TRAVEL WITH ME | Venice to Milan

I had a lot of anxiety leading up to this trip.

I had traveled by myself before, but not like this.  Not a full two weeks of backpacking, checking into hostels, and planning out train tickets.

But when I had gotten to Rome to study abroad, I had already made up my mind that Prague had to be on the top of my list of places to visit.  And after having flown to London earlier that semester for another break, I had also decided that if I was going to go it solo, I wanted to travel by train.  In a lot of ways, I found it simpler, more relaxing, and more grounded.

My railway trip to Prague was, in most way, none of those things.

My first impression of Venice was that it was overcrowded, over-saturated with tourists, and absolutely stunning.  Like most of Italy.  After wandering around for a day, stepping into the overpriced shops and perusing the menus of expensive restaurants, I was glad to have arranged my stay for only two nights at the hostel - which, as it turned out, offered no WiFi or towels for the duration of my stay.

I think I could have lived with all of these things, if it weren't for the fact that, by nature, I am an introvert.  I do not energize myself from interactions with new people, places, and things, but instead lose energy from such interactions, and rapidly.  It's a good thing to know about yourself.  But certainly not the temperament required for extensive travel.

As such, I probably spent a considerable chunk of time inside the hostel, more than the average traveler might have.  I didn't stay out long after dusk, and slept in during the mornings.  I spent a lot of my stay at the Ca Venezia Hostel in my bunk, reading John Green's Looking for Alaska on my Kindle, and watching old movies on my laptop.

Yet it was to my surprise, as much to probably anybody else's, that the first revelation or "moment" I had while backpacking Europe all by myself was not as I was sitting by the canals, painting the boats in my sketchbook.  It wasn't when I boarded the train to Milan and saw the snowy caps of the Swiss Alps in the distance for the very first time.  It wasn't when I spotted the Bridge of Sorrows, or the Duomo up close.

It was when I was re-watching The Lego Movie for the umpteenth time, slouched on the top bunk of the hostel bed late at night.

I couldn't tell you how many times I had seen this movie before - it's my favorite pick-me-up film - but this time, something resonated with me.  Something about where I was, and everything that had happened to me between this viewing and the last had changed what I was watching, and suddenly I was able to personalize the film's feel-good message in a way I hadn't been before.

I wrote about it in my journal that night, but it stuck with me long after, as I embarked to my second destination: Milan.

This is what I wrote in my journal on the train ride there:

"Just simply existing and drifting was not the worst case scenario here - and it wasn't a scenario I'd even considered.  That I'd simply be me, and the greatest change that could ever happen while I was travelling abroad would not come in a flash, like lightning.  The greatest thing that could ever happen to me wouldn't be falling in love, or finding a friend for life, or going on a dangerous adventure, or being saved.  The best thing that could happen is that I'd be okay with that.  That's enough.  To be me."

I wish I could tell you I went on this journey and had an Eat Pray Love experience, and that you should totally go backpacking across Europe too if you have the chance, because you'll have that same experience.  Truth is:  I sat on the steps of the Duomo and ate McDonald's chicken nuggets and fries because it was what was easiest, and made me happy.  I sat in bed at the Venice hostel while my roommates went out for drinks, and cried as I finished reading Looking for Alaska because I felt those characters' loss.  I went to the Milan train station four hours early, and sat on a bench that smelled of piss while I read a book, because I felt more comfortable getting my ticket early than lugging my bags around to museums in the few remaining hours I had left before the train came in that day.

And those are the moments I remember, when I look back on the trip now.  And they are neither glamorous, nor transforming.  They are the same sorts of things I would have done if I was travelling back in the States.

But they're enough.  For me, simply learning to live my life according to myself, rather than seeking out the experiences I had always been told would change my life for the better, was more than enough.  And more than I could have ever asked for.

Have you traveled by yourself before?  What was your experience like?  Leave your stories down in the comments below!

Shai Cotten

How I Come Up With New Story Ideas

This weekend, I spent my #Blizzard2016 at my desk, writing for the Writer's Weekly 24-Hour Short Story Contest.  It's a competition that runs on a seasonal basis every winter and summer.  Once you've signed up, all contestants receive an email at 12PM CT with the prompt for this season and the word count their story should be completed in.  They then have twenty-four hours to complete their story, as the title suggests.

