February 15, 2023
Alan Chen


Late in 2022, I traveled with my family for 5 weeks to Macedonia. It was the first time I had been back in 4 years…and a lot had changed. A year ago, my father-in-law passed away from Covid, and his lack of presence left an enormous chasm in the lives of those around him. For us, going there meant numerous day trips in his Golf, delicious meals made by his hands, and the sound of laughter and music ringing in the house. His absence made us see and appreciate things in another way. While we were there, the girls and I busied ourselves with games, day trips, and some weekly sketchnoting. But it was the hikes we took that helped remind us of something which we had sorely missed these past few years.


A view of Bitola from Smolevo

Over the 5 weeks, my six-year-old Arya did 120km of mountain hikes…no small feat for her tiny feet! Standing next to her, high up in the foothills of the Macedonian mountain ranges, I looked out and saw the city of Bitola, which shrank to the size of an anthill. All these interconnected lives in a space, the entirety of which I could take in from where I stood. I recalled the flight over from Vienna to Skopje, looking at the stark difference in how the landscape was managed and cultivated. Neat flat farmland in Austria, and rugged mountains with cities scattered in between in Macedonia. I found myself drawing less and less over the weeks. Instead I cooked, listened to audio books, played games, wrote down ideas, and hung out with the girls. I didn’t realise how much I needed it.

A sketchnote I did on my first day in Macedonia

A week before I left, I caught up with a fellow illustrator Micho (@txemico). He’s probably the busiest illustrator in Macedonia, and professionally gets to design goblins and monsters of all kinds…(and I think my job is hard to describe!). He’s also an avid collector of toys, props, and movie memorabilia; his collection is about 10 times my own!

In between his busy work life, Micho values his time off. While we slowly sipped our coffee, he remarked: “I know how to take a break. I love going to toy fares, comic conventions, and just chatting with interesting people. And I basically don’t draw a single thing for weeks. It’s awesome.”
Me and Macedonian illustrator @txemico with his collection of LOTR weaponry

This gap between moments of busyness is crucial to creativity. The longer and harder we push ourselves, the greater the need for time off. Taking time to reflect, and step back allows us to make connections we wouldn’t ordinarily make. It’s also about allowing our minds to wander. This is why getting stuck on our phones and screens is so bad for our creativity. I recently sat in a waiting room with ten other patients, waiting to do a blood test. There were three pensioners, a mother with her teenage daughter, and eight year old son, and three ladies in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Everyone sat staring at their screens, fixated on the endless content in the palm of their hands. 

We need time to get bored. We need space to daydream. It’s in the corners of our minds where we aren’t being drip fed content, where we have meandering thoughts that abstract ideas are allowed to come to the fore. It gives us the ability to stand outside of ourselves, high up on our proverbial mountain. It changes our view on things both big and small, and it supercharges our creative potential. 

After all, “Not all who wander are lost.” 

Sketching in 4th century BC city - Heraclea Lyncestis


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