At the beginning of 2022, my wife and I were presented with a special opportunity: She was offered a position working to streamline investment in eco-tourism in Sri Lanka. It would mean moving to the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo for ten months and taking my writing and coaching business with us.
Having met while serving in the Peace Corp, my wife and I have always had a passion for international development, as well as a love for new cultures and places. It didn’t take us long to decide this was an opening to embrace. So at the end of February, we flew halfway around the world to a place we have never lived before.
(At the outset here, let me address the elephant in the room of every discussion about Sri Lanka this year: It has been a tumultuous time for Sri Lanka as its government has defaulted on its international debt and been through four different cabinet reshuffles since the time we landed, and is now working on its fifth. If you would like to read about that, please go here, but since this isn’t about that, I’m going to let the elephant sit by quietly while also hoping he soon gets much healthier.)
As you can imagine, there was a lot to adjust to once we landed at Bandaranaike International Airport and made out way to where we would be living in downtown Colombo. We were twelve and a half hours out of sync with our home time zone (yes, “and a half” is correct—for some reason India and Sri Lanka have inserted themselves in between the time zones around them) so our a.m. is literally our former p.m., and vice versa. Plus we were now living in a city and culture for which we had very little context. Finding our way around would mean a lot of looking at Google maps and creating a new grid inside our heads for how to get from A to B and so forth.
It felt a lot like something else I am very familiar with—what we experience when we launch into the task of writing a new book.
Getting the Lay of the Land
When we first started to walk around our apartment building in Colombo, everything we saw was discrete. Here is a good restaurant. Here is a cool intersection with Banyan trees growing in the center. This is the store that is like a Target or Costco back home. Here is a grocery store and there are another two across that main thoroughfare there and there. There is a cool sky rise designed by Moshe Safdie that looks a bit like a staircase leaning against another building. That’s the Lotus Tower across Biera Lake. (And there is another Biera Lake on the other side of our apartment building, but we wouldn’t realize that until later.) Here’s how you get to a nice place to sit and watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean.
They were all cool and significant in their own right, but we had no idea how one was related to the others in terms of direction, distance, or proximity to one another.
Each of these were data points at first, unique and separate. Without someone to walk (or drive) us from place to place on the first day, we had no idea how to get from one to the other, or even which points on the map were worth visiting. Our first day in country, we depended totally on others who had walked these streets before us.
When we write a book, our ideas are often little islands of knowledge unto themselves that we somehow, deep within us, know are related, but don’t yet see a conscious connection between just yet. This is what I call the “discovery” phase of writing.
At first you are gathering discrete ideas, sometimes in clumps, and logging them somewhere on a mental grid to come back to later to develop and rearrange. You might do that on index cards, you might do it in Word or Pages, or a program like Scrivener that I like to use with authors I am coaching. You might also do it on a wall with sticky notes or using an online whiteboard like Mural.co. However you would like to do it, what you need is a way to collect individual thoughts or ideas and store them in a way to easily find again later when you’re ready to use as part of a draft.
That’s where my mind began with figuring out how to get around downtown Colombo—I had a collection of valuable places I needed to remember to go, even though I had no context for where each was related to the other. I had just enough info to put the name of a place into Google Maps and then let it give me the route to follow. For a week or so, that’s how we got around. Everything else around us was a bit of a fog in my mental map of the area.
Then, of course, there was a lot of stumbling around in each individual place. As you can well imagine, stores in Sri Lanka are not arranged the same as stores in the US. Brands are different, and items that seem the same are sometimes not. Each needed individual investigation before I could properly fit them into the whole in my mind. Where to go for which items and how far one item was from another were both things that would become clearer with better understanding, which took time. We also ran into “Do they just not have that here?” several times before we found some things. Others we stopped looking for because we found something better. Go figure.
In writing, I call this process “essaying.” Each discrete idea you collected in “discovery” needs exploration in its own right—in other words, you write little essays on each thought to better develop and understand it. (In French, essay means “to try; to attempt.” I have always thought of “essays” as attempts to understand and explain an idea in a way unique to the author.) Eventually, as you see how each essay relates to another, they begin to form groups and eventually chapters. You begin to amass pieces of writing that will go together into a first draft.
