I’ve already covered personal essays in the form of academic or emotional journeys, but you can also write about literal journeys. You might consider writing one of several forms of travel writing:
Many travelogues fit into several categories at once. For instance, in 1998, I made a pilgrimage of sorts,
going to places that Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179,
Daily Trip Journals
My trip journal didn’t cover any history about Hildegard nor did it include many personal stories (I had another little journal for those things)—it was a very focused document about the things Hildegardian that I visited in her 900th anniversary year. I’m not sure if there’s much general interest in such a thing, but my fellow Hildegard von Bingen fans are typically ecstatic when they see it.
Once home, I began converting my trip journal into a guide to places relevant to Hildegard’s life. This book might have a more general audience, as there seems to be a new trend to take trips that focus on the life of one saint or another, or on some historical figure or event. The trick here is to incorporate enough history and relevant facts to broaden the audience if I want to sell such a thing to a publisher. It took me a while to scan in those eight-plus rolls of film (pre-digital, sadly), and I missed some important sites because they were closed or I ran out of time, so I have to go back to finish this book. (Darn. J )
Walk with Me
Mark Twain, who has been mentioned in previous blogs about writing personal essays, often wrote about his travels after he returned home. He had a clever way of making us all feel like we’d been there with him and that we are all as witty and urbane as he was—his is a hard act to follow. He told his travels in a way that each reader could identify with something in the telling and imagine himself strolling down foreign avenues exchanging quips with the great man.
I don’t expect to write like Twain, but I do aspire to writing entertainingly about my travels. All I have to do is figure out how to turn what I know about technical writing into the tale of a great trip. That’s not so hard.
If you get to know a place well enough, or even if you just research the daylights out of a place before you go, your observations will be lively enough to draw in your audience. (Okay, I know that some of you are deeply dull and proud of the fact that you could turn the story of walking on Mars into a laundry list, but you know what I mean.) Twain’s trick was to make us feel like we could have shared his experience, even if he was floating down a river on a raft more than a century ago. As you know from technical writing, the better you know your subject, the more interestingly you can write about it.
The timeline of your travels is a good basic way to design your story. As you prepare your travel itinerary, whether you mean to or not, you are preparing an outline. Outlining (about which I often sing praises) is a good way to go for your travelogue too. It may happen, of course, that events during your travels conspire to rearrange themselves in the telling or editing of the tale (restaurant episodes might all belong together, for instance), but you might as well start with the chronology you designed when you bought your tickets and let the story evolve from there.
Once you know where you’re going and when, you can drop in the episodes as they happen. For my Hildegard trip, I brought along a photograph of suitable size (a picture of my little pet frogs) and held it in place to reserve the space as I documented each of the photos I took. I numbered the rolls of film and noted which roll and each image was in my book. (For example, photo 1/7 was the first roll’s seventh picture; the nomenclature headed the caption for that image.) Because I traveled by myself, I took all the time I wanted to identify each picture, postcard, map, or drawing as I went. Using the photo of my little froggie friends to preserve the space needed for the actual photo meant that when I got the prints back from the lab, I spent about 20 minutes pasting them into place and my formerly blank book was done. Of course, if you’re using a computer and a digital camera, you can have even more instant gratification.
Each morning as I sat at the breakfast table, I documented what had happened the previous day, unless I’d had a burst of energy the previous night. After I documented the previous day, I’d sit with my maps and brochures and guidebooks and plan the day’s adventures if I hadn’t done it the night before. I found it useful to make these daily plans because much of what I visited was far from the beaten path and I needed contingency plans if things were closed or blocking access to lone wanderers because of a concert or restoration effort. I couldn’t know until I got there that Ursulaskirche was having its floors waxed on Tuesday, for instance.
I’d tuck suitable maps into the jacket of my journal, check for extra film, and then go out for the day. While I was out, in addition to snapping photos, I bought postcards where the light was poor or if the place I wanted to visit was closed, I sat and drew things and people, and I chatted with total strangers. I took trains and busses and talked to people waiting at the stops and as we rode, so I got even more information about local color. Some of these episodes were funny (see the hitchhiking story on my Web site under Completely Off Topic at http://www.melaniespiller.com/Completely_Off_Topic/Tales_of_Hildegard/Tractor.htm, if you like), but all added to my sense of the place I visited and most made it into my trip journal. Chatting to strangers is the best way to get local information, and it’s something you don’t often do if you’re traveling with someone else or in a rental car.
Once my little trip journal was assembled after the trip, I typed all my entries into my computer and scanned the pictures. Now, with all the clarity of hindsight, I can focus on writing a decent book about my experience—well, two books: one that is a literal transcription of my trip and another that is a guide to things Hildegardian.
I enjoyed the project of making this book so much that I am now
doing the same thing for the amazing city in which I live:
Another flavor of travelogue is reflective commentary. I first thought about writing these when I was working at a dotcom and felt like the only creative individualist in the bunch. Everyone else wore the same clothes (khakis, blue shirt, loafers), sported the same haircuts and enormous jewelry, drove the same cars (mine was the only Chevrolet in the parking lot), and had gone to the same schools to study business. I felt like a giant in the land of pigmies in my purple skirts, unmatched thematic earrings worth about $10 collectively, and clogs. As far as I could tell, I was the only person at that company who did not have a refurbished kitchen and I was also clearly the only person who knew how to cook.
As I sat in traffic for an hour and fifteen minutes every day on my way to and from this job, I’d think about how very quirky I must seem to these people and how cloned they seemed to me. I wrote several clever anthropological essays on being a fish out of water—or in this case, being a zebra tetra swimming in Perrier—that I never had the courage to publish. But they were fun to write, and collections of these sorts of personal thoughts on daily life make interesting reading, like Twain or our modern contemporaries David Sedaris or the late Herb Caen.
Studying a culture, whether it’s the one you’re living in or the one you’re visiting, is a pretty interesting way to liven up the old “the cathedral was really large and beautiful” style of prose generated by a lot of trip journalists. Sometimes, looking for a theme is the way to go, like following a single person’s or a nomadic people’s travels. Or you could visit galleries and museums with specialties, vineyards, synagogues, or just about anything that provides a running theme throughout your trip. The comparisons alone will be interesting enough to make your writing compelling.
In my family, we have a tradition of finding Christmas tree ornaments that represent the various places we visit, and the off-season shopping can make an interesting tale. (There are pan pipes, armadillos, lobsters, miniature trains, gondolas, snowshoes, and all sorts of amazing things on our trees each year. It is always fun to try to find the latest contribution.)
My father likes to go to places with interesting geological features. His travelogues are replete with discussions of the various historic eras, dramatic geological events, and unique land forms. I have a friend who goes on musical journeys, attending conferences in her chosen music-of-interest all over the world. Another friend rents sailboats and goes from island to island all over the world. Several friends like a certain country or region best and travel there so often that they probably know the local sights better than people who live there year ‘round.
It isn’t necessary to have a unifying theme, of course, but if you’re starting to feel like your travelogue is going to be of the phyla SpainWasLarge, you might find that a theme can inject some color and focus. Heck, you might even find yourself traveling to places only because they’ll provide an interesting travelogue.