I often find myself rating places based on whether they seem like “a good place to write”. Some people choose cosy home offices or transform their garden sheds into dreamy dens. Others prefer to work on the move, some from bed, some just in their head – never actually putting pen to paper.
My natural habitat (and all-round happy place) is by the coast. I grew up there, spoilt for views, and whenever I found a secluded bay or a cliff top overlooking the sea, I would rate this highly as a “good writing spot”. I presumed the words would just flow if I found the right place!
In any weather too, whether the waves are crashing or the water is as still as a sheet of glass, for me, there is no better place to spend the hours, feeling grounded. Some people feel the same way about the desert, or the mountains. From something that is bigger than any of us, from landscapes which make us feel “small”, we find ourselves inspired.
But since moving to Madrid, I have never lived so inland! I am quite literally in the beating heart of Spain, 360 km from the coast. But once I accepted that the beach was out of reach, I began to appreciate different things.
Now, I see any green space as beautiful, and this is a surprisingly green city (most of the city council budget must be spent on sprinklers for the countless public parks, not that I’m complaining – except when my picnic blanket gets wet)!
And the Guadarrama mountains have become my substitute for the ocean, because as long as I can see beyond the city, I am happy.
Just how influential is our environment to spark creativity? This got me thinking about those who had written about Spain before, and one man in particular springs to mind…
I had only recently discovered Ernest Hemingway when I embarked on what can only be described as an unintentional world tour, following the trail of the man’s life.
By chance, I found myself holidaying in the hot spots where the writer once lived, wrote, and drank (a lot), from Paris to Cuba. And then of course, there was Spain.
“Don Ernesto” as he became known, loved this country, returning again and again to the Feria de San Fermín (Running of the Bulls Festival), to the Basque Country, and to Madrid, which he once called: “the most Spanish of all cities”. (This initially surprised me – it seemed too authentic a claim for a major capital city, but I now appreciate that the mix of people from all regions living and working together here makes it very Spanish indeed)!
Reading his classic “Fiesta: The Sun also Rises” when I arrived here was a treat! It was so exciting to recognise the places he name-dropped. And those I didn’t know, I put straight on the bucket list, sold by the passionate descriptions. Fortunately, many of Hemingway’s haunts still exist, (often in the form of a bar) and remain seemingly unchanged from the days he frequented – even the Daiquiri recipe remains consistent.
So, he was a frequent visitor and lover of the country, but I was curious to know what language learning efforts were made by the American. When I found out that he was in fact fluent in Spanish (due to his time in Spain and Cuba), I wondered if by knowing the language, this allowed him to write about a place more fully. Without it, could he have reported on the Spanish Civil War with perspective, or so vividly described the bullfighting, or written about cultural insights with the same appreciation? Was his ability to hold conversations with everyone from camareros to matadors one of the reasons he became respected and remembered?
But, how did he learn? Did he study grammar intensely, or attend lessons like me? Somehow, I doubt it. Did he learn from reading newspapers and settling in the same cafés to write, by making connections, re-visiting his favourite places, and attending fiestas on a whim year after year? Probably.
Most of Hemingway’s Spain was far from coastal, instead covering the inland destinations of Pamplona, the Sierra Nevada, and the capital. The inspiration he found was from the experiences he had, the people he met and arguably, the sherry he drank…
Currently, my Spain is also far from coastal, so I sought inspiration elsewhere. And I found it! I found it in the arid landscapes and the remote fincas in the scorched countryside, from the acres of olives groves and vines stretching as far as the eye can see. I found it when looking towards the mountains, or up at the dazzlingly bright and cloudless skies, from the blazing sun and the intense thunderstorms.
And I too found it from the people, the experiences, and…the language.
Maybe “where” you write isn’t so important after all, but instead, where you let your mind go. Hemingway and famously, JK Rowling were partial to a café, where they spent hours penning their masterpieces. And whilst I am most definitely not comparing myself to these literary legends and their preferred establishments, I was influenced. So, I sampled the Starbucks scene, tucked away in a cosy corner with a cappuccino. Admittedly, it was more practical than getting sand in my laptop or having my pages blowing off a cliff. And while I was still in the city (wishing I was by the sea), I listened to the chatter of Español and I started to write…
One day I will return to my favourite place, inhaling the salty air whilst looking out to the unpredictable and ever-changing Atlantic, and I will soon discover whether the words flow…
But for now, I will let the sun go to my head and feel the warmth in my heart (I can always rely on the park sprinklers to cool me down) and I will continue to feel small in the centre of this diverse country, because inspiration is all around us, you just have to open your mind to it.