To all those hopeful travel writers out there

I’m finding it hard to write about the things I’ve done.

This was stated by a world-traveling teenager, a student in my Level 2 newMedia Lab at the conclusion of her term in Japan. I was surprised that, after two years of honing skills in digital communication, someone could utter this sentence, especially with seven countries under their belt.

In this room full of vocal globetrotters who felt pinched by time and a lack of confidence, I thought aloud through this predicament. The structures at that time working in their favor were:

  • guided reflection time on or after trips, excursions, guest speakers, etc.
  • integration of world experiences within classes and in the residence
  • weekly newMedia Lab time whose primary function is to provide time, space, and support for student creation

But the how was still not addressed, especially for those to whom writing doesn’t come easily.

I believe high school is where one lays their foundation of writing skills. With hard work, desire, and guidance, one can become a great writer. Especially when inspired by such unique experiences, there is potential to write about travel in a way that moves people and accurately reflects one’s sentiment.

It’s not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.
— Henry David Thoreau

How do we define travel writing today?

Before we discuss what travel writing is, perhaps we should say what it isn’t. Travel writing isn’t writing about your family’s vacation. It isn’t writing about what you liked or didn’t like about your last trip.

(Brooke, 2009)

The travel writing genre developed from the early explorers and continues to be cultivated (and sometimes poorly defined) by modern-day travelers. Early explorers marveled at the world, took in details, kept meticulous notes, and gathered information for their communities back at home.

Of course, they also made a lot of ethnocentric comparisons and often imposed their beliefs on others; they weren’t perfect.

Today, we all have access to the world, either through easier/faster transportation or the Internet (and a library card). And through that second portal, everyone has the ability to be a published author. Because of this, the genre has been stretched and crowded with top ten lists and travel tips amongst well-written narratives and thought-provoking essays.

Do you consider top ten lists as travel writing?

I’ve noticed that whether or not someone is a good travel writer (yet), they can identify the good from the bad. This often stalls fledgling travel writers from practicing their craft out of fear of being cheesy, boastful, or unoriginal.

One of my favorite things to ask is: where does travel start and stop? Especially for a nomad, whose home moves and whose sense of community is ever-shifting, this can be increasingly hard to define. To make it simple, I propose we look at writing about travel with open eyes.

In a way, all movement and all settling is travel, and so the stories we tell about these experiences are “travel writing” in the broadest sense of the word.

(Schwietert, 2013)

If travel is “all movement and all settling”, travel writing is simply writing about any topic that unfolds like a story. Good travel writing is not simply a result of a really “good” or impressive trip; good travel writing HAS TO be good writing at its core about a good subject. If it doesn’t truly reflect what you think and doesn't unfold an idea or a story, it needs to be rewritten.

And trust me, all work needs some amount of rewriting to reach its potential.

It takes time to find your “voice”

While we can all sniff out a bad piece of writing, we all still differ to some degree on our preferred concept of travel writing.

Since starting to travel on my own in 2006, I’ve approached my own documentation in various ways. I quickly grew to love the storytelling abilities of photography and film, but I never replaced my first storytelling love of written word.

I began keeping diary-like travel journals, with itineraries and thoughts only my parents would enjoy. Narrative pieces required more time and digestion in my noggin but proved to be relatable to those not with me. I also experimented with prose poetry and making my own writing intentionally dense and inaccessible to readers; this was to enable honest, though difficult, sharing without feeling too vulnerable.

In time, I accumulated many different techniques for writing about my travels that allowed me to understand what I learned from the world and about myself.

On that long path to identifying these techniques, I had some difficult instances expressing myself or knowing how I was feeling. I didn’t know how to relate to the people in my “home” community. Even today, with these techniques in my toolkit, I still look for new ways to wrap my head around an experience and make sense of it, as this learning will never end.

Fear the bottleneck

I visited Port-au-Prince, Haiti one year after the earthquake that wrecked the capital city, but I never took a moment during the trip or after to jot down thoughts about what I was experiencing. During this trip, I met the future president of the country, drove on top of the visible fault line, had a chance encounter with the woman who saved me from being homeless years prior in Zambia, celebrated Carnival in utter chaos, and hand delivered a monetary donation from my hometown to a medical charity.

One would imagine this kind of trip would be worth noting in the books, but I went on to my next job without a pause to process what now feels like a confusing clutter of “weird and amazing events.” Because I did not take the time to process these experiences in any medium, I don’t really remember what I learned.

The more events that piled on after Haiti, the more I felt mentally choked by all I needed to process. I experienced a bottleneck.

With so much bombarding a traveler’s senses and forcing constant redefinition of everything, every lifelong learner of the world runs a risk of sensory overload and not knowing how they feel about what they once knew. This does not reinforce emotional stability or catalyze clear thinking about future plans.

I fear witnessing a student who completes one, two, especially four years at a traveling high school and doesn’t truly know what it was all for. A bottleneck of unprocessed experiences can make things very hard and emotionally painful for anybody.

Travel Writer’s Catch 22

Upon identifying the existence of such a bottleneck, this seems to be a frequent follow-up realization:

If I spend more time writing about my experiences, don’t I cut down on my experience time?

Yup. That’s called Travel Writer’s Catch-22 by those who are afflicted. The following is an excerpt from a Vagabondish article, “Are you a victim of Travel Writer’s Catch-22?”

Every word I type is a lost opportunity somewhere in the world. When I arrived via high-speed train in Kagoshima, Japan, my days in the city were spent in an internet cafe, updating my blog entries. Of course, I got out every so often to walk around town and visit the nearest hot springs. But what should have been a grand opportunity to explore and meet new people was overshadowed by the need to share other past experiences with strangers around the world.

So it has been and so shall it be with travel writers, bloggers, and other aspiring novelists. It’s the ultimate travel writer’s Catch-22: feeling the urge to be out on the road at every moment of every day, yet feeling so restricted by your profession that one feels the need to take time from traveling to huddle in a corner and let the words flow.

Did I ever cut a traveling experience short by the subconscious need to get the most recent one on paper before I began anew? Even now, as I pound the keyboard while listening to the rain gently pound the roof of my meditation hut in New Zealand, I know I’ve been devoting entirely too much time to my writing (no offense to present company). There are forest trails to be run in my new barefoot style, waterfalls to be explored, meditation techniques to practice, and visiting monks whom I would love to engage in Dhamma discussions.

How can we, as writers, find the means to keep the poetry in our words without sacrificing too much time in the traveling world?

Experiment to find your voice

To my knowledge, there is no perfect equation that all can use in order to strike that balance between experience and processing time. Homework, books, projects, trips, community building, sports, and other desires or pressures will tug at one’s attention and make it difficult to prioritize processing time for maximum personal benefit. 

Over my years on the road, I have witnessed in people who prioritize - even slightly - the documentation of their experiences:

  • more emotional stability
  • more ease with forming concluding thoughts about a place or experience
  • more clarity in drive or future path

It will take time to experiment with travel writing techniques in order to access inner thoughts, make the most meaning out of your world experiences, and utilize time most wisely for maximum gain. That time, however, will be fun and rewarding.