On Creativity and Travel…

Früher als Züge noch echte Fenster hatten

Creative Commons License photo credit: Helmuth Wasserfest

I am writing this on a train, around the midway point on a journey from Montreal to Toronto. Trees and farms whiz by my window, accompanied by the familiar sounds (clickety clack! clickety clack! And an occasional whistle blast…) and the gentle back-and-forth movement.

I love traveling by train and do a lot of it in my adopted home of Germany; less so here in Canada, as there are fewer places to go by train and life seems to be organized much more around cars. We don’t even have a car in Berlin, in fact we’ve never even considered having one there.

Actually I love traveling just about any way – trains, planes (I’ve waxed nostalgic elsewhere about the magic of looking down on clouds), boats (especially sailboats), on foot, by bicycle, or even by car – I like a good road trip as much as the next guy/gal. I’ve even ridden elephants and camels when the opportunity presented itself; more on that shortly.

I suppose I have traveled more than a lot of people, though that has never been a goal per se; certainly I am a featherweight by the standards of someone like Chris Guillebeau. But compared to most people that grew up in the small Ontario town I did, or others like it all over the world, I’ve seen a few places (I’m up to 25 countries or so now, some extensively). And of course I have made my home for over ten years in a country and culture far from my own.

Has this impacted my creative life and work? Undoubtedly. Has it made me more creative? Or has my natural inclination towards the creative worldview also predisposed me towards making the most of travel opportunities? Hard to say. In any case it is part of my creative life…

armchair adventurers

I don’t think this is a necessary corollary. There have of course been extraordinarily creative people who lived secluded lives and hardly knew anything of the broader world – at least, not directly. Emily Dickinson springs to mind (my father is something of a Dickinson scholar, and I share his enthusiasm). For some, their creative work is travel in itself, albeit through more internal landscapes.

I’ve even had people tell me that listening to my solo piano improvisations is like a kind of travel – one woman told me evocatively of having drifted, in her mind, along a glorious river, past mountains and castles and farms, during one of my concerts. And certainly they are travel for me, at least in the sense that part of me is ‘elsewhere’ while I’m playing – at least, when it’s going well…

off the deep end

However, I am also very curious about the ‘real’ world and the real people that live in it, and have been for a long time. As I’ve written about elsewhere, this led me at the tender age of nineteen, to get on a plane to Bangkok with a mostly-empty backpack and no clear itinerary, other than a vague plan to return after six months or so.

I’m very far from the only person to have done this, of course, and I’m also not the only one to have used the experiences I had along the way (including the elephant and camel bits mentioned above, in northern Thailand and India respectively) as inspiration for a creative project. In my case, the hundreds of photographs I took along the way became the framework for a solo album, Passage, and a whole multimedia project that grew up around it.

And I suspect that for every solitary genius like Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kubrick or J.D. Salinger, there is probably at least one and probably many more who crave the stimulus, the novelty, the exotic otherness of unknown shores. Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin and Paul Bowles all knew that keeping their creative fires burning was easier if they looked for fuel far from home.

the pattern that connects

So what is it about travel that gets the muse all fired up (well, at least my particular muses, and maybe yours as well)? I suppose part of it is obvious: a big part of creativity is connections – seeing and tracing the underlying patterns which we can only see when we put an idea into a new or unexpected context, and reveal some essential detail we had never noticed before when we only saw it in a familiar light.

Sometimes that ‘idea’ is simply ourselves. How do we feel when we transplant ourselves to somewhere we’ve only imagined? How does the reality clash with our expectation? How do they intersect and interact? How are we changed when we actually see the sunset over Mount Everest (which I’ve seen) or the Grand Canyon (which I’ve yet to), as opposed to seeing it in a photograph? There is only one way to find out…

put on your boots and go

Of course, in a deep sense the very ideas of creativity and travel are linked; in any case, travel provides a powerful metaphor for what creativity ‘feels like’. The act of carrying out a creative idea or project often shares many characteristics of a physical journey to a new and unknown place. After all, if the work is not taking you somewhere you’ve never been before, can it really be called creative?

A creative journey has a beginning… you need to set off, “put on your boots and go” as the great adventurer H.W. Tilman so pithily put it when asked how a young person so inclined might go about getting on an expedition. You need to take the first step, go out the door, and not turn back at the first sign of trouble.

It has a middle – often a long one, with very many unexpected twists and turns. Sometimes the place you thought you were going or the thing you thought you were working on turns out to be quite different than you imagined. Sometimes it is simply a stepping-stone to something or somewhere completely different… other times, it goes more or less according to plan, and the unexpected joy is in the details, in some hitherto unnoticed nuance or texture.

And the journey has an end, perhaps not the one you imagined at the outset, but an end nonetheless. Some journeys take you home, some take you so far from home that you can never go back – or if and when you do, the place has changed so much you hardly recognize it. Sometimes it’s you that’s changed.

Of course, the creative life itself is a lifelong journey, to which all of the above applies. I’ll be exploring this idea further in the Cliffjump Manifesto… which is still very much a work-in progress, and I promise I’ll get it finished soon…

back to the future

Today, instead of visiting some new and unknown shore, I am traveling back to the place I grew up, after a long absence. My immediate family is, as hinted at in the previous post, scattered far and wide and none of us live in the area anymore, though I do have a few cousins there, and many old friends – I’ve been lucky with friends over the years, and a number of them have stayed with me despite the years and distance for my whole life.

Several of these will host me over the coming week or so, and a number are wonderfully creative people of one sort or another (actually I’ll be working on an album with one of them, which I’ll be writing about more very soon), so I anticipate a few great conversations about life and art and creativity, as often happens. Some will likely bring unexpectedly fertile connections, just as those with my family often do… these being very close and lifelong friends, they are basically family anyway.

I’d like to leave you with a few quotes from fellow creative travelers throughout the ages, who in some cases have said rather more with far fewer words than I have with all those above:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
~ Lao Tzu

Do not follow where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~ Robert Frost

Not all who wander are lost.
~ J. R. R. Tolkien

It is fatal to know too much at the outset. Boredom comes as quickly to the traveler who knows his route as to the novelist who is over certain of his plot.
~ Paul Theroux

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.
~ Douglas Adams

If you’re still with me, please leave a comment below – how has travel affected your creative life and work? What about vice versa?