It's been a long time since I've worked in a short format for anything other than screenplays.  In general, I tend to write more on the prolific side, so for me, the challenge of short stories tends to root from wanting to write too much, rather than not knowing what to write.

Writing short stories is one of the best exercises a writer can engage in, no matter what medium they specialize in.  Writers from every field tend to unanimously agree that concise writing is the best kind of writing.  In screenwriting, it is absolutely essential, and applying this skill to fiction only ever hones the craft of prose.

Getting rid of the clutter and being able to tell a concise story is what makes storytelling a tangible and accessible form of communication.  But in order to communicate succinctly, the first step a writer must take is to form a clear idea of the bigger picture; what does, and does not matter.

All storytelling contains some sort of an arc, a through line of development that leaves its main subject at a completely different destination from where their story began.  This does not always have to be a physical journey, or even an eventful one.  Often, story arcs are more subtly crafted by an emotional or spiritual transformation, even if the subject's external world is still left completely unchanged.

The arc forms the core of the story; I tend to think of it is as the glue that holds the rest of the pieces together.  How or from where you draw these pieces together varies from writer to writer, but I personally like to think of them as though they were parts of a puzzle, complementing that concise whole.  Some of my favorite methods for pulling together puzzle pieces for a new story include:

  1. Writer's Journals

    I've personally been keeping less of a journal and more of a "writer's notebook" ever since high school.  Very simply, it's some sort of notebook that you can carry around with you on a daily basis, and in which you keep a log of any "writerly" thoughts or story ideas that might occur to you.  A lot of writers feel that it's easier for them to keep track of their writing process purely mentally, but I find that the simple act of writing stuff down helps me retain a lot more information, and also allows me to access ideas which had occurred to me years ago.  That being said, my thoughts tend to be a little random and disconnected when captured entirely within the moment.  Lines of prose, like "every step was like walking on broken stints of bone", often are only a few lines away from sparse premises such as, "a world where saints are just people with special abilities", on the same notebook page.

    I go back to these notebooks whenever I'm in a rut, or need a new story idea, to see if I can't string two seemingly unconnected thoughts from two very different times in my life into that one cohesive whole.

  2. Writer's Blocks

    As I mentioned in my post about ways to beat writer's block, writing prompts are one of my favorite ways to generate new ideas.  It's like having access to the journals of thousands of different writers, and sometimes it can be just the jump you need to make that connection between your own concept and the next.  The blog Writeworld is by far one of my favorites.  They have a varied collection of "blocks" which are general prompts of some sort to get writers unstuck, from "image blocks" which challenge writers to come up with a story based off pictures, to "sentence blocks" that vary from scene descriptions to lines of dialogue, to "music blocks" that compile songs to get writer's in the mood.


  3. Pinterest

I may be a tiny bit addicted to Pinterest, but if pinning isn't your cup of tea, I would venture to say that there are plenty of other social platforms that will probably fit this same niche.  I'm the type of person who loves to maintain this illusion of being organized, and after years of lurking around the site, accumulating literally thousands of pins for recipes I will never cook and DIY tutorials I won't ever craft, I recently discovered that I can utilize Pinterest's "board" scheme to create yet another hub for writing inspiration.  I follow the boards of other writers who frequently pin a hodge-podge of writing prompts, tips, and infographics and keep my own board for inspiration.  If I'm working on a longer piece, like my NaNo novel "EVA", which requires a lot of world-building, I might also pin photographs of models and actors who resemble my characters, as well as art and illustrations which fit the mood, theme, or setting of my premise.  Much like my writer's notebook, having all these disconnected thoughts compiled in one place gives me a fallback if I find myself in the middle of a piece with nowhere to go.

You can take a look at my writing board and all the pinners I follow here!

There are a lot of others resources for great story ideas, but these are by far my go-tos, and these are all the methods which got me through my long, snowed-in weekend of fast-paced writing.  If you have any of other favorites, share them with the comments below!  Part of becoming a better writer is also remaining open to new sources of information and inspiration.  Mixing it up is how we discover new ideas!

Shai Cotten