If you’re feeling stuck with your travel memoir writing, an interesting and playful structure to try is to tell your story in the form of a how-to list. This structure is like an instruction manual, but humorously reframes each step as part of your story. Some example titles might be:
How to Not Get Deported in Singapore
How to Get Your Heart Broken in Hanoi
How to Get Over Sea Sickness in Greece
How to Become a Lifelong American Expatriate
What would your title be?
Let’s think about an example: If you had a life changing experience on a boat ride down the Ganges River, your title might be ‘How to be Profoundly Moved on the Ganges River’. You might start out with: “1. Decide to book a flight to India. Change your mind. Change it back. Ask your friends if you’re making the right decision. Listen to your husband telling you, ‘Just go. It’s not that big of a deal.”
As you can see, this type of essay is written in the second person. That means you’ll be using ‘you’ in place of ‘I’, and writing in the imperative voice (giving commands) rather than unfolding a traditional tale.
This type of essay will also include numbers for each ‘step’ in your how to guide. I suggest not having too many steps. Between 5 and 15 is a good range to aim for. Some steps can be longer than others—they don’t necessarily need to be of similar lengths.
Still going with our example, the rest of ‘How to be Profoundly Moved on the Ganges River’ could focus on your transition from ambivalence to profound experience as you spend time on the river, meet the others on the boat with you, and make stops along the way.
These steps could start something like this:
“Meet Chris from Idaho on the walk up to the temple. He tells you …”
And “Walk next to Daveed, your guide. Decide to listen closely to everything he says about …”
And “Avoid stray dogs at all costs. You read about this in the guide books, but acting upon this advice is different than reading. You love dogs, but you must suppress this love for now.”
Obviously I’m just making up these examples to help you get some ideas for your own how to essay.
Even if you’ve written about a particular trip in the past in a more traditional way, this structure can help you reframe that experience and write it from a different angle. This kind of structure is also great for online publications, since so much of what we read online these days is comprised of lists. This how to structure gives the impression of a light, quick read. And your interpretation of this kind of essay can certainly fit that, but it can also be dense and profound, only masking as light Internet fodder.
Take a look at this example from the Agni review titled Breakup Tips.
Even though Breakup Tips is not travel themed, it is still a great (and quick) example of a how to essay that reaches for profound over light. Almost every sentence starts with an imperative: “Stand,” “Draw,” “Wait,” “Pull,” “Find,” etc. It’s a good idea to start most of your numbered sections with a command word to pull off the conceit that this is an instructional text.
I’ve also published one of these essays, mentioned as an example above: How to Become a Lifelong American Expatriate. Writing my story as a how to guide allowed me to give a broad overview of my travels and moves to different countries over the years, all masked as instructions to the reader. The appealing and humorous aspect of these kinds of essays is the suspended belief that any of these lists could ever actually exist as an instruction to someone else, when of course they couldn’t. That’s what makes it fun, and potentially profound. When we push ourselves to tell our stories in unconventional forms, magic can happen.