Writing Lessons From Reading

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It is good to read books. 

They broaden your perspective by showing how different but still similar the people living on this Earth are. It broadens your perspective. Reading also improves your vocabulary, fantasy and helps you feel empathy towards other people. Books test your attention span, your patience and analytical skills. You learn new things, even new skills by reading books.

But for a writer, books are even more helpful than that. Reading books can help you find your own voice and learn what you like and don’t like in books. Last year, I wrote about the importance of reading and how I had trouble finding good books. Now, I have changed my perspective a little and I’m reading books even if they weren’t that good

It seems like there’s much to learn from less appealing literature as well. One can even see it as a mood-booster – reading a book you don’t like and thinking to yourself I certainly wouldn’t describe my character like that. This, of course, should be balanced with very good writing to have something to aim for to keep on developing your writing skills.

So today, referencing to my book list from 2019 I published last week, I will tell you what I’ve learned this year about my preferences in writing… by reading.

Creating Good Characters

Some of the books I read last year had many characters in them. One of them was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another was Victor Dixen’s Ascension. But how the characters were presented and when made the books very different experiences.

I like books that have only a few characters in them or where the many characters are presented slowly, one by one, instead of presenting them all in the process of 15 to 20 pages.

In The Goldfinch, the characters come along very slowly (partly because of the length of the book) as the main characters life takes him to new places and to new people. For me, it felt like I got to know one character before being introduced to another and it helped me create an understanding for them.

In Ascension, however, there are more than ten characters presented almost at once. It’s when the six girls and boys are starting their journey into space and are supposed to start speed-dating. Although I really enjoyed the book, I had so much trouble getting to know the characters – only the main character we get to meet alone during the first few chapters becomes a bit more important compared to the others who I don’t really care about. When presenting characters like this, all in one, for me they lose their value. I barely care about what happens to them – and that’s a bad thing for the book.

In addition to this, for me, characters become good when they get some depth. This doesn’t happen when the character’s looks are described to me in detail from hair color to weird toe nails (especially if they don’t have an effect on the plot) – it happens when I’m allowed to follow along the character’s thought processes and opinions, when I learn to know his or her personality and how the character interacts with other people. I’m looking for the depth, to really get to know the person. This, I believe, happens in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and in a way, also in Ready Player One

Action Heavy? Too Heavy.

The other thing I have learned from reading books this year is that an action heavy plot gives very little to the reader. I refer to my experiences with The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner which is three books of almost only action.

When watching an action movie or even something like The Lord of the Rings, there is a balance between action scenes and calmer scenes. By balancing the tempo, the viewer or reader gets to pause for a moment, breath out and relax all the nerves that have been tingling and excited for the past few pages or minutes. After some calm it’s easier to get excited for the action again.

However, if the whole movie is only action from beginning to end, we never have the time to reflect on what’s happening – and neither do the characters.

In Maze Runner, the page-after-page action, that kept on going from halfway of the first book until the epilogue in the third, didn’t leave any room for character development. This way, one never learnt to feel anything for the characters who died along the way. Sure, there were scenes where the main character was wondering about his past or his motivations but if I haven’t learnt to know the character, why should I care? 

Action scenes are a good way to keep up the tempo and make things happen plotwise but if that’s the only thing that happens in the book, it kind of turns against itself. Is action still action if that’s the only thing that ever happens in the book? I definitely enjoy good action scenes and understand their value, but I don’t think they are an absolutely necessary part of a novel.

One other thing when it comes to plot is that I’m okay with not-so-happy-endings. Sure, I don’t like miserable, gritty endings but I don’t like overly happy-happy-joy-joy kind of endings either. There is a silver lining to every cloud but that’s it: there’s the silver lining and there’s the cloud. The Fountainhead like The Goldfinch were excellent examples of this kind of endings while Eleanor Oliphant was too happy for me – and in that way, unrealistic.

Some Personal Preferences

The last thing I’ll get into detail about in this post is the other stuff that comes with writing a novel. Things like the length of chapters, third-person or first-person point-of-view and present versus past tense. These things might not make a difference if the book is good and the style goes well with the author’s choices but they are still things to consider.

This year, I read books that had either very short chapters or very long chapters. The Fountainhead and The Goldfinch had probably the longest chapters while Ascension, Maze Runner Trilogy and One of Us Is Lying had very short chapters. You can find the pattern: YA books tend to have shorter chapters while books for adults seem to be able to take the time and space for theirs. And who knows, maybe it’s even a question about attention spans?

