on keeping a travel journal

“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do.” ~ Henry Moore

I haven’t always kept a travel journal, and I’ve deeply regretted it when I haven’t. I too often rely on my pictures to remind me of things, or I mistakenly believe I’ll remember what happened: the conversations I had, my feelings about the journey, the details I noticed, what I marveled over. The fact is, without keeping a journal, I forget the details that bring a place to life. Later, when I sit down to write about my journey, I can’t pull up anything interesting to say.

Because I’ve experienced firsthand the bottomless depth of my forgetfulness, my goal is to keep a travel journal going forward. Without exception!

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Rakan in Miyajima, Japan

How does one keep a travel journal? It can be time-consuming.  Do we really want to take hours out of our traveling days to write every detail?  How can we focus?  I discovered recently that if I set intentions before I travel, then I can focus on those intentions in my journal. I’ve also found that my journal should accompany me everywhere, and when I sit down for coffee or food, I should jot a few notes. At the end of each day, I must record anything I want to remember. Otherwise, it will be lost.  Forever.

I have found when I’ve successfully kept a good travel journal that, later, when writing about it, I can:

  • Bring a place to life in the details
  • Capture the essence of a place
  • Write a poem about the experience
  • Write a fictional piece set in that place
  • Add my personal experience of the place rather than dry historical background
  • Add interesting encounters and conversations into my travel writing
  • Add a spiritual dimension to the experience: what I learned, what moved me, how I was inspired

When I don’t keep a travel journal, all that’s left for me to do is research the historical significance of places.  For history buffs, this can be interesting, but for me, I find it not only boring to write, but boring to read!

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Because I intend to improve my travel journals, and to inspire other travelers to do the same, I’ve compiled a list of prompts.  Feel free to use any that speak to you on your journeys.

