You’ve been to a lot of great places. Now you want to write about them.
But where’s the story?
These 6 fantastic travel memoir authors give their expert advice on how to find the story in your travel experience.
Jamie Zeppa, author of Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan
We’re often so immersed in the physical details of travel — the constant stream of new information pouring in through our senses — that we don’t have a sense of story beyond the daily itinerary, the “and then, and then, and then” of travel. But maybe this is the way it should be.
We need to be completely open to the world as we move through it, without trying to impose a narrative on it. We need to write everything, especially the small details, while travelling.
(I filled my Bhutan journals with a lot of philosophical reflection that is sooooo boring to read now. The really interesting information was and still is: how the clouds moved over the mountains; how the rain sounded on the roof; the lyrics of the song my students sang when walking; what I ate for breakfast.)
The real story — the inner journey — might not coincide with the actual dates of travel. The real story might not be finished until long after the trip, when we are looking back and figuring out the emotional arc of the journey: why we went, what we (didn’t know we) were looking for, what we found and lost and got wrong and learned, how we changed.
The real story of any travel writing for me is always the emotional transformation of the traveler, at work under all those gorgeous, irreplaceable daily details.
Jennifer Steil, author of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth
Ask yourself why you want to write about your travel experience. Was it hilarious? Did it reveal something about your assumptions as an American (or whatever you are)? Did it surprise you? How? Why? What did you discover? What disgusted you, awed you, terrified you?
A lot of the best travel writing, like the best memoir writing, involves a transformation. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing transformation. It can be something small. A new way of looking at the world. A new way of thinking about breakfast. A new way of considering your own place in the world. A new way to relate to food/monkeys/water.
The best travel story will contain something setting it apart from the usual raves about restaurants and museums. The best travel stories reveal something about what it means to be human and to interact with other cultures and geographies and languages. What did your travel experience mean to you? What could you relate to in your new location and what baffled you? How can you best communicate that to us, your readers? Find the narrative arc in your transformation.
If something baffled you, figure it out and reveal to us your new understanding.
Let us travel with you. Tell us what we smell in the air, what the streets feel like under our feet, what sounds accost us as we wander. Include the concrete details. Don’t just say, “the food was repellent.” Say rather that “it turns out that caiman intestines taste exactly like bologna.” Make sure that every detail you include is meaningful and tells us something about where you are. What does that detail reveal? Does the sight of everyone wearing surgical masks mean air quality is bad? Does the smell of maple in the air suggest a syrup factory? Is that important?
Also, think about your market and audience. For whom are you writing the story? You will write a different kind of piece for Condé Nast Traveler than you will for The Rumpus or Literary Latte. Read the magazines you want to pitch, and figure out how your story would fit in their format.
A few additional tips: Go somewhere you have never been that you know nothing about. You will find stories.
Travel alone. You are more likely to get to know the locals when you travel alone and more likely to be whisked away on unlikely adventures.
Amy Gigi Alexander, Editor in Chief of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel
A good travel story is not a recounting of events, nor the trip taken: a journey is not interesting on its own, unless somewhere along that journey, something happens.
In order for something to happen, a traveler must approach each moment looking for a story. It could show up in a conversation, in an unfortunate series of events, in the landscape…there is nothing worse than returning from somewhere and having the distinct feeling that ‘nothing happened’-that is a wasted journey. Of course many things happened, but the writer simply did not notice them.
The travel memoirist has an added advantage, however: they have an instant story wherever they go, since part of the narrative they are seeking to write is inside of themselves. One thing to consider when writing travel memoir is how vulnerable you are willing to be with the circumstances in your own life when you took the journey; a secondary thing to consider is how those circumstances shaped your experience. When I carefully and honestly reflect on these two things, I always find the story.
Finally, traveling and not taking good notes means you have no story to tell–not an accurate one, anyway. You should be taking notes on everything: yourself, your surrounds, conversations, and small details. No notes, no story. The great travel writer Tim Cahill often talks about the need for ‘copious notes’ and I follow his advice on every journey.
