Creative Distancing and the Creative Process

May 6, 2021
A clutch of red flowers rising up out of green foliage on the edge of a lake
Lupines / Photo by Robert Bradbury

A writer in Newfoundland gets away—relocating for three weeks to Pinchgut Lake, only fifteen minutes from her home. Treating the change as “every bit as important as a medical experiment,” she seeks to gain the energy and desire to create and feel alive, the jump-start she would usually reclaim through much more distant, sustained travel.

The Pinchgut Journal

Last summer, almost three months after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, I “traveled” to an area that is about a fifteen-minute drive from my place in Steady Brook, Newfoundland, Canada. As an avid traveler unable to leave the island of Newfoundland, I wanted to see if a trip close to my place might re-create the creativity that international travel affords my writing and upon which I rely so much.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

This is my first morning. Yesterday, I prepared. I found myself feeling the same old things—a need to rush and get everything sorted, the worry I would forget something crucial.

I am a fifteen-minute drive from my condo and can return home anytime during the next three weeks. However, I decided to get renovations done while away. I had been planning to do this on what should have been my upcoming sabbatical. I was going to take off again, this time for eight months and, most likely, to South America. With the need to pack my place up so renovators could do their job, I found myself feeling the same things I have so often when going away for the summer and when getting my place ready should people stay at my condo during my absence. There was the ritual gathering together of everything private and the storing of it in a large unit in my bedroom. There were the lists to be ticked off—things to be brought, food to buy.

I contacted my two closest friends, one by text. “Hey, sorry for not having got back to you sooner. I’m entering the writing zone and space right now. Might not be in contact for three weeks.” I phoned another friend and explained how I’d be out of country. “I’ll give you four days,” she laughed.

My creative process is spurred on by planting myself in the unfamiliar.

Travel and writing are synonymous for me, and my creative process is spurred on by planting myself in the unfamiliar. When I first arrive in a new country or place, I am taken by the new surroundings—food, people, language, architecture. . . . It instantly drives my writing. I feel fresh. I feel alive.

Now, I’m overlooking Pinchgut Lake. I have a beautiful, separate apartment on the same property as the owners and their house. In Steady Brook, I live by the river. I sit on my patio every morning and listen to it rush over rocks, though it is often overshadowed by the sound of nearby highway traffic. I feed my pet chipmunk peanuts and sunflower seeds. The feeling there is rougher than it is here—in lake country.

There is a young sheepdog on this property, and I prepared by buying dog treats to ensure he’d be my companion. I left instructions for the renovators to feed Chippie while I am away and indicated the times he usually comes looking for me.

How to keep this energy alive? My new surroundings this morning brought me to my computer to write and in an excited kind of way that has been escaping me since the pandemic shifted my lifestyle and writing rituals.

Sunday, July 5, 11:30 a.m.

Early this morning (6:30 a.m.), the owners invited me to ride around the lake with them on a pontoon as some supplies had to be picked up on the other side of the lake. There is a mist that hovers over the water in early mornings and makes the place feel like a hidden, enclosed world.

I haven’t had so many memories like this of British Columbia in almost two decades. I grew up in lake country. Though the town of Powell River is surrounded by ocean, we lived near two lakes—both within a five-minute walk—and this formed my concepts of natural beauty. Here, at Pinchgut, the aesthetic is so much different than that which dominates most of the west coast of Newfoundland and what people tend to come see on their travels—the rugged ocean and the houses that try to survive it standing side by side open to the elements.

This is what I couldn’t get when I first arrived in Newfoundland more than twenty years ago. In British Columbia, the aesthetic that dominates is buried worlds, cabins enclosed in their own little forests and magical ideals, hidden from neighbors and those driving by on public roads.

While the faces of houses at Pinchgut, some of which are too large, as I see it, to fit or complement the landscape, can be seen from the water, they are often hidden from the main dirt access road that meanders to the lake community from the highway. The distance between others is privileged in a way I haven’t seen in Newfoundland’s ocean culture. I’m feeling (not just remembering) my days of camping in B.C., the lake we would, as children, swim across to the cliffs where we would spend the days jumping off rocks into freshwater.


Wednesday, July 8, 6:30 a.m.

On Monday, I had to go into town. I was called in to a car appointment, which is difficult to get given the pandemic and the slow reopening of things where people are lined up to do basic services they haven’t been able to do for months.

My mission was to get in and out as quickly as possible without anyone seeing me. I didn’t want to be confronted with the day-to-day things and conversations that would have broken the feeling that I am not here. I did not feel as inspired to write when I returned, and it took me several hours to feel safely away again.

