|A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler||$14.95|
ISBN 1-932361-67-7 264 pages
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“Lavinia Spalding has given travelers a witty, profound, and accessible exploration of the hows and whys of keeping a journal. Novices and veterans alike will find inspiration and fresh ideas on every page, along with practical suggestions to bring out the best writer in anyone…. Buy two copies—one to meditate on at home and another to dogear, underline and carry alongside your own journal en route.”
—Anthony Weller, author of The Siege of Salt Cove and Days and Nights on the Grand Trunk Road.
Two major trends have recently swept the travel world: the first, an overwhelming desire (thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love) to write one’s own memoir; the second, an explosion of social media, blogs, twitter and texts, which allow travelers to document and share their experiences instantaneously. Thus, the act of chronicling one’s journey has never been more popular, nor the urge stronger.
Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler, inspires budding memoirists and jetsetting scribes alike. But Writing Away doesn’t stop there—author Lavinia Spalding spins the romantic tradition of keeping a travelogue into a modern, witty adventure in awareness, introducing the traditional handwritten journal as a profoundly valuable tool for self-discovery, artistic expression, and spiritual growth.
Writing Away teaches you to embrace mishaps in order to enrich your travel experience, recognize in advance what you want to remember, tap into all your senses, and connect with the physical world in an increasingly technological age. It helps you overcome writer’s block and procrastination; tackle the discipline, routine, structure, and momentum that are crucial to the creative process; and it demonstrates how traveling—while keeping a journal along the way—is the world’s most valuable writing exercise.
“Spalding reminds us to journey conscientiously, to arrive awakened, and to write with all our hearts. This is a beautifully vital antidote to the frenetic buzz of blogging and texting, to be savored and shared.”
—Alexandra Fuller, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
“Spalding doesn’t just give you ideas for keeping a travel journal—she makes a convincing case for why keeping a travel journal is important, and how this personal writing ritual can deepen your journey in unexpected ways. Recommended for anyone who endeavors to travel mindfully."
—Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There
By Lavinia Spalding
—ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY
Some years ago, while packing to move from San Francisco to Utah, I unearthed the journal from my first trip abroad, a college break spent in Europe with my best friend. It was a fat black sketchbook with a colorful collage of ticket stubs and photos haphazardly laminated on the cover. Considering my stress level that day, I’m not sure why I took the time to open it, except that it looked inviting, and I’m a woman with a tender spot in her heart for procrastination.
A familiar line caught my attention on the first page: “Our ride from Heathrow to the hostel was the scariest ten minutes of my life.” The journal was written in my hand, but younger—the cursive more deliberate, with wider loops and an endearing overuse of exclamation points and ellipses. What can I say, it was irresistible. Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.
Inside were my own experiences, but lived by another me—a young woman I recognized only vaguely. I sat sandwiched between cardboard boxes on the hardwood floor of my bedroom, reacquainting myself with a gutsy, curious, naïve, self-conscious, intense, bad-ass, twenty-something version of myself. The writing in my diary was raw, affected, and—let’s be honest—not good. And I already knew how the story ended. Still, I couldn’t put it down.
After an hour, I stood up, stretched, and limped my cramped body to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Waiting for the water to boil, my mind sifted through near-forgotten images and experiences preserved by the journal—a rooftop party in Seville where I drank tinto de verano (red wine and orange Fanta—tastes better than it sounds) and learned to dance the Sevillana by moonlight; a bleak Prague hostel outfitted with cots and communal cold showers a la gym class, which turned out to be an abandoned high school; a performance of King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre that brought me to tears and made the woman sitting beside me yelp like a Chihuahua when a ketchup-soaked rubber eyeball landed in her lap. A massive, forbidding iron door at a hilltop monastery in Rome with a keyhole which, when looked through at night, revealed the Duomo snugly framed and illuminated, about the size of a thumb, glowing like a nightlight.
I stood in the kitchen reminiscing until it struck me that despite having sacrificed an irretrievable hour of packing, I no longer felt anxious. It was as if I’d just reentered my apartment and peeled a heavy backpack off my sweaty, sunburned shoulders, fresh from an exhilarating adventure with someone I loved and now understood better than ever. By spending time with my memories I’d given myself a mini vacation. I was renewed. It was that easy.
