research shows that it can. Photo: Shutterstock

I was recently reminded of one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve stumbled across yet this year: The Eureka Hunt, written by Jonah Lehrer for The New Yorker back in 2008. The Eureka Hunt, at its core, is all about the insight process: why we have insights, why we don’t, and how to optimize our environment to maximize the insights we do have. As Lehrer explains, “An insight is a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.” You can think of it as an aha moment, the point when ideas “click” together and make sense without a clear catalyst. Insights arrive unexpectedly, yet they arrive with certainty. When you have an insight, you know it’s correct even if you can’t articulate why.

In the piece, Lehrer breaks down the environment most conducive to creating insights. This passage, in which he quotes cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, is particularly illuminating:

The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.”

This is ground-breaking research. The overlap between psychology and individual performance is extremely intriguing to many researchers around the world, yet it only just struck me that I, and many others, have already been leveraging this overlap in a very deliberate way. Travel is our tool of relaxation, our necessary distraction that helps bridge these difficult mental gaps.

Anyone who travels while they write knows how much of a roller coaster it can be. Finding your focus, not to mention a quiet place to sit down and peck out a few thousand words, can be difficult. Yet what Lehrer and Jung-Beeman are saying is that that’s thinking about things the wrong way. Rather than focusing more when we need an insight—say, how to conclude a piece we’ve been working on for weeks—we should actually focus less. Allowing our minds time to wander is the spark, albeit a counterintuitive one, that prompts the insights we’re seeking.

Abi Carver, a writer and yoga instructor who splits time between Bali, France, Canada and other locales, knows the feeling. “What I noticed about insights this year,” she tells me, “Is that time spent in solitude seems to be positively correlated with these aha moments, and that I personally don’t think as clearly when I’m tired or not feeling tiptop. I’m so addicted to the experience of being struck by insight that I’ve structured my life in a way that allows for as many as possible to arise.” For Carver, that means early mornings spent alone, and plenty of unstructured time to think and act freely and without restriction. An agenda is useful for keeping you on track, but too strict of an agenda can actually push you toward writer’s block, not away from it.

Barbara Woolsey, a freelance journalist who has recently called both Berlin and Bangkok home, agrees. “Scribes will tell you what it’s like sitting for an hour rolling around over one smart paragraph or the perfect lede. I’ve learned over time that the best way of conquering writer’s block is sometimes letting thoughts percolate away from the computer screen—on a walk, under the shower, and on a larger scale, by traveling regularly. New experiences and new stimuli can’t help but open the mind and that’s when insights slip through effortlessly.”

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, but had moved to both Toronto and Paris by the age of twenty-two. F. Scott Fitzgerald followed a similar path, spending three months in Europe at the age of twenty-five–just months before publishing The Beautiful and Damned–and moving to Paris three years later.

Les Deux Magots, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite cafes for writing in Paris. Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

Ayn Rand could never have conceptualized the themes she presents in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged if she hadn’t finagled her way onto a boat to America. Like Rand, Vladimir Nabokov was also born in Russia, yet spent more than twenty years in each of Europe and the United States. His views toward travel were stronger than most: “The few times I said to myself anywhere: ‘Now that’s a nice spot for a permanent home,’ I would immediately hear in my mind the thunder of an avalanche carrying away the hundreds of far places which I would destroy by the very act of settling in one particular nook of the earth.” Nabokov was not the sort to stay in one place, yet it didn’t prevent him from publishing dozens of novels, short stories and other essays. The list goes on.

Even for me, the idea for my online travel publication came while I was on the ferry between Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. I remember it distinctly. My laptop was dead, my phone was dying, and I sat on the top deck watching the late-night Buenos Aires skyline slowly make its way into view. If I hadn’t given myself that time to unwind, to think of nothing and everything, How I Travel may never have come to be.

“Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity.” That’s the crux of Lehrer’s thesis. When we face a difficult problem, we have two ways of dealing with it: we can volley all of our concentration and focus toward it, or we can sit back and let it ruminate upon our subconscious. As far as Lehrer and Jung-Beeman are concerned, the latter is the more productive strategy, yet also the more difficult to employ; the last thing our instincts tell us to do when we’re faced with an arduous quandary is be complacent.

If you’re a writer, though, that mental break may be the key to finding the breakthroughs you’re looking for, and there’s no better way to free your mind of its current fixations than through travel.

Jordan Bishop also writes in-depth guides on topics like how to get Amazon items shipped anywhere in the world and a review of the online bank N26. Join his monthly newsletter.

Here’s Why Travel Makes You A Better Writer – Forbes

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