Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 11, 2019

Staying On Track When Everything Changes

Hey y'all! Meet Ellen Buikema, our newest member of the Writers in the Storm team. She is currently in a sleepy town in Mexico, writing her latest novel and practicing her Spanish.

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I can write anywhere. Right?

After my husband and I retired from high stress jobs, we sold or gave away most of our belongings and hit the road. I would write as we traveled.  No problem. I can write anywhere.

As it turned out, major changes were not good for my writing.

Change #1: My writing pals went to heaven.

Sheila and Bailey

Before beginning our journey, I composed on my laptop in the kitchen or at the dining room table, always with a pup nearby keeping me company. Both our dogs crossed over the Rainbow Bridge a few months before our journey started.

Generally, I wrote in quiet. I never stay in front of my writing materials when I am stuck for what happens next. I’d lay on the living room floor and contemplate what to write. Bailey, our black lab and unofficial therapy dog, would often join me.

Change #2: The brain make-over commenced.

We planned to start our journey in Mexico. We’d studied Spanish for several months before leaving the U.S. so we felt confident about the language. But focusing on a second language had an unexpected temporary effect on my writing. Apparently, learning a second language causes some interference with the first one.

According to an article about neuroplasticity, the brain rewires itself all the time. According to the article, “When you change your beliefs, learn something new or become mindful of your habitual reactions to unpleasant emotions, you actually alter the neurochemistry and the structure of your brain.” We are the architects of our own brains. When we shift our perception and learn something new, it alters its neurochemicals as well as structure.

Changing our mind literally changes our brain. Exciting as that is, I didn’t anticipate the new language would temporarily hinder my writing. Code-switching, alternating between languages, is not fun.

Change #3: The journey began.

Stop 1 – Central Mexico

The first place we landed was gorgeous! We rented a home and set about to make it comfy. However, it was winter in Central Mexico, at an altitude of 6000 feet, with a fireplace that provided little warmth in an uninsulated house. Cold breezes blew through cracks around windows, doors, and walls. Brrrr.

Space heaters helped me warm up enough to edit, but new material - No way! It seems that discomfort makes me a cranky minimalist writer. In truth, altitude changes everyone’s brain.

Did you know that high altitude living makes you less hungry?

Excerpt from an actual conversation with my husband:

“Hey sweetie, are you interested in breakfast?”
“No, not really. What time is it?”
“Let me look at my phone. Oh wow, it’s afternoon!”
“You’re kidding!”

I researched appetite changes (I like research) and learned that the hormone leptin, which plays a role in metabolism and appetite control, works differently at higher altitudes. Losing some weight I always appreciated but I still wasn’t writing much.

Stop 2 - Western Coastal Mexico

Next, we traveled to western Mexico near the coast. It’s a party town with lots of things to do, great food, and scores of happy tourists and locals. At the first place, every morning began with someone serenading the neighbors. His fabulous singing voice didn’t make up for the 6 am wakeup from the courtyard. It reminded me very much of the movie Rear Window but without the Raymond Burr character.

I still wasn’t getting much writing done.

We moved to a condo with a glorious view of the shoreline with amazing sunsets. But those sunsets didn’t make up for the noise. Open air vehicles, pulmonias and auregas, blasted music into the wee hours of the morning along the Malecon (a thoroughfare) directly in front of our building. The condo was tiny. I developed a syndrome call, “Ooooh, a squirrel!”

Another month with little to no writing.

Stop 3: Quiet neighborhoods are the charm

Since moving into a relatively quiet neighborhood near the port, I am finally comfortable enough to compose new work. Our very patient neighbors help us with our Spanish hurdles (like conjugating verbs) and are patient with our phone translators, which are often out, even while we’re sharing a beer in front of the house.

The Lesson: Know what works for YOU.

From quiet to chaos was quite a lot of adjustment, and it was disastrous for the creation of new material. My husband and I dove headfirst into culture-shock and encountered more noise than I ever imagined.

Now that I’ve settled into relative comfort (and I’m not code-switching languages as much), the writing is coming back. I’ve begun a basic outline for my next YA historical fiction manuscript, and it feels glorious.

All will be well, poco a poco.

Have you had sudden changes to your routine halt your progress? How do you re-focus and get back on track? Share your tricks down in the comments!

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About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

39 comments on “Staying On Track When Everything Changes”

  1. Hi Ellen,
    Welcome and thank you for sharing your experiences. I just want to say, my heart goes out to you on the loss of your four legged children...It is so hard, isn't it? I have always had dogs, horses, cats et al around me, so I DO understand.
    Keep your words coming, and all the best.

    1. Thank you, Kati! It was really difficult to lose our pups, particularly our black lab. Bailey was very dear to us.

  2. It's still great to learn a language and discover different life styles, no surprise that our brains adjust, but all your new experiences are stored up waiting to inspire when you are back in writing mode.

    1. I think it's important to be able to communicate with people in their language when possible. Thankfully, I'm getting back into the swing of things for composing new material. I'm sure I can fit the early morning singer in there somewhere.

  3. 'We are the architects of our own brains.' I love that, and clearly, I'm falling down on the job.