Short chapters are good page-turners. They make reading the next chapter very easy – I mean, it’s just a couple of pages more. Or like in One of Us Is Lying, the chapters were ten pages or so but the point of view changed twice in every chapter. These are good things, especially if the reader gets bored easily or has trouble finding reading routines – but in the long run, I think this can turn against the novel. Too short chapters make the reading experience more… halting instead of creating long, beautiful waves of scenes. You never seem to get into the events before the chapter is already over – if you know what I mean?

Then again very long chapters can become too long and exhausting to take on. I for instance, am a reader who doesn’t like to leave a chapter halfway. But if the chapter is over 30 pages long, I might opt to not read another chapter before I have the time to get through a long chapter like that. That’s not optimal either.

Looking at things this way, I think I prefer best long chapters that are divided into parts. At the moment, I’m reading Stephen King’s It, a book that has very long chapters – but they are divided into 3-12 scenes depending on the length of the chapter. That way, we get to those long chapters with depth, character development and even some action but it doesn’t become exhausting to read them because you can always pause before the next scene begins.

When it comes to writing in past or present tense or in first person or third person, I really have no preference when it comes to reading. I like them all if they are done well. However, I do find that I personally like to write in present tense rather than past and in third person if it feels natural, more “right”. It’s just something I’ve noticed when writing: how I feel like I’m more in the moment, in the midst of action, when writing in present tense.

These are things that come from experience, both in reading and writing and is up to oneself to reflect upon.

Read and Learn Even More

This year, this is what I learnt from the books I read. Much about characters and character development, about the value of action scenes and the pros and cons about long versus short chapters. What I will learn from the books I read in 2020, I’m eager to find out. Maybe in a year from now, I’ll tell you what I learnt this upcoming year?

As I wrote last week, in 2020 I aim to read more of all sorts of books. Different genres, different authors, different settings. I’ll try to read through books that don’t please me as much as I’d like and try my best to learn from them. However, to balance those books I’ll also read some good books just to keep myself developing and strengthening my writerly skills. We’ll see where I end up in twelve months!

Until next post, I wish that you, dear reader, have had a relaxing Christmas and have a Happy New Year!

Finding A Way Out From Writer’s Block

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Last week, the only thing I managed to write was the blog post that came out last Thursday. It was the only time I came far enough to sit down and write for an hour or two and even then the quality wasn’t what I had been hoping for.

Bad writing days. The awful days of not putting pen to paper and eventually feeling dread or fear that you’ll never get that writing flow back.

Ugh.

If we forget the past four months of travel and what effect it had on my writing, I can’t even remember the last time I had a writer’s block like this.

But after several days of reflecting and journaling, I managed to find my way out from that awful gravel pit of not-writing. You know: that pit, the one that keeps you occupied with everything else than writing. But this week, I climbed up from there with a self-made ladder – and came up from there wiser than I was before.

The Awful Block

It’s a weird feeling, not being ”able” to write. I mean, I’m in the same room with my computer where all the necessary Word-files are open. Even the battery on my computer is fully charged – but I can’t seem to get myself there, make my fingers work that keyboard, produce the words my mind can’t even consciously put together before they’re already in front of my eyes, black on white, the small writing cursor waiting for the next letter. 

I even know what to write. I have an idea for the first sentence (something that helps me immensely when I start the writing process of the day), but something in my body or mind or both pulls on all the breaks and I just avoid the whole writing thing. Turn my thoughts to something else. Read a book, do the laundry, obsess about the grocery list.

Ugh. 

I did, however, manage to write diary on six of those seven days (which turned out to be the key to the whole thing. But I’ll get to it later).

Every day, I started out hopeful. Maybe today I’ll be able to get back to my writing. But at the end of the day, no words were written. 

On day three, I really started to panic. My to do-list did not allow this kind of non-writing to happen. I love ticking of those boxes but day after day there were more boxes to be ticked rather than the other way around. Talk about the nightmare of an organized person.

On day seven, my panic had turned into this gray thick fog that is in your mind, clogging everything, but does not hit you in the head with the hammer. One only feels it, like a heavy theatre curtain that has just been lowered on your shoulders. 

But I don’t believe in writer’s block, not really. It feels more like a shortcut to say that you haven’t been writing because you have The Block – but it isn’t some kind of illness that keeps you from putting words down. It’s resistance or fear of something, it’s an effect of something else

And because of that doubt, and especially because I rarely experience consecutive non-writerly days like those last week, I was very determined to understand why this was happening.

