How To Keep Yourself Grounded When Writing Away From Home

When I left home for college at the age of seventeen—having never lived away from home longer than maybe a week or two—I remember feeling strange. (I had moved six hours north of my home, Southern California, to Northen California.)

On my first day at my college dining hall, I remember laughing nervously and telling my roommate (whom I had just met a few minutes prior) that for the first time in my life I was in a room where I knew absolutely no one.

And I wasn’t exaggerating, either.

On my first day of Middle School I remember seeing people who I had known since Elementary School. On my first day of High School I remember seeing people who I had known since Middle School.

But, on my first day of college life in that dining hall, I saw no one I’d ever met before. No one. Seventeen years of nourishing friendships and creating a place that felt like home had been lost—and I had to start all over again from scratch.

Why A House Is Not Really A Home

My first year away from home was so… disorienting. Even though I lived in the dorms on campus, and had made some new friends, I still didn’t feel at home. I was in a physical place—a “house”—but I still did not inhabit that abstract place that we all fondly refer to as “home.”

I thought that a house was what made a home, and that no house could ever feel as much like home as the house I grew up in.

But, by the end of my second year in college, to my great surprise, my college campus became my new home. After two years of living there, I felt very comfortable. I had a group of close friends who had become like a second family to me. The routines, the rituals, the sights, the smells, and the sounds of the place now came together to create a home I could call my own. Even the cooler, crisp weather of Northern California was inviting to me.

New locations now anchored a sense of home for me. A windy afternoon at Half-Moon Moon Bay. The seals issuing their whining protests at Fisherman’s Warf. The melodious groan of the bells coming from Hoover Tower. The Christmas lights shining on the trees that lined the small city of Palo Alto.

My new house had finally become my new home.

Then time passed.

When I graduated, I moved back to the region I grew up in, and was surprised to find that my old “house” of Southern California no longer felt like home.

It was as if I had moved back to a strange, alien planet. My old “house,” Southern California, was smoggier than I remembered it. It was harder to breathe. The traffic was worse, too. The weather was much more dry and hot. Less windy. And it took more than thirty minutes to visit the nearest friend or family member.

I hated it. I longed for the home I had worked four years to create in Northern California.

Then time passed again.

Today, four years later, Southern California has become my home again.

There are new locations that anchor a sense of home for me here. A cool evening staring at the ghostly silhouette of the Queen Mary. The cars honking as I make my way to Downtown. The fireworks that sparkle and fly over Disneyland Park at night. The rich, delicious taste of a hamburger patty in between two waffles at a hole-in-the-wall in Orange, CA.

I found that my old home, having lost its “home essence” once, could be made my home again.

That’s when I learned that “home” is not a physical place, but an abstract, hard-to-explain feeling that is always with me, and that comes alive whenever I fan its flames.

Through the entire, strange process of finding what “home” means to me, I’ve learned that a house is not really a home and that a home is really only what we make of it.

How to Keep Yourself Grounded When Writing Away From Home

Sometimes writers must write away from home, and so I think it’s reassuring to remember that the “home” we create is not really a physical space. A home is something that is anchored in routines and rituals. A home is also the people we love and interact with on a daily basis. Finally, a home is the sounds, smells, tastes, and sights that give us comfort.

If you’re writing away from home and you’re feeling homesick, I recommend doing the following:

  • Have a framed picture of your family and friends in your room. Use this to represent the fact that you are carrying these loved ones with you. (Your loved ones, not a physical place, are really what make a house a home.)
  • Make sure to call friends and family regularly so you can hear their voice and be reminded of home. If you can, try to visit your family and friends often to reconnect with them and so that you can feel that sense of home. Then take that sense of home back with you to your new location, so you can keep that feeling alive.
  • Recreate the rituals or routines that you used to engage in while you were at home. These rituals could be the food you prepared and ate at home, or the certain smells of home, or the objects that were laid out at your home. (For example: maybe your parents, or your partner, always had incense burning in the house and you always found the smell to be very pleasant. Recreate that fragrant ritual at your new location.) Engage in these rituals often and reconnect with objects that remind you of home on a regular basis so that you never feel like you’re uprooted.
  • Create new rituals and routines at your new location. As soon as you make new friends, or create a new family, create new rituals and routines with them. (For example: you can go visit a local coffee shop every weekend. Or you can go to the beach every other weekend.) These routines and rituals start to establish a new feeling of home for you and help keep you grounded at your new location.
  • Anchor yourself in the sights, smells, and sounds of your new location. Start to familiarize yourself with your new location and see if you can’t find sights, smells, and sounds that appeal to you. Look for popular local hangouts in your area that you might enjoy visiting on a regular basis. Every place in the world has its own magical pockets that can offer up a sense of home to visitors and strangers. Go searching for these magical pockets so that you can anchor yourself in new places, sights, sounds, and smells that give you great comfort. Who knows? Your new house could soon become your new home.

