By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder
Did you know there’s a direct flight from Denver to Tokyo? Okay, so it’s twelve hours. But rather than imagining this experience as an unending nightmare of neck cramps and bad food, I reframed it in my mind as a mini-writing retreat.
In preparation for my trip, I splurged for the extra leg room and filled my backpack with healthy snacks, compelling books, and my lightweight laptop. I’d have plenty of time for reading and writing since I was flying solo and meeting my family in Japan. When I boarded the plane, I was delighted to discover that there was an empty seat between me (by the window) and the person on the aisle. We introduced ourselves, chatted , then pulled down our tray tables and got to work.
I wrote for two hours. Then I took a break, ate my salad, and headed to the bathroom. But when I settled back into the cozy nook of my seat, the lights on the plane suddenly dimmed. The plane now had a nighttime vibe, even though it was only 5:00 pm Denver-time. My eyelids drooped. My mind was a ball of fuzz. I put the laptop back in my pack and clipped the tray table into place. Then I snuggled under the soft airplane blanket, my squishy pillow wedged against the window, and fell asleep. When I woke up a few hours later, I did not feel at all like writing. Instead, I watched a movie… or two… or three! I never even took the laptop out of my pack. So much for the writing retreat.
When I arrived in Tokyo the following day, I met up with my family, went to the hotel, and crawled into bed at a somewhat normal hour. But at 5:00 a.m., bazinga, I was wide awake. Jet lag! It wasn’t the best way to adjust to my new time zone, but it was a wonderful time to get some writing done. I tiptoed out of bed, unpacked my laptop, and began working on a new chapter. Again, I wrote for two hours.
But as the days went on, the jet lag began to fade. The 5:00 a.m. wake-up time turned into 7:00 or 7:30. I barely had enough time to shower and eat breakfast before starting the day. On other trips, I have often take some time off to write in a chic café or a charming apartment. But here in Japan, it was hard to rationalize hanging out in a coffee shop when everyone else was eating noodles, visiting Shinto shrines, and strolling through tranquil Japanese gardens. Plus, this was a family trip. Our two sons do not live in Denver and I treasure the time I can spend with them.
You may be thinking, “Give it up, sister. Take a break from writing and just enjoy yourself. Geez, you’re in Japan. It’s a once in a lifetime trip.” And on some level, I’d agree with you. But in my regular life, I had finally developed a daily writing habit. I was not eager to give it up. Plus, this was a three-week trip. That’s a long time for any dedicated writer to go without writing.
Here’s what I decided to do:
- On most days, I forced myself to get up early. That gave me an hour of writing time, which was enough to give me a sense of accomplishment and keep my novel moving forward.
- I jotted ideas down throughout the day on the “Notes” app on my phone. I also took tons of inspirational photos.
- In the evenings, when I was too bleary-eyed to write, I spent thirty minutes reading books, blogs, and articles related to my writing.
- I wrote on the train as we traveled the country. In Japan, the supersonic bullet trains are quiet and smooth. And most have tray tables!
- I spent a lot of time thinking about my book, especially at museums, memorials, and gardens. Ideas would spark as I watched a fish swim in a pond or a child run in a park.
- I gathered information. This often meant asking questions or taking extra time in a museum. The book I’m working on takes place in 1942. And although the events of WWII in my story mostly occur in Europe and America, Japan’s involvement is also relevant. After visiting the memorial park in Hiroshima and viewing the statue of Sadako Sasaki and the overwhelming display of origami paper cranes, I realized that Sadako was the Japanese counterpart of Anne Frank. This inspired me more than I could have imagined and made me think hard about my main character. She would have been about the same age as both these girls.
- I got new ideas for future stories: A child is lost and living in a bamboo forest; a carp spends its days swimming in a town full of mountain spring water canals; toilets open, flush, and close on their own; vanilla ice cream is best with hot sweet potatoes; colorful umbrella boutiques; and all those cute little animal socks. Who knows what tidbit will show up in my next story?!
In researching this topic, I found Sarah Rhea Werner’s podcast and blogpost “Tips for Writing While Traveling” very helpful.
I particularly love her last comment.
“You don’t have to spend every second of free time taking notes or committing everything to paper. Simply experiencing the world and looking at your surroundings through a different lens will benefit your writing. I am a firm believer that even the most mundane travel has the potential to broaden a writer’s mind. With a little forward thinking, I’m confident you can find inspiration in any situation!”