What I Learned from Studying Writing in Greece (+5 Things You Need for Magical Literary Productivity)
The most productive time of my writing life was spent on a rural Greek island as part of the Writing Workshops in Greece program in the summer of 2014. I jumped off rocky cliffs into the Aegean Sea, ate fish I'd caught hours before, ghost-hunted in ancient ruins, sprinted down the middle of the highway barefoot under the full moon with amazing friends, our evening gowns clutched in our linked hands. Most importantly, I wrote. I filled an entire Moleskine with stories in three and a half weeks. (Before Greece, this amount of writing would take me a year).
If I could abandon everything and go back, I would. I’d relearn how to be a mermaid in the Aegean. I’d hold fire rituals every night. I’d climb down into the belly of the peninsula - where the indigenous wives sacrificed their sons - and discover what treasures it held. I’d write.
What happened in three short weeks on that beautiful island was nothing short of magic. There is a certain crazy, unexplainable thing about that island that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world.
But I let it steal my heart too intensely, and when I came home, my writing suffered. When I returned from Thassos, I missed the incredible gift I was given. I was unbelievably homesick for a place I'd only lived at for a very short time. I believed in the magic of the island; I believed something incredible had happened to me - and both of these beliefs were very, very true. But I also believed I could never achieve this amount of literary productivity again. And this very last piece was a terrible lie.
At home I could revise my writing, but I couldn't produce anything new for a long time. I felt like a piece of me was missing, a piece that was the key to writing productivity. I yearned for Thassos, for literary productivity, for the Aegean wind.
What I didn't understand at the time was that it wasn't the island of Thassos I needed, but something else entirely. The island stole my heart, sure, but I must confess—what I was craving to recreate wasn't actually a meal of gavros and tsiporo, but something else, some way to achieve productive literary magic.
I needed a structured freedom to write, a life inspiring enough to write about, time to let my brain be free, good books to study, and a community to guide and inspire me. These are the necessary ingredients to a productive writing life. These were the elements my writing life was missing. These were the reasons my writing suffered. And these are what YOU need if you want to make a productive writing life for yourself.
The 5 Things You Need to Create Magic Literary Productivity at Home
1 | Structured freedom to write
In Greece, we had a nice routine. In the mornings, we'd wake up and have breakfast, we'd go to class/workshop until lunch, we'd have the afternoons to read, write, go adventuring, we'd reconvene before dinner to listen to readings, then we'd dine, drink, dance until bed time. It was perfect.
In normal life, I didn't have this luxury, and you probably don't either. We all have jobs, families, whole lives outside of writing. We have other responsibilities, commitments, goals, desires. We do a lot of other things besides write. This can make it hard to get a lot of productive writing done.
But that doesn't mean you can't fit writing into your life. Instead of thinking writing and your life as two separate things, you have to fuse the two together into a life you love.
YOU HAVE TO SCHEDULE WRITING INTO YOUR LIFE + VOW TO COMMIT TO IT.
The reason I was so productive in Greece was because I had a structured freedom to write, and I had made a vow to myself to write while I was there. The program gave me a given period of time to write each day, but I still had to CHOOSE to write each day. And since I chose to, I wrote a lot.
To do this yourself:
Give your writing a structured schedule. Schedule writing into your calendar. Give it the same amount of weight and importance as everything else in your life. If this means you write every morning from 8-9 a.m. then that's what you do every morning. If this means you only write on Tuesday nights before you go to bed, then that's what you do every Tuesday night before you go to bed. If this means you find 10 minutes every day, at various points in the day, then that's what you do for 10 minutes every day. Your writing life doesn't have to be writing for 5 hours each day. It can be small. It can be infrequent. But it has to be SOMETHING. Find yourself a good schedule and stick to it.
Then, vow to commit to it no matter what. You have to CHOOSE to write. You have to CHOOSE to get it done. Just because you put it on your calendar doesn't necessarily mean it will get done. This is a good tool to get started and help you discern the importance, but you still have to consciously decide, consciously choose to write. You are in control of your life. Choose to make writing a priority and get it done.
