I just returned from vacation, and a lot of ideas have been stirred up via my bizarre creative process.

Of course, that’s not unusual for me, in general, but travel kicks it up a notch.

Matt and I have gotten into cruising in the past year, after a lifetime of being against the industry due to its environmental impacts, questionable international law while at sea, and treatment of employees and locals. It’s also a non-immersive travel experience, because you only have a few highly curated hours in port to “experience” the area.

We now approach cruising for what it is: a vacation experience more than a cultural immersion experience. It gives us an easy way to get a taste of a few areas as a tourist, which we would do on our first trip to a new place anyway. I mean, when we traveled to Paris by train and stayed in a local hotel two years ago, we spent two days visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Versailles before taking off to Zurich. When we go back, we plan to take it easier and a bit less tourist-y, but we like to hit the sites on the first trip while still making time to act like and interact with locals (which becomes an #introvertproblem anywhere).

Anyway, I enjoy cruising, even with its myriad of issues.

And travel is a bit magical, whether you’re road tripping to Dollywood with the family or masterminding in Morocco with leaders in your field.

Now, notably, studies have shown that cultural immersion–not just travel alone–influences creativity the most. But even putting yourself into a new environment allows your brain to start making new connections, open itself to new ideas and experiences, and do some flexible processing work that it’s not always forced to do in your regular environment.

That’s why you often get new ideas and improved focus when you shift your workplace to a new coffee shop instead of your kitchen table. It allows your brain to shake things up a bit.

I had a personally interesting experience with new ideas, connections, and realizations this trip.

Now, I don’t want to share any of my actual breakthroughs, mostly because they’re so mundane to the outside world that I can just picture Miranda Priestly disappointedly muttering “groundbreaking” to each one.

But I do want to share the somewhat accidental creative process that happened over the course of a week, often at inopportune times like while watching a cheesy game show or pushing through a throng of tourists at Peterhof Palace. It left me more than once ranting on a bench or at a cafe in a foreign country while Matt looked around anxiously while saying “we should probably head back to the bus now.”

So let me break the process down to the best of my ability:

1. Thinking

I am horrible with journals. Throughout my life, I’ve torn up and thrown away multiple journals, too embarrassed by their contents to continue carrying them around with me. This started happening as young as age 6, and has continued into my blogging life as I go back and delete old posts. I’ve recently gotten okay at bullet journaling, because it’s basically just a to-do list with interesting notation.

Before I left, both my coach and my therapist suggested I use some free time on the ship between eating and watching cheesy musical acts to journal. I begrudgingly agreed and brought along my Leuchtturm 1917 that everyone in the bullet journal community recommends.

We had a decent balcony off our room, and a few times throughout the week I’d ask Matt to go entertain himself while I sat on a mesh chair that had probably never been properly cleaned between passengers.

And I’d open my notebook, and I’d write down the date, and then I’d stare angrily at the page. Because that seems to be my default reaction to “forced” writing that I chose to do.

After that, I’d try a little free writing, which I remember from 10th grade and ghost hunting shows. I’d try to properly clear my brain so that I didn’t become an unwitting psychic conduit, but the result was still weird. Here is my actual first paragraph from day one:

Free writing is when you write to get ideas flowing. It is nice outside and I enjoy the cold and water. I bet there were no balconies on the Titanic even though their clothes were warmer. This hurts my hand where is the keyboard.

In my defense, I had the Titanic on my mind because they thought this was a good photo to put up on a cruise ship:

As a creative scientist, my journaling inevitably devolved into numbers. Those numbers were mostly how many hours I reasonably need to work each week, rather than how many hours I’m currently choosing to work. I’ll share more about that with you over the summer as my sabbatical is officially in effect, so I’m only doing “work work” 10 hours/week for at least June, and hopefully July as well (we’ll see how long I make it).

Most of my journaling time was spent staring at the water, which was a rather meditative experience and probably more valuable than the free writing.

