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.
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!”
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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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.