Finding An Explanation for It

For the last few weeks, we’ve been staying put in Christchurch, New Zeeland. That has been helpful for my writing routines, to getting back on track.

As we are sharing a family house with one person who is roughly the same age as we are and who works during the days which means we have the house to ourselves most of the week. There’s a space with a desk and a chair for journaling and fiction writing. We are close to shops so everything is near, and there is a good supply of tea and coffee in the kitchen. Even brownies and cookies for occasional sugar boosts.

So why, even though I had a sound basis to get started, did I have such trouble investing myself in my writing?

I pondered and pondered, wondering if there was something wrong with the writing space or the chair I was sitting in. Maybe I should get out of the house or try getting to my writing earlier? Was it the other person’s, the house owner’s morning routines that threw me off? Or maybe it was my partner’s moody days that disturbed my writing flow?

After listing out possible reasons for my writer’s block in my journal for five days, I finally realized to turn my thoughts inward and try to find a reason from there. And I found one. It is too personal to get into it here, but just know that the real reason for my not-writing could be found in me – not around me.

The thing about being a writer, at least for me, is that I’m quite sensitive to and observant of the things happening around me. There is so much data to take in especially when you live with two other people and the toilet is clogged for the fourth day in a row (yes, that happened last week and is, actually, still happening) – and when you take that data inside you, analyze it and let it affect you, like I do, it has an effect on your writing.

I would like to live in a neutral, balanced environment with only a few or no conflicts so that I can channel all my energy into my writing – but unfortunately it’s more or less impossible to create that kind of environment, now and in the future. I wonder if it’s even possible. 

(Unless you’ll be able to isolate yourself in a hotel with full hospitality.)

I’ve written previously about my deep-analysis habits and how they can, if not controlled, lead to a momentary burn-out. My analyses of situations give me food for thought and ideas for writing but when channelled wrong they can turn against me. This leads to not-writing that leads to panic about not writing which definitely does not help me to get back to my writing.

And I believe that was what happened last week.

Showing Some Mercy

So, coming out from last week a bit wiser, this week I decided to take a new start. To forget that I reached none of my writing goals last week and start fresh.

I wrote my to do -list for the new week on Sunday night, keeping my writing goals simple. Only one project for one day, options for what project to work on and how many minutes or how many words. And on Monday, I started with an optimistic mind-set and managed to complete the first writing task for the week with 1,900 words.

I took the step ladder rather than the shovel and beat that gravel pit I had ended up in.

What I learned from last week is that there are a few key things that can help get out of the not-writing pit. The first one is to deep-dive into yourself and figure out the real reason why you have trouble writing. To be honest with yourself and ask those awfully straightforward questions: what is bothering me and why? What can I do about it?

The other thing is to show yourself a little mercy. Forgive yourself for the poor results and give yourself a fresh start when the new day or week begins. Don’t start too heavy or keep beating yourself up for missing all those writing days the past week.

Funny enough, as awful as staying in that writer’s pit was last week, I think I learned surprisingly lot. About myself and how my surroundings affect me which in turn has an effect on my writing. But I also learned how I can try to work around those surrounding events, moods and conflicts around me without letting them have an effect on my writing.

It’s a slow process but I believe journaling about it will help me figure out enough answers to it.

How do you beat your way out from the deep gravel pit?

My Brief Career As A Plotter

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A few months ago at a hostel in Malaysia, I got an idea for a fan fiction story. A longer story with action, adventure and a hint of mystery, starring the characters I had been writing about for a while now.

Because the idea was for a longer story (more than 20,000 words) than the ones that I’ve previously written (around 5,000), I decided it was time to write down a basic plot line following the hero’s journey.

Earlier this year, I read a book from Beth Ravis called Paper Hearts that goes through the basics of writing a book. There, Ravis shows her method for plotting called ‘chart structure’ that has four acts, all divided into four parts. As this was the structure I felt comfortable with, I planned my plot line following the chart.

This was a new thing for me as I had never planned this carefully before starting the actual writing process. And I loved writing down the plot – it was fun to know what was going to happen and have a feeling of coherence. This, I thought, was the way to get rid of those plot holes and inconsistencies!

Following the chart method was really almost like writing a very short story, and I really liked the ideas I had. I believed I had a good plot on the way.

