By Colorado Review Associate Editor Michelle LaCrosse
We’re finally into spring and summer is right around the bend—it’ll be here before you know it! Travel can happen at any time, but I know many, even most, people choose summer to get away from their routines and see something new. Ahead of these vacations and staycations, let’s talk about the travel essay, where you can find examples of good travel essays, what else to think about as you plan your trip, what to bring with you when you go, and what to do once you’ve arrived. And if you’re going no farther than your neighborhood park or teahouse this summer, these suggestions are still for you! For the life of me, I can’t remember who said this, but the quote and the sentiment has always stuck: even a walk around the block can be a travel essay if you do it right. (If you know whose quote this is, please let me know in the comments!)
Think of a coiled spring—each layer circles back but on a different level. If you’re writing an essay about discovering something, perhaps in yourself, you won’t return to your front door the same as when you left. A lot of narrative travel essays describe an outward journey that prompts an internal quest of discovery. For good examples of what I’m talking about, look for copies of this annual anthology: The Best American Travel Writing. These are essays chosen from US publications and they showcase a specific kind of traveling and tourism, which may not be possible for everyone. What this anthology and others like it can do, though, is give a broad range of styles, arcs, forms, and themes. From a structural standpoint, you can use the essays to brainstorm, and hopefully, find a good literary framework for your own experience.
A craft book about structure that I find immensely helpful for my travel essays is Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. McPhee talks a lot about how to restructure a straightforward journey to make it more dynamic and he even includes diagrams! In the section helpfully titled “Structure,” he talks about sequencing events for effect, using a trip to Alaska as an example.
If we’re writing nonfiction, how do we make things more exciting if we have to stick with what actually happened? McPhee says, “You can’t move that bear around like a king’s pawn or a queen’s bishop. But you can, to an important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact.” If you’re thinking, What bear? you’ll just have to read the book!
There are other kinds of annual anthology collections to look at, too. It would be worth your time to sift through the options and pick ones that speak to you. One example is The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, which has been published since 1995. I own the tenth volume, edited by Lavinia Spalding, and I love reading about women writers who, like me, travel. Of course, there are many magazines and books that aren’t a series or a collection. The point is to find some content that can work for you as an example and to spark inspiration.
Now that you’ve read some essays and gotten an idea of what you want to do, it’s time to get your tools! First essential: a small notebook and a pen/pencil. Done and done! If you’ve got a phone, sometimes it’s nice to record sample dialogue. In my opinion, writers have special dispensation to eavesdrop. You can also take pictures to serve as mental notes—to help you describe a person, the stone facade of a building, a visual reminder to look up what that flower’s name is.
I’ve used the tiny two-by-three inch notebooks before, but my favorite are the four-by-six inch ones with an elastic band to keep them closed. I use my pen as a bookmark, bending the covers around it, and steadily, the pages get filled with bus schedules, receipts, sticky notes or paper scraps with phone numbers and hours of operation. These are the detritus that writers need to fill an essay and make it more complete. After each trip, my notebook cover gets more battered, rounded, and stained, the book itself telling a story.
Use your notebook and camera also to take some time and notice what’s going on outside the tourist areas. What are the schools like? The hospitals? Are there any public parks? I want to emphasize that I don’t mean for you to judge or criticize. Just notice.
What else is going on? What do you see that’s just like home, or just the opposite? It’s important for a travel writer to look deeper and try to understand. Curiosity about the fullness of life is necessary, I think.
If you’re not sure what I mean, in A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid talks about the difference between tourists and locals on the island of Antigua where she grew up. There’s some culpability in traveling and tourism that is important to recognize in oneself and acknowledge.
How are we affecting the places we visit? This is important. A Small Place definitely made me reconsider how I travel, and what kind of person I want to be when I’m not at home.
Thinking about structure, or at least considering it and taking a deeper look at the places you’re visiting, is a good habit to start. Instead of having many beautiful images with nothing really tying them together, you can make a point to notice specific themes and make notes that are actually helpful when you’re back home and sitting in front of your computer.
One book I read that got me thinking about themes I want to explore when I travel is A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel by Robin Hemley. From the first page of the introduction, I was highlighting paragraphs and drawing little stars for emphasis.
Hemley believes that “Immersion writing engages the writer in the here and now . . . shaping and creating a story happening in the present while unabashedly lugging along all that baggage that makes up the writer’s personality: his or her memories, culture, and opinions.” To me, this is what’s important to remember about travel writing. I can only talk about a place from my own perspective and, to be successful, I need to be aware of where my perspective comes from and how much of it I bring when I travel.
This is a little of what I’ve learned through reading and traveling, writing about traveling, and reading about writing about traveling, and I hope some of it helps. I want to leave you with this: Be still sometimes. Keep looking. Listen. Take notes. Investigate.
Thanks for reading.
PS: Comment below with your favorite travel essays that I can add to my list!