2 | A life inspiring enough to write about
When I was in Greece, I did a lot of adventuring. And I mean, CRAZY adventuring. I swam out to a big rock in the middle of the sea, maybe a couple football fields away, and sunbathed on it. I jumped off rocky cliffs, diving into the water, swimming like a mermaid. I hiked through the rocky forest, walked through the marble quarry. I searched for ghosts in ancient ruins (literally, there are legit ghost stories). I participated in fire rituals on the beach. I splashed in phosphorescent water. I went out on a boat to catch fish I'd eat that night. And of course, I swam, I lounged in the sun, I drank a lot of delicious homemade wine and tsiporo.
I WAS LIVING A LIFE WORTH WRITING ABOUT.
This crazy adventurous stuff made for good writing material. I was living a life that was worth writing about. It was fun. It was life-changing. It was so fantastic that simply telling you about it doesn't do it justice.
What's interesting though was that while I was adventuring, and of course, documenting my adventures, my most interesting writing came from very domestic places. Something crazy would happen, some awesome adventure would lie before me, or someone would say something (anything!), and I would be reminded of something else.
I wrote about families. I wrote about the "woods" behind my childhood home. I wrote about relationships, moments with my significant other. I wrote about body image. I wrote about ghost stories from where I had grown up. I was documenting Greece, but I was writing about things I knew, things from elsewhere, things I hadn't expected to write.
By being inspired by my environment I was living in and the life I was living, I was able to write about everything. It wasn't as if I could only write about the adventures that lie before me; and it wasn't as if I needed these particular adventures in order to write a story. But I needed to be living to the fullest possible extent in order to inspire me to write. My Greek adventures inspired me to write anything and everything.
When I returned to Greece, I returned to a fairly boring life. I did a lot of sitting around, watching Netflix. That was pretty much it. When I went back to school, I fell into a fairly boring routine of class, food, homework, work. I wasn't doing anything interesting, anything inspiring, anything worth writing about. After I graduated this boringness continued. Again, a lot of work, eat, Netflix, repeat. I got stuck in routines and stuck in the mundaneness of them. I didn't feel like writing because I wasn't doing anything worth writing about.
Eventually I snapped out of the habit of mundaneness and decided to live a life worth writing about. Recently, I've done a lot of living. I've gone out with friends, swam at the pool, tried new restaurants, played some Call of Duty Zombies (when I list it out like this it sounds way less exciting, but it's been good, I swear). By creating a life around me that is interesting, my mind has been emotionally stimulated. I have things to write about, and they may not be what I'm doing exactly, but I'm inspired to capture the world because I've been living in it.
to do this yourself:
Go do something fun. Take a walk. Take a hike. Go canoeing. Try a new restaurant. Go to the zoo. Go to an amusement park. Go ghost hunting. Go eat a new food. Go do ANYTHING. Just be out in the world, and be present in the moment.
If you quarantine yourself in a room and expect writing to happen, it might work once or twice. If you do this every day, day in and day out, you will end up uninspired, bored, and frustrated. You have to fuse writing with your life, but you have to still have a life to live too. Go live it!
3 | Time to yourself
Every day in Greece, walking to and from the beach, I had an uninterrupted 10 minute time to be alone with my thoughts. I didn't have a phone to distract me. I couldn't check email or scroll through Facebook. I couldn't do anything but walk and think. So I let my mind wander. I let my thoughts do whatever they wanted. I noticed the air, the way it smelled like woods and saltwater at the same time. I noticed the hot sun on my back. I noticed the trees, the stony road, the little flowers, and admired them.
I'd get to the beach and let my mind be empty. I'd become a witness to the world. I'd watch the waves, the people doing their people things, the birds. I'd watch nothing. I'd become an non-judgemental observer to my thoughts, and then I'd document them. I'd give up the need to write "something good" about something specific, and simply allow the world to wash over me, capturing it through whatever words seemed appropriate at the time.
