Perhaps my favorite kind of writing stems from my fondness of journaling: memoirs, story-telling, personal essays (a-la David Sedaris and Lena Dunham). I’ve always been one to document everything. Since I was a little girl, writing the date on things (notes, mixed tapes/CDs, pictures) has felt important to me. Even then I knew I would enjoy looking back on these items. It was sort of an anticipatory nostalgia.
My claim to fame is that I have been journaling since 1996. I was newly 11 years old and really excited about the Scholastic Book Fair. Into my teens and early 20s, my journal was where I scribbled my angst, revealed my crushes, and expressed my truest feelings. Into my late 20s and early 30s, I find myself less in touch with these raw emotions or, at least, less able to access them. It’s likely a maturity thing, but it could be that I am more guarded, or now realize that life doesn’t last forever and my intimate thoughts will be read and judged by others. At the same time, I’m less afraid of having my voice heard.
Getting back on topic, in all the years I’ve been journaling (over 20), I’ve never sought to learn the craft or improve, until more recently. Before our trip to San Francisco, I read a couple of books on travel writing and picked up a few things that really improved my travel writing experience. Here are the take-homes:
1. Remember in advance. Keep your journal, a notepad, or your cell phone on your person through every step of your travels. When I didn’t have my notebook on me or it wasn’t a convenient time to bust it out, I jotted things down in a notepad app on my phone (I use SimpleNote). I would add it to my journal later. The journal is part of your journey and, trust me, you will not remember things. Without keeping writing and documenting a priority, I wouldn’t have remembered this quote from kid to his parents when posing for a picture: “Ok, now I’m going to do my ‘old pharmacist’ face.” That’s gold, Jerry, gold.
2. “Feel” a place. When experiencing a new place, turn on all of your senses. Too many people experience a place with just their eyes. Run down the list of senses and try to experience things differently. When I close my eyes, I clearly see Sutter Street, the street our hotel was on in SF: the buildings casting shadows on the street, the incline of the sidewalks, the storefronts. But I also smell the place. It smelled like garbage early in the morning. I feel the place. It was crisp, with a cool breeze. I hear sirens, a homeless man muttering to himself, the hum of the cable car track. I’m holding my husband’s hand.
3. Include all aspects of the trip. In this household, a big part of the trip is planning and preparation. Also, think about expectations. These are all parts of the trip. Do you ever have an expectation of what a place will be like? I do for every new place. I imagine what it will be like. I think it’s a great idea to record these expectations and see how it matches up to reality. Also, write down your plans and aspirations for the trip, then compare it with what actually happened. I thought the Painted Ladies was a long stretch of houses with a huge part in front. Turns out they consist of six houses in a row and a modest-sized park in front. I loved it, but it was so different from what I imagined. Thanks, Full House.
4. Embrace the misadventures. This advice helped me on vacation and in everyday life. I realized that the best stories come out of things going wrong. Although it’s not pleasant, many times it’s the most memorable. This goes back to the advice I got from a friend while camping by myself in north Georgia: “embrace the fear.” It’s worth it, usually. I know the most memorable part of my solo road trip was the rock slide in Colorado and having to take a detour up a mountain. I was terrified the entire time, but it always comes to mind first when recalling that trip. Many times you can laugh about it, after celebrating that you came out all right. For this trip, it might be the fact that I caught a cold when we were supposed to hike to Upper Yosemite Falls and having to sleep in a cabin, sneezing and blowing my nose in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We left Yosemite a day early but ended up having a great bonus day in SF. Or the time we drank more beer than we thought on our beer tour and tried walking home. When we both suddenly had to pee SO badly, we called an Uber to drive us back to the hotel, post haste! See how happy we were before the pee-mergency?
5. Lists. This advice saved me on the SF trip. On previous trips I would try to write a narrative, “we did this, then we did this,” etc. Lists are so much better for quick recording. If you want to make a narrative, you can do that later, but at least you recorded things. I wrote down restaurants, the food we ate, places we shopped, things we saw, things we heard, observations, physical feelings at the time (tired, nauseated).
6. Be open and honest. This seems obvious but it’s a good reminder that traveling is for you. Ask yourself if you’re writing/taking pictures for you or for what you think people expect. You may want to write for an audience, but you cannot earn their trust without being honest and a real person. Are you doing it for you or for your Instagram? Ok, I’m guilty here. Sometimes it’s both.
There is a lot of valuable information about travel writing in Writing Away by Lavinia Spalding. She includes many of the tips above and more, journal prompts, Q&A, and inspiration to get you going.
I also read How to Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith. It is formatted more as an activity book but helped me look at the ordinary differently.
An inspirational read about making your thing and being true to yourself is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (she also has a podcast called Magic Lessons).
Speaking of making things, I just saw Jesse Thorn’s (of Maximum Fun) “Make Your Thing,” on YouTube. It’s an hour of delightful insight from a self-made leader of a podcast empire.
Updates on the SF/Yosemite trip to come.