“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves…” Pico Iyer.
I left Alaska last November for a winter’s worth of travel. After 10 years of public school teaching and almost as many living in rural, small town Alaska, I needed a break. Leaving one’s home digs for new environs, no matter how near or far, or for how long, can provide much a needed perspective on life. And if you’re a writer, inspiration. I was looking for both.
As I packed my bags and prepared to leave home, I resolved to approach my travel journal in a more creative and writerly way than I’ve done in the past. I wanted to get beyond the travelogue and logistics. I wanted to practice description and find personal connections. What do I find beautiful, ugly, commonplace, amazing, unique? What are the cultural, political, and social trends in the place I’m visiting? How do people interact with their environment, each other, me?
One evening last month at a guesthouse in the lush, northern mountains of Thailand, I watched a woman with a postcard-sized watercolor pad paint a lobster claw flower. Its pointed, bright red petals formed the focal point of her composition, framed by leaves and the gazebo where she sat. This struck me as the essence of what I wanted for my travel journal: a captured image, a small story, some compelling subject framed within a context, like a postcard in words.
This year my travel has taken me to Seattle for a medical trip, New Jersey to visit family for holidays, and Thailand for a vacation, among other destinations. I can tell you that ideas for essays, or characters and settings for fiction, have arisen from every place I’ve visited, no matter how mundane or exotic. So whether you’re headed off for a ski weekend in the mountains (or in this crappy snow year should I say puddle splashing & ice skating down paved roads?) or to Thailand for a beachside bungalow, here’s a few of my travel journal ideas that you might find useful.
* Write by hand, on paper, the old school way. Lots of travelers now bring their laptops and tablets with them, even on months long global treks. (Now you can be distracted by wireless internet everywhere.) But I like the contemplative, pen on paper experience for a travel journal. You’ll also want a small notebook handy for when pulling out the full size journal is impractical.
* Keep personal belly-aching to a minimum. Get your emotional crisis out on paper briefly, so you can get over it and move on to what’s interesting. Things gone wrong? Awesome, there’s no better opportunity for writing. By the same token, there’s nothing worse than opening up a trip journal later on only to slog through pages of whining about your spouses fussy eating, when it’s like, wait a minute…aren’t I in… Mongolia?! The land of thundering spike-maned horses and mutton dumplings? Two sentences. You get to complain about your travel partner or whine about your diarrhea for two sentences, then you have to move on.
* Make lists… of boat names, destinations at the bus stop, colors, hairstyles, animals and birds, foreign words, foods, modes of transport, market items, night sounds, metaphors, verbs…
* Sketch a drawing, even if you can’t draw. One of my favorite entries for the month I was in Thailand is a 70-word description of two spider webs I found on a mountain trail. Later that night, I did a quick sketch of the web with spider stick legs poking out of a penciled whorl. The drawing provided a frame for the prose that unlocked my mind and allowed for a different kind of creative association.
* Record snippets of dialog, common expressions you hear, greetings. Every region or place has its own language, English or not. Maybe those expressions or bits of conversation will spark something or filter into a piece of writing later on.
* Write in phrases, couplets, short sentences, long unpunctuated verse. Poetry perhaps?
Ready to take the leap from journal entry to essay? One of my favorite sources for travel inspired writing is Vela Magazine. They define travel writing very broadly, so the work on their site encompasses a wide range of nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism. Check it out: http://velamag.com. (They’re also hosting a nonfiction writing contest right now for women.)
Of course, who knows how your ideas and experiences might filter in anything you write, whether or not you call it travel writing.
So, where’s your next trip? And what kinds of things do you pay attention to when you travel? Fiction writers, how do you use travel for inspiration or research?
Lynn DeFilippo is a teacher and writer. She’s published a few essays in anthologies. After completing an MFA in creative writing at UAA last year, she’s got lots of submissions out there in the world.