Travel writer’s block?
You’ve seen them sitting in cafes or on park benches, or streaming along in high-speed trains, young travelers, earnestly bent over their notebooks or Ipads, writing intently as the cup of coffee at their elbow grows cold. Maybe there are maps spread on a table beside them or a little pile of postcards. You envy them – they have found their focus. They are succeeding at what you meant to do, but didn’t – attending to their travel journals.
And yet you came prepared. Here in your bag, you have your moleskin notebook along with some colored pens and your smart phone is full of stunning photos and amusing selfies. On your walk this morning, you stumbled upon three interesting things to write about: a political protest in the piazza, a puppet theater in the park and some discarded mannequins in a trash bin behind the bowling alley. But when you finally sit down to write, the inspiration evaporates. You gaze at the blank page then put the notebook away, thinking there will be another opportunity for this later.
Very likely when your trip is over, your notebook will return home still virgin. Next summer, next year, when you want to remember something of your journey, you will curse yourself for not having had a more disciplined approach. Sound familiar?
Keeping your journal
Failing to keep up your journal is a special kind of writer’s block – here are some tips to overcome it and turn your blank-paged notebook into a scintillating record of your trip– even if you are not a writer.
Firstly, consider “Why?” you want to keep a journal before you consider “How?” Remember your intention is to create a document that will reflect authentic glimpses of your experience. Encapsulating experiences in words of our own is different from snapping a photo. It casts a warmer, more intimate light on a fleeting moment. Think of it this way; you are writing a letter to the most important person in your life, your future self, to preserve precious memories that will otherwise fade away and vanish.
When rushing off to airports or out to see the sights, it can be tricky to schedule writing time, especially if you are traveling in company and must accommodate other people’s rhythms. Perhaps, when you finally have a moment alone, you’re just too tired or overwhelmed by new impressions to collect your thoughts. Try opening your notebook throughout the day, whenever you have some downtime, even if you aren’t intending to write. You might be surprised to find yourself inspired.
Experiment with different settings – try writing in an art gallery or historical museum, on a bus or in a taxi, at a shopping mall, train station, hairdressers or restaurant. Explore the city streets as a flaneur, jotting down the bits of life swirling around you as they happen, or take your notebook on a slow nature walk, pausing to study and describe in detail the wild life you encounter.
Remember, you aren’t writing a novel. Don’t worry too much about grammar and form. Take it lightly, start with a ten-minute assignment with this sure-fire prompt: make a list.
Lists are a very evocative literary device. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die. Through lists we reconstruct the contents of our mind and environment.
Here are some ideas for list making while traveling:
Five ways the local people look, dress or act differently from you
Five items (clothing or other necessities) you should have brought but didn’t – and why you need them
Five foreign words or local expressions you learned and the circumstances in which you learned them
Five children you have encountered on your trip
Five unfamiliar objects you have come across and what they are used for
Five doorways you have passed through or windows you have looked out
Five place names with a story to tell
Five appealing/unpleasant smells, tastes or sounds you experienced that you wouldn’t find at home …
Once you start the process, you will see that one list leads to another and every item on each list can grow into a longer, richer narrative.
If list making got your creative juices flowing, go on to the next step. Choose some items in your list and turn them into “ tweets.”
Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still use the 140-character format as a guideline for producing short, pithy texts resembling haikus, superflash fiction, or even koans. To compress an experience in 140 characters is no small feat. The formal discipline will help shift your prose into a poetic mode.
Try to draw a picture in words, render an atmosphere, zero in on a detail that speaks for the whole, chart an itinerary, capture an action, frame a portrait or landscape. Experiment with understatement, overstatement, humor, surprise, the quirky and the uncanny.
Combine each tweet with a photograph or other visual accompaniment. Your journal will sparkle with these shards of observations and, if you use social media, you can share them with friends and readers.
Lastly, bring it all together with a unifying device – a deep map.
The term “deep map,” was first coined by Native American Writer William Least Heat-Moon to describe his research method in writing a book of travel essays, PrairyErth. “Deep map” is now used by geographers, travel writers and urban planners to describe a multilayered map of a space, collecting information from multiple sources, time periods and perspectives.
Heat-Moon made his map by staking out a county in Kansas and exploring it from every possible point of view: by hiking and driving across it, interviewing locals, studying legends, scientific research, historical archives and old newspapers – even by dreaming about it. He matched his findings with the quadrants of geographical survey maps and then wrote about his journey section by section.
To make your deep map, find a map to paste into your journal or use Google maps or other apps like Story Map or Scribble Map to create and annotate a digital one. Trace the rough outline of your itinerary and then add layers: lists, tweets, quotes, journal entries and other texts, photographs, sketches, drawings, and vintage maps. If you are using a paper or plastic map, add mixed media: cut outs, clippings, receipts, postcards, tickets, menus, money and any other talismans of place. Do this as you go, or just gather pieces in a plastic envelope to assemble when you return home. As you flesh out your deep map with layers, stand back to reflect on the bigger picture. Themes, patterns, cycles, and changes will begin to appear, and your trip will take on new meaning. Use these insights to write a final entry on what you have learned and how you have been transformed.