The False Cure

When I started writing the story, at first everything went pretty well. I let the words come and wrote them down, writing the first four chapters. However, every night when I was thinking about the text, I realized some small inconsistencies or things that needed to be added in as foreshadowing for future events.

Slowly, as I wrote, the inconsistencies started adding up, it didn’t feel like I was foreshadowing enough – 

I mean, did I even know how to write an adventurous mystery? 

– and I wondered if I was wasting my time continuing to write the story when it felt like I was just making the editing process more painful with every scene that I wrote.

I realized I needed to plan way better than the chart structure. A better, more detailed plot line, not only for the main plot line but for the side plots, as well. It should and it would help me out, both in writing and editing the story.

So I opened a new Word-file, made a chart with four columns (one for the different acts according to the chart structure and three for the different plot lines) and started writing out the scenes more carefully, tracking the plot lines side by side.

It felt like I was doing the right thing. I was ensuring I was getting to know my story and my characters. Scene by scene, I was minimizing my work load in the editing part of writing.

I deleted the fourth chapter and started writing it from scratch. I edited a big part of the first chapter and was still unsure if it was right. I added some more foreshadowing to the second chapter and wondered if the third chapter was needed at all because maybe there wasn’t enough happening?

While thinking of all these things, what I didn’t realize at first was that I wasn’t writing the story anymore.

I was so focused on thinking about what was right or wrong with the first four chapters and how could I make everything as right as possible in the future, that I totally left the story file stand alone on my desktop. I didn’t touch it, I simply couldn’t, as long as I didn’t have a proper full outline for all my plots.

And I realized that somehow, all that plotting and planning took out all the fun of writing the actual story.

My Two Sides

But why? Isn’t planning and plotting supposed to be the way to a more coherent, intriguing story? Like the writer of a murder mystery writer who knows from the beginning who the murderer is and can therefore create false trails for the reader to follow? Why couldn’t I do it?

The weird thing is, when it comes to writing, I’ve always considered myself as a plantser. I write down a loose idea or a beginning of a plot line that might have an ending and then I start writing. I don’t put down too much time to plan the characters or the world, but let them build themselves while I write.

Then again, when it comes to life outside of writing, I’ve always been a planner. If you’ve read more of my blog posts, you know that I enjoy being organized, managing my time and goals. I love writing lists, having things tidy and structured according to the alphabet or a numerical value.

I thought it would be easy to implement my organizational skills to my writing – but the truth has proven to be almost the opposite.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed in myself because it felt like what I had thought was a definite step on the development path for me as a writer turned out to be a total bust. 

But then, as some quotes happened to change my perspective some weeks ago, a passage in a book helped me see my plantsing in a better light.

What book, you may ask, by whom?

Well, no other than On Writing by Stephen King.

The Return of the Plantser

According to my quick analysis, Stephen King is somewhere in between a pantser and plantser. His stories start with an idea of what if… and from there, after some thinking, he starts writing. He lets the characters do their thing and the story tells itself. King, as a writer, is only there to put pen to paper, like an archeologist is there to uncover a fossil.

This passage in the book (pp. 163-165) woke me up from my decision to become a plotter and made me think of the plantser-plotter dilemma from a different perspective.

If all this time I had had fun writing without really knowing what was going to happen, why was I taking that fun away from myself? And if I have been writing good stories without plotting everything down to a detail, why change?

And after thinking about King’s words for a day or two, I decided to let go of plotting and resume to my plantsing. Some people are planners, some people are not – and the key is to know what kind of writer you are and play your strengths.

I believe I am a hard core plantser.

So, in the future, a basic plot line will do or I’ll only come up with the starting scene and let the story take me anywhere from there. Yes, it might lead to more work on the editing side, at least at first. But maybe I will be learning while I’m writing and for every new draft there will be fewer inconsistencies and enough foreshadowing? 

It is, at least, something to aim for.

Experiencing As the Opposite of Writing

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After writing last week’s troubled blog post about my writing-not-writing situation, two quotes came to my mind.

Somehow, it seems, my brain thought it was time for me to do some changes so it picked these quotes from the long shelves of thoughts and memories, giving me a perspective on my current writing situation.

Funny enough – the quotes have made a difference.

Let’s just dive in and start with the first one. The quote is by Benjamin Franklin and goes like this:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

If you have read my posts from the previous two weeks, you know I’m longing for writing something worth reading. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past year and half, writing almost daily – fiction, journal entries, blog posts. It’s what I know and love.