This particular journal documented a pivotal time in my life—the summer that Europe worked its magic on me, activating a permanent, insatiable wanderlust. Two weeks after college graduation I was off again; I signed a contract to teach English as a Second Language in South Korea for one year (which turned into six), and teaching funded my excursions throughout Asia and other regions of the world. These experiences gave new shape and meaning to my life.
Even now, residing in the United States (or “between travels”), I nurture and honor my inner nomad by surrounding myself with reminders of my journeys. On my wall hangs a painting given me by a prominent Manila artist. On my living room floor, a handmade basket from Costa Rica. Strung from my mirror, a silk butterfly sewn by a Khmer landmine victim in Phnom Penh. There’s a dzi bead from Tibet, a book of Aboriginal myths from Australia, and an Indonesian fertility statue named Richard Woodcock. I have a sake set from Kyushu, a portrait of me sketched by a Carcassonne street artist, and a pair of wooden wedding ducks my Korean students gave me (a hint that I was overdue to get married). Road souvenirs fill every room of my house, yet not one compares in value to my travel journals.
Keeping a travel journal is a time-honored art form steeped with tradition and romance, a practice with countless iterations and formulas. Some people approach it like a religious discipline, sitting each afternoon with pen and notebook to dutifully chronicle the events of their day. They name every French chateau they visited, not to mention which queen slept in which bedroom when she was married to which king who was shtupping which mistress down which secret passageway. They keep thorough cost and distance inventories, list obscure facts and figures. They record all they’ve seen, done, and learned, unwilling to risk forgetting elevations and populations.
I’ll be straight with you, I’m not these people.
In the opening entry of one of the world’s most historic and controversial travel journals, Diary of the First Voyage, Christopher Columbus wrote, “Friday, 3 August 1492. Set sail from the bar of Saltes at 8 o’clock, and proceeded with a strong breeze till sunset, sixty miles or fifteen leagues south, afterwards southwest and south by west, which is the direction of the Canaries.” Say what you will about Columbus, he wasn’t sparing us any details.
But historically speaking, Columbus was only doing his job. Travelogues were serious business back then, reserved for hard facts and pertinent information. Pioneers filled candlelight-inked diaries with precise accounts of crops and weather conditions, covering travel, weddings, cricket infestations, floods, childbirth, plague, death, and lunch with equal dispassion. Early American explorers kept track of celestial readings, temperature, and wind direction, sketching any unfamiliar flora and fauna they encountered.
The point, back then, was documentation. By sharing knowledge you offered a gracious hand up to future travelers, sparing them the same rookie mistakes you made. L’Ingénieur Duplessis, who sailed up the Brazilian coast from the Galápagos, crossing the Atlantic to the Azores and then returning to France, wrote in 1701, “Why else keep a log if not to put it to use on future voyages back to the places already visited? If so much trouble is taken to write down everything considered necessary, is this not in order to sign the way for others or ourselves when by chance we are again confronted with the same regions and seasons?”
Today we have YouTube for that. Today, with the world of information (and misinformation) quite literally at our internet-happy fingertips, the traveler’s diary has become less resource and obligation, more self-expression. Yet despite its evolution, it has always been, in essence, a log of what not to forget.
This does not, however, mean it need be solely information based. A travelogue will play whatever role you want it to, no questions asked or eyebrows raised—it can be a companion on solo journeys; a vault of memories to cherish through the decades; a portfolio of poetic passages and quirky anecdotes to publish (at least for friends’ enjoyment); an unruly scrapbook of tickets, programs, sugar packets, and your police report; a to-do list to occupy the rest of your life; a clean canvas for impromptu sketches; a mirror of self-discovery; or an instrument to awaken the mind.
If we’re committed to honest investigation, the travel journal can be a cornerstone of growth and a catalyst for great work, providing a safe container for astonishing discoveries and the life lessons we take away from them. We write words in an empty book, and an inanimate object is transformed into a living, breathing memoir. In turn, as we write, the journal transforms us. It allows us to instantly process impressions, which leads to a more examined layer of consciousness in both the present and the future. It’s a relationship, and let me tell you, it’s no cheap one-night stand.
Writing Away is a book about forging that relationship through keeping an awakened, intentional, creative travelogue, but above all, it’s a place where journey meets journal. The two words, which share an obvious root, jour, or “day” in French, both refer to how far one has gone in a day. The poet T. S. Eliot once said, “Only those willing to risk going too far can find out how far they can go.” How far are you willing to take your journey and journal?
