You Are Here: The Art of Travel Writing
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” —Marcel Proust
As soon as I booked my ticket to Burma (Myanmar) instead of snowy streets and the frosted windows of my home I saw the cooling light of sunsets reflecting off pagodas. Anyone in the midst of a Minnesota winter might long for such imaginative escape. To anticipate and plan, read and research, plot and picture is part of the joy of travel. When the here and now no longer holds my imagination, I take off for new lands in an effort to see my world, as Marcel Proust writes, “with new eyes.”
Just as travel plans can take one out of the present moment, there are many ways to be out of the present when we travel. The travel writer Paul Bowles has made the distinction between the traveler and the tourist in his book The Sheltering Sky. “The difference,” he writes, “is partly one of time…Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.”
The traveler might also be judged not only by the duration of their travels, or by how they move from one country to another, but by how they move from one moment to the next. Are we present in the current experience when we travel? Or are we, like a tourist, too busy recording with camera or phone to engage with our surroundings—a towering cathedral, a bustling market, a sunset reflecting off a pagoda?
As a writer, I combat the impulses of the tourist with a pen. Writing has a magnetizing power that places me in time and space. Almost as if my pen were a pin on a map, writing is my way of saying “you are here” to myself.
Of course, writing while we travel can pose the same problem as our cameras, standing between us and the destination, filtering the immediate sensation of a setting. “My life is the poem I would have writ,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “But I could not both live and utter it.” There are moments in travel not to be missed the first time around for the sake of a later audience. No one wants their nose in a notebook when the sun hits those golden pagodas at just the right angle. And yet, for those moments to have resonance, for our eyes to be opened to their full nuance and color, we must find time in our travels record, process, and reflect.
As the over 16,000 writers who applied for Amtrak’s train residency know, the value of a good long train ride to the writer cannot be overestimated. In the in-between spaces that travel often affords, we can make sense of new sights, capture a certain smell, write ourselves back into the places we inhabit. Even if it is a postcard to a friend a day, a journal entry to yourself each night, or simply a description of the face across the aisle from you, placing your adventures on the page extends the moment of travel, allowing you to be present in it longer.
Then, when you return, you may begin to see familiar landscapes in new ways; a fresh pattern of frost on the old window pane.
In escaping the Minnesota winter to research my trip to Burma, I learned of the sea gypsies of the Mergui Archipelago, who can see clearly underwater because the custom of diving has been so integral to their lives. The children of the Moken people dive so often for food and other treasures of the Andaman Sea that their eyes accommodate to allow them to see differently than any other people in the world.
With long practice, it may be possible for something fundamental in the way we perceive the world to shift as we write, allowing us to apply the eyes of a traveler to the moment in which we find ourselves. Landscapes that appeared blank and white on departure will diversify into the un-looked for, many hues of home.
Jodie Noel Vinson will be teaching "Travel Writing: Getting from Here to There" this March at the Loft. She is a graduate of the MFA in non-fiction creative writing at Emerson College, where she developed a book about her literary travels. Her essays and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in Pleiades, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, The Concord Saunterer, Green Mountains Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and Minerva Rising. Jodie is Managing Editor of Longitude Books, an online travel bookstore.