But now, as Mr. Franklin/my brain conveniently reminded me of, I’m doing something worth writing.

Or am I – really?

Learning About Prioritizing

Because –

I wonder if one can travel great lengths without actually doing anything worth writing about. Just linger, wander, pass curious details and interesting human beings without really seeing them and taking in their existence – and if I’ve done just that.

You see –

During these past months of travel, I’ve been looking for opportunities to write and been disappointed when day after day I haven’t had the possibility to do so. I’ve been having many negative thoughts of what I should be doing and what I’m not and, to be honest, it has consumed me and my energy.

And as I’ve been in this gravel pit of negativity, I wonder if I’ve actually given myself the chance to enjoy and experience, to take the days as they come.

However, the thing to realize here is that in the mode of experiencing, to write or not write becomes more like a side product of that mode. You have to be willing to ease on the writing part of being a traveling writer and focus more on experiencing.

But I haven’t let that happen.

I’ve kept writing as my main mode, my first priority, and that just may have hindered me from it’s opposite – experiencing.

Experience Requires Patience

This is where I’d like to introduce the second quote my brain reminded me of. It’s from a film called Stuck In Love I saw earlier this year (a movie recommendation for those looking for films about writing – it’s not a super awesome movie but it’s about writing and that’s the best thing about it).

A writer is the sum of her experiences.

When I was little, I read a fantasy book called The Prophecy of the Gems by Flavia Bujor. It was Bujor’s first (and only) book but the thing that made it cool was that she was only 14 years old at the time. I was amazed by her young age and, as I already at that point had my dreams of becoming a published author, thought I could do the same.

But the thing is, it is very hard to write about themes such as love, loss, freedom and loneliness if one has never experienced those things. No matter how much I would have wanted to write a publishable book at the age of 9, I don’t think I could’ve done it because I didn’t have enough experience of the topics that make books feel real.

Becoming experienced in this thing we call life takes time and waiting out time takes patience. And during that time you shouldn’t just sit and wait but experience, instead.

And even then, you’re not done.

Even though I feel I’m somewhat more experienced than I was at the time I read Bujor’s debut and could put together a realistic novel, at the same time I realize I’m not done experiencing.

There’s so much more to learn about life’s quirks that I haven’t gotten to yet.

I believe one of those quirks has been presented to me during these last couple of days.

The Lesson To Learn

I don’t think it’s too late for me to switch my focus and re-organize my priorities. Even though writing is one of the most meaningful things in my life, I can let it rest for a while – that doesn’t mean I will never get back to my writing routines and never become a published author.

I just have to be patient, give time to this period in my life. Remember that experiences give me something to write about.

And even though I’ve been obsessed about writing-not-writing, I think I’ve squeezed in some experiences and observations:

I have used my senses in the desert landscape of Northern Australia: seen the drought, felt the heat and sweat in the small of my back. I’ve heard the wind rustle through the dry hay, smelled the smoke coming from forest fires, tasted the refreshing water after a hike.

During the long days of driving, I’ve had time to listen to audiobooks and in the evenings, listened to audiobooks or read fiction. Thought about my own works of fiction, the characters and what makes a book feel real.

I’ve had time to think of who I am as a person and as a writer, thought about what life’s meaning really is about and if it’s necessary to find something that feels meaningful or if the meaningfulness of things already exists there or here, I just can’t see it yet.

So I’m already on a good path here – I just need to be patient and forgive myself for not writing.

It won’t be an easy switch to just ”forget” about writing and only write when the opportunity presents itself. And I need to be careful not to put too much weight on experiencing and instead just take the experiences as they come.

This road trip might be about learning to enjoy, to experience without stressing out about experiencing, and write when the opportunity presents itself – but not force myself to do anything.

If I learn that, I might have an experience on my hands really worth writing about.

Unsuited For Travel

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For so many years already, backpacking has been something many dream of.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just leave everything behind and live from your backpack for months while traveling around the world? Be free from the ordinary life you’ve learned to know, let the days melt together and forget the meaning of Fridays and weekends?

There are so many who would love to do that. Who love to backpack, travel to foreign, exotic countries, sleep in hostels, spend days sitting on buses and trains, do things you wouldn’t or couldn’t do back home.

But there are also people who do not have a need for that backpacker life.

After more than two months of travel, I’ve realized I’m one of those people. Those, who do not get the thrill of visiting new cities and towns, who don’t get excited from the freedom of spending their days doing whatever they want.

