If you’ve ever slung a pack on your back and headed off to see the world, likelihood is you’ve kept a travel diary. And you’re not alone. Check out a beach bar in Ko Phi Phi or a hostel roof garden in Berlin and you’re guaranteed to see… the scribblers.
Hunched over a notebook with a look of intense concentration and scratching away with breathless energy, these are backpackers who, before this, hadn’t written anything for years other than a Christmas card.
Going abroad, it seems, not only opens your mind; it unleashes your muse. The question is, why?
One of the great joys of traveling overseas is the opportunity to experience new and wondrous things: grand canyons, leaning towers, great pyramids. But living abroad is different. The mundane becomes magical, the everyday is effervescent.
During my first spring in Finland, I was walking down the street when I came across an old couple staring upwards with big smiles on their faces. I followed their gaze. Nothing. Just the lush blue of the sky and the rich warmth of the sunshine.
It was only when I got home and spoke to my Finnish girlfriend that I discovered exactly why they were so happy. The sunshine told them that spring was making its grand entrance, that five months of ice-encrusted eyelashes, slush in their boots and soul-wrenching darkness were finally coming to an end. My muse laughed and I grabbed a pen.
In the village where I lived in the Peruvian Andes, Magda, my landlady’s housekeeper, earned twenty pounds a month. She worked from sun-up to sun down. Often I was woken by her boss yelling at her, “Magda, come on girl. Hurry, hurry!” No older than fifteen, Magda was shy yet chirpy, a girl doing a grown-up’s work. Every time I watched her slaving over the stove or kneading the washing, I felt bad. I felt bad that she was happy with such a hard life while I moaned about the lack of hot water. I felt bad that I earned more as an advertising copywriter in fifteen minutes than she would earn in a month. I felt bad that this was the way of the world and I was powerless to change it. This injustice fired my muse up with indignation, making me pound the keyboard with fearsome energy. My writing became powered by passion.
Living abroad, especially to begin with, is not easy. There are languages to learn, jobs to find, friends to make. You’re scared to leave your apartment in case a stranger bamboozles you with an indecipherable question like, “Have you got the time?” The upside is that you often get plenty of time alone, and this loneliness is quite unique. That 24-hour friend of your native country, the TV, becomes a box of babbling nonsense, while the pub is filled with weird foreigners looking to trip you up with odd cultural differences. In times like these, the one buddy you can rely to keep you company is your muse. Happily, it doesn’t want you to drink beer, play pool or go shopping. It wants you to write.
When I left the UK, I intended to be away for a year. Twelve years later, I’m yet to move back. Don’t get me wrong, I love dear old Blighty. In fact, I probably love it more now than I ever did when I lived there. Why? Because, as the Thais like to say, it’s same-same, but different. And therein lies another key reason why living abroad is so good for your writing. Things you’ve known your whole life suddenly come alive in glorious Technicolor.
Take fish and chips. Nowadays, if I write about them I’m instantly titillated by the glorious imagined scent of salt and vinegar. I can hear the oil sizzling, spitting, and spluttering, and I can feel the oh-so-wonderful crunch as I bite into succulent, batter-encrusted cod. The reality of English fish and chips could never be as pleasurable for me as the act of writing about my memory of them.
In 2001, I was a product of Thatcher’s Britain. Greed was good. Money was king and screw everyone else, Jack. More than thirty countries and six continents later, my philosophy on life has changed drastically. I’ve been called everything from tree-hugger to Communist, but although I’m neither, I now have much more in common with Gandhi than with the Iron Lady. Living abroad has changed the way I think about life. It has created inner conflicts and domestic dramas in my head. I hardly recognise the old me, although my muse still likes to go and visit him sometimes to feed the troll and see what he spews out.
Simply put, living abroad turns you into someone very different, and that makes it easier for you to relate to your characters, no matter who they are.
Those are my five reasons. You’ve probably got others. But there’s one thing everyone can agree on. If you travel, your muse is sure to follow. Mine made its first appearance on the back seat of a bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, clicking his fingers, Grease style, to Thai pop. Since then it’s come and gone, but it’s never truly left. I like to think that’s because, like the littlest hobo, we just keep moving on.
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Since leaving the English county of Suffolk, Joel Willans has lived in London, Vancouver, Helsinki and the Peruvian village of Andahuaylas. A partner at the communications agency Ink Tank, his prize-winning stories have been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. His debut short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men, was published by Route in December 2012.