More Creative When Living Abroad?

Break the RulesIs it true that artists, composers and writers who live abroad are more creative?  There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for it:  Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Stravinsky, Nabokov…  The list just goes on and on.  And of course it’s received wisdom that travel broadens the mind.

In 2008-2009 a flurry of articles appeared, mostly co-authored by Maddux and Galinsky, examining the links between living abroad and creativity.  They talk about the dangers of allowing yourself to be limited by a single culture or worldview:

To the extent that culture consists of a set of preexisting, routinized, and chronically accessible ideas, it
may limit the generation of creative thoughts.

Multicultural living experience, meanwhile  – and by that they mean not just a tourist briefly visiting a place, but actual immersion for  extended periods of time in another country – has the following consequences:

1) it exposes you to many new ideas and concepts – the larger your pool of ideas, the more likely you are to come up with new combinations of ideas

2) you recognise that the same form or appearance can have different meanings in different contexts – sensitivity and ability to distinguish between surface and depth

3) even when you go back to your own culture, you may be more curious and willing to access unconventional knowledge

4) you become more comfortable with addressing contradictory thoughts, values and beliefs, become able to integrate them into your own worldview

Dressing up showIn other words, living abroad enhances the ability to ‘think outside the box’, to find novel approaches and solutions to problems, to notice and tolerate differences, to create new insights.  All of these elements are important in the creative process, going far beyond merely artistic creativity.These findings are unlikely to surprise us: they make intuitive sense.  The more diversity you experience, the more you are confronted with different values and languages, the richer your personal repository of sounds and pictures with which to decorate your new canvas.

Of course, there are some methodological and conceptual problems with the way this research was conducted.  The first, most obvious  caveat is that correlation does not prove causation.  Perhaps more creative people are naturally more drawn towards living abroad.   Perhaps they have a hard time fitting into their own culture and feel its limitations all too acutely.  Secondly, it is difficult to measure creativity – the tests the researchers used had more to do with creative problem-solving rather than real-life artistic performance.

Carnival maskWhat I did find interesting is that the authors claim you do not gain this richness of experience merely through travelling.  This is where I would like to see more research.  Can it be true that superficial impressions, no matter how strong for sensitive artistic types, are not as valuable?  In other words, it’s not all about motion and change, but also about stopping, digesting and resting. About allowing those changes to trickle through and forever change your interior landscape.

And yet, I wonder if a well-travelled artist might not achieve a more profound understanding of a particular culture than someone who has lived there a while but never made an effort to understand, connect and integrate.  I can think of some expats who only saw what they expected to find in their host countries. I can think of people who never stepped outside their bubble, and for whom living abroad only served to reconfirm their own beliefs and values.


33 thoughts on “More Creative When Living Abroad?”

  1. Very interesting post Marina. Yes, I would imagine living abroad would help in all kinds of ways for anyone creative. Also, I suppose, to realise what it feels like to be a ‘foreigner’, coming up against prejudices from locals, and realising that you;re an outsider.

  2. Excellent post. You make some very interesting points about superficial impressions rather than total immersion.

    I’ve always found my muse kicks up a gear or two when I travel, even if it’s only a short time. I’ve never lived for an extended period of time in another place (any longer than four months.)

    I’m going away to graduate school this fall, spending a year in Edinburgh, so perhaps I’ll have a better answer then :p

  3. This sent me into deep thoughts! As a Frenchman living in Britain – and this for more years than I care to count! – I have often thought that roots are needed, and at the same time staying put for too long could narrow one’s spirits. Flaubert wrote about his travels in the “Orient”, but his friend and travel companion Du Camp (Maxime) claimed that Gustave did not actually enjoyed his travelling! Being married to a (gorgeous) German I feel like a true European… Does this make me more creative? Dunno! ;-P ~ a subject for further posts?

    1. I would love to read your own posts on this topic – I too think of myself as a generic European rather than belonging to a particular nation.

  4. I like the ideas you’ve addressed here! I have actually been thinking about this kind of thing lately and you bring up some great points. I think that my life has been shaped for the better as a person who has lived in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and various parts of Australia. I think that each place gives off an interesting vibe no matter how long you stay there and if you go somewhere on vacation and just avoid all the touristy places and just look around local hang outs and such you can get just as much understanding from a short visit as you do from living there ( although that certainly does help too).

    I do still think that it is entirely possible to be a great artist and not be well traveled though.

  5. What a fascinating topic, Marina Sofia! I actually think that experience in general – a wide variety of experience – helps writers to tap their creativity. And living abroad – really living, not just visiting – has to be one of those transformative live experiences.

    1. I do believe that too, Margot, but not all experiences are as pleasant (on the whole) as living abroad, so maybe it’s a gentler way to incorporate a diversity of experience and points of view in our work.

  6. Cool topic! I studied abroad one summer in Germany back in college, and I know it changed me eternally. When I travel, I go for the immersion experience and try to rent an apartment and wander around like the natives. It’s far more interesting to be a non-tourist.

    1. Or find a good friend in that country who can introduce you to that society and culture. But if it all goes too smoothly, too easily, then maybe it does not help us grow creatively!

  7. Fascinating feature! They say travel broadens the mind, doesn’t it? I can certainly quite easily believe some of the claims the study makes, especially viz. sensitivity etc; but I wonder, is there a point of diminishing returns? For example, I’ve lived in teh UK for nearly 20 years now ~ does this mean the length of my stay abroad is now negatively impacting my creativity? (I think not, but it’s the flipside of all the claims and therefore worth exploring, right?). Correlation doesn’t prove causation… now who did I know in a previous professional life who was hot on that? We salute you, CR!