Yesterday, one of the owners took me for a ride on a side-by-side, a little jeeplike construction meant for climbing rocks and hills. We left Pinchgut and went through the woods’ tracks until about Gallants—just before Stephenville. I hadn’t been in that backcountry before, and it struck me that there is so much of the west coast of Newfoundland, and Newfoundland in general, that I haven’t seen. There are worlds buried within worlds here, and this little sojourn is making me aware of how many opportunities there really are for getting away.

I saw lady’s slippers for the first time, too—some kind of orchid—fuchsia and white with delicate, almost flimsy looking, silky petals. Simply gorgeous. I stopped to photograph them, though I knew I couldn’t capture their full beauty, and I thought about taking some back to my temporary apartment. I hadn’t brought scissors with me. However, I recalled stories about monkshood, a poisonous flower here, which bears a slight resemblance to lady’s slippers. If monkshood finds its way into the body—say, if one brushes one’s lips after touching the plant—the result can be fatal.

One major thing that is increasing my happiness is the thirteen-month-old sheepdog.

One major thing that is increasing my happiness is the thirteen-month-old sheepdog. I have blogged about dogs in different countries. The treatment of animals says a lot about cultures and their means, and I notice street dogs and animals instantly when I travel. This situation is not the same, of course. This is a domestic dog, massive puppy, really, but he is adding a dimension to my life here. I have wanted a dog for ages, but my constant travel makes this impossible.

So . . . a lake, a dog, backwoods, wonderful company, and solitude.

When I came back from my ride yesterday, I told the owners this was just as good as, if not better than, having jaunted off to South America. I meant it.

Saturday, July 11, 7:44 a.m.

I’m feeling guilty and elated for several reasons. First, I am in the middle of potential activity—swimming, biking, walking, etc.—and a host of activities that the owners have graciously invited me to—jet skiing, side-by-siding again. . . . The immersion in work, a new kind of creative ferocity, has made me the most productive I have been in over half a year, however. I have been writing and researching almost nonstop from about 7:00 a.m. (I’m getting up early these days at around 5:30 a.m.) until seven or eight at night. I’m feeling guilty that I am more-than-satisfied to remain inside and write, though I take a break from time to time to dream up designs for renovations. My condo has become a sort of palette where I can also express myself. My mind is sharp, and I’m seeing a host of potential plans. I wonder if re-creating the condo will provide me with a new kind of creative fervor that will somehow match what I am feeling here, removed from Corner Brook and isolating and traveling in a new area.

More than this, nothing is feeling like work at the moment. I have returned to my poetry manuscript, “The Indies Cut,” which I began working on almost a decade ago. I’m seeing things sharply now, the manner in which severe cuts have to be made, the manner in which my paring down of the manuscript into spare, skeletal, almost modernist verse is what I was working toward all along. Prior to arriving here, I thought “The Indies Cut” would probably never surface, that those years of living, traveling, and writing in the Caribbean might simply have been for my personal growth and not for the production of a book. I’m thinking that might be wrong now.

I think, too, that one of the things which has jolted my mind and the creativity in me is the fact that I am only interacting, for the most part, with the owners of this place. They have nothing to do with my career at the university (and this is a university town), and there are new stories and different experiences to consider. It’s not that I don’t love my friends. It’s just that a significant part of travel for me is the removal, too, from community and friends.

For the past number of years, I have planted myself in urban places when leaving Newfoundland for four months when the academic term has ended. Typically, I have shifted to another country by May 1, at the very latest (and even earlier, if I can swing it), and I find my way to cities where I can have stimuli that are different from that which surround me for eight months. I am planted in a rural world, and what I have wanted is the absolute opposite when I go away.

Pinchgut has me thinking that maybe all I need is a place—not necessarily urban or rural—that transports me to a different mental zone.

Monday, July 13, 12:08 p.m.

Yesterday morning, I was able to see with absolute clarity that I had to change the sequencing of the ms. at the very end. How that had escaped me for so long, I don’t know.

I have not felt this creative rush since I was in Uruguay last summer (fall in South America).

