When I spoke at the AWP conference earlier this year, I focused on what I called the travel writer’s problem of meaninglessness. It’s a malady that strikes me quite soon after returning home from a trip, when I inevitably wonder what it all meant—and then get the sinking feeling that it meant nothing at all.
I’ve come to realize that this is actually not a problem with a lack of meaning, and more of a problem of an abundance of possible meanings that exist in all the notes, photos, raw material. What is the story? Or, more to the point, what are the stories and which will I tell first?
My first move out of confusion is one that I take subconsciously, and I can’t completely explain it. As I cast my mind back over the trip, something about it keeps surfacing — an image, a phrase, an idea. A couple of recent examples that gave rise to stories: an off-hand comment I made to my friend about “our Venetian crime spree“; and aside I read in a guidebook architecture of the Paris Opera House being a celebration of pageantry.
Memoir begins not with an event, but with the intuition of meaning – with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.”
So writes Sven Birkerts in The Art of Time in Memoir , a little book which I found quite applicable to travel writing.*
…Events and circumstances were not as contained as I had once thought, but were, rather part of a complicated weave, their influence appearing and disappearing over long stretches.”
The complicated weave and the long stretches that Birkerts is referring to are within the chronology of a memoirist’s life, and what he’s talking about is finding patterns within that life—patterns of thought or behavior that carry over from one circumstance to a quite different one. “The purpose is to discover the non-sequential connections that allow experience to make larger sense,” he writes.
In travel writing, I’ve found, the search for a usable pattern that would form a connection doesn’t have to only extend back through my own life and experience, but also—and this will sound very grand—the broader experience of all humanity.
So in my Venice piece, the pattern is of crime and punishment—and since it’s such a common literary trope, it was very easy to apply it to deepen the story of a visit to Venice from my own experience to one that’s more universal. And in the Paris piece, the pattern was appearance anxiety, which I could apply to the Opera building, to Charles Garnier, to the city itself.
As a writer, I don’t find that much satisfaction in a simple retelling of my own travel yarns: after all, I know exactly what happened. But if I can broaden the pattern, I can find new meaning for myself and for others in the raw material of the travel itself—and that is extremely rewarding.
Discovering the pattern is only the beginning though.
The writer, Birkerts says,
…searches out recurrence and patterns, but also then allows for the idea that the pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience. The memoirist researches this, using self as subject, assembling the shards, riveting his impressions together word by word…
“The memoirist writes to find the patterns, but better yet to discover a dramatic explanatory narrative.”
This is actually his primary subject: how a writer can manipulate time for dramatic effect.
A writer can always describe the facts as they unfolded, but a basic chronology is not a story. This is true in memoir (unless you’re famous), and especially, double-underscore vital in narrative travel writing. Unless the story is inherently high stakes drama—being kidnapped by the Taliban, chased by a lion—a blow-by-blow approach guarantees reader boredom.
Worse yet, the dogged pursuit of linear chronology makes it impossible to use one of a writer’s best tools in telling a true story: the careful use of hindsight, of either subtly or not so subtly applying after-the-fact perspective.
Birkerts devotes the bulk of his book to the discussion of various examples of how this is done in memoir – well worth a careful read.
For me, the takeaway is that while travel narrative is by definition, researched on the road, the larger meaning is often found upon greater reflection after the fact, with additional research or during the act of writing.
The art in travel writing comes from the choices I, the writer, make in unspooling the meaning I’ve uncovered. Some of these insights are best revealed in the middle of the immediate action, and some I’m going to want to withhold for dramatic purposes. As Birkerts concludes:
Memoir is a narrative arc, but through its careful manipulation of vantage point, it simulates the subjective sense of experience apprehended through memory, and the corrective action of hindsight…it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life. Memoir returns to the past, investigating cause in the light of known effects, conjuring the unresolved mysteries of fate versus chance, free will versus determinism…the writer’s then and now stir to life our own past and present”
* Of course a book on memoir is applicable to travel writing, because travel writing is a sub-genre of memoir. I’m not the first one to notice that, not by a long shot. “A voyage is a piece of autobiography at best,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. In my experience, using travel as a source material for a true narrative is only slightly less daunting than writing about any other part of my life. (And that’s only because a journey has a definite beginning and ending, whereas most worthy life events just keep going and going… )