    You are SO brave to go do this! I can tune out noise (did you try noise cancelling headphones?), and I often write better in a different location, but the language thing? No way, Jose.

    1. Laura, I'm not so sure about brave. One thing I am really grateful for is being able to maintain a sense of humor. In Tequisquiapan, the first pueblo we lived, almost no one spoke English and that was really difficult. The first time we went somewhere that people spoke my native language it was like having a weight lifted off my chest that I didn't realize was even there.

      Thanks for the tip regarding noise cancelling headphones. I will check that out.

  4. I love your line about being architects of our own brains (err, mine might not pass building codes) and I've heard that joy and gratitude change brain chemistry. I spent my life as a linguist/translator for difficult languages such as Russian and Farsi, so I get the struggle in the beginning, but I find the facility with a foreign language actually increases my creativity with English.

    1. You give me hope! I remember reading somewhere that people who speak more than one language are more flexible thinkers. I look forward to greater creativity in writing. How wonderful for you to be fluent in so many languages.

  5. Great post ... except for the altitude part. I live at 9100 feet and it hasn't cut my appetite back one singly teeny tiny bit.
    But now I'm wondering if my reluctance to get back to the WIP is a by product of my 3 weeks in the British Isles. Yeah. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking with it.

    1. LOLOL. Terry, when I go visit Margie Lawson in the mountains, I do not notice a change in appetite either. I DO notice that my coffee goes further (as in amps me up more), but losing the few pounds would make me even happier.

      1. It's the alcohol that will get you at altitude. When we were in the British Isles, everything was nearly sea level, and I had NO trouble with the whisky, whiskey, and beer.

        1. Ha! Yes, I found that out too. I'm a lightweight at the best of times but in the mountains...I am a featherweight. One glass of wine with make my head spin.

          1. Generally I am a lightweight so I need to be careful wherever I am. But I noticed a difference in that regard at high altitude as well. Somewhere there is a tequila fueled karaoke video of me recorded by a dear friend who was also tequila fueled. Between off key and blurry, in all ways, it was really awful. LOL

    2. LOL. For most of my life I have lived in altitudes under 5000 feet. The extra 1000 seems to have made a difference for both my hubby and me. Everyone has a different body chemistry, so perhaps that is a factor. I wonder if the nutrients in the food makes a difference. The food here is amazing and very fresh.

      Sounds like you had an awesome time in the British Isles! Some of my family still lives in Ireland and one of these days I'll travel there. Family is mainly in County Cork. If you have suggestions for places to see I'd love to hear about your suggestions.

      1. We were on a custom designed tour (our 50th anniversary) and our driver showed us some nifty place. We were in County Cork for about a day, and I'd have to go back to my notes and see what we did there. Talk about vacation brain overload. But I've been sharing pictures on my website via my blog. Still in Scotland. Ireland was our last stop. If Ballymalou House is still there, the restaurant is fantastic, but we did that back in 2002.

  6. What an awesome and informative post. Who knew about brain switching? I daydream about doing just what you did except my country of choice would be Scotland.

    1. Thank you, Winona! Code switching is annoying but I understand it happens to everyone to one degree or another when learning another language. I feel certain that you will make it to Scotland.

  7. Welcome, Ellen. Love this post--generous dollops of wisdom warmly seasoned with sprinkles of humor. Look forward to what you will share in the days ahead.

    1. Hi Micky! Thank you for your kind comments. I have been reading Writers In The Storm posts for a while now and am pleased to be able to contribute.

  8. I liked your post and it meant a lot to me. I am almost constantly changing my locale. Five of my grown children welcome aging me into their homes for up to a month apiece. They live in all parts of the United States. Altitude? Changes often. Climate? Much the same changing. The one advantage is that at each home, I am pampered and have all the time I want to write -- if my brain is wired right it now appears.

    1. It is good to be loved! I hope my children do the same for me. I am coming to believe that it's all about comfort. A good friend and writer buddy just moved down the street from us. She wants to take one day a week to edit at the beach and has asked me to join her. I will definitely take her up on that. I am pleased you've enjoyed my first blog for Writers In The Storm.

    1. Kathleen!! Thank you for your kind words. Please give my love to the folks in the monthly marketing group. I learned so much from everyone there. Sock Puppet Tim says, "Hi!"

  9. What nice to hear more from your Mexico story, and of writing or not writing when you're mixed up in languages... I recognize a bit from that :).
    But it is great you're writing your next book!

  10. It's lovely to hear from you, Lieve. You are so talented, writing in more than one language and such wonderful nature photography! Someday we should chat about communicating in different languages.

    1. Thank you, Julie! I'm pleased that you enjoyed this first blog for the group. My best for your move.

  11. Beautiful visuals are the kryptonite to my creativity. Blank walls are better not to distract my addled brain! I am glad to see you writing here. I look forward to reading more!

    1. Thank you, John! The room I'm currently writing in has very little on the walls, so I'm right there with you.

  12. Welcome, Ellen. Congratulations on joining WITS! I'm looking forward to more great articles from you!

    1. Wow, Kara, pain changes everything. Here's hoping that stem cell therapies become more wide spread and can help with whatever is causing you grief. My best to you.

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