Travel Writing Strategies: Part Two – Tales of Adventures Past

It’s time to take our travel writing strategies in a totally different direction. Normally, when I have conversation with people about travel writing and essays I’m working on, they’re pieces from a recent trip. Most likely, it’s the last trip I went on and I want to capture the essence of that adventure while it’s relatively fresh in my mind. With every day that passes back at home, the memory fades just a little more. What I want to talk about today is writing about a travel experience in the distant past, maybe a trip you took as a kid, or something from the first time you were in Beijing and you’ve been back several times since.

There are a few reasons one might want to look back to old travels for material. First, you haven’t been anywhere in a while (gasp!) and maybe you won’t be traveling again soon (double gasp!). Revisiting old trips is a nice way to pacify your wanderlust. Second, you’ve finally understood that travel writing is more than just the anecdotal blurb about that time Uncle George ordered deep fried sheep’s balls without knowing what they were, and didn’t we all laugh at that?! Yes we did! But now you want to turn that experience into something more. Third, you’re stuck on a current piece and you just can’t seem to find the right angle on it. Writing about old trips is just one of the travel writing strategies that can help kick a new project into gear. Fourth, you’re bored. It happens! So, go dig out your photo albums and your past journals, if you kept one, and let’s see what we can do with them.


He Said/She Said

On a lot of my earlier trips I kept such a lame journal, and sometimes (Don’t tell ANYONE this part) I didn’t even keep a journal. I certainly didn’t keep the types of journals I keep now that are chock full of the 5 senses, specific names, and word-for-word copies of museum placards because of a no photo policy. This is actually an awesome problem if you traveled with others, because you get to chat with them about the trip and what they remembered. It doesn’t take much to trigger those memories. Usually a few photos will do, and if you do have an old journal, I find that just a few words can transport me back to that bug-infested hostel in no time.

This is a great opportunity to try a he said/she said piece about the trip. He said the hotel was a nightmare while she said, it wasn’t that bad, Frank! They had amazing chocolate croissants at breakfast. Travel writing is not always about the destination. It’s usually more about the people, and since you’re one of the people… see what I’m saying? By having lunch with your travel partners, and laughing about who remembered what and how could you not remember that, you have a unique way back into that trip. The memories you conjure up will give you quite a bit to work with. You don’t have to remember every detail precisely. In fact, telling the reader that you’re not at all sure of the details (there was a lot of ouzo involved that night!) can make for a hilarious read. The structure of your story can even be told in the present, and be about your lunch with your friends, and yet we still get the details of your trip.

If you traveled solo, it’s still a great idea to talk to friends and family about your old trip. They will remember emails or postcards you sent home, and the ways in which you talked about the trip when you returned. Sometimes, my mom will say things like – You were so excited about so-in-so’s half-baked idea to swim to Thailand. I was? Well, yeah, I was now that she mentioned it. Your circle can help jog the memories of old trips too, and it’s worth doing because…


That Trip Changed You

Sometimes we don’t even know the degree to which we have grown until a lot of time has passed. Sometimes, it’s easier to write about an adventure, or misadventure, when we have sufficient distance between us and the event itself. The perspective we gain from time can be a boon for a piece of travel writing. Were you scared out of your wits before you left? Blindly naive? Did you take that trip to get over someone or something? Were you running away or running toward? Was that trip a turning point?

Of all the travel writing strategies I know, I pulled this one out recently when I wanted to write about my first trip to Vienna. I went in 2006 before the global economic crash, before I went back to school, right after a divorce, while I was working a dead-end job that I hated, and when I had just started working on the first concepts of a novel. Eight years later, I have a lot of perspective on that time in my life, and how going on that trip by myself changed me. The things I’m addressing in that piece are about who I was as a traveler then vs. now. How was Vienna different when I went back last year? What would I tell myself if I could go back in time? When I left on that trip I thought I was looking for one thing, but I found something completely different – the thing I most needed to find.

I hope these travel writing strategies are helpful! To recap: Talk about the trip with your friends, family, and travel mates to see what they remember about your time in Shanghai. Dig deep to see how that old trip sparked something new within you.