This book is dedicated to and intended for all travelers, and not only those striking out for distant shores. My aspiration is to embolden you to view everyday life as a journey and travel as an ongoing state of mind. The simple definition of travel is to go from one place to another, and this includes all forms of movement; you may be crisscrossing the planet or traversing the next city block—or not even leaving your physical space. You could be an armchair traveler or someone for whom travel is impossible. You might be a person who uses the written word to travel into yourself and out of your circumstances. This book is yours, too.
Likewise, just as the term “traveler” isn’t restricted to salty vagabonds with a lifetime supply of frequent-flier miles and a phonebook-thick passport, “journal-keeper” isn’t exclusive to the handwritten self-chronicler. Although Writing Away emphasizes pen-and-paper journaling, it’s not an invite-only party that shuns bloggers who can’t produce a fountain pen and Moleskine at the door. Almost all the suggestions, ideas, inspiration, and badgering packed into this book can be liberally copied and pasted for use in blogging, as well as poetry, fiction, journalism, and memoir.
You may find you don’t click with all my ideas; I encourage you to experiment with those that appeal to you and take a crack at a few that don’t. Keep an open mind—after all, you can’t win if you don’t play. Also, skip around at will. When a certain chapter doesn’t do it for you, flip to the next. If one fundamental journaling truth exists, it’s that there’s no formula, no right or wrong. Be advised, I’m not here to teach you how to keep a journal; I’m just going to get you started and then navigate a little.
In this book, I intend to take you on an unorthodox journaling journey—a twisty back road through pristine wilderness, quiet hamlets, and chaotic cities with neon lights and dark, gritty back alleys. We’ll experience journaling in the moment with no thought toward results, simultaneously creating an evocative finished product. I will engage your sense of wonder, humor, compassion, and imagination while guiding you to become acutely aware of your senses and sensitivities. I’ll implore you to slow down so you see more, and I’ll urge you to speed up so you think less. I will encourage you on occasion to destroy what you’ve just finished writing, but appeal to you to save every possible word. Together we’ll overcome worries, discuss long-term solutions, and brave the roadblocks and potholes. And all the while, we’ll make the world our personal muse. Ready?
You’re actually driving, by the way. I call shotgun.
Table of Contents
1—Let the Wild Writing Begin
Choosing a journal and beginning your journey
2—It’s the Intention that Matters
Finding and following your journaling purpose
3—Write Two Pages and Call Me in the Morning
Tackling discipline, routine, structure, and momentum
4—Travel Is Stranger than Fiction
Infusing your entries with elements of creative writing
5—Distance Makes the Art Grow Stronger
Behind the scenes: the making of an artistic journal
6—Journal to the Center
Traveling inward and exploring each moment
7—And Now for Something Completely Different
How to keep the love affair alive
8—Don’t You Forget About Me
Teaching yourself to observe and remember in advance
9— The Sum of Our Misadventures
Embracing the mishaps to enrich your experience
10—Free Your Mind and the Words Will Follow
Tips, tricks, and how travel makes writers of us all
11—Tell Me the Truth
Finding the courage to write what’s really real
12—Having a Great Time, Wish I Were Here
Technology and the journaling traveler
13—Bring It on Home
The journey ends and begins anew
Let the Wild Writing Begin
“I am enamoured of my journal.”
—SIR WALTER SCOTT
There’s nothing like the feeling of buying a brand new blank book. It’s a tingly, buzzy sensation, not unlike the one you might experience admiring a shiny new car in your driveway (though I’ll allow it falls a few digits lower on the thrillometer). Like a new car, a blank book is an invitation. It represents limitless possibilities: long sun-dappled roads to follow on unscheduled afternoons, mysteries to solve, and twisty stories to tell. And it takes no more effort than putting key in ignition or pen to paper.
The novelist and journalist Edward Streeter once said that travel is ninety percent anticipation and ten percent recollection. And though I can’t vouch for his math, he had one fact nailed: anticipation accounts for a monumental chunk of the journey and shouldn’t be considered separate. It’s part and parcel—the itch to take off, the poring over maps, the thrill of choosing destinations, the research, the organizing, and—ah yes—the pre-trip shopping.
If you’re hitting the road and intend to keep a journal but have yet to procure a blank book, I encourage you to do so immediately, especially if you’re still in the inchoate planning stages. Before burrowing too deeply into arrangements, get a journal. Expectancy around travel is a rare experience—rich, heady, and intoxicating—and it warrants inclusion within your notebook pages.
