Upgrade your work to First Class – Travel Journaling as Memoir

Sponge Bob in AmsterdamLinda Joy Meyers founder of  the National Association of Memoir Writers, has this to say about memoir:

“Writing your story will change you! As you are writing your story, perhaps you already have experienced a shift in perspective about your life, your family, and the events you lived through.  Our stories carry a wisdom we didn’t know we had. Memoir makes its demands on us, pressing us for stories we’ve never written before, leading us to moments and memories as we drop into another time and place. To write a memoir means to wrestle with truth. We are the narrator and witness to the life we’ve lived. Writing a memoir means that we learn how to move through time as we draw upon writing craft to create a world the reader can relate to, a world that brings them into the magic of a story.”

What we create when we write during our travels is a memoir.  Sounds classier and more important than “just making notes about the Great Wall” doesn’t it?   Memoir, essentially, chronicles a short, specific period in your life, if you are lucky, that includes a recognizable narrative arch.  Like what happened during your dream trip to Italy or Iceland.

Memoir requires structure, discovery, and change. Coincidentally, this is often exactly what travel provides.  Travelers ask all the right questions that memoir needs:  who am I?  What to do I want?  Why am I here?  If the answers are:  I am the plus one, I want more gelato and I’m here because the hotel was free, so be it. That is your starting point.

A new place pulls us from our everyday and gives us foreign space, different food different directions, and different stories so our life is not only enhanced, but illuminated against a new sky.

The idea that no matter where you go, there you are, is right. But it’s also right that as soon as you go, as soon as you board the plane, something changes, and you are a little bit new, a little bit altered.

With that in mind, how do you approach your travel memoir?  Write about how  this new place affects the old you.  Do you relate to something, is there something about the light in the streets that remind you of something in the past? Very often, we can’t write about our home in South Dakota  until we start drinking tea in Beijing.

If a place reminds you of another place, why?  What is it about the place?  What appeals and what repels?

I want to think that travel changes me for the better.  One of the many benefits of travel is we are forced to face the world as just us.  We can’t use the  trappings and symbols of the big house to bestow influence, we can’t throw around our   job title to impress, we left behind our expensive clothes and precious jewelry to connote importance.    It’s just you.  Struggling in a different language, dissecting unusual food searching for onions (if you are my son).  It’s just  you and the world, unvarnished and real.

The experience of travel  can become  a path to discovery both externally and internally.  That too is the essence of writing memoir.  How wonderful to combine the two and create stories that even if never published (and most aren’t) instead enhances the trip experiences and in the process, nourishes your soul, something that will last for the rest of your life.   

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Journaling – the New Selfie

Travel journaling is like one long, continuous selfie.

And like wielding a camera, your journaling can be reflexive or reflective.

There is usually a large crowd before popular paintings like the Mona Lisa or Night Watch.  Tourists used to just tour and observe but now it looks like the kind of mob the figures in the painting are charged to prevent.  Tourists block the view as they hold up phones and pose. Selfie sticks block the perfect view.  No one leaves as more and more people push towards the painting.

  Three steps away are a wealth of lesser known  Rembrandts.  Take a picture with one of those faces Night Watch - Amsterdamsince you yourself may be just as lesser known.  Write about how that feels.  Describe the crowd. Describe how you may or may not purchase a postcard of the Night Watch particularly when you know that just down the street stands a life-size sculpture of the Night Watch. There, a person can stand in the middle of the moving men and take better, more interesting selfies.  Or take additional notes.  Or do nothing more than admire it.

One could argue that journaling is, even more, self-absorbed than selfies.  Many of us don’t even share what we write.  Even though sharing is caring.

Sharing is also annoying.

But if you are a millennial you have always, always been in the picture. You were always in the foreground of every family photo and video.  I am rather grateful during the bulk of the boy’s childhood, we consistently forgot we owned a video camera and defaulted to being in the moment in real time.  I don’t know if it worked, but their selfie count is a fraction of their peers.  For which we are grateful.   

To continue the generational idea.  If you are a Xer, or trailing Boomer (those who don’t remember the Vietnam war) you were not raised to be the center of attention at all, in fact, your parents often forgot to pick you up from school.   We of this generation do two things – never forget to pick up our children and often avoid being photographed.  We are not happy with evidence of all the pasta and wine we consumed in Florence.

But journaling!  You can make snarky comments, you can scribble a sketch of the bachelorette party riding the bus, the bride wearing a tiara in the shape of a tiny penis (for her sake, not to scale).  You can take notes describing a young women photographing her friend dressed in a stunning red gown dramatically contrasting against the blinding white marble of the Taj Mahal.  UNESCO as back drop.

The good news is that the selfie boom has increased the general appearance of tourists.  Because everyone is in the picture, everyone looks better. Young women  stagger through national parks in high heels,   refresh their lipstick for the Eiffel Tower climb and lacquer their hair against the fog at the Cliffs of Mohr.   

My mother has expanded on the childhood mandate that she should be seen and not heard and is now both.   I have hundreds of photos of her in the foreground and beautiful places like  Croatia in the background.  But she doesn’t take her own photos, I do.  I am her photographer.  I’m so busy with her that there is no time for me. An old story, an established metaphor.

Between mom and all the adorable children bludgeoning surrounding tourists with selfie sticks,  there are enough portraits in the world. But there isn’t enough time.

You may be like me. When I travel, I want to see as much as I can in the time allowed.   I do not want to waste an hour or more of every morning wrestling with my hair,  complaining about the hair drying speed, unearthing a cute new outfit and ironing it, and applying make up because we are taking a picture over breakfast this morning. Forget me, there is so much to see, so much to capture and record.  I already know what I look like.   

To travel is to be busy.  To travel is to look like you look, not create that idealized version of yourself.   To travel is to make a pact with your fellow travelers that every day is a bad hair day and every day we get a free appearance pass.  My husband and I spent a spontaneous weekend in Chicago (not paid for by United, we were on our own for that 48-hour  layover) with no luggage. Chicago was fascinating, beautiful, exciting and by advanced agreement, all the photos are of Chicago, none of me.

I want to look out.  I want to write and remember, not how I look, but how I felt, what I saw and what others look like.

The journal is your selfie, you narcissistic, opinionated, nasty, wondrous, selfie.  Smaller than the additional luggage needed for costume changes, faster than full makeup very morning of a trip, and while I wield my journal, I hardly ever smack a fellow tourist over the head.

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