While traveling in Southeast Asia, we had all our belongings neatly packed in our backpacks. We were constantly moving around, from hostels to homestays to Airbnb apartments. Every three or four nights we would pack our things and get going, take the bus to another city to settle down there for a few days. We would explore the city for a few days before packing up everything again and moving on.

That’s how we traveled in three different countries. For me, it was exhausting.

An Introvert On A Holiday

As I only see people loving this lifestyle we’ve tried for two months now, I’ve been trying to figure out why I seem to feel different about backpacking. Why am I not enjoying it like everyone else? Am I not a backpacker, am I not able to adapt to this kind of lifestyle?

One explanation to my discomfort could be my personality.

First of all, I have a tendency to try to please other people. When a people-pleaser like me, who tends to believe the best in people and give almost everyone benefit of the doubt, is forced to say no and know locals are only after a money… It’s uncomfortable. It is exhausting to constantly shake your head, or worse, ignore the seller.

And for the second, I’m an introvert. While I enjoy meeting new people, to play cards, drink beer, go on hikes with people I’ve never seen before, I also need to balance out that social life with some privacy, my own time and space. Otherwise, I’ll drain my energy.

But as being social is one of the essential parts of backpacking, I tend to feel guilty for taking time off people, shut the door to the room or the curtain to my bed. Somehow I feel like I’m doing it wrong – backpacking. And still, I know I need that time for myself.

Backpacking is a balancing act for an introverted person. It can get tough, exhausting, even frustrating at times, compared to an extrovert who doesn’t seem to have any problems chilling with people around the clock.

However, at the same time I know being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t do certain things. You can be an introvert and a backpacker at the same time – you just have to be selfish enough to take the time for yourself.

Which makes me think there is something else that explains my unsuitability for travel.

Freedom, Sex, Distraction

It feels like many backpackers come to Southeast Asia for freedom.

It’s the kind of freedom you see in their behavior: how they drive scooters without helmets on, how they drink rice wine and have random sex with random people in shared dormitories, how they spend their money how they wish without needing to think about the consequences.

Many travel to Asia to escape something and to get something they can’t get at home: the freedom, the sex, the careless attitude. The also get the kind of attention they don’t get in the western world: the friendliness of the locals, the attention they give you when they want to sell you something.

It’s attractive.

And they have a great time in Asia because their money actually has more value here. They get the benefits they would like to have back home without having to dress up, drive a fancy car, behaving according the etiquette and social norms and have huge amounts of savings and investments.

But even more than the freedom and sex, they get a distraction. In the chaos of Asia they momentarily lose themselves, their former goals and dreams or the lack of them. For a while, they don’t need to think about the future, their career plans, the expectations they are expected to meet. It’s liberating to backpack, to be free.

However, what I’ve realized is that I have no need for that kind of freedom – and that, reader, is liberating.

I’ve realized that I have things going on already that I like and enjoy. I already have my plans and dreams for the future, I already know what my own expectations for myself are. Therefore, I have no need to escape the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that come from not knowing what one wants to do with his or her life.

This comes from the fact that I’ve already discovered the thing I can see myself doing the rest of my life: writing. Writing both fact and fiction allows me the escape and the freedom many seek in backpacking, and I’m comfortable to do it wherever I feel at home.

(Where that place is, is still bit of a question mark but I do believe there is a place where I’ll feel comfortable enough to actually stay.)

The Realization

Realizing this, the difference between me and 80% of the people we’ve met on our trip, has helped me get away from those guilty feelings of introverted behavior and the thoughts of am I doing this wrong when I’m not enjoying it?

I get tired of constantly moving around, of constantly meeting new people and getting excited about things that mostly have to do with the freedom of an exotic, foreign country. Part of it can be explained by my personality, my biology, but it’s also about the fact that I don’t get the thrill of backpacking because I already find it somewhere else.

It’s nice to know this. At the same time, it took two months in Southeast Asia to realize it – and I can’t yet say if the trip was worth it. But here I am, aware of what is important to me and what is not.

And that is very liberating.

What We Gain By Being ‘Lazy’

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In Georgetown, Malaysia we met a couple at our hostel. They had already been on the road for three months and still had months and months of travel ahead of them. As we were eager to hear their story we sat down at the same table to eat breakfast and drink coffee.