I was a bit disappointed that my last day of editing the ms. coincided with the hottest and sunniest day I have experienced yet out here. In many ways, it should have been a day of swimming (I have not yet gone into the lake). It would have been perfect for biking in the woods in the cool evening. However, the editing was going so well that I couldn’t break the rhythm—and I didn’t want to break it, either. Though I have no set deadline for finishing “The Indies Cut,” I knew that if didn’t take advantage of the mental surge I might not be able to see things with the same clarity in a long while or ever. During the semester, a large part, if not most of my brain is being used to teach. I find it almost impossible to have the mental stimulus that is needed to create. I find writing, especially with this kind of propulsion, exhausting.

After having sent off the poetry manuscript to a friend to look over, I took a three-hour nap. A couple of hours later, I went to bed for the night and slept about eleven hours.

I woke up the next day to mauzy surroundings—gray skies and light rain. I had promised myself the treat of only exercising and sitting on the beach. However, the weather has a mind all its own, and, later in the afternoon, the rain started pelting. Despite the fact I was disappointed somewhat, I was also relieved. There was a good excuse to sit around and lounge on the daybed. I am not much of a television person, but I spent the day watching interior design shows and, then, began a movie. I napped in between.

It is difficult to describe to nonartists and nonwriters the exhaustion that comes with creating, with this type of work and activity. I also think it might be difficult to understand what kind of merit a project like this has. Yet I feel that this trip to Pinchgut and exploration of how to gain inspiration during the pandemic when routines have been disrupted is every bit as important as a medical experiment. Part of the frustration for myself, as I have explained, is how to gain the energy and desire to create and feel alive. I know others—not only artists—are sinking into induced depressions, over which they have no control. I feel that regaining some sense of control and freshness in the middle of this stagnation is possible if I act on trying to think and see in another way.

Travel outside the Atlantic Bubble (the four provinces that make up Eastern Canada) is not permitted right now (and university-related travel must remain within the island of Newfoundland), and a second wave of the virus is expected in the fall. I know I might not be able to travel for a long while. So I need my place to be safe. I need a renewed, vital ambience. I need beauty around me. I need to fix up the things that have been disregarded for the last decade. I have spent all my money and more on travel, and, this time, I am spending it on fixing up cracks in my place, painting in bright white the old wood cupboards I inherited. I have ordered a large, 3D wooden map of the world to go on the main living room wall so I can mark the places I will go as soon as possible. I have still got to keep the promise of travel alive.

I need a renewed, vital ambience. I need beauty around me.

Thursday, July 16, 7:30 a.m.

I am most smitten, at this point, with the yellow water lilies. I’m thinking a lot about Guyana and how much I miss that place as well as other places in the Caribbean. These lilies are reminding me of Guyana’s lilies, which grow everywhere throughout Georgetown and other areas of the country. I have to admit, too, that, having just “finished” my poetry manuscript, “The Indies Cut,” my mind has naturally been on the Caribbean.

I am going into town today out of necessity. I am going to try and register my feelings after I get back.

Saturday, July 18, 6:07 a.m.

My trip into town Thursday was energizing, and I still felt as if I were “away”: away from the quotidian of my life in Corner Brook, away from my belonging to the town, away from the world I typically leave for four months a year.

I think this might have had a lot to do with the fact that I checked on my condo and arrived to new floors, freshly painted cupboards, and a new arrangement of things based on renovations. For years, my cupboards have remained the same darkish wood as they were when I moved in about a decade ago now. In winter, they oppress me.

Sunday, July 19, 6:36 a.m.

My writing was interrupted yesterday morning by another trip I had to make into town. The compulsory trips are becoming more constant. This is a difference, of course, between being far away and being a short distance from home. While I do maintain responsibilities when traveling internationally—such as joining university meetings online—there is no chance I can take care of things within the physical space of my home.

I think my decision to go into town—to look at new vehicles, to ensure furniture I am getting rid of is transferred to a friend who wants these things—is an indication that I am mentally preparing to leave Pinchgut and return back to my condo. I have felt a shift in things lately that, interestingly, mirrors the shift in things I feel when I am away in different countries. I have noticed that, after about two weeks or so, the sheen of new places begins to wear off.

I often rent places for an extended period of time while traveling internationally. I barter for extended stays in affordable B and B’s, hostels, family-run hotels, etc., as the price of staying a significant while is much less than hopping around from place to place and paying nightly rates. This has served me well in the last while as I have been able to make sense of places and cultures better than I would have been able to if I were simply in new places for several days.

However, now, and after two weeks here, I have determined that I wish to experience the newness and excitement that comes with new places by moving around more consistently—by seeing and experiencing as many places as possible. I’m ready at this point to return home from the lake, and I think that tells me a lot.

