The First-Time Travel Writing

By Matt Bruflodt

Writers don't take vacations, unfortunately. Those of us who are plagued by the inclination to write about every experience in our lives, specifically the most harrowing and painful events, are not likely able to subdue that itch when the experience is pleasant and for the purpose of relaxation.

Travel writing like anything else takes practice. But unlike most other modes of writing, travel writing takes more than just time and energy to perfect. It takes money. Most travel writers will tell you to "travel a lot" which is fine if you have "a lot" of money to throw around. So for most of us this means getting it right the first time around. Maybe you have saved for years for your trip India and you know it will be years before you get another crack at it. Perhaps I can help.

In the summer of 2011 I dove into my first attempt at travel writing. I traveled by to Argentina and Chile, and the trip lasted a month and a half. I made mistakes. Most were avoidable. I was able to pull the narrative together, but there were things I could have done differently that would have made the process much easier.

Paul Theoux --possibly one of the most successful travel writers that I know of--has a few basic tips to begin with: I broke both of these rules. I traveled with a large group of people, including my girlfriend. And 90% of my travel was by plane. For the most part, Theroux is right. But the first-time travel writer doesn't have a an advance on a book deal to work with. You take your trips where you can get them, and this brings me to my first tip: always be adaptable. As a writer, you are likely already able to adapt to different modes of writing for different tasks or occasion, but when traveling you will have to adapt in other ways. For example, if your meal of the day is cow stomach and blood sausage, then that's what you are eating. Make notes about how bad it is while you smile and chew and thank your host.

Before You Leave

There are several things you can do before you leave that will help make the process of writing about you trip easier and will set your mind at ease while you are there.

While You're There

Limit Your Reading
Writer's tend to have an affinity for books. This can lead to writers quantifying their time away from their personal libraries in unites of reading hours, which ultimately determines how many books to bring on a trip. But this is not a vacation and you will not be spending your time poolside with Oscar Wilde. You'll be seeing and doing, everyday, until you leave.

In his travel narrative, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux only brings on book on the trip: Heart of Darkness. This is not a bad idea. Don't lug 50 lbs of books on your back halfway across the globe. Limit yourself to one book that pertains in some way to where you are going and will aid you in your writing, to refill the well as Hemingway put it. If it is your first time in a new place--especially a foreign country--you may want to bring along a basic travel guide for that area, as well. Even if you aren't interested in the "places of interest", most guides have emergency numbers and the address of the US embassy.

Follow Your interests
Just because you are abroad, doesn't mean that you have to suddenly become interested in cathedrals and museums. "High Culture" often makes for boring prose. Paul Bowles wrote: "If I am faced with the decision of choosing between visiting a circus and a cathedral, a café and a public monument, or a fiesta and a museum, I'm afraid I shall normally take the circus, the café and the fiesta." Bowles chose the places where the people are. Travel writing is as much about people as it is place. If I made one major mistake with my first crack at it, it was interacting with too few people. Museums, cathedrals, and monuments force people to be quiet. You'll gain nothing as a writer from silence.

Take Notes
How much you write while you are traveling is completely up to you. You need to consider how you write and what you need to do to enable your own writing process to happen. I brought my laptop with me, but if I were to do it again, I wouldn't. Unless you need it for communication, a computer is only another distraction from your work.

The trouble that I had was differentiating between notes and narrative. Note taking can be difficult for someone who is used to writing prose in long form. In your notes you are not concerned with narrative flow or even elaborate descriptions, but instead you want to record the things you won't remember like who, what, where, when, and why. You may also want to jot down dialogues that you have with people you meet, even if you don't think they are important. Keep your notes short and to the point and if you date every entry, you'll have a timeline of events. If you feel like you must start your narrative while you are abroad, do it in a separate notebook so you can keep your modes of writing separate, as well.

If you can, stay with a native of the place where you are traveling. Don't stay alone. You will learn so much more about the people and the country--even if you don't speak the language--if you stay with a native. This is sometimes tricky to arrange, and in some cases is a matter of chance. If you are adventurous, there is the option of couch surfing, but ideally you want to avoid places that are overly social--or communal--such as hostels, because interesting people can be annoying when there is writing to do. Rick Steves famously preferred staying in bed and breakfasts for the very reason that the interaction is casual, familial, yet you are still guaranteed privacy to work.

When You Return

Get to work

Before you left you did some basic research. Expand on that. How you use this research will depend on the type of thing you are writing. If you are writing about really anywhere in Europe you should have no problem. There is an abundance of English translations out there of nearly every primary historical source from European history. But if you travel to somewhere else less combed through by our Euro-centric culture, you might need to look a little harder.

I was lucky to find The Argentina Reader: a collection of primary sources from Argentine history, put together by the Duke University/University of North Carolina Center of Latin American and Caribbean Studies and printed by the Duke University Press. If you can find something like this about your area of travel get it, read it cover to cover. Even if you don't plan on using any of the information directly, it is good to get a sense of the country or countries as a whole, so that you can put your experiences in context.

Take a Break

If you can, set your piece down for a while. Give yourself time to forget what you have written. You will remember different things about the trip later. Rediscovering these memories will make for fruitful writing and the distance you create between yourself and your work will help you see it more objectively. The trick is to try and get the experience of travel out of you and on to paper is as meaningful a way as possible. If you have good note and good research to work will you don't need to worry about linearity or structure. Let it emerge as it must, and piece it together later.

Lastly, it is important to accept the fact that no matter what you do, you are going to make mistakes. You'll learn from them, but you cannot let them derail your whole project. Remember, travel writing is about adaptability.

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