Up until May, the couple had been living their life in the UK, working and saving up money for their own house. But then they had realized that the kind of life they were building for, they weren’t ready for it. Not yet.

So, they quit their jobs, took the money they had saved and hit the road.

At some point, however, they intend to return to their home country and start working again. And this was clearly something they had been thinking about because the woman said:

“I hope that the employers don’t see our travels as being lazy.”

This got me thinking because what she said really is something worth hoping for.

Study-Work Continuum

In many western countries, both education and work are seen as something incredibly valuable, something worth focusing on. Many grow up learning that either you study or you work but there’s no option in-between which means that after you’ve finished your education you continue to the work life and stay there until you’re ready to retire. We are encouraged to fall into the school-work continuum.

The decision to sell your belongings (or store them somewhere), leave everything you have behind and hit the road is, however, the complete opposite of the school-work continuum of a western modern society. Because being on the road, traveling, is neither studying or working.

At least from the society’s point of view – because taking a year or more off to travel leaves a big gaping hole in your CV. I can only imagine the job interview where the leap year is noticed:

“What did you do during this year?”
“I was abroad.”
“Hmph, and where did you go on holiday?”
“Southeast Asia, mostly – I traveled around. It was really wonderful! Affordable, the people were so friendly and the nature amazing.”
“I see.”

The employer might very well think you spent the last year chillaxing on the beach or riding a motorcycle without a helmet on. And he probably thinks that you, during that time, didn’t so much as lift as a finger.

But the thing is, traveling and especially backpacking isn’t being lazy.

It’s a lot of work. Almost like a full-time job, really.

Gaining Knowledge

During these six weeks on the road, we’ve slowly but surely gotten into the groove of traveling. Currently, we are in our third country in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, and plan to be here three weeks before flying to our next destination.

During these six weeks, we’ve familiarized ourselves and adapted to three different cultures: Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. We’ve learnt the basics of their social norms and etiquette, we’ve learned some of the key phrases of their language and figured out how their monetary system work. We have gained understanding of their culture, their cuisine, religion, and infrastructure.

At the same time, we have gained perspective on our own country, our infrastructure, the western culture and social norms. We have seen how things can be done, how they shouldn’t be done and how different the people in Southeast Asia see their world, life and future compared to the western cultures.

This, for instance, is extremely valuable in the ever more globalized and multicultural world.

In addition to this, we’ve also become pro at planning and executing the plans. Every few days we sit down, take out the computer and connect it to the best wi-fi we can find. We research our travel options, figure out when and where the bus or the train will go, where we will end up in and where we are going to stay.

In a new place, we learn where the ATMs are, where the best local food is served, where we can find the nearest convenience store for water (and ice cream) and learn to know other backpackers and travelers staying in the same place.

We try to find out where we can do our laundry, where we can find proper, vitamin-rich food (believe me, it’s a struggle) and where’s the pharmacy when you get sick (just did this in Hanoi) or how to deal with bedbug bites (unfortunately, it did happen).

The ability to adapt is a good skill to have in the modern society – and something not all people have.

Learning New Skills

Being on the road, carrying all our belongings with us, is a rollercoaster ride of new skills, constant adapting and evolving, conflicts, success and learning to be social with so many people from so many different cultures.

In other words, being on the road is far from being lazy. The couple we spoke to during that breakfast knew it and we know it.

Being on the road gives you competences that staying at home never can give: you gain unique perspective on your own culture, social norms and the structure of your society; you become a thinker and a doer, and you are more okay with adapting to new situations and new people. You are constantly kicked out from your comfort zone which forces you to self-development.

People who have been on the road are actually golden in modern societies that are constantly changing and becoming more multicultural than ever before.

And if the employer doesn’t understand this when you tell him/her about your year on the road – maybe you’re applying for the wrong job (or the right job but with the wrong boss).

Experiencing My First Culture Shock

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In 2016, I did a semester in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. Before leaving, we were warned several times about something called the culture shock – “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

In Ireland, I never experienced those feelings of disorientation because the country is very western and pretty much what I had expected. It was easy to adjust to the culture, to start saying ‘how are you’ to random people on their morning stroll and ordering a pint of Smithwick’s in the pub.

And even after the exchange period, I didn’t even think about culture shock because wherever I went, it was easy for me to adjust and navigate through the customs and norms of the different countries.

But that was when I was traveling in Europe. Now I’m in Southeast Asia – and things are a bit different.