I feel my most important discovery with this Pinchgut experiment is that it has solidified the fact that it is about a two-week period in a new place that kickstarts me and leads to an outpouring of creativity. I am comfortable now knowing that my new mode of travel in the future will be to move on quickly and jump from place to place.

This, however, might not be possible for a long while, given how Covid has created a new normal.

For this reason, I have been going into town to look at vehicles. I have a sports car, a decision that was spurred on in the heat of the moment when I had arrived back from travel one summer to discover my secondhand car had passed on.

Now I am looking for a truck that I can put a hard top on so I can be self-sufficient while traveling the province and Canada. I have to, because of necessity, focus on local travel, and I need to sleep in my vehicle and avoid jumping from motel to hotel to air B and B’s because of Covid. Therefore, I’m determined to create a travel vehicle. I can sleep in the back of a truck, carry a minifridge, and use a portable propane stove to heat water so I can take bird baths and be totally self-reliant and safe.

Tuesday, July 21, 7:00 a.m.

I’m ready to go. In fact, I have that same feeling that I do when I’m about to leave a country. Most often, a couple of days before I leave, I get restless and want to leave right away. I find it strange that I’m having these same feelings.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day in town and returned to Pinchgut around 5:00 p.m. This is an indication to me that this journey has come to an end.

Sunday, July 26, 6:53 a.m.

I traded in my car on Friday and bought a jeep. I feel so relieved to have gotten rid of a low-riding car that makes no sense in a locale where winter sets in for eight to nine months. And I have taken the first step toward embarking on a new stage in my life (brought on by necessity in a now-changed world).

If I push the passenger seat ahead as far as it will go, and since I had the back seats taken out, I think I’ll be able to build a comfortable bed in the back. I will have to make sure the bed is raised so I can rest my legs and feet on the middle section between the driver and passenger’s seat. This is the only way I’ll be able to sleep fully stretched out. That means that I will have a wooden platform custom made for the back of the jeep and that I will put some thick foam on top so that my bed is exactly parallel to the middle section of the front where I will extend my legs over the compartment/bump in between the two seats. I have seen designs shown on the web where the platform then serves as a storage area. I’ll be able to have different drawers underneath the bed that pull out and give me easy access to a portable stove, cooler, clothes, etc. I can purchase and carry a portable toilet with me, or, if off-road, I can do what everyone has been doing for centuries.

It is different for a woman traveling alone than a man, but I refuse to cater to this kind of fear now.

Last night, one of the owners and I sat down with a map spread out over the patio table. He has traveled almost everywhere in Newfoundland and Labrador, and I got suggestions from him and marked routes and places to see. A number of trips involve off-road, such as one destination where I would have to drive a transmission line for several hours. I must admit, I am nervous to go it alone. It is different for a woman traveling alone than a man, but I refuse to cater to this kind of fear now at this point in my life where I have maybe twenty to thirty more years to live. What I will have to do is take basic automobile maintenance lessons—probably from friends. Being raised a woman in a gender-strict world—which I was in the 1970s and ’80s—has cost me a lot of money and has limited my options. While my brother was learning to work on vehicles and electronics, for instance, I was inside ironing, cleaning, and baking. This has affected my finances and has restricted my movements for years. I have been treated differently going into car repair places, for example—I sometimes do not fully understand what is being explained, and I’m pretty certain that, over the years, my bill has gone up because of my ignorance. Due to the fact that I was never trained how to fix an engine or how to do basic repairs on a vehicle, I have also had to stick to certain types of travel—travel close to towns, travel where I can seek out help if I get a flat.

I’m excited to return today. I have made the familiar as fresh as I could have, I think, in a three-week period. I have a new vehicle. I will arrive back home to a partially renovated space, which I will have to organize and set up again. I have completed what might be the final draft of “The Indies Cut.” And I have new friends I can visit—friends disconnected from my university world and whom I have grown to adore. And, then, there’s my sheepdog love. The owners and I have decided that, if they should have to travel to St. John’s or elsewhere for a short while, it would be great if I could dog-sit. That, in itself, makes all of this process worthwhile.

Pinchgut Lake, Newfoundland

Author note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Angela Robinson, who suggested the term “creative distancing” used in the title.

Photo by Joel Zobel

Stephanie McKenzie has traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean and lived in Jamaica and Guyana for short periods. With Carol Bailey, she edited Pamela Mordecai’s A Fierce Green Place: New and Selected Poems (New Directions, 2022). McKenzie has published three collections of poetry with Salmon Poetry and is full professor in the English Programme at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University.