What’s more, the quest for the perfect journal is one of the ineffable joys of trip preparation—wandering around a funky neighborhood bookshop or stationery store, scanning the shelves of blank books, pulling one down because you’re drawn to its color, feeling the weight and texture of the paper between your fingers, wondering if it’ll hold up to weather and wear, imagining pouring your soul into its pages. Keeping a travel journal can be a tactile, sensuous affair, and this part’s all foreplay.
On the other hand, the idea of book shopping might not send sexy little shivers down your spine. Fair enough. Still, if you’re genuinely interested in creating not just an archive of occurrences but a personal artifact and a vehicle for self-reflection, then what I’m espousing is more than permission to indulge in happy, harmless retail therapy. I’m talking about you finding your dream journal and claiming it.
Of course, we all know it doesn’t take Magellan to find a journal. You can pop by a drug store and grab the first one you spot—the classic speckled black and white composition book, or one with Wonder Woman on the cover—and you’ll be out in five minutes without feeding the meter. You can snag a notebook at the dollar store while stocking up on novelty Band-aids and press-on nails. You could even score one at your local gas station. In fact, it might be unnecessary to buy a journal at all; there’s probably something lying around the house. If you aren’t picky, you can get your blank book anywhere. And it’ll do.
But what exactly will it do? Will it inspire poignancy and profundity? Will it move you to create a living keepsake that you’ll treasure and reread? Will it feel safe and familiar and tactilely comfy, like a small, sweet corner of home when you’re out roaming the world? Most importantly, will it invite you back in, day after day, week after week? Or will it be a cheap spiral-bound that you shove in a box at the back of your closet with your rollerblades and naked Polaroids of your ex?
I say choose your journal the way you’d pick a travel companion—because in actuality, that’s what it will be. Whether you’re out for a weekend or a year, your journal will accompany you. You’ll bounce around on rickety buses with it in Calcutta, share your hammock with it in Bora Bora, go psychedelic with it in Amsterdam, take it carpet shopping in Iran, tell it your tipsiest secrets in Sonoma. Wherever you wander, you’ll entrust to it your tales. Some nights your journal will be the last thing you see, touch, and talk to as you drift off to sleep. How could you not consider it a companion? And do you want a companion who’s cheap, flimsy, and dull? At the same time, I’m not proposing the opposite (expensive, rigid, and fussy). So let’s get down to what you are looking for in a companion.
The principal feature of a good travel notebook is sturdiness. Your journal, like everything else you pack, should be able to take a good beating. (This is apparently where that whole “companion” analogy ends.) I recommend finding a solid, reliable, no-frills book that you find aesthetically pleasing, or one that does zero for you in the aesthetics department but can be jazzed up with minimal effort.
The next quality I look for in a journal is that it’s unlined. On the outside it might seem the most transcendent notebook ever produced, but if I open it to see lines, I shake my head in disappointment, swear under my breath and with a personally affronted expression, set it back on the shelf.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “I like lined journals.” Hear me out. If you were embarking on a different journaling journey—say, one that accompanied you through treatment, grief, or therapy—I might steer you toward a lined journal, to whatever book offered solace and sanctuary. But this is a travel journal. You’re about to toss some belongings in a bag and step away from the security of home—possibly even ditch your job—to run around the planet and engage in untold adventures. If you were organizing a backcountry trip through Monument Valley, would you rent a four-wheel-drive or a Porsche? Unless you’re a little mentally unstable, you’d choose the four-wheel-drive. It’s the appropriate vehicle.
Likewise, for travel journaling, an unlined book is the appropriate vehicle. It evinces freedom: license to plaster the page with chaos, to doodle, sketch, experiment, paste in colorful brochures and paper chopstick holders. An absence of lines leaves room for imagination to take over. Also, a blank page is a better canvas for illustrations—and so what if you can barely draw a circle? You could at least throw your inner artist a bone.
In the end, however, if the structure provided by lines leaves you feeling more relaxed and creative, then a ruled journal is obviously the practical course, as it will release you to concentrate on the words themselves instead of their appearance. Still undecided? I urge you to consider the unlined option and vote for it in the upcoming election.
My third crucial criterion is that a journal be willing to lie flat. No one writes well over a hump, and manhandling a stubborn book with your elbow—holding it down like a dog with a tick in its ear—detracts from the dignity of keeping a pen-and-paper journal.