  1. On Imaginings:
    1. Where did the idea for the destination originate?  See my post imaginings: the call to place.
    2. What promises happiness about a place?  What is seductive; what causes longing? How are you attracted?
    3. How do your imaginings mesh with the reality of the place?
    4. List 5 expectations you had about your journey before leaving home. Later, next to the items listed, write down how those expectations might have changed – or remained the same – as you lived through the stages of your journey.
    5. Write about a pilgrimage to find your family roots.
    6. You can create a pilgrimage for anything that interests you and write about it: places where historical events happened, like the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas for the Kennedy assassination; Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng prison for history on the Khmer Rouge; old KGB offices in St. Petersburg, Russia for the Cold War; covered bridges in Washington Country, PA; cities known for their graffiti sites. Cemeteries, places frequented by artists or writers.  The possibilities are endless.
    7. How have works of art helped you decide where to travel?
  2. On Anticipation:
    1. How does a place take hold in your mind before your journey?  See my post: journeys: anticipation and preparation.
  3. On Preparation:
    1. How do you prepare for your journey?  See my post: journeys: anticipation and preparation.
    2. Make a playlist of songs to play while preparing and while traveling.
    3. Read novels, memoir, essays or historical accounts of a place; watch movies, or listen to music; peruse maps, guidebooks, and stories that help demystify the road. Search travel articles in magazines or hometown papers for upcoming events in your destination. Choose festivals, art, music or literary exhibitions as a natural way to enrich your journey.
    4. Choose an array of guidebooks for a journey, old standbys or esoteric.
    5. Bring an array of writing, drawing, or painting tools: for playing, writing, drawing, painting, fooling around.
  4. On the Journey:
    1. How do you get from one place to the other?  In Alain de Botton’s fabulous book, The Art of Travel, he writes: “we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon.’ We sit in a train.  Lunch digests awkwardly within us.  The seat cloth is grey.  We look out the window at a field.  We look back inside.  A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness.”  Of course, we don’t want to bore our readers with every detail, but maybe there is something that stands out, some aspect of the journey that is worth remembering and, later, telling.
    2. How did you bring yourself along?  The truth is that no matter how far we travel, we still lug along our happy, sad, angry, adventurous, forgetful or stressed selves. It is impossible to excise our inner or physical selves from this world to which we’ve escaped. How does that self make itself known in this new place?  Do we learn something from our best or worst selves?
    3. Ask your travel partner, friend, spouse, lover or anyone on the journey with you The 36 Questions That Lead to Love. Take turns asking and answering the questions.
  5. On Immersion in the Destination:
    1. Spend time in solitude with your notebooks.
    2. Describe your experience using all your senses: See, hear, taste, smell, touch.
    3. Try to use metaphors and similes creatively.
    4. Use metonymy: Use 2 details to stand in for whole person or place.
    5. In the first couple of days, choose one or two things that seize your imagination. Consider their beauty, function and symbolic significance.
    6. Write about a building, a person in the building, one part of the building. What is surprising in this location?
    7. Certain places are poetic, strike a deep chord, or a bring a feeling of nostalgia or well-being.  Describe these places and how they affect us.
    8. What about the mundane places we find?  Hotels, roads, diners or cafes, the views from airplane, train, or car windows?  At home we often take these places for granted, but when traveling, they can become magical.  Make the uninteresting places interesting.
    9. Look back at the life you left at home.  Do you have any insights about it from afar?
    10. How are you intrepid in your travels?
    11. What do you find exotic?  What delights you? What is the evidence that you are elsewhere?
    12. Be open to serendipity and surprise.  Write about what happens.
    13. What is an improvement over your home country?  Which place is the best match for your temperament?
    14. Carry questions along and ask locals to help you find your way: What is the oldest building and street in town? Where can we find the best street market? Do you have any favorite places for music? Where can I find the most authentic music? Where is the best place to watch a sunrise? Where is the best restaurant for locals?  Who is the most beloved poet here? Where can I find the best bookstore? Where can I go for a contemplative afternoon? Is there a promenade at dusk or dawn?
    15. While traveling, what are you curious about?  What bores you?  What proves life-enhancing?
    16. Where do you feel a sense of community? Where do you feel in awe of humanity?  Oppressed by others? How?
    17. What makes you feel small? What gives you a sense of human weakness? What arouses awe and respect? How do you feel the universe is mightier than you are; that you must bow to necessities greater than yourself? What inspires, gives you a desire to worship? When do you feel an emotional connection to a higher power? What brings you to accept without bitterness the obstacles you can’t overcome & events you can’t make sense of? What sublime place suggests it’s not surprising that the world should seem unfair or beyond understanding? What place helps you graciously accept the great unfathomable events that damage our lives?
    18. What are the sights and sounds in the country versus the city?  Which do you prefer and why?  How is your soul affected by either? How do you find cities oppressive or energizing?
    19. How do you like to get around?  Do you like to be on foot, or do you feel great accomplishment when you figure out a public transit system and use it effectively?
    20. Do an aimless walk and describe.
    21. What excites you in nature?  Mountains, oceans, rivers, trees, flowers, birds? Do you feel spiritually connected to nature?  Do you feel more peaceful? Does it help you see the good in yourself?
    22. Write down names of plants you know, trees, flowers, vegetables and shrubs. Choose one from list and begin writing freely what comes to mind when you say the name of this plant.
    23. Be a philosopher. What can you tell from what you observe in people, nature, and things around you that once you say it, others might agree with?
    24. At a museum, describe an exhibit. Do you agree or disagree with artist’s philosophy?
    25. What visual art enriched your sense of what to look for in a scene?  How were your eyes opened to landscape? What helped you see colors? How did art make you conscious of feelings you might have experienced only tentatively or hurriedly?
    26. What defined a place? How did a place come alive? What about color? Colors in contrast? What about the sky?
    27. How do you try to capture beauty?
      1. With your camera, by photography? How does photography make us lazy?
      2. By way of sketching or painting? How does drawing teach us to look?
      3. By writing word paintings, poems?
    28. How do you revel in the experience? Do you bask in the light, the breeze, the rustling of leaves on the trees?  Do you linger over cuisine and wine? Truly possessing a scene is making a conscious effort to observe closely.
    29. How do you leave your mark on the landscape?  Do you buy something?: books, postcards, scarves, native crafts or artwork?
    30. Write about what you’re currently reading. How does it inform your journey?
    31. Write about music you’re interested in or movies or plays recently seen. Think about connections between all these things.
    32. Write down some words or a phrase that inspires you. Freewrite using that word or phrase in relation to your journey and see what comes up.
    33. Write a “things I learned today” list.
    34. How do our identities change according to who we are with or what we are carrying with us?
    35. How would the world look from another’s perspective? Create persona entries. Write as if you are someone or something that would have an interesting stance on the world: your pet, your cell phone, your bicycle, your refrigerator.
    36. How will scenes stay with you through your life?
    37. Review your day or week for synchronicity – coincidental events that have surprising connections. Write about the day or week prior to the event. Describe state of mind, places you went.
    38. How do you find the legends of a place entrancing?
    39. Sit on a balcony, terrace, park bench. Look at people/animals/objects. Record, free write several times with pauses between.
    40. Describe a person met along the journey – physical and emotional attributes. Use one detail about size, one about shape, one about what they’re desiring and one about how they are reacting to the world to someone or thing in it. Guess what they want, and how you think they get in their own way.
    41. Write about one end and the other, or on one side and on the other, or in the morning and in the evening, or last week and this week, here and at home – any opposites of time or space will do.
    42. Take a word you’re obsessed with and let words flow because they sound right with the word you have chosen.
    43. Create field trips for yourself that foster your interests (work, projects, hobbies, projects or missions), then write about the trip in your journal. For instance, visit bakeries, farmer’s markets, craft breweries, wineries, car showrooms, bookstores, libraries, botanical gardens; attend a stargazing party, go bicycling, canoeing, hot-air ballooning, horseback riding in an unfamiliar area.
    44. Make a journal of one-page entries with headings that sound like short story titles. Later fill these pages.
    45. Write a long letter to someone you care about.
    46. Make a journal entry every day for a week, in which you recount a day, including mundane details: What you wore, shopped for, ate, how much things cost, the locations of new services you looked for and found. Amidst these details, write about an encounter with a new person, place or object. Include names, conversations and descriptions. Write about a story idea you can generate from this.
    47. Theophile Gautier says, “The pleasure of traveling consists in the obstacles, the fatigue, even the danger.”  How is this true in your journey?
    48. Recount dreams in great detail. Hatch a story idea from a dream.
    49. Record the weather inside and out. Day or night? What is gathering or dispersed? What is the quality of the air: stirred up, clear, still, foggy? Notice clouds and shapes, absence or presence of stars, moon, sun. The sounds the wind causes or the way birds react in weather. Are sounds muffled or sharpened? What is your response to the temperature? How do trees look? Name an element or force that enters the scene. Make a metaphor to describe it.
    50. How does drawing or writing help you understand reasons behind your attraction to certain landscapes & buildings? How can you analyze their effect in psychological language? How do things embody a value or mood of importance? Consciously try to understand what you have loved.
    51. Is your journey linear, circular or spiral? Or is it a settling into one place and leaning into it?
    52. Play the alphabet game. Challenge yourself to put down your thoughts entry by entry with titles that start with each letter of the alphabet for 26 contiguous entries.
    53. The Daylong Entry: do a rendering of a mosaic of impressions from words, drawings and sound recordings – keeping the flavor of the day alive. Record thoughts as we move along by stopping and jotting things down, or by using a voice recorder and later transcribing.
    54. Search for a perfect memento and write about why it’s special. Collect things: tickets/things from nature/stickers/postmarks to include in your journal.
    55. Write about:
      1. The most surprising thing I’m finding out about myself is . . .
      2. What I’m learning about others that I never knew before is . . .
      3. If I had more time to spend at my destination, I would have . . .
    56. Write about 5 things you’re thankful for.
    57. Simplify:  Eat simply, dress simply, care little. Find some sacred music to listen to, perhaps in a local church or chapel.
    58. Write about who you become when you travel. Since no one knows you, you can become anyone you want. Do you transform yourself, become more adventurous or outgoing, or more quiet and contemplative?
    59. Write a poem a day during a journey abroad. The world can become more interesting when everything is a possible poem.
    60. Don George, in Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, discusses the “Accordion Theory of Time” approach: 1) Choose 3 or 4 pertinent experiences in the trip; 2) Focus precisely on those four experiences; 3) Skim over all the other experiences.

