Building a daily creative practice involves a lot of trial and error. Each person works in different ways. There are people who don’t do anything for a long time, and then dive into writing a novel or painting an art series for a few months nonstop. There are those that can only work on weekdays or weekends, and there are those who are productive in the morning sans distractions or in the evenings, which is when their brains are alert, allowing them to enter a state of uninterrupted flow.
I’d been trying to do about 30 minutes of writing every day for the last year and a half. It didn’t matter what time I did it, as long as it got done. It’s a tough habit to get used to. Anyone who creates will tell you that output requires a lot of energy, which can only be increased like the strength of a muscle, as it grows daily. For a little while, I was able to stick to it.
But there comes the dip. And I felt it–hard. It got to a point where even doing the 30 minutes was too much. My work got stale. My creative well didn’t so much run out but felt like it needed a break. I wasn’t out of ideas but felt more disillusioned with what I came up with. Ever go through a phase in your work where you don’t generate compelling stuff? That’s where I was at.
What to do?
Going Backcountry Camping
Two large building construction projects had just started within two blocks of my building. This meant endless drilling, trucks driving back and forth (don’t get me started on the obnoxious beeps of a truck reversing), workers everywhere and diverted car and pedestrian traffic. These were signs. I needed to get out.
Last time this happened to me, I took a trip to the Aquarium which was a quick, effective getaway. But this time, I sensed I needed something that required a longer time to be unplugged.
I had committed to a backcountry camping trip for labour day weekend, and even though I was resistant to it because I don’t like camping, I sucked it up and went with two friends. I figured my senses would welcome time away from the micro stressors in a large metropolitan city like Toronto.
If you’re a regular camper, all of what I’m about to say isn’t new to you. But if you’re not–like me–then this post could be insightful.
I’m not a camper. I’d only gone once a couple of years ago (car camping). The other type of camping I was exposed to was a refugee camp as a kid, when we fled Kuwait during the Gulf War making our way to Amman, Jordan to fly Manila, Philippines. That wasn’t exactly a camp where you’d roast marshmallows for s’mores by the fire. It was wartime.
Car camping is simple enough, which is what we did the first night. We had a spot at a campground, parked our car and set up our tent and food at a picnic table.
The next two nights were different. We drove to a more remote provincial park here in Ontario, got on a canoe with our belongings and paddled for an hour and a half across the lake, passing captivating tiny islands along the way before finding our site.
When we arrived, we found a couple of tent pads, a place to build a fire and a picnic table. There was no running water, only a box as a bathroom located fairly deep into the woods for privacy (bring toilet paper!) which was connected to a hole in the ground.
Not my idea of a vacation.
Let me tell you, it wasn’t exactly the most physically comfortable trip. I have skin issues and am pretty sure I got bit by something (it looked like a teeny weeny crab). The tent was tight with three women sleeping in it, and no access to running water meant no showering for four days.
We had to go back to the basics. It meant cooking our food with fire (we had a small stove with propane for liquid dishes like chilli). The water had to be filtered using a small battery-operated wand because we had to grab it from the lake. If we wanted to feel the water on our hair and bodies we had to swim in the said lake. We took a dip, but it was so cold we couldn’t stay in for more than thirty minutes. We had to stay warm so we kept the fire going. One of my friends went into the woods to gather wood to burn every couple of hours.
I paid no mind to my appearance. My hair and clothes were dishevelled. I packed my curls into a loose bun (#longhairdontcare) and wore the most comfortable clothes. We stayed busy by attending to other camping chores like doing dishes, ensuring the camp was somewhat tidy, chopping and prepping food, and simply attempting to stay warm because it was cold and windy.
All these activities allowed my brain to get into the business of living. I didn’t think of what I was going to write about, or whatever self-created problems I inflicted on myself. Media messages on Instagram or Facebook were nowhere to be found because my phone was off. I was trying to conserve its battery so it would last the days we were in a remote area (luckily we had cell service).
The trip only lasted a few days but because I was so present it felt longer. I want to add that the nature element of this excursion was certainly something to ponder.
Nature and Us
Nature has a way of humbling us. It forces us to pay attention to it when we’re at its’ mercy. It makes us realize we’re only a tiny speck in an ecosystem with many moving and interdependent parts. Even though I knew I was safe, there was something about sleeping in the wilderness that made me vulnerable. One wrong tip on the canoe and all our possessions were going to get wet. One missed turn on the way to the site at sunset could have extended our time in the water and consequently force us to paddle in the dark. It made me realize that not everything was about me. How’s that for a reality check?
I got a chance to get to know my friends better. All we had were nature and each other, which allowed for great conversations and reliance when we were in a bind, whether it was setting up the tent in strong winds, figuring out how to securely install a canoe on top of a car, or navigating directions in unknown territory. Side note: my friend also introduced me to roasted peaches. Seriously, I was flabbergasted I didn’t know about it, considering how much I love the South, where (Georgia) peaches were the stars of fruit. For shame on me. For shame.
I’m not sure if I will go camping every chance I get. My health suffered a bit after I got back, with my sunburn, eczema and the cold air triggering low-grade asthma during the trip. But I did feel a good sense of tired–the tiredness you experience after a tough workout. I did sleep better for the first few nights I was back because of all the fresh air, which calmed my nervous system. And I felt a flicker of inspiration coming back, which allowed me to jot a few ideas for blog posts.
Being out in the backcountry silenced my mind for a few days from the relentless mental obligations I set for myself to produce creative work every day. While going on intense work sprints can extrapolate the time to reach your goals, sometimes you just have to turn it off–so that you can return with renewed energy. But next time, maybe instead of a quick trip to the aquarium or a backcountry trip, I could do a day trip hiking towards a waterfall. Happy medium?
What have you done to unplug from your creative work?