Next, the pages of a blank book should be blank—unadorned of anyone else’s words. Journals often come with quotes and tips sprinkled on the pages, which are better at distracting than they are inspiring. Even worse are those intelligence-insulting books with fill-in-the-blanks: Where I Stayed_________, How Much I Spent on Cab Fare_________, What I Ate_________, How Many Times I Chewed My Food ________, Who I Shagged _________.
I’ve made my point. Not a fan. Certainly, these books serve a purpose—the fill-in format can be an entertaining structure—but trust yourself to have the courage, independent thought, and self-awareness to generate your own unique cues and recognize what matters to you. You don’t employ a template for your life or your travels, so why rely on another’s formula for an equally personal pursuit? You’ll feel as creative as you would filling out a library card application. On the other hand, if you think you’ll benefit from prompts, take five minutes to write some for yourself, or check out the ideas at the end of each chapter and the questions at the back of the book, all designed to stoke your imagination.
Finally, pay attention to paper. First and foremost, it should be thick enough that your ink won’t bleed through. In terms of color, stark white pages can be intimidating, so scope out books with cream or tan pages. Some journals contain coated, silky paper that’s delicious to the touch; unfortunately, this will usually cause the ink to feather and smear and make you sad. Also beware of those gorgeous rustic blank books, often produced in Southeast Asia, with banana-leaf covers and thick, handmade paper embedded with flowers and stems. Unfortunately, writing on that beautiful bumpy paper will not only dry out many a rolling ball pen, it’ll also remind you of being nine again, struggling to compose an ode to Johnny Depp in pencil on the plaster wall in your bedroom. Maybe that’s just me.
From spirals and three-ring binders to sketchbooks, Moleskines and handmade books, you’ll find no shortage of journal options. Check out the Q&A section at the end of this chapter for in-depth blank-book discussion. But if you already know you’re happiest writing on 8X10 yellow legal pads, then by all means, stock up. The point is to write and remove all obstacles to that writing. Find what inspires you. Just keep in mind that whatever journal you settle on will occupy roughly the same luggage space as several chocolate bars or a large flask of rum, so it had better give you equal joy to open.
Back to cars briefly—back to the brand new one I’d enjoy seeing parked in my driveway. My dream car is a classic mint-condition red convertible 1974 VW beetle with fewer than 50,000 miles. This car won’t make everyone happy—it doesn’t even have air-conditioning, much less a GPS or CD player. To that end, there’s no single notebook to please every traveling scribe. The journal exists purely for you—it’s a one-woman or one-man show in which you play both author and audience. So weigh your options, but don’t get hung up on details—keep it simple. Does it look nice? Does it feel nice? Does it fire up your imagination? Go with your gut. Ultimately, choose the book that looks like it will take you places.
Once you’ve landed the perfect notebook, escort it home and display it prominently on your bedside table. Soon it will beckon to you like keys to the new car. Start her up and step on the gas. By writing something immediately, you bond with your journal and imprint upon it. So grab a pen and christen that baby. Not sure where to start? Your journal is the best place to keep to-do and packing lists, estimated budget, itinerary, and any useful travel tips you’ve received. From a practical standpoint, storing this info in your journal ensures that you’ll easily locate it amidst packing mayhem, but more importantly, it will serve as an instant memory trigger down the line.
Also use this time to log trip expectations and goals; include predictions, anxieties, questions, and resolutions. How will this voyage change you? How will it inform your worldview? What do you hope to see, do, accomplish, learn? Not only will these pre-trip musings kindle excitement for what lies ahead, you’ll get a kick out of reading them upon your return, at which point you can recount the ways in which your expectations met or differed from reality. Revisiting those nascent urges is among the most valuable and informative aspects of travel journaling, as it gives a point of reference for your growth and a personal map of your journey. Reading back, you’ll witness exactly how you beat that steady path from impulse to imagination, from trepidation to travel arrangements, from fantasy to fulfillment.
It’s generally accepted that it takes twenty-one straight days of doing something to form a new habit, so for now, begin scribbling in your journal—even a few words—every day for three weeks. Commit to a sentence a day, even if it’s “Tuesday was freezing and I watched Buffy reruns in bed till noon.” By the end of three weeks, journaling will be an extension of your regular routine. You’ll solidify a habit so that once you’re on the road your notebook belongs with you, as personal as your toothbrush and precious as your passport. It may feel counterintuitive to launch a travel journal from the creases of your cozy living room sofa, but think of it this way: How better to mark your transition?
