The joy of dislocation (creativity and travel, part II)

I have been travelling a lot lately, so I guess that means it’s time for a followup to my old Creativity and Travel post from a couple of years back. I’ve also been reading a bit more than usual, and one of the things I’ve been reading is Jonathan Fields’ excellent book Uncertainty, which I may do a full review of at some point.

I liked a lot of things about Uncertainty, and it rang true in a lot of ways; mostly confirming my suspicion that in many ways I am that oddest of creatures, a person who basically enjoys unstable or unresolved situations, genuinely likes to shake things up, try new and unfamiliar things, take on challenges I don’t know if I’ll be able to meet.

In many ways this ties into my general philosophy of ‘just say yes‘… interestingly, an old friend just contacted me via Facebook and told me that he remembers me from time to time when he uses a story about me learning to tune pianos to try to inspire patients to ‘confidently go forth into areas where they have no apparent skill in the present moment’. Guilty as charged, I suppose!

security blankets

However, I am also human and so despite learned habit I am subject to many basic human instincts and traits, so the idea that we can find ways to mitigate our general distaste for being out on a limb also made a lot of sense to me. One of the key concepts Fields outlines is that of the Certainty Anchor: these are things in our lives that do not change and/or that we feel sure of, that can give us something stable to hold on to while we take risks in other areas.

Many of these consist of routines. We can anchor our threatened sense of self around a set of things we are sure about and that give us a feeling of security – familiar places, people, little rituals or practices we do the same way or at the same time every day. We all do this anyway, but if we pay a bit more attention to it and do it consciously or with more intention, we can increase that feeling of security that allows us to take risks in other ways.

So what does this have to do with travel? Travel is when we cast the certainty anchors aside for a little while and step into the realm of the genuinely uncertain. Or at least, it can be. Why would we want to do that? Read on…

Weighing Anchor

I think the idea of Certainty Anchors is a valid one and offers a lot to us restless creative types. There’s no doubt that it’s quite a common experience to be thrown up on the rocks of uncertainty and self-doubt, and Fields does a great job of outlining not only the many pitfalls of creative work but some very practical and effective ways to center and stabilize ourselves.

But what happens when we get too much certainty? When the routine that gives us stability ends up taking over and dulling our edge, making us feel too safe, and that sense of safety strays too far into our work, taking away its (and our) sense of excitement and discovery?

Then it’s time to shake things up, obviously. We need to dislodge ourselves from the grooves our wheels are in before they turn into ruts. We need to dislocate.

Anxiety is the Spice of Life

I’ve gravitated to this word ‘dislocation’ because it sums up a lot of what I feel when I travel – both the positive and negative aspects. I feel dislocated; taken out of my usual familiar surroundings and set down on shifting sand. Again, I seem to be someone who generally thrives on this, and I think part of it is just practice, but I think we can all benefit from it now and again.

“They say that travel broadens the mind… ’till you can’t get your head out of bed” – Elvis Costello, God’s Comic (from the wonderful Spike)

Yes it does. And it’s not just removal of our usual sense of location-based or situational security. It’s also new stimuli, new sights or sounds or smells, unfamiliar people, new challenges. It’s also, for me, often a bit of time to let these things percolate and combine/recombine in my mind. It’s moments out of the daily grind for all these new experiences to percolate.

I like the idea of percolation, of idea fermentation. I think it’s one thing to give our brains new information, and sometimes an instant, fresh, authentic reaction can be very creative and rewarding, but often it’s what happens when the brain has had some time to digest and reflect that the really interesting things happen.

trains of thought…

That’s probably one reason I like to travel by train. You get the constant stream of fleeting images, the scenes rushing by the window that our brain has just enough time to register and imagine scenarios around – I wonder what it would be like to live there? What might be down that lane, or over that mountain? – but it also has time to stretch out and work through those thoughts, let them germinate and become something new and unexpected.

We also often find ourselves in contact with unfamiliar people, and that can stretch our mental and creative muscles as well. I’ve always been enamored of the idea of the Single Serving Friend; this is borrowed from the movie ‘Fight Club‘ – Edward Norton’s character describes his clever idea about a ‘single serving’ friendship to a seatmate on a plane.

It’s been my experience that we can have strong connections and experiences with people we are next to on a plane, or otherwise meet only briefly while travelling, because we know we are not required to maintain them afterwards, they are temporary, fleeting connections and we can have a sense of freedom in them.

The ‘single serving friend’ is a cute concept, but it rings true – we’re trapped in a small and frequently uncomfortable space with a complete stranger, and we have hours to fill, and we are social animals. The great advantage from the point of view of creative dislocation is that we are frequently confronted with people we might not otherwise ever meet or make contact with; they may have opinions or experiences far from the norm of what we’re exposed to. I suppose that’s scary for some people; I’ve always found it more exhilarating.

why don’t we do it in the road?

Another thing I enjoy about travel, particularly about the getting-from-one-place-to-another part of it, is working on something. Most people on a train or a plane are killing time – reading, playing a game, and so on; some are bent over spreadsheets or reports, taking advantage of the ‘trapped in a tube’ time to get something done that they might not necessarily enjoy, but which is more efficient than just staring out the window.

I like to set up my little mobile rig, including headphones and a mini-keyboard, and work on some music.

This is partly for the same reasons someone might be working on a presentation or report, just for efficiency; and it’s also because music happens to be what I do, for a living, I don’t generally have to prepare spreadsheets or presentations.

But there’s also something else. I like the feeling of doing something unusual in public. I kind of enjoy knowing that people are a little intrigued, wondering what I might be doing. Partly because you don’t see it every day, I suppose, but also because of our innate sense of curiosity. To an extent we are all wired this way, and it expresses itself in the way we are tempted to read over someone else’s shoulder, to watch what they are watching. Our eyes wander, our curious brains want to know what other people are doing.

But this is particularly strong, for me in any case, when it comes to someone else doing creative work. If I see someone sketching in a public place, for example, I am filled with curiosity about what they are drawing, why it caught their eye, how they see it differently, what details they might be focusing on. This despite the fact that I can’t draw my way out of a wet paper bag.

It’s the same when I see someone writing longhand in a journal (less so with computers), or in the rare cases I see someone else working on music. And I kind of enjoy knowing that others might be thinking this about me.

delirious insights

A final factor that strikes me as important: fatigue. I spoke earlier about percolation time, about creative fermentation. Well, one of the times our brains can make the most unusual, unexpected connections is when we’re tired, and travel often makes us tired.

We are not necessarily in the best state to work on ideas effectively, but if we can harness a bit of that slightly surreal instinct for pattern that comes with a tired brain, jot down the ideas, interesting things can come out of it. That’s certainly where this essay came from, in any case…