      …lavish three pages on an incident that happened in five minutes, then summarize the next five days in five sentences.  The narrative proceeds this way – in and out, in an out – singling out for scrutiny and expanded description the events that form the building block of the story. (Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, p. 39)

    61. Prepare a question for the day. Each morning, write a few lines in your journal that you want to meditate on during the day.
    62. Remind yourself every morning to see one new thing. Discover the overlapping point between history and everyday life, the way to find the essence of every place, everyday: in the markets, small chapels, out-of-the-way parks, craft shops.
    63. When you hit the wall: Take a day to brood. Take your time, by yourself, and sit on it.
    64. Send a postcard home to yourself where you write about something you’ve discovered about the culture and how you fit into it.
  6. Upon your return home:
    1. Contemplate: How can I re-invent myself and re-create my world?
    2. Chronologically list what happened on trip. Now write it as an epic journey, in 3rd person and past tense.
    3. Try to articulate the theme of your journey: forgiveness, closure, retribution, discovery, benevolence, responsibility, connection, acceptance. Charm, willingness to listen, tact, strength, honesty, cheerfulness, self-esteem, mental clarity, openness to change, generosity of spirit, flexibility, good humor, fortitude, courage, curiosity, patience, bravery, justice, kindness, beauty, truth, daring.
    4. Put a few photos from your trips in your journal.
    5. Look at maps and figure out how you are connected to your journey.
    6. How have things stubbornly refused to change?
    7. What are you blind to at home? Can you see them with fresh vision? What does your homeland have to offer? What can you notice that you have already seen?
    8. Write what you have learned from your journey.
    9. How can you capture our journey when you return home? Complete your travel journal and any sketches.  Create an original style of photo album.  Edit your photos and create thematic blog posts. Make collages from photographs, newspaper clippings, old postcards, leaves and stones in a box frame or in an art journal.
    10. Ask yourself if you’re a different person.  In what ways? Are your everyday thoughts altered by what you encountered on your journey? How can you carry the quality of your journey into your everyday life?
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The Endless Wall in West Virginia

“There is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering. The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world.” ~ Freya Stark

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This list is a work in progress and will be added to when new ideas emerge.  These ideas are inspired by a number of books I’ve read over the years, plus my own experiences:

I highly recommend all of these books for travel, spiritual, and creative inspiration.

Here are a couple other books about the topic that I haven’t yet read.

  • Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler by Lavinia Spalding
  • Globejotting: How to Write Extraordinary Travel Journals (and Still Have Time to Enjoy Your Trip!) by Dave Fox
  • Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers by Peter Chilson & Joanne B. Mulcahy
  • A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration by Michael Shapiro

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“When in doubt, write. I don’t know what I think until I read what I have to say.” ~ James Thurber

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view of Burgruine Dürnstein, Wachau Valley, Austria