The Art of the Travel Journal

The summer before I started graduate school, I spent the month of August in Paris. One of the things I did to prepare for the trip was to purchase a sketch pad and a set of drawing pencils. The prospect of all that time in the city of art conjured up images of me sitting at a table at the Café D’Opera sipping a Cinzano and sketching the grand façade of the opera house across the way, or perhaps camping out at the Louvre for an afternoon to capture the provocative torso twist of the Venus de Milo. I forgot, for one glorious moment, that I can’t draw.

Vacations have a way of inspiring us to accomplish feats we wouldn’t ordinarily contemplate, like hiking ten miles a day over a rugged country, viewing three thousand years of Western art before lunch, living with the entire family cooped up in one small cabin in the rain, or keeping a journal. Why is it that an upcoming trip prompts many of us to go out and buy a notebook? A trip is supposed to be a memorable experience. Writing it down increases the chances that we’ll remember those ten days or three weeks when we stepped out of our ordinary lives and became someone else, somewhere else. If the trip is one we’ve gone to some trouble to arrange—especially if it will take us to new cultures where language, customs, and even the routine of daily life will all be unfamiliar—the urge to keep a record of the experience grows even more intense. Fortunately, the art of journal writing is more within reach for most of us than the art of drawing was for me. It is fairly easy to make keeping a travel journal a satisfying experience, an extension of the vacation that, along with your photographs, gives your trip the durability of legend.

With all the journals available these days in office supply stores and bookstores, the prospective traveller may choose a notebook to suit individual needs. Your journal should be convenient for you; it should have the features that will make it easy for you to write in it. Does your journal need to fit in your purse, backpack, or pocket? Do you prefer lined or blank pages? When you pause on a slope of the Rockies or halfway up the steps of Sacre Coeur, will you need a notebook with a hard cover to double as a writing surface? After many years of research, I have found just the right combination of spiral binding, hardcover, lined pages to control my sprawling handwriting, and paper thick enough so the ink doesn’t soak through to the next page.

To be truly serviceable, a travel journal should become the central document of your trip, filled with pre-trip details such as lists of places you want to visit, your itinerary, and even addresses for postcard writing. Once I’m travelling, mine doubles as a photo log, so that when I pull out those splendid coastal views and castles I thought I’d never forget, I don’t forget. A journal can collect lists of new foods or words, local pastimes or customs, names of people you met, ways to improve the itinerary the next time around, and questions you want to answer when you go home. On a family trip to Vermont one year, we kept a journal record of all the different types of weather vanes we saw; roosters and horses were the most popular, but our list included a chef with a rolling pin, a frog, and a dragon. With a roll of tape or a glue stick, the journal turns into a scrapbook for theatre tickets, admission stubs, business cards and other fragments of memories. Later, exact information gleaned from these bits and pieces will help you help others plan a trip. That kind of first-hand recommendation is more valuable than anything the guidebooks offer.

But how do you make the writing of a travel journal be something more than a list of places you visited or things you did? Fully described moments or scenes make more interesting reading later on than does the “I-did-this-then-I-did-that” variety of writing. If you take your journal with you during the day and can manage to steal time here and there to write on the spot, you’ll find that just describing where you are and what it’s like is more exciting to write—and to read—than a list-like account. Somewhere in my stack of travel journals a lake in Ireland on a summer day, the prime meridian at Greenwich, the interlocking courtyards of Beijing’s Forbidden City, and many a café in Paris come alive in words because I wrote about them on the spot.

You’ll learn about yourself and about the places you visit when you try to capture new places in writing. Use the journal to tell travel stories, compare cultures, and take notes on what you learned from guides or observation. To make the journal more accurate and more fun, use language that is interesting and specific. Try to go beyond words like “fantastic,” beautiful,” “great,” or “magnificent.” I can guarantee you that six months after the trip you’ll forget what made it so “magnificent” if you didn’t get down at least a few more concrete words. To give the moment distinctiveness, use colloquial words or foreign words you pick up along the way. I use my journal to copy down bits of overheard dialogue whenever I can. At Phipps Plaza once I overheard a swaggering young man say authoritatively to his date, “Bistro means mucho dinero.” That marvellous cross-cultural phrase will make me laugh for years because I wrote it down.

My trip journals are full of sketchy phrases, half-sentences, and writing that while not always bad, certainly isn’t good. The idea is to get it down while it’s fresh using all your senses in words specific enough to call up the moment vividly later on. When I travelled with Agnes Scott students to Ireland one year, one of my happiest moments was on our last night during a farewell dinner and singalong at the Abbey Tavern in Howth. Well into the night during a lull in the show, about five students at my table suddenly, as if moved by the same spirit, whisked out their journals and began scribbling away. The group may have attracted some stares, but I knew that that moment would become n writing, for each of them and in its own small way, the stuff of legend.