    1. Which is why we need to keep on pushing ourselves out of the comfortable groove in other ways… Living abroad is perhaps just one of many ways in which we can give ourselves that little creative nudge.

  8. Very interesting post, Marina.
    Sometimes living abroad makes you mix up your words. Sometimes I have to ask myself “Who’s talking here? A North American or a Brit?” about a character.

    1. Oh, don’t get me started on malapropisms! The number of times I’ve said something like ‘It’s very crowdy in here, isn’t it?’ or ‘Close the window, it’s pulling…’ because I was thinking in another language (although English is by far my ‘best’ language). But I can imagine that is trickier when you are trying to make the character fit a particular culture and he/she starts sounding hybrid.

  9. Interesting thoughts, Marina. I do find travel stimulating. I am not a writer, really, but I do find myself journalling more when I am travelling, either for vacation or for work, so I can capture the experience and the different sensations that come from being confronted with a different environment.

    I think that there is something to be said though for longer term immersion… I went to graduate school in the US, so I lived in North Carolina for three years. Being from Québec (therefore a North American) and being fluent in English (although as a second language), I thought there would be nothing to moving away to school. On the surface, there was not much difference, but it is through long-term living in that environment that I discovered many subtleties in American culture as well as in the local “Southern” culture… and I did experience culture shock to a much greater extent than I ever expected. This is quite ironic given that I was a sociology graduate student and I had studied related topics while doing my MA in Montreal… It really takes a collision with the real world to go beyond mere intellectualized knowledge of reality.

    1. Do you know, very often culture shock is greatest when the cultures are ‘apparently’ quite similar? Because we expect Africa or Asia to be very different from what we are used to, so we make that mental adjustment before we even go there. But, as you said, you thought you had it all ‘sussed’ with the minor differences, yet sometimes it’s the small things that hurt most.

  10. A really interesting post! I like your point about ex-pats maybe living in a bubble. I guess it all depends whether you live in another country, speak the language and engage in the lifestyle or whether you’re living in a ‘little England’ (etc) with other ex-pats. I like to think that travelling – even just going on holiday – has enriched my writing as I’ve based stories in places I’ve visited and sold them! We can’t all live abroad, but we can certainly open our minds by absorbing some culture while we’re visiting.

    1. I’ll be honest with you: I allowed some of my professional (i.e. non-creative) work to seep into this post, as I work on cross-cultural issues and therefore come across a lot of expats. Some adapt fantastically well, and others not so well.
      But creativity and what provokes it (or how we define it) is one of those topics that fascinates me endlessly…

  11. A thought provoking post, Marina. I love living in distant, unfamiliar countries like Japan, China, Russia, France, Germany et al. England has always been the home turf. Of course, I have never left the country I was born in. I try and stick to authors that transcend me! Excuse me for the joke, but this could be a vaguely linked phenomenon….

    1. I love it that you read with an open mind and travel through your books. And that’s a perfectly valid way of doing it! I do think it’s very sad when people prefer to stick to just one style of writing, one genre or one country’s literature. There is so much wealth of experience and difference out there, why on earth would we not want to explore it?

  12. I was quite startled to realize that I had never thought of this as a premise for artistic creativity. The first thing that comes to mind is that the concept of ‘abroad’ demands a very sound grasp of ‘at home’, or at least of the culture absorbed during our formative years as being the opposite of ‘abroad’.

    It is beginning to dawn on me as I sit here typing this, that I have been ‘at home’ wherever I happened to live in the world [on three continents] and that I have never carried either the burden of homesickness nor the limitation of culture restrictions with me anywhere.
    This must surely mean that I am ‘at home’ in myself, and I am beginning to realize that this is a good thing for me personally. However, I cannot gauge whether this has been benificial or not for what I am hesitant to call my art and creativity.

    Quite a shock to read this and think about it.

    1. That sounds like a wonderful way to be! I too tend to feel at home pretty much anywhere and always enjoy trying out something new, but I do get the occasional ‘homesickness’, even though I am not sure which home I mean.

  13. A really interesting post and comments following as well.

    I have often found myself dreaming of living abroad and in particular living and writing abroad. I think I would prefer to do that if I didn’t have to work as I currently do now. Sharing my time between full time work, family and writing. It may just be that I see abroad as a slower pace where I can focus on writing more, so something that I may do when it comes to retiring and I hope to have some of my work out there long before I retire!

    1. Well, I don’t know about the slower pace… Even when I only have five things to accomplish a day, I find it takes five times longer to accomplish each one of them, so…

  14. I think travelling outside the home, even to another faraway city in your land, brings fresh perspective and ideas to one’s creative writing ~ And while going abroad exposes one to another language and culture and thus spur unexpected ideas for writing, there is also an appreciation for one’s home and culture ~

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts ~

  15. As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of travel and because my husband and I are of a ‘certain age” i.e. geezers, we have the luxury of being able to stay away for extended periods. The south of France is our destination of choice and we have lived there on and off during the last ten years. There’s no question that our experiences living in a different culture have impacted my creativity and inspired me in a multitude of ways. However, I heartily agree with the comment that there are many great artists who have never travelled. To each his own!

    1. I think I may have noticed a mild preference for the south of France in your blog and writings… And what a lovely place to be inspired! But I think you touch upon an important point here: age. Not just in the sense that you have more time to go off and enjoy places, but I find that I am getting more and more able to find inspiration no matter what place I go to. When I was young and had a very strong mind of my own, I needed particular places or types of landscapes in order to feel inspired.

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