This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in January, 2016.
I always dreamed of writing a book, but the moment I signed my first book contract, I realized my dream had been slightly misguided. Actually, my dream was to wake up from a dream about anything other than writing to find that I’d written a book. A great book. A book that everyone was reading—that made reviewers fawn, my family proud, and my enemies jealous.
What I hadn’t fantasized about was the actual process of stringing words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and then paragraphs into chapters. Because writing is really, really hard work. And who fantasizes about work? No one. Well, maybe bankers.
To write a book, you need talent. But that’s not enough. You also need discipline, and like many writers, discipline is not something I have a lot of. As days passed by and the words on the page failed to rack up, I panicked. Then I panicked more. My deadline was approaching. I was getting emails about my progress and responding to them with smiley faces when my actual face was tear-stained and strained. I needed help.
Our world is tricked out with things and places that are supposed to help us be productive: apps, libraries, caffeine. I utilized all of them, but nothing worked. The problem was much bigger than I thought it was, and it only had one solution. The problem was my life, and the solution was to abandon it.
Okay, that’s dramatic. I didn’t need to give up my entire life. Just life in New York City: the places I loved to eat and drink, the people I loved and wanted to hang out with. In New York, it didn’t matter if I told myself that I wasn’t going to go out or answer the phone—when opportunities arose, I always gave in.
So, after continually frustrating and disappointing myself, and getting nothing done, it was time to go.
I packed up and moved to Nicaragua, without much of a plan in mind. I chose Nicaragua because it’s close enough that the ticket is cheap, but far enough away that it wouldn’t occur to anyone other than my sister to visit. It had interesting cities with crumbling colonial buildings and regal churches as well empty beaches that yawn wide into the ocean. Plus, in Nicaragua, the money I had in the bank would last way longer than it did in New York.
Before I left, I laid down some rules for myself, to make sure that I didn’t find myself falling into the same old traps in my new surroundings. I’d write five days a week and explore or relax for two. I’d give myself the day off when I traveled because traveling in developing countries always takes longer than you think. I would spend at least a week in a place unless it was really awful. Most of all, I would resist the urge to see everything there was to see. And I would write 8,000 per week, or else.
In the end, I ended up having a month in Granada, two weeks in Leon and Maderas. The rest of the time I was on an island, a lagoon, or in one of the many small east coast beach towns. And I wrote.
Was I distracted in Nicaragua? Sure. But I kept close tabs on my distraction, and let it serve as both an inspiration and a reward. My desire to see the country was so strong that I made sure I met my daily word count. On days when the words didn’t come—and there were a few—I gave myself permission to explore for a few hours before sitting down and trying to write again.
Fleeing New York for Nicaragua was the best thing I could have done for my book. I left my very-established life, which often included three-hour “let’s catch up!” lunches with old colleagues in town for work, readings I felt I couldn’t miss, and emotionally draining friends I didn’t know how to say no to.
I only had one thing to do every day, and that was write. No excuses, and no need to make excuses, no need to even say no, which is enough to make me feel guilty sometimes. Maybe even more importantly, instead of spending my free time in places that were comfortable because I knew them so well, I instead spent it spent wandering cities, chatting up strangers in strange bars, surfing, and reading in hammocks as palm trees scattered shadows across my body.
Everything was new and everything was interesting, and I was able to channel that excitement I was able to channel that excitement back into writing my book. The excitement I felt every day was a constant reminder of the reason I write in the first place, and that the world is much bigger than New York.
Unconventional Productivity is a five-part series of stories written by creative professionals about their best rule-breaking advice.
Anya Yurchyshyn lives in Brooklyn and wherever else she can. She is working on a memoir.