How Traveling the World Made Me a Better Artist
The thing is, fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.
Travel has been treated as a panacea for ages, as a salve to boredom or heartbreak or pneumonia (think of all that “sea air” nineteenth century doctors recommended to their landlocked patients). But it can be more than an antidote for the restless. Travel can be a treatment for fear and self-judgement, which constitute their own type of plague to the creative soul. Consider the blank sheet of paper, which you’ve just set before yourself. It’s ready for your masterpiece, and yet you, the artist, hesitate, unsure where to start and afraid to make a mistake. The fear of the unknown has paralyzed you.
This is where travel comes in. For the purposes of art, the benefit of travel is simply in leaving the world of the familiar. Whether this means a day trip out of the city or a journey in a foreign country, the necessary experience is an encounter with a new and different place.
And so, you embark. But, the farther your travel from your native framework, the more the simplest tasks will become mired in uncertainty: wander far enough into the unknown, and you may find yourself stalled, unsure how to proceed. In these unfamiliar settings, you are neither competent nor effective. You may find yourself misjudging contextually correct behavior or being unaware of fundamental yet unspoken rules that order interactions. "How will I ever make it through this?," you’ll think, as you bumble onward.
The embarrassment of such social gaffes or beginners mistakes is not a boon to art– but mastering fear of an uncertain path forward is. Face a situation with an incomplete set of knowledge and you learn not only what you don’t know, but how much you can do despite feeling so unprepared. I learned this lesson in Russia, which was just familiar enough to leave me unprepared for culture shock. Between daily challenges with public transportation and politeness norms, my first month in Russia contained a million minuscule irksome things that amounted to a mountain of despair at my own ineptitude.
I began to avoid going outside because I couldn’t bear another dirty look when I forgot to suppress my American love of greeting strangers with a smile. Worse, fear of flubbing it at the grocery store lead to showering with hand soap until I worked up the courage to buy a bar for my body. I didn’t know how Russians bought groceries, and so I didn’t try until I was desperate. I entered the store through the exit and, mortified, continued to the soap section, picked up the cheapest bar (I would later regret this, since it smelled like sour gasoline), and paid. I hadn’t been graceful, but I had been successful. This small victory soon encouraged me to venture forth from my room and try another daunting location: the post office. Upon arrival, I took a seat along the wall and waited with my post card for thirty minutes before realizing I had never gotten in line. I left quickly in my embarrassment, and returned the next day. That time, I called a spot in line and mailed my card. I got into several pickles a day like this, and importantly, I got through them every time.
Eventually, through sheer force of repetition, I started to lose my dread of beginning something without knowing how to complete it. Two months after arriving in St. Petersburg, I flew to Iceland with only a sleeping bag, a rental car reservation, and my sketchbook.
This brings me back to the blank paper, the empty canvas, that most intimidating of scenes for the artist. It is the ultimate encounter with uncertainty, and all the fear that surrounds embarking on a journey without full knowledge of the destination or how to get there. But travel gives me practice navigating despite this fear, and now, I am not paralyzed by the untouched sketchbook. I practice encountering new things often, and I am now a different artist than I was before: I trust that once I set my pen to the page, my art will happen along the way.