Last updated on December 3rd, 2020
Photo credit: Eastlyn Bright / Adobe Stock
Brain-enriching and deliciously fun, traveling as a writer can be a hectic business. Keeping a travel journal allows me to compensate for a shamefully inadequate memory by getting down the hard-core facts. It also helps me to catch hold of ephemeral thoughts and feelings that are the spiritual coordinates of a trip. Moments of rapture, discovery, and, yes, even agony otherwise lost among the flotsam and jetsam of the past are safely moored in my spiral notebooks. My journals allow me to connect meaningfully with my experience on the road, and reestablish connection every time I thumb their pages.
The first step of journal keeping for me is inspiration. If I know I’m going on an important trip, I’ll try to read a bit from an author with a knack for bringing travel to life. There are so many women travelers from the past and present whose work helps me focus on the challenge of capturing my experience in words. Mary Kingsley, the gutsy Victorian who conquered the Congo in petticoats, gives me courage. Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning priestess of the outdoors, gives me insight. Others I read for humor, compassion, and descriptive talent.
One trip — one notebook
Keeping a separate notebook for each trip works best for me, unless my destination is a place I visit often (see below). I buy the cheap drugstore variety, with inside cover pockets if possible. Sometimes I’ll paste a small map on the cover for decoration and reference. The size depends upon the length of the journey, but I like to keep the dimensions small enough to fit my notebook in a purse or compact backpack.
On the first page I’ll enter a few details about the trip — where I’m staying, how I’m getting there, and so on. For the places I visit often, I keep a whole notebook dedicated to that particular destination. Each trip means a new chapter. That way, I have a work-in-progress that allows me to consult previous entries while I’m traveling and have everything in one place.
Writing on the Road…
Jot down notes
I take a freeform approach to journal writing. Part of the delight of the journey for me is a break from strict schedules, so I don’t have a particular time of day put aside for writing entries. Rather, I keep my journal with me as I go; jotting down notes whenever I snatch a moment. These writings are a hodgepodge of phrases, lists, directions, and the like.
Find your theme
At some point each day I like to take twenty minutes or so for more reflective writing. In these little cafes or poolside sessions, I try to sift over the jumble of impressions collected throughout the day and turn them over in my mind to see if themes and patterns develop. If they don’t, that’s okay. I just write whatever comes to mind. If I’m tired and can’t think, I let my senses guide me, concentrating on the sounds, the aromas, what the air feels like on my skin, the quality of the light.
Collect souvenirs of the places you stop at, too. These will add a great deal to your memories later on. I make sure that my backpack or purse has a separate section for my journal and materials — pens, glue stick, and a small pair of scissors. These come in so handy for entering newspaper clippings, flyers, tickets, and so on as you travel..
Listen to conversations
Learn to eavesdrop. That’s right, I do it all the time — at bus stops, at cafes, on park benches. Jotting down overheard snippets not only helps me to get the rhythm of a place, but it’s a great source of information and amusement. The key thing here is to be unobtrusive. Just as an artist might sketch the people in a scene without staring at them, I sketch phrases and words without appearing to listen too hard.
Make your journal interactive. Keep a separate page for inviting people you meet to sign in. You’ll accumulate wonderful quotes, sketches, and addresses that will bring your journey back to life when you get home.
Stay focused. Rather than trying to describe everything in a scene, pick out one thing that grabs your attention. Think of focusing your mind like a camera lens, finding more detail in the object with every line you write.
Spread the word
Make sure to spread the word. There are lots of ways to share your travel journals and photos when you get home. For example, creating an online journal with text and uploaded photos is one of the best ways to bring your adventures to friends and fellow travelers. This way not only are you having the fun of telling everybody about your journey, your observations and hotel activities, etc. will be a terrific help for another Journeywoman getting ready to travel.