This summer I decided to follow my husband on the road to North Dakota where he does contracting work. I'll confess, my conception of the landscape was blighted by such films as Fargo and The Houseman, each depicting this mid- and northwest region of the country as utterly desolate. But, as I would be traveling with my husband, I embarked upon the journey with highly romantic notions, too. We'd done many road trips across the states and genuinely (surprise!) enjoy each other's company. However, his warnings that North Dakota won't be anything like I imagined were well-advised.
After days of driving between Fargo and Jamestown, Bismarck and Dickinson, I'd discovered the loneliest land I've ever been to. He'd confirmed my imagination, yet I was unexpectedly captivated by the expansive stillness of the Badlands. Oil jack pumps dotted either side of Highway 85, lending to this unbroken silence. The pressure
flares perpetually blazed from the ground, rain or shine. I was mesmerized by the molting buffalo and the grassy buttes.
We stopped in Watford City and ate at a restaurant called Outlaws, which as its name suggests, celebrates the historical bandits and gun-slinging villains of the American West. I was intrigued by the waitresses and the patrons--mostly construction men and senior citizens. Suddenly, I had a new story. At the table and over my hamburger and fries, I started journaling my observations, capturing as many details as I could before heading back to Illinois.
This trip proved how getting out there inspires creativity, that leaving the confines of your writing space is rejuvenating. It need not be beyond your city limits, particularly when Paris or Marrakech is simply not a practical destination. Artist Polly Morgan instructs us to "Leave the house...One of my favourite new ideas came about when I stopped to examine a weed growing in the forest I walk in." And Kristin Iversen reminds us how beloved writers from Virginia Woolf to F. Scott Fitgerald wrote about places they'd been and cherished. Ernest Hemingway taught us that you inevitably write about what you know, what you've lived. And though he agonized over producing "one true sentence," he still got out there and caught some big fish. His memoir Death in the Afternoon reveals the bullfighting aficiniado he became and wrote about in other works of fiction.
If you can't go big-game hunting or drive a motorcycle across South America, keep it simple and go outside, walk instead of drive, visit and eat in unfamiliar neighborhoods. The Write Practice offers ways to turn a vacation into a creative writing experience. But remember to always enjoy yourself first. I am constantly reminding myself to be in the moment though my pocket-sized journal is always in my purse.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Junot Diaz in Chicago. Getting my book signed and a photograph with him topped off my evening. But most meaningful was what he shared with the enthralled audience.
A young student approached the mic during the Q & A session and meekly asked Diaz, "What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?" Without a beat, he replied, "Go out and live. Then you'll have some shit to write about."