Bugs, Dirt and Worn Out Towels

From Koh Samui we took the bus back to Bangkok and then flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We were welcomed by the business city of magnificent sky scrapers and the taxi drive from the airport to our hotel into the middle of the bustling city center felt exciting – something so different after the small cities and islands of Thailand.

But then we checked into our hotel.

“A New Hotel!” the sign said, and the name of the place even had the word royal in it. But when we got into our room… I’ve never cried because of accommodation but now I did. Partly because I was so very tired after many days of energy consuming travel, but partly because of the shock of how much worse the room was compared to the thai standard we had learned to know and deal with.

Why it was a shock, you wonder? Well…

The bed sheets were filled with holes and dirt that doesn’t come off anymore. The walls were dirty, the paint was peeling off, the towels felt and looked like they had been used for 10 years already. The wi-fi didn’t work, there was a smell, we had no window in the room and worst of all – there were so many bugs who liked to spend their time crawling on the beds.

I wanted to check out from the hotel the same second we had checked in, I was sure I couldn’t take it for the three nights we had booked at this place. However, my partner convinced me to wait a moment, that we would consider everything after we had eaten some food.

Realizing the Social Norms

Food helped me take a breath, to gather my thoughts. The friendliness of the locals also helped a great deal. We decided to look around the nearby city quarters, check out the Chinatown and even hop on a tourist bus to see the city. For a few hours, everything was okay and I managed to forget the hotel room I didn’t want to return to.

But then the evening came and I started noticing more things that didn’t feel quite alright. How there were almost no women on the streets, only some other female tourists and a few Muslim women with their husbands and families. How no one asked me what I wanted, only what my partner wanted because he’s a man. How I wanted to avoid eye contact with the men on the street because it didn’t feel safe.

It felt confusing not to see what you’re used to and realize that in this city there are different social norms that steer the society.

After a one-hour hop-on hop-off bus tour we hopped off in the city center and went for dinner at the busy food street next to our hotel. There, I was again faced with things I had not been expecting.

Noise, Always Noise

I was overwhelmed with what I saw, what I heard and what I felt.

I saw people who had lost some of their limbs; a man with severe burn marks on his face; another with a physically distorted body – all sitting on the ground begging for money from the tourists walking by.

For me, it was so hard accept that I couldn’t do anything to help them.

And if the local people weren’t there begging, they were doing everything in their power to try to sell me food or other products (or mostly my partner because he’s a man and the culture in the country is very dominated by men). They were ringing bells, yelling, honking, shoving menus in our faces, some of them walking after us persuading us to eat at their restaurant. It was so primitive – to use noise to attract attention, because if they get your attention it’ll be easier to sell you things.

I wasn’t enjoying the city at all – how could I? Kuala Lumpur was filled with noise, always noise wherever we went, whether it was noise made by people or the honking cars. Or there was always people trying to get your attention – there wasn’t room or silence to sit down and think.

I just wanted to get away from everything, I just wanted to find a quiet place.

For a while I thought I wasn’t fit to travel, that I couldn’t do it – I wasn’t even having fun.

But after a couple of day of negative reactions to everything around me, I realized what was happening. I was experiencing a culture shock, something I had heard about years before.

It explained why I had so much trouble adjusting to the new country.

Peace Through Understanding

When I realized this, it became a bit easier to understand the awful feelings and thoughts inside my head. This was a natural reaction when exposed to something completely new – and the most important thing was to know that even this feeling of disorientation will pass. By understanding it became easier to sleep in the room (after getting rid of the bugs); we started going somewhere less crowded where there weren’t bell-ringing or yelling locals trying to get my attention, and I got used to seeing more men than women on the streets.

Still, I felt very happy happy when we traveled North to Georgetown in Penang three nights later. This is a small city with less sound, less tourists and better accommodation. This place is also chance to breath out, to realize what has been happening inside my head and give Malaysia a new chance.

Experiencing a culture shock was awful and for a moment it felt like traveling wasn’t anything for me. But after realizing what was happening, what I was experiencing, I thought that at the same time, the rollercoaster of feelings and thoughts about the city and its culture was a valuable lesson in the process of learning to know myself.

Now I know one of the possible downsides of travel and how I react to these things. I also know that I can deal with rooms without windows, I’m okay with taking a shower above the toilet, and I know to walk away from areas that are too touristic for my own good.

And the most important thing – despite the heavy shock I’m still on the road, still backpacking. I’m ready for the next adventure, the next town and the new people we’ll meet on the road.