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Friday, January 14, 2011

Retracing My Steps: The Pros and Cons of Travel Journals

Lately I've been diving into old journals I kept while traveling and living in another country. I'm setting a good portion of my novel-in-progress in that locale, so I am grateful for the detailed records I kept. While I experienced a number of exciting, dramatic events there (including being in city bus that drove into a bank window, and hitchhiking to the ocean with friends on the back of a Coca-Cola delivery truck), it is the most mundane details that now grab my attention. What I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where I shopped for groceries. What the mornings smelled like. The wild pointsetta trees that burst into red blooms in plazas, like little explosions of Christmas. And the interesting characters who made cameo appearances in my day-to-day life: a peace-loving military official whom I used to tutor, and a business executive who studied jujitsu and farmed ostriches. These are the kinds of details I can comb through now to help bring a story to life.

Surprisingly less useful to me now: profound insights I had about Life at the time. Whining about culture shock, bureaucracy, and general frustrations. Sights and experiences that blew me away, described in glowing abstractions. Actually, the whole narrative of my journeys to this country -- two visits and a nine-month stint working there -- are almost completely useless to me as a fiction writer.

I write a lot of fiction based on my travel experiences, perhaps as homages to the countries I've loved. The end result is always quite different from what I actually experienced. It's tempting to mine my travel journals for the story itself. I often think, reaching for an old journal: Hey, this trip had a beginning, a middle, and an end! Lots of stuff happened! I can write about it!  The story's practically already written!

But that's dangerous thinking. Most of us, when we travel, do not have a neat narrative arc to our journeys. The travel journal typically records highs and lows, twists and turns, that are not necessarily compelling as a story or novel. For example, browsing through a journal of a 12-day trip to Turkey, I see that I experienced the following high and low points: a tumble down a flight of marble stairs, a deeply spiritual experience in a mosque, a persistent foot infection, the most heavenly breakfast, three nights in a cave, a brief spat with my husband (which involved an ice cream cone being flung out a car window at high speed, for reasons that now elude me), a breathtaking trek through village ruins led by an eight-year-old boy (and goat), and thugs attempting to break into our car and lure us into a jewelry store. All fascinating stuff that still makes my heart beat faster when I read it. Yet using the travelogue as the basis for a story or a book requires a lot of work. The material must be sifted through and reshaped, and much of it rejected altogether.

Another danger of relying too heavily on travel journals is the temptation to bend the story to follow events from the journal, or to let geography dictate the plot. In my forthcoming novel The Frame Game, I spent years, and about fifty pages, agonizing over how to get my heroines to a remote Japanese mountain village where they could stay in an ancient thatch-roof house where silkworms were once farmed. Cool place, right? I thought so. Simply because I had traveled there, and been blown away by the village and these houses, and devoted pages and pages of my journal to this place.

It was a huge revelation when one day I realized: there is no earthly reason for these girls to go to this village or to the silkworm houses! My traveler's memory had been insisting on this destination, but the story resisted it. Everything they needed to accomplish could be done right were they already were.

In revisiting my old travel journals, then, it helps to try to read them through my main character's lens. What would my character -- not me -- notice or take away from these experiences? What would my character  be interested in? Do the places, events, and details I recorded for posterity actually serve the story? If I want to include some events, what happens if I present them in a different order? Can I imagine a totally different premise or outcome than what I journaled? What if they happened to a person who is very different from myself?

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