2. Detaching

After the journaling (or before, or in between), I’d usually end up doing something completely unrelated to what I was journaling about, because I was on vacation and there were variety acts to watch and frozen drinks to imbibe.

This was part of the travel magic, because, as Matt so lovingly put it, I have “too much time to overthink” available while at home and distracted only by my cats (who are trying to get my attention as I type this).

You can only stay in your head for so long while traveling or on vacation. At some point you have to figure out how to get through customs without being detained and how to say “hi” in Danish (it’s pronounced the same in English and Danish, which made us extra complacent about learning Danish for this trip).

Detachment is like sleeping while awake. One purpose of sleep is to allow your brain to defrag like a computer, putting the thought pieces you’ve collected throughout the day where they need to go. Meditation can help with this as well. When you’re particularly bad at sleep, like myself (and Amy Poehler, apparently), and you’re resistant to meditation simply because you don’t like being told what to do, travel can be even more of a blessing.

You’re awake, you’re doing things, and your brain is busy making connections behind the scenes.

3. Integration

Eventually, your brain finishes (or partially finishes) processing whatever it was trying to process and provides an output. I picture it happening like an old dot matrix printer with the holes on the sides of the paper that you get to tear off. I last saw one still in operation in a hotel in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska in 2009.

Honestly, the input I gave my brain for integration was pretty lackluster and included:

  • Free writing exercises like the one transcribed above
  • Numbers not based in reality
  • Earworms from the musical Hairspray
  • Rants to Matt about the online business industry
  • A dessert called Pavlova from New Zealand
  • A confusing dose of chronic depression

Integration is the worst. I mean, it’s the best, and it’s the point of all this, but it’s really the worst. It tends to manifest itself in a rollercoaster of emotions for me, and that gets even more frustrating when you layer depression and anxiety on top of it.

On the morning of our anniversary and our final stop on the ship, I woke up in Helsinki, Finland crying because I didn’t sleep well and my depression was getting the best of me on a marvelous trip. My brain was trying to figure things out and depression was sitting on top of it all, lying about things. Because that’s what depression does–it lies.

Then I got a long hug from Matt and a mocha from Cafe Latte-tudes (so much cheesiness) and cheered up a little. That is not to be confused with “cured my depression,” by the way.

Then we got to the theater to wait for our excursion around Finland and got treated rudely by a staff member, and I was angry again (so angry, in fact, that I wrote about this nameless dude when Royal Caribbean asked for our trip feedback).

Then I successfully smuggled my mocha off the ship and into Finland and felt rebellious.

Then we got into the city and our guide shared that the city was mostly shut down for a former president’s funeral, their first state funeral of this level of importance in 35 years. I felt sad for the country and the man’s family, and disappointed for our tour prospects with roads shut down.

At some point in Porvoo, after grabbing chocolate and more coffee in a tourist trap, I told Matt that I just need to ignore everybody and do what I want to do with my creative and business projects.

Yeah, go ahead and cue the Miranda Priestley gif.

Matt, thankfully, is now used to these random outbursts, which occur throughout the day as the integration process happens. This one immediately followed us commenting that it was surprising that the Lutheran Church was celebrating Ascension Day when I didn’t recall that happening in my Lutheran experience growing up. There was no transition between these thoughts.

But that’s what integration looks like for me. Shifting emotions, and then reaching a point of “fuck it, we’ll do it live!” for whatever the topic(s) I’m integrating are.

It makes no sense.

But if I’ve learned anything about the creative process, it’s that it doesn’t make any sense.

And that’s ok. And kind of cool, actually.

We’re still studying the creative process and what actually happens in people’s brains when they’re making connections and having breakthroughs.

It’s still a bit fuzzy.

And that’s how it probably feels for you too.

Own the uncertainty, and, if you’re curious, try being mindful the next time you’re deep in problem solving mode. What do you turn to, what really helps the ideas flow, and how do you best detach?

Because if you’re struggling to detach, I recommend you experiment with travel magic, even if it’s just with a trip to the next town over.

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