What kind of journal should I buy?
Only you know what journal is right for you, but here are some popular options. Bound sketchbooks, minimalist, inexpensive, and available in virtually any art supply store, make durable, versatile notebooks and contain ample pages. Unless you’re an artist, steer clear of those with watercolor paper; the pages are too dry and absorbent for general journaling purposes. The disadvantages of sketchbooks are that they can be harder to flatten out and usually don’t include a wrap-around strap (though you can make your own or recycle a giant rubber band from the grocery store broccoli).
Spiral-bound notebooks are popular for their cooperation in lying perfectly flat and for the ease of tearing out pages. The downside: travel can be rough on a journal and it’s difficult to keep them in one piece. Also, the wires snag and then you’ve frittered six minutes of vacation time trying to unhook a notebook from your backpack zipper or the fine threads of your new poncho.
Three-ring binders are popular because they lie flat, pages are easily added and removed, and anything can be hole-punched for inclusion. Planning to append documents, maps, or large drawings? Then this is your best bet. Again, though, pages detach and you may end up hunting for scotch tape to reconnect tiny tabs of paper behind metal rings, when you could be snorkeling or playing snow golf.
Refillable blank books are a favorite among devout diarists: you invest once in a high-quality exterior and replace the pages when the book is filled, reusing the same shell. It’s practical, uniform, aesthetically pleasing, and a space saver, but it lacks the character and visual payoff of a shelf stuffed with travelogues of all sizes, colors, and textures. Also, going the refillable route precludes the thrill of journal shopping: no lingering in the bookstore, no running your hand slowly along spines and pages, no breathing in the new-book aroma. No foreplay. No thanks.
It would be weird and vaguely disrespectful to discuss journals without a nod to the Moleskine, which mimics the legendary journals used by Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, and Bruce Chatwin (and millions of brilliant women, I’m sure, though they don’t seem to be included in the company’s marketing campaign). It has a thin cardboard and oilskin cover, an elastic band, a pocket, a bookmark, and acid-free pages. Available in any self-respecting bookstore, the Moleskine offers something for everyone: thread-bound and detachable pages, blank, lined, and lightly graphed; flip-over reporter-style and conventional ledger formats; notebooks for storyboarding, composing music, and even some with zigzag foldout pages for the mini-muralist in you. I’ll say it: the Moleskine might be the perfect journal, and every serious globe-jotter should invest in at least one during the course of a lifetime. Consider it—this might be your Moleskine moment.
Repurposed books are some of the prettiest journals around. Usually made from discarded library hardcovers, they’re hand-bound and constructed from recycled materials. My first repurposed journal was The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, and it was so lovely and pristine that I determined not to fill its pages with all the same old trite, self-indulgent slag. In The Naked Ape, I wrote with care and refined my words. The mere act of opening it elevated my ruminations to new heights. All good stuff. Except that I didn’t always feel dignified. Sometimes I wanted to bitch about my love life, my job, the weather, my period. I wanted to get rowdy, journal under the influence, scrawl the same word forty times like a madwoman—and perpetrating such acts on that delicate book seemed a violation. You want a journal you can be yourself with, even if your self is a little nuts. These books also tend to be fragile, so unless you’re going first class, I don’t necessarily recommend them as travelogues. However, if you promise to be careful and want a notebook so lovely it puts wings on your words, you’ll find one online (plan to spend $$). Or attend a bookbinding class and learn to make one yourself.
What writing tools would you recommend?
Equally important as a respectable journal is a decent selection of pens that won’t explode on the airplane and ruin your life, or at least your favorite pair of jeans. (Yes, I know—what’s the difference?) A pen is much more than a pen. Like a chef needs sharp knives, a barista needs an Italian espresso machine, and a cowboy needs a well-worn saddle, you need good pens. In the world of journaling, they’re your tools. Even more than the book in which you write, the pen grants you expression. Without paper you can write on your hand, napkin, beer coaster, the inside of your jacket sleeve if you’re desperate—but you’ll be hard-pressed trying to write sans pen.
And just as there are good and bad knives, espresso makers, and saddles, some pens are divine and some downright wretched. The pen you choose should, first and foremost, feel natural in your hand and rest loosely and comfortably without a death grip. Also, the ink should stream nimbly—no pressing into the paper to prompt its flow. A case can be made for pens that write both quickly and slowly: sometimes you need one that can keep pace with your thoughts; other times you’ll want one to slow you down.