This summer I've been spending a lot of time at the pool. The walk to the pool in my apartment complex isn't far, and it doesn't look or smell like Greece, but it reminds me of walking to the beach in Greece. I carry the same bag I carried in Greece, the same beach towel, and this instigates the same mindset.
(In fact, it was this walk, that was so eerily familiar, that inspired this post.)
The similarities aren't just physical, but mental. The walk to my apartment complex's pool gives me an uninterrupted time to let my mind empty and become a witness to the world, just as the walk to the beach in Greece did. I arrive at the pool with a mind ready to document things, think about things, and be free to write. This isn't a purposeful, intentional walk with a destination in mind. It isn't a walk full of talking to others or absorbing social media stuff. It's easy, relaxed, free. It's some solid "me-time" that allows my mind to consider the world and appreciate it.
This is an AMAZING thing that I hadn't realized I'd been missing until it showed back up in my life again.
We often get so busy in our lives. We absorb Facebook. We absorb email. We absorb TV shows. We are constantly receiving information that our brain has to process. Then we have to output. We have to write this certain thing by this certain deadline. We have to complete this project for work by Friday. We have to cook dinner and have it ready before everyone gets too hungry. We force ourselves to have a highly productive output in a condensed amount of time. The high-frequency of these inputs and outputs doesn't allow any room for our brain to just be. And for writing, the "just be" phase is essential for magic to happen.
LET YOUR BRAIN "TURN OFF" + JUST BE IN THE WORLD AROUND YOU.
By finding a way to let my brain just exist, I gave my brain the freedom it needed to be inspired, to get excited, to get moving. In my most recent trip to the pool, I went without any expectations, no intentions, except to lay in the sun. I had a book to read and a notebook to write, but I didn't give myself any pressures to do something. On my walk there, I emptied my mind. I admired the trees, the road, the hum of air conditioning units. When I got to the pool, I watched the people, the water, and nothing at all. I let my brain turn off and simply asked it to exist.
With the freedom to think and the removal of expectations, I came up with four different story ideas, wrote six pages of various notes, and read over 100 pages in my book. If that's not productive, I don't know what is.
To do this yourself:
Give your brain some room to breathe. Take a walk (yes, a physical walk) with no end goal in mind. Turn off your phone, release any intentions. Let your mind and body wander freely throughout the world. Then, take a seat in nature - at the pool, in the woods, at the beach, in a park, doesn't matter where exactly - and just watch the world around you. Quiet your internal dialogue, and let yourself just be washed over the contents of the world. Become an observer, become a witness. Simply ask yourself to exist.
If something interesting comes to mind, write it down. If it doesn't, that's okay. This is an excellent recharging system for your brain that is sure to get it going later. The goal here is to let your brain be free.
4 | Good books to study
There simply may be nothing better than lying on the beach with a good book in your hand. It's so simple, so relaxing. It's something we all want to do and we'd love to do it all the time.
But how often do you actually do it? Seriously?
With our busy lives, reading can get pushed to the wayside. With such high input and output variables, we have to prioritize what we choose to do. I know for me, reading an awesome book gets devalued in favor of creating something new or working on my WIP or writing a blog post or sending an email or a million bajillion other things. But this isn't fair.
Whenever I get stuck with my writing, I try to sort it out in my head. I try to think logically, then I try to think emotionally, then I try to reason my way to the "right" answer. This doesn't work. Whenever the writing stops and I feel uninspired, I try to force myself to write. I ask my brain to give me inspiration, discipline, high output. This doesn't really work either.
The best medicine for a struggling writer is to read something.
In Greece I read a lot, of course. I read quite a few short stories and essays and craft lessons for class every day, but I also read a few short story collections. I was feeding myself quality writing every day, and my own writing thanked me for it. I found inspiration for my own work. I sorted through problems by seeing how other writers handled similar things. I had a stimulating input.
This is such a simple thing, such an enjoyable thing, and yet we seem to push it to the wayside. We mustn't do that.
