New research suggests that actively seeking out the unfamiliar through travel can help the creative process, explains Aaron Millar, who visits a town in the Nevada desert where cowboys gather to recite poetry
In the Great Basin of northern Nevada – a vast desert of scratchy sagebrush and bleached white, dried out salt beds – there are cowboys who recite poetry. Earlier this year I visited Elko, the town where they gather each January. I found it extraordinary that men who ride bulls and wrestle steers for fun, men whose macho swagger could run John Wayne out of town, would be inspired to get in touch with their feelings. But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Artistic inspiration can strike any of us at any time, and recent scientific evidence suggests its blast is most potent when, like cowboys, we’re riding off into the sunset.
Well, almost. In truth, it doesn’t matter where we wander, as long as it’s somewhere new. Travel, as it turns out, is the freshly squeezed fruit for our creative juices. Hemmingway did much of his work while living (and drinking) in the Florida Keys, Gauguin created masterpieces in Tahiti and Stravinsky composed in four different countries throughout his career. But taking a break doesn’t just expand our artistic prospects, new psychological research shows that it enhances our creative problem solving too. Far from just daiquiris and deck chairs, your next holiday may actually be the key to jumping up the career ladder, figuring out a relationship issue or even unlocking latent elements of your personal potential.
The reason is largely a result of the number of colours we have in our mental palette. Creativity has long been thought of as flash of inspiration. But modern views on the subject see it as a means of synthesising different ideas – like creating a neural connect-the-dots picture in our brain. The more dots – the more ideas and experiences we are subjected to – the broader the range of pictures we are able, and inspired, to create.
New experiences also expand our consciousness. The old saying that travel broadens the mind is true, but the reverse is also correct – staying still can be a recipe for dogmatism and narrow thinking. By opening ourselves to new ways of being, we rock the foundations of our normality and widen the parameters of who we are. Psychologists believe this ability to break mental habits and think in novel and unexpected ways is the basis of all creative thinking. When we stretch our mental muscles, we come back more flexible, and happier, for it.
And happiness is important because it kills that behemoth of creative block, negativity. When we are preoccupied with the stresses and demands of everyday life our thinking becomes more regimented and convergent to established patterns. When we loosen those chains – and travel is the ultimate jailbreak – our minds naturally soar. It’s about trying less and having fun instead. As the 1 Giant Leap and Faithless co-founder Jamie Catto says in his workshops, “creativity is about listening and letting go,” or as Paul McCartney put it, “we don’t work music, we play it.”
So it’s really not surprising that cowboys write poetry, but we needn’t saddle up and join them just yet. When we take on the mindset of the explorer, new and unexpected experiences can be found on our doorstep, as much as the far reaches of the Earth. Creativity too is not just the reserve of artists, it’s an essential component of being human and a vital skill in navigating life’s course. So whether you’re a painter, composer, dancer, scientist, or just someone trying to get in touch with a deeper part of themselves, explore, create and make the world a more beautiful place. If a cowboy can do it, so can you.
Three creative holidays to fuel your inspiration:
The colourful coastal villages of the Cinque Terre in northern Italy have been inspiring artists and poets for centuries. Follow in their brush strokes on a week-long holiday which includes expert daily tuition from professional artists, hand-picked locations and plenty of time for eating, drinking and relaxing by the sea.
Tel: 01453 823 328
From screenplays and comedy to finding your voice and finally crafting that novel that’s bursting inside of you, the Writers’ Lab, on the island of Skyros in Greece, is your ticket to literary inspiration and expertise. There are daily morning yoga sessions, tuition from high-calibre writers such as Hilary Mantel and Steven Berkoff, and a certified sustainability and holistic programme to back it all up.
WritersLab, Tel: 01273 823 700
Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan came to Morocco in the 60s to expand their musical knowledge, and now budding photographers can broaden their skills on a five-day workshop here too. Highlights include capturing the sunrise over the Atlas Mountains and shooting snake charmers in Marrakesh souks.
Tel: 020 7111 1293
For more information on enhancing personal development through travel, please visit
The Blue Dot Perspective