Travel Writing

Travel Writing

I am the worst travel writer. When my husband and I spent three weeks in India this year, I struggled to write a single creative word. The best I could do was scribbling out lists of things we did, along with a few words to jog my memory about funny anecdotes and things that happened – like the way our driver, Jagdish, would get very excited whenever some free space opened up on the highway, and would exclaim, “Yesh! Yesh!” while gripping the steering wheel. He also called me sheeshter – sister – more times than I would have liked. Voluminous writing just doesn’t come naturally to me. Words don’t pour. I’ve had to establish a routine in order to have big writing days, and even when I break the routine – writing in the afternoon rather than the morning, for example – I have to turn that deviation into a new routine in order to trick myself into writing.

Travel – the way I like to travel – generally sees me having no routine. I let myself wake up and decide what I’d like to do, in tandem with my travel mates, and let the day follow whichever course it would like. Even though this mentality can wreck my writing routine, travel has been so important to me as a writer. It has infused so many ideas in my head. A whole novel draft that I wrote last June – while traveling, believe it or not – was inspired by the time I spent in Spain, Germany and Morocco. A new novel idea is also inspired by my experience in India. So many little snippets from things I’ve written have started as an interaction I had while traveling. That exposure to things outside of my comfort zone, outside of my routine, actually help my writing. But, I still need to make a word count!

Tomorrow marks the start of a crazy summer of travel for me. I will be road-tripping with friends to Texas, road-tripping to St. Louis and Chicago with husband, flying to Portland for the Tin House writing workshop and then taking a week-long, post-bar-exam girls vacation with a good friend in Mexico. This summer of travel will be punctuated by a long weekend in New York City for the wedding of some good friends. I am also supposed to be finalizing my thesis draft this summer, while incorporating revisions into my novel and starting a new full-time job. HOW TO DO THIS WITH SO MUCH TRAVEL!?!? ARGH!

Just like I’ve done with smaller deviations in my routine, I need to come up with some goals and mini-routines within my non-routine vacation. Sequestering myself for some alone time when I can, always having my notebook handy, forcing myself to write while sipping coffee in the morning, going for long walks and talking to myself about what I’m seeing, hearing, imagining. All of these are good, tried-and-true tactics to get me to generate words while I’m on the road. And I think, since I don’t have a minimum word count hovering over me, it might be good to simply get into the habit of free writing, letting the travel experience really inform my writing.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Write about the setting – where am I? What am I looking at? What looks the same as home? What’s different? What’s the most interesting thing I can see?
  2. What are the silly snippets of conversation going back and forth between me and my travel mates? Can any of that conversation be used to inspire some snappy dialogue (probably!)?
  3. Could any of my characters from my thesis stories – or anything I’ve written – be found in this new environment? How would they react to being in the desert or in the Pacific Northwest? This prompt can help me get to know my characters better, even if they never find themselves in this situation.
  4. Imagine what is happening back home. Normally, I like to be in a place, really be there, and forget about my life back in New Orleans. But this prompt can really stoke my imagination…
  5. FOOD! What am I eating? How is it reacting to me? How am I reacting to it? Is it making me full? Sleepy? Is it better than food at home?
  6. Behind the scenes – What is happening with the staff at the hotel? What happens in the kitchen or the bar? Who has to clean the pool? Imagine miniature relationships going on between all of the people that come to this place for work.

What are some other ideas for writing prompts while traveling? How do other people keep the word count up while they’re on the road/plane/boat?

The Dystopian Novel

The Dystopian Novel

This past semester, I took an amazing class called Disaster Literature that, yes, was as depressing as it sounds. We read a number of novels that dealt with life amid disaster, whether it was realistic or fantastical, in the past or in the future. Titles included The Wild Palms by William Faulkner, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Paradise by Toni Morrison and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of the central questions we discussed throughout the semester was about the role of fiction in questioning and possibly changing modern, political control over such things as geography,  human biology, immigration and agriculture.

I am a sucker for books like these, generally. After all, I often joke that reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a welcome respite from togetherness-time on a recent family vacation. Having the novels put into conversation with one another and with larger socio-political questions really helped illuminate their importance in how we, as citizens, build narrative about our current situations, whatever they may be, and how we relate to citizens elsewhere, whether they are in the same country as us or across the globe.

Given my research in West Africa about underrepresented writers, it makes sense that I am always on the lookout for what’s going on elsewhere, what people are writing in far-flung places, languages I can’t read, etc. Words without Borders and Brittle Paper are two great resources for discovering new writing from underrepresented voices. So, I am thrilled to see the New York Times writing about authors from the Middle East that may not reach a Western audience without this type of coverage.

The article, “Middle Eastern Writers Find Refuge in the Dystopian Novel,” by Alexandra Alter, highlights dystopian novels that are being written by authors as a way to talk about taboo and outlawed topics. She brings us into the struggle of publishing as a commercial endeavor in the face of the disdain and anger of those in power. As with the writers in Mali, who had to think about publishing avenues when selecting the language in which they would write, publishing houses in these precariously governed countries must consider the consequences of publishing work in totalitarian regimes. This quote, from Alter’s article, demonstrates their strife: “We are concerned now with what we publish,” said Sherif-Joseph Rizk, director of Dar al-Tanweer Egypt, an Arabic publishing house. “If something is banned, it does create commercial problems.”

But as one of the writers says in the article, dystopian fiction can provide an outlet to say what is not possible to say. Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue, explains: “Fiction gave me a very wide space to say what I wanted to say about totalitarian authority.”

Similarly, the writers we read over the course of the semester in Disaster Lit were doing the same, using fiction to express the hard realities and truths about the society in which they were trying to live. I will have to add these names to my summer reading list!