Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Travelling Writer

By the time you read this post, I’ll be in Scandinavia.

I realize you’re all going to hate me for telling you this, and I’m sorry. Truly. (Although… not all that much.)

The fact is, the hubster and I are about to embark on three weeks of travel through Europe. Sans children.

We’ll be visiting England, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It’ll be the first big trip we’ve done since our precious little rugrats came along and rearranged our lives, sanity and wallets. And although we may have been known to cast pining glances toward each other and murmur “2 weeks and 3 days till Europe” at particularly trying parenting moments, the fact is, I will most certainly be a blubbering mess on that plane.

Opportunities like this one don’t come around all that often. If you’re blessed with the ability to travel, as a writer, how can you make the most of it?  

1. Observe voraciously
Take note of the details in your new surroundings. Have a curious mind, alert to the differences you observe in the way people live. People-watch. Note the architecture, the street signs, the way produce is displayed in a grocery store, the flora, the local tastes in food, the cars people drive, the rhythm of daily life. Look past the monuments and buildings and take an interest in things other people don’t see. Take lots of photos, and not just of the tourist attractions. Step away from the crowd and take a picture of the old woman sitting in the gutter, the way the light falls through the trees, the rows of bread in a bakery, the piece of newspaper blowing down the street.

Photo by imagerymajestic,
2. Keep a journal
It’s incredible how much you’ll forget. You think it will stay with you forever, but time has a way of obscuring even the sharpest impressions. So write it down. On my first overseas trip as a 19-year-old, I wrote longhand in a notebook. I wrote while sitting in sun-soaked alfresco cafes in Italy, on a scenic train in Switzerland, on the bus while driving through France, in my hotel room at night. Don’t just record the things you did and saw. A journal should capture sights, sounds, tastes, and most importantly, how you felt. Anyone can learn facts about a place by looking it up online. But if you ever want to write about a setting you’ve visited, the things that will bring your writing to life will be the sensory richness and the quirky, colorful details that come only from personal experience.  

3. Try new things
There should be no such thing as a narrow-minded writer. Aim to broaden your perspectives and step out of your comfort zone. Try a new food. Get out your phrasebook and order a meal in a language you’ve never spoken before. Strike up a conversation with a local, even if they can barely speak English and you have to communicate with gestures and broken phrases. Hire a bike, throw away your tourist map and explore the back streets. Give yourself an adventure.

4. Be a traveller, not a tourist
I’ll never forget the woman I met years ago on a day-tour in China. When she realized the public bathroom came equipped only with “squatty potties”, she began complaining loudly to everyone on our tour and all the locals within earshot. “This is completely disgraceful! How do they ever hope to attract Western tourists with standards like these! They’d better hope to lift their act before the Beijing Olympics!”

I felt embarrassed to be associated with her. That style of toilet is not what we’re used to in our culture, but if we only wanted to experience our culture – why on earth would we travel? And who says that our way of doing things is inherently better or more superior than someone else’s?

Writers are not tourists, expecting everything to be the same as it is “back home”, with the addition of some picturesque photo opportunities. Writers engage with culture, and therefore, they learn and grow.

For those who think they’ll never travel

Think this list is not applicable to you?

Go back. Read it again. This time, apply it to the place where you live.

You, the writer, should be a voracious observer of daily life. A journaller of rich sensory detail. Willing to take risks and try new things. Able to engage in cultures unfamiliar to you, to look at things from new perspectives, and to live fully absorbed and present, no matter where you may be.

Why not try it? Take the back roads. Talk to a stranger. Find the unexpected in the everyday.

To someone else, your home is a travel destination. Try looking at it through their eyes and see what you discover.

Live as a traveller in your own familiar, surprising world.

Image by chinpipat,
So how about you, dear readers? What's your favorite place on the globe so far? How about your dream travel destination? 

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia when she’s not gallivanting around the globe (which, unfortunately, is most of the time.)

She would love to respond to your comments, but she’s currently in Norway cruising the fjords and eating sour cream waffles with Brunost and cloudberry cream. 

She’s having a great time though, so she hopes you’ll forgive her.

Oh, and she misses her kids. A lot. 


Take the back roads. Talk to a stranger. Find the unexpected in the everyday. Click to tweet

Writers: observe life anew. Live as a traveller in your own familiar, surprising world. Click to tweet

Tips for the travelling writer, and how to write more richly without ever leaving home. Click to tweet


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Karen, I hope you have a glorious time with your hubby in Europe. And yes, I'm trying NOT to be jealous right now. :) I love your tips about being a "traveling" writer rather than simply a tourist.

And for the matter of squatty potties, when I've traveled, I've been thankful for anything more than a hole in the ground. :) Unfortunately, it seems we Americans have a reputation for being loud. And, usually, we are. When traveling in some places, I tried to blend in rather than stand out. This has given me opportunities to learn and observe. :)

Sorry, I got chatty. Have a wonderful time! said...

Sounds like fun and great advice for the writer in us. :)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh Karen, I hope you are having a grand time and are collecting glorious fodder for future stories!

I must admit that I tend to wear blinders while in my natural surroundings. It is so easy to just rush through life without taking time to soak it all in. Thank you for that reminder.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

What a lovely surprise! Free Wi-Fi at our hotel and (for a change) a minute or two to spend online. Thanks, ladies, for your comments.

We're currently in Bergen, Norway, a beautifully scenic fishing port. And of course, having a lovely time. Thanks for the well-wishes.

JEANNE, you're so right about blending in and observing. Those who listen learn so much more than those who can't stop talking for a second. We're on a bus tour with, as it happens, mostly Americans. They're all perfectly lovely. :-)

GLORY, thanks! As always, advice I need to take myself. :-)

SHERRINDA, me too. I'm particularly unobservant, and it's something I've had to work really hard at to overcome. I tend to drift along in a world of my own imagination and let the real world pass me by - but I'm getting much better at observing those everyday details, with practice.