much “home is where the love is,”

Ollin

What does “home” mean to you? How do you keep yourself grounded when you’re homesick? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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17 comments on “How To Keep Yourself Grounded When Writing Away From Home

  1. Catherine Johnson says:

    I can so relate to this, having moved to uni, down south in the UK then across the globe to New Zealand then across the globe the other way to Canada. I feel at home now, but I often miss my mum’s house and the dynamic we had there.
    Great post Ollin. (Next could you please do one about surviving the relatives staying with you and managing to write and blog🙂 TY!

  2. knotrune says:

    Home is where my cat is🙂

    I’ve lived lots of places, some felt more like a home than others. A lot of what makes a place feel homey to me is how much influence I am allowed over how the place looks. If I can hang my own pictures where I want and paint the walls then that place is going to feel good to me. If I can’t change the decor at all and can’t have all my stuff where I want it then it’s never really going to feel like home. Especially if the decor is rather dull and depressing.

    As for an area, I have to feel safe. If I don’t then I’d never settle there. I agree about walking about and getting familiar, finding places you like and making new friends, while not losing touch with the old ones and family of course.

    How a place feels affects how quickly I’ll feel at home there. Some places just feel right and you know you can live there. Others feel all wrong and I’m lucky enough to have never had to try and make a home in one of those.

    I’ve not really been homesick. Not when I went away to uni (2.5 hours from the home I grew up) Not when I lived in Norway for 6 months (although I missed my cat). I missed Norway when I came back to England though🙂 but you can’t really call that homesickness! I guess it was a big exciting adventure and I wanted to be in those places more than I wanted to be in the place I’d left behind.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks for sharing! I love traveling, too. But I would have to admit, after about 3 weeks or so I get terribly homesick and restless. I guess I can never live abroad!

  3. Cathy smallwood says:

    Good point about establishing rituals (and routines?); they reduce the amount of thinking time needed to get through the day in a new place.
    I moved from Ottawa to Newfoundland many years ago, and am now learning how to live in both places in order to care for an aging parent. Creating a space and making time to write has been a huge challenge. Thanks for the post, Olin.

  4. It’s amazing how an unfamiliar place can slowly turn into home. I’ve lived in Oregon for 10 years, as of this September, and my first months here were filled with walking around in an unfamiliar climate, never bumping into anyone I knew. I made a lot of calls back home! And I continued my old writing habits, i.e. writing in the morning and drinking tea or coffee. At some point, I realized I had been living here for a year, then two, then five, and now 10. I know many community members and am lucky to have hooked up with a great group of local writers.

    • Ollin says:

      It is right? That’s what I found. Any place can seem like home after a while. If you just give it a chance. Oregon sounds wonderful!

  5. This is great. I’m sitting down in Paris for a writing session (about writers’ spaces) when to distract myself, I saw your article.

    Right now I’m finding a need to get grounded in my writing. My big question is: what am I writing this week? This month? For the rest of the year?

    It’s not the writing I need to be grounded for as much as the planning; knowing what specific pieces I am writing, and what I will be working on when I sit down for a writing session.

    So what keeps me grounded no matter where I am is having my articles list and deadlines clearly in place.

    Thanks for the great piece and for a peek into your California world!

    • Ollin says:

      I’d have to admit, I’m kinda jealous of the Paris world you are inhabiting right now. Haha. Sounds like loads of fun, and very inspirational!

  6. Tammy says:

    I haven’t really experienced this. I find travel and being away always inspires my writing even if that writing is memoir.

  7. LM Milford says:

    Hi Ollin, I found the first two weeks of university to be absolute hell. I think I spent most of my money on calls to home, but once I got settled into life I never looked back. I’ve lived in my current town for five years and now it does feel like home, but Home will always be my home town, definitely. I recently went on a writer’s retreat, miles away from friends and family and with no mobile reception or wifi. I found this to be an extremely productive time because I had no distractions, but it was very nice to come home to civilisation at the end of the week.
    Great post. I’d also be interested in the one about ‘how to write when visiting family’!! They don’t seem to understand the need to space to write in😉

    • Ollin says:

      Yeah, seems like that’s a difficult thing for most writers, maybe something like: “how to make your family supportive of your writing career?” I’ll work on it.

  8. Elise says:

    Thank you for this encouraging post, Ollin. Whether we need to feel at home to focus on writing, or just to feel comfortable enough to relax, this was great insight. You’re right about home being where the love is. Where our heart can be open and free, we feel safe to be ourselves and to do our best writing.

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