After a history of ugly ink debacles, I invest in quality travel pens. Ballpoints are cheap, easy, light, ubiquitous; they also leak, burst, bump through the page, and contain ink that fades over time. If they’re all you’ve got, make do. But archival ink pens, available in art stores, are a worthwhile expenditure, and several rolling ball pens that glide nicely across the page come with archival ink and affordable refills. Depending on how serious you are about journaling (and the jeans, don’t forget the jeans), several travel-specific pens are on the market, including some that write upside-down on wet paper in temps from -30ºF to 250ºF, others with a built-in LED light for night writing, and tiny Fisher “space pens” that perform at any angle and regardless of gravitational pull.
If your journal paper is thick enough, ultra-fine-tip Sharpies write nicely, albeit slowly, and are available in an assortment of bright, cheery hues. You can write and color with them. I have yet to witness one explode, though that’s no guarantee or product placement. Their finest attribute is writing well on glossy paper, so if you’ve bought a silky-paged notebook, this is probably your pen.
Finally, a great number of serious journal-keeping writers and artists work exclusively with fountain pens, and nowadays it’s possible to purchase easy, mess-free disposable ones. I myself love nothing more than the romantic, aristocratic ceremony of writing with a fountain pen—it slows me down, scratches across the paper like an eerie haunted-house soundtrack, turns me pensive, arouses my inner poet. My inner poet, unfortunately, has systematically managed to snap the tip off every fountain pen she’s owned and can no longer be trusted with them. Be gentle with yours.
Experiment with different brands; your perfect pen may be none of the above. I know a woman who has a predilection for writing with the thin blue Paper Mates I used in junior high, simply because she enjoys the ticking sound the ball makes hitting the plastic tube inside the pen.
Just one last word of advice—no pencils, if you can bear it. First, the majority smudge and fade with time. Second, writing in pencil is a self-addressed, stamped invitation to an editing extravaganza. The urge can be strong to erase words we’re horrified to have even thought, much less committed to paper, and this is not the point. A journal is no place for self-censorship. It’s an opportunity to allow yourself—and your words—to breathe easy. In through your lungs, out through your pen. It’s also the place—indeed, one of the only places—to celebrate and express the genuine, beautifully fallible you. So write in pen, and keep your hand moving across the page.
What about my terrible penmanship?
I’ve met people who struggle miserably with the idea of journaling because they’re self-conscious and stymied by their own handwriting; it conflicts with a mental image of what a journal should look like. You must defy the image in your mind, because no standard exists for journals—never has or will. Some of the world’s most celebrated diaries are stunning works of calligraphic art; some are mind-numbingly tidy, others virtually illegible. A few were written by thirteen year olds. A handwritten journal is a commitment to an intimate affair with yourself, and for better or worse, your handwriting is part of you. Making minimal concessions to legibility is one thing, but fretting excessively over your handwriting will only kill your joy.
My own writing slants upward, leaving a glaring blank space at the bottom right corner of every page, which used to annoy me. Then I did an in-class handwriting-analysis exercise with my students and learned that an upward slant indicated optimism, and since then it hasn’t bothered me. (Because everything will always turn out great!) Don’t let self-consciousness interfere with your creative process, and waste no time attempting to tame your wonky words. As you can see, there’s a perfectly good explanation for your sloppy script or demented cursive. It might mean you’re caring, intelligent, stylish, or have mad skills on the dance floor. Still, if your handwriting is completely illegible, even to you, and bothersome enough that it stands between you and journaling, then let loose with the typing.
~ SET THE TABLE. If your journal will be information based and may need to be referenced down the line, or if you’re a detail hound, begin a table of contents on the first page to be filled in as you go. It’ll be painless to find information later, such as favorite restaurants, inns, shops, campsites, or spas you want to recommend to fellow travelers (or better yet, return to yourself).
~ KNOW YOUR PLACE. Keep things organized by numbering each page, or every other page. If you plan to keep an index or table of contents, this will facilitate referencing. Another popular approach for separating journal entries—more creative, less concise—is to write in a different color each day. And always, always (always!) date your entries.
~ CALENDAR GIRL. Post your schedule—either a solid, serious itinerary of dates and destinations or a whimsical version predicting what to wear, which tacky souvenirs to collