Travel, Writing, and Creativity: An Interview with Andrea Enright

I met Andrea Enright a few years ago when a friend introduced us thinking we could help each other out: Andrea runs a content marketing business and is always looking for writers, and I am, well, a writer. We didn’t immediately become colleagues, but we did hit it off. At her request, we started meeting every Wednesday morning at local coffee shops—sort of a way to hold each other accountable to our individual creative impulses (she’s also a writer) while in the company of scratched tables, weepy watercolors, and overly loud conference calls by socially unaware people. Abandoning writing time, those mornings soon turned into a soul session in which we solved the world’s problems and each other’s—laughing a lot, shedding some tears, and encouraging each other to live more authentically. Over time we became close friends (she still claims I’m the only friend of hers she makes time for every week). Andrea has had quite a life—one filled with life-altering decisions, world travel, and constantly shifting perspectives. She inspired this interview, the first of which I hope will turn into a series on everyday people searching for beauty and truth. Enjoy.

You had a pretty normal adult trajectory for awhile: worked in the corporate world and ran your own copywriting business. But you also loved to write creatively—just for yourself. How did you indulge in your creative side during that time? Or did you?

I absolutely did. Because contracting for big companies really did a number on my psyche (I called those experiences “working at the cutting edge of mediocrity”), I kept small, more creative copywriting clients on the side. I loved that work. I loved weaving color and creativity into small business marketing materials. People never expected it, so they were always delighted.

I also attended writer workshops and wrote personal essays about my life . . . mostly stuff I’d been writing for years. But I didn’t have the courage to submit anything for publication. I was far too green. Far too scared.

But it’s interesting that creativity has become ubiquitous now—everyone is creating something, everyone is a writer. Should creativity be reserved for those with the credentials, or at least a true calling to be creative (be it an artist, writer, musician, etc.)? Or is creativity everyone’s domain?

Great question. Anyone can be a creative. I like the idea that more people have the confidence to create these days, whether you’re making a collage or kombucha or an app or reclaimed wooden tables or photography memes. Because let’s face it: the courage to begin is the hardest thing about every day, sometimes every hour. And I believe creation is a form of therapy. It can help you understand yourself better. That’s good stuff. The more the merrier.

However, I also believe that true creation requires feeling and meaning. And when you take in a true creation, you understand the presence of those pillars right away. So, that said, because writing has become “content,” a true commodity, there’s a lot of it out there that is more about educating, summarizing, selling, and lead-generating. Maria Popova said “content” is not writing. But I disagree. It actually can be. If there’s feeling and meaning there—and there should be since 77% of our decisions are still emotive—I still call that writing. It’s just that most people don’t know how to combine the two.

You left the working world behind in 2005 to join the Peace Corps with your husband. What was the impetus for the decision?

You might say we had an early mid-life crisis. My husband was working in IT for DirecTV and made excellent money but hated his job. I had a big corporate contracting client—Great-West Healthcare. We had an achievement-based life. And somehow, my Banana Republic purchases, book club meetings, hair highlights, and marathon trainings left me feeling . . . unfulfilled. Was this it? Was this life?

I wasn’t a hippie. I hadn’t been raised by Steve and Elise Keaton. It had never been my dream to change the world. I wasn’t even a good camper.

But I loved to travel. And while I might complain about the consequences, I was often brave enough to do scary things. Peace Corps was a huge commitment, but it was the most cost-efficient way to volunteer. They paid for everything—flights, health insurance, apartments, language, and culture training. So we shut down our life, sold our cars, rented out our house, and left.

In Sofia, Bulgaria, where you were stationed, you spent a lot of time blogging. How did the foreign surroundings and circumstances inspire or challenge you as a writer?

The culture was incredibly challenging. People were suspicious and disgruntled from years of communist oppression. This led to lots of aha moments and self-awareness about culture, class, privilege, my own roots. I blogged constantly and it was therapeutic—it helped me understand who I was. As I wrote and posted, I realized that the more honest I was, the more people commented on my blogs. The more I bared my heart, the more people said: Me too. You just have to be you. Unabashedly you. And then, ironically enough, you’ll realize that you’re not that unique. And that puts you on the path to egoless-ness. I’m still trudging along.

So anyway, I scrambled to capture every detail. Describe every scene from a train window and every old woman digging for bread in our dumpster. I would often spend weeks writing one blog. My surroundings definitely kept me writing.

When I came back, America seemed so boring. What was I supposed to write about? Iced chai? Mad Men? Waiting for the green arrow at the stoplight? But I didn’t really understand writing yet. Writing isn’t really about the material. It’s about a feeling—evoked from a moment or hour in time. It’s about going deep.

It’s like when I finish a book while lying in bed and let out a sigh, and my husband asks: What was the book about? And I say: It doesn’t even matter what the book was about.

After the Peace Corps, you spent the next couple of years traveling all over the Middle East and Africa, visiting countries that have since fallen into war and turmoil, like Syria. As you observe what’s happening in those places now, do you feel compelled to write about what you experienced back then?

When the Arab Spring happened, we sat watching the coverage in shock. I felt so connected to those places. But other Americans just watched in the same way I always had. It was just so far away. So distant from our culture and our life.

I reposted several old blogs. I wanted people to know that, despite the violence, despite the unfortunate reputation Muslims have in America, we had experienced a foreigner-friendly culture. Because we mostly couch-surfed and hitchhiked (with zero incident), we were always amidst locals. Strangers (taxi drivers, bus drivers, smoothie sellers) would frequently invite us to spend the night—or two or three—when we had no place to go. “We hate Bush,” they would say, “but please, have more tea.” They treated us not as Americans or Republicans or Westerners, but as humans. This was especially true in Turkey, Syria, and Northern Iraq.

On that note, how does human suffering contribute to your creativity, if at all?

Hmm. I guess other people’s suffering does contribute to my creativity in that it inspires my own empathy. And whenever I feel I can understand another human being, that means there’s a story waiting to be told. But maybe it’s even more about contrast. When you see people living so very differently, whether it’s because of religion, income, or culture, it inspires in me a need to understand their perspective. And writing helps me do that.

However, I would say that my own suffering contributes to my creativity. Most of the writers I adore—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath—were either mentally ill or serious alcoholics. In my twenties, I wondered if suffering was required to be a writer. And in 2000, when I told Pam Houston at a writing workshop that nothing bad had happened to me yet, she said: Just wait.

My suffering eventually appeared. It just didn’t show up in a big dysfunctional way, you know? I was never a heroin junkie. My parents didn’t get divorced. Nobody close to me died. My suffering was much more internal. And yes, that internal torment does, indeed, help me write, because writing helps me feel better. And as Elizabeth Gilbert says, whatever you do deeply, you do lonely.

So is the opposite true, too: does happiness contribute in any way to your creativity?

It’s a complicated question. I’d say the coexistence of joy and suffering contributes to my writing. It helps me express. Because that’s what life is, right? The acceptance of that blend. Every day.

Is there a continued connection between travel and writing for you? For example, you went to Botswana with some friends in 2016. Did you feel inspired to write during or after the trip?

Absolutely. I feel most inspired in new places, but being present in the moment is more important than scrambling for my notebook. Ideally, I would focus on one thing (the sunset, an elephant, a pomegranate) and draw a circle around myself. Carry that home. And write a piece. But FOMO creeps in. I want to capture and experience everything.
And as I mentioned earlier, you don’t really need a stream of new subjects (safaris, bridges, ethnic culture) to start writing. You just need a feeling.

When I was in college, I interned for a photographer who captured the Midwest. Barns. Fences. Rolling hills. I loved his work. When I moved to Colorado and visited the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek, I would see racks of greeting cards with local photography. It was mostly mountain scenes. And I thought: “Well sure, a mountain is ominous and rugged already—that’s easy. People move to Colorado because of the mountains.” But it’s much harder to make a cornfield special. That taught me a lot about writing.

You mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert already. She and another notable author, Stephen Pressfield, both talk about where creativity and inspiration come from. Aside from travel, and speaking in general terms, where do you think it comes from? Do you believe in a muse? Is creativity and inspiration something that exists “out there,” and we are just the conduits for it? Or do you believe it’s inborn?

I think really good writing comes from a few things. The first is inherent curiosity. You must have the desire to get beyond yourself to something else. You have to be pining to understand that other thing. To want to know how it speaks and moves—its curves and intentions and even its messiness, whether that’s a choir or the sunshine or a coffee cup. So that’s inborn.

Second, I believe it comes from the universe. Martha Beck, in Expecting Adam, helped me understand that I wasn’t remaining open to other vibrations. Outside messages. I have learned to strengthen that muscle. To listen. And the messages do come. Sometimes they scream. Other times, it’s only a whisper.

If you indeed have a muse, what would she or he look like? Sound like? What’s their back story?

I don’t know. I know I am a muse when I speak with my clients. My job is to unlock their magic and let it flow. Then I capture those words and tell their story.

You have a young daughter, a husband, and a business. How do the day-to-day pressures of life affect your writing and overall need to create?

This is a constant struggle for me. I receive ideas and messages and stories, but don’t make time to write about them.

I have even more need to create than ever before. But because writing demands solitude, hours of time without interruptions, and a computer (none of which can truly include my child), I have learned to embrace other outlets for that impulse. Collages. Rocks. Old windows.

Where else do you find inspiration these days?

Everywhere. I feel compelled to write about normal things. That’s what stirs me the most. The breakfast table. Marriage. Motherhood. The look in my daughter’s eyes—a desire to both linger and depart—as I drop her off at school. My two biggest external inspirations? Brain Pickings, Sun Magazine, and some fiction, most recently George Saunders.

Because we’re both writers and readers, let’s geek out and touch on the obvious. Who are some of your favorite writers and why?

Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway woke me up to spirituality and writing in my twenties. For many years I never traveled without it. Anne LaMott was also pivotal for me. As for fiction, I’ve loved almost everything by Cormac McCarthy, Michael Cunningham, and Ann Patchett. I’m also a big Wallace Stegner fan.

I love how Neil Gaiman and Aimee Bender write about darkness—weaving magical realism into our most precious lives. But then again several of my favorite books are dark, I suppose: The Virgin Suicides, Veronika Decides to Die, The Bell Jar.

I find it difficult to describe why I like a book. It’s not about a list of things like character development or sense of place. I know books aren’t alive. But it feels energetic to me. I know right away if a book is for me.

What are some of your favorite words and why?

I’d say images are more inspirational to me than words. I’ve collected piles of paper and postcards and art over the years. Almost every one is obscure—some random photographer or local artist. One of my favorites shows the bare leg of a woman getting out of the tub onto an elaborately tiled, red and green bathroom floor. I got it at an art exhibit in Beirut back in 2008. Another is a black and white shot of a group of boys jumping into an undoubtedly dangerous river—that one’s from Amsterdam. And I love Jamie Heiden from Madison. Her photography-art-title mix is magical.

Finally, circling back to travel, what’s your favorite country or place you visited during your years of travel? And if you went back now, do you think you would see it or experience it differently?

Istanbul. Taxim District in particular. I’ve never felt a place so alive. If I went back now, it would never be the same. And that’s as it should be.

Andrea Enright is a Midwest girl living in a Colorado world. She runs The Boot Factor, a storytelling agency, which she founded in 2002. She frequently speaks (and swears) at marketing events. Andrea’s past includes plenty of hitchhiking in dangerous countries and a few minor roles in B-movies for the SyFy Channel.