Marilyn Abildskov, author of The Men in My Country
There are probably as many approaches to travel writing as there are travelers. What can the fastidious planner say to the just-wing-it traveler? What can the high-octane adventurer say to someone interested in walking, in wandering, in moving map-less, in going slow? To each her own, right? Still, writing advice is as seductive as the very idea of travel. So let me offer a few thoughts.
The first is to move beyond travel anecdotes—the funny ones that render you foolish but not too foolish–toward something deeper. To your real questions. To the real misunderstandings that marked your travels. To the times you misspoke or misheard. To all of your tender and absurd and very real mistakes. Maybe yours were mistakes of perception. Or mistakes of action. Or sins of omissions—things you didn’t do or didn’t say or didn’t recognize at the time. But to face them—whatever they were—will take you deeper into your story than any made-for-a-cocktail-party anecdote because underneath the surface, failure is the real story, the only story, and risk the only way. As Amiri Baraka once wrote in a review of Billie Holiday: “Nothing was more perfect than she was. Nor more willing to fail.”
My second bit of advice is to go small. To write about small places and small moments. To distill not a month but a single hour. To describe not a city but a room. Write what you see. What you smell. What you love. What you want. The red couch. The smell of eucalyptus. The man in a blue shirt. The taste of orange tea. Take yourself back to the places that seduced you. To the shop near the train station where the clerk in the back–and the shop was like a cave–wrapped trinkets so slowly, you were mesmerized. A key chain. A folding calendar. A small teacup, yellow flowers dripping down its side. Slow down. Sit still. Let memory guide you. Memory never disappoints. As Anne Michaels writes in her novel Fugitive Pieces: “Any given moment — no matter how casual, how ordinary — is poised, full of gaping life.”
Michele Morano, author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain
Finding the story in a travel experience is, I think, an exercise in patience. During my first trip to India two years ago, everything blew me away – temples, mosques, the brilliant color of saris on the street, the scent of incense wafting from roadside stands. I wanted to write about all of it. But when I got home, the experience that kept bubbling to the surface was about as mundane as it could get: crossing a busy street.
That’s what I ended up writing about, or rather, that’s the vehicle I ended up using in order to write about the larger experience of traveling in India.
By narrating through a relatively short event and interweaving it with flashbacks and context, I was able to “package” the travel experience for readers.
The main advice I’d give would-be travel writers is to think about the package of an essay or article. Travel can be overwhelming, saturating us with impressions and associations, and translating that for readers often means finding a relatively narrow story to tell. The narrow story allows you to lead the reader down a path, even as you gesture toward pastures on one side, a valley on the other, the village receding behind you.
The path is not the subject, but it offers a series of vantage points from which to view the subject and, even more importantly, from which to consider a central theme of most travel writing: perspective.
Alison Wearing, author of Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey
In any personal writing, whether it travels or not, an experience becomes a story when it moves beyond the simple details of what happened.
The alchemy of transforming a personal experience into literature is a multifaceted and mysterious one, but it involves the discovery of a portal that allows our singular experience to open into something larger.
In practical terms, what this means is that the question to ask is not what happened? but why does what happened matter?
The answer doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to uncover the solution to world peace. But there does need to be a larger story beyond And then I went to this amazing monastery…and then I went down this river…and then I met this guy…and then I climbed this treacherous mountain…and then I got robbed…and then I met this shaman…
A travel experience need not be particularly harrowing or exotic in order to flower into a brilliant travel story, though both of those elements can contribute to interesting narratives. No matter what the journey, even if it is just a walk to the end of the street, the secret to its birth as a great story lies in the writer’s insight, the ability to see into (and beyond) a situation so that readers’ perceptions of that place–and of themselves in relation to it–are quietly recast by the reading.
As Jamie Zeppa, the author of the gorgeous travel memoir Beyond the Sky and the Earth, puts it, “We read travel writing to be transported, and to return transformed.”