The more I wandered around, the more I realized how places corresponded to one another. I began to understand how to best string them together to run a particular set of errands for a particular set of items, and how to fit in lunch along the way. Eventually I realized the stair-stepped Altair building (yes, I also discovered its proper name) is really just across the street from our apartment building, and next door to the mall, that is actually more like a mall in the US than the malls I remember from living in Greece in the nineties.
Things began to take their place in my mind map of downtown Colombo, and I could navigate without looking at my phone all the time. I mentally saw where each fit in their relationship to one another. I had a first 3-D draft of the area forming in my mind where before I only had a list of place names.
You’re Never Lost If You Know the Way Home
As that developed, we began to wander further from our “home” point and walked to places we had previously only gotten rides to before. I began to look up and see how to get home by finding the right tall buildings to head towards (like the Altair). Then I began to formulate better ways to get from one place to the next on backroads rather than only taking main thoroughfares, and with that came other valuable locations in between, some of which our previous guides didn’t even know about.
We began swapping information about places to shop and eat (primarily) as well as interesting places to visit and do things (like get a great massage). Then we began to formulate what was “best.” This is the best place to see a movie; this is the only bowling alley; here’s the closest place to get potting soil. (Who knew it would be in the top level of the mall and not at the all-in-one store?)
It’s funny to admit that some of this exploration takes some significant courage. When you live surrounded by new things, once you begin to develop some known territory, it takes a bit of nerve to consider exploring beyond what has become familiar and wander into new territory.
When everything within a mile feels comfortable, sometimes it’s easier to go 100 miles out than walk two miles from home. It’s easier to visit a completely different part of the island than the next suburb over (which is also because another part of the island is more interesting or scenic than the next suburb over, so that adds motivation as well).
My first draft map of Colombo got slowly bigger as well as more accurate. I established a better understanding of the whole as well as recognize better landmarks to watch for in getting from one place to the next. With each new exploration and deeper cultural understanding, I created a better draft of how I would tell others about this place if they asked me to be their guide.
Again, this process is very similar to creating subsequent drafts of a book with several ideas that answer one main question. When we write a book, we are creating a linear path for our readers to follow, and we want it to be in the best order possible for them to experience exactly what we, as the author, are trying to lay out for them. We point out the landmarks on the way to this or that solution—we describe the feelings that will come up along the way and how to handle them. Hopefully we’re also able to point out the highlights and keep things enjoyable along the way.
Stepping into the Adventure of Writing a Book
Moving to a new place—especially if it’s a new country—can be unnerving, just as many of us feel that writing a book can be daunting. (Which it is.) But once you jump in and start living in a new place, it becomes a completely different adventure. Writing a book can be very similar, if you give yourself time to move in, get organized, and start exploring rather than thinking you can just sit down, “open a vein,” and out will pour your first draft.
I’ve found the best thing to do if you want to write a book (especially if you feel one inside of you that insist on being written) is to “move into the neighborhood” of being a writer. That means setting regular times to write each week (I suggest either three blocks of three hours scattered about, or five blocks of two hours first thing in the morning), organizing where you will write (both in real life and virtually on your computer or tablet, or even with pen/pencil and paper/notebook/legal pad/etc.), and living in that space for a time, making lists and notecards and sticky notes and whatever else you find helpful of the places your mind visits as you consider what should be in your book.
As you do that, you will develop a map for how to move around your thoughts as well as the best paths through them. As you begin to develop these, pathways—or “chapters”—will begin to form naturally. When they do, beginning your first draft will feel much more natural than just diving directly into your first draft.
Writing a book is a big task because it takes a lot of exploring (both in your internal world as well as your external one), but that doesn’t mean it has to be grueling or overwhelming. When we decided to move to Sri Lanka, we knew there would be trade-offs and challenges, but I can also tell you, despite the hardships the country has faced and the setbacks they have caused us, it has been totally worth it and we love this place in ways we didn’t know we could.
Here’s to your adventure of writing a book being the same for you. You’ll be glad you decided to “make the move.”