Now, whenever I get stuck with my writing, I turn to a good book. I let the writing marinate, I let my thoughts develop, and I focus on the masters. This is seriously the best medicine. I also try to make reading quality stories a habit. You can't produce Real+Good Writing without reading Real+Good Writing. Plus, this is probably why most of us are writers anyway - because we just love books!
TO DO THIS YOURSELF:
Make sure you have something to read and study. Read things that interest you, inspire you, encourage you to write your own stories. Make the time to read something. And when you read it, make sure you read as a writer. Don't just let everything wash over you, but pay attention to how the writer wrote the story. Pay attention to what's working and what isn't working. These are the lessons your brain will remember that will help you problem solve at a later time. Go read something!
5 | A community to encourage and inspire you
I made such good friends in Greece. We wrote together, adventured together, critiqued each other, inspired each other. During workshops we took the time to read each other's work and help each other make it better. This is SO important and necessary. Writing is a solitary activity, but you don't have to go it alone. You have to find your writing buddies: people who get you, who can critique you, who can talk you through your writing struggles, who know what it's like to be a writer, and you can just vent to.
In Greece, we held workshops every day. We talked about craft, edited each other's stories, and grew as writers from being around and working with other writers. This is awesome. You can get this in a classroom workshop setting as well. And I enjoyed this aspect (much more than I realized) throughout my undergraduate career.
But when you're not in school or on a beautiful rural island, you still need this community. You still need people that get you, that work with you, that inspire you.
Sometimes you get so close to your work that you can't see what it's missing, what isn't working. Finding an outside pair of eyes can do amazing things for you work. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
Sometimes you just get so frustrated with writing in general. Sometimes you just want to give up. Sometimes you don't know if what you're doing matters at all. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
Sometimes you can't figure out what should happen next in your plot. Nothing you've thought of seems to work. Your friends, who aren't writers, try to help you, but you need someone who gets the art of the story. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
Sometimes you don't know enough about voice, or setting, or plot, or characters. You need to talk through some craft elements. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
Sometimes you need a new good book to read. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
Sometimes you write something that's so unexpected and out of the blue, that you're not sure if it's the best thing you've ever written, or not at all like what you were going for and not at all like your writing style. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
Sometimes you feel really really alone. Sometimes you feel like no one gets you. Sometimes you feel like you're a crazy person for writing at all. This is where your writing buddy comes in.
You NEED writing buddies. And yet, it can be very hard to find this sense of community.
to find your writing buddies:
To find them, you have a few options: You can check out local writers groups in the place where you live. Or you can seek communities online. There are plenty of free and paid community websites where writers share work and discuss the craft of writing. But you can also find people through social media. Check out #amwriting on Twitter, or join a weekly Twitter chat, such as the @StorySocial on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. EST. Join a Facebook group, such as Kristen Kieffer of She's Novel's Your Write Dream.
When you find somebody who seems to be a good writing buddy for you, reach out and say hello. The purpose of social media is to be SOCIAL, so you have to get out of your comfort zone and say hi. I know for us writers, who are often introverted, this can be difficult; but this is how you make friends. I wouldn't have met any of the great writing buddies I have right now if I hadn't had the courage to simply say hello to them. It's weird, scary, and probably awkward, but chances are, they're probably looking for another writing buddy too.
Go say hi to people and make some writing friends!
Creating an awesome and productive writing life may mean abandoning everything and moving to the island of Thassos to write and adventure all the time. If you can do this, GO DO IT! But if you can't, that doesn't mean you can't recreate some of the benefits in your own backyard.
to have a productive writing life:
- Give yourself structured freedom to write + vow to make writing a priority
- Live a life worth writing about
- Give your brain some room to breath + simply exist in the world
- Make the time to read
- Find a community of awesome writing buddies
This was everything I needed in Greece to make an amazing and productive writing life. This is what I use now to recreate the benefits of Greece in my own home. You can't bring the island with you wherever you go (and NOTHING will ever replace the magical life of Thassos), but you can live a writing life you love wherever you are.
When was the most productive time in your writing life? What do you need to have a productive writing life? Have you found one of these components more important than others? Have you ever had an intense and amazing literary experience elsewhere?