While I ducked low-hanging branches and watched the sky for rain, I thought, “This is what writers need: a good seat on the top of a double-decker tour bus.”
I was visiting Philadelphia for my first time. I’d eaten a cheesesteak. I stood next to the Liberty Bell and in front of Independence Hall. I saw the Rocky steps (or, as people who know art call them, the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art). I’d learned how Benjamin Franklin invented almost every modern thing we use. (Bifocals. The volunteer fire department. Flippers. The urinary catheter.) And then I jumped on a double-decker bus, sat on the top, and had the best view of modern and historical life in a major American city.
It was relaxing and stimulating simultaneously. My feet took a break and my brain took in story ideas, fiction and non, from every tourist attraction and regular old street corner in the greater Philadelphia area. Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential street in the United States: Who lives there now? Who was its most famous resident? Surely, some criminal had hidden there sometime in the 18th century; someone was always on the lam in the 18th century. And who was that guy with the blue hair and a balloon eating a hot dog outside the place where they constructed the U.S. Constitution? Because I was sure he had a story and it included unrequited love.
It’s startling what a change of scenery can do for a writer’s brain. Seeing sights I’ve never seen and hearing stories about lives past was like a match lighting over and over again in my mind. I always forget how getting away can enliven the imagination, until I go somewhere new and remember. It’s something more and more neuroscientists and psychologists are studying and recognizing: how a change in scenery, or even just a change in routine, can boost creativity.
So how can we travel or at least change up our day-to-day when responsibilities (or maybe a lacking bank account) try to deter us? Here’s a few ideas I thought of while I was relaxing on the bus:
Take a walking tour of your hometown. Really. Something has happened there. There is surely some historical placard somewhere just waiting to be read.
Visit your local historical society. Even if your town is population 450 and has one stoplight, there’s always a history. A revolutionary war battle. Or maybe one of its former residents invented the washing machine? Who knows, until you check it out?
If you can afford it, book a weekend away in a big city. And then, take a trolley or bus or train tour of the location. It’s a free ticket (well, not really free — you have to pay to go on a tour) to stare freely at the history, culture, and people of a place. Wear dark sunglasses; it makes the staring more polite.
Visit the next town over. Have lunch somewhere new. Or better yet, eat breakfast at the counter in a diner in a place you’ve never been and just eavesdrop on the conversation around you. For some reason, I’ve always found that breakfast makes for the best eavesdropping.
Visit a friend in a different town and have them take you out and show you what people who live there really do, even if you’ve been to that town before and have visited your friend a zillion times. Tell them to treat you like a tourist who needs educating.
Make it a goal, every day, to do just one thing you’ve never done before. It can be a big thing (go parachuting) or a tiny thing (eat lunch in a different chair at your table). It rattles your brain, shakes things up, even if what you choose to do is barely detectable as a new thing. Just thinking up new things to do every day is like a dumbbell for your creativity muscle.
I hated to leave Philly. It was a beautiful city full of friendly people, good food, and engaging stories — the real ones, and the ones I made up. Eventually, though, they make you get off the tour trolley. So, like Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing.”
I came home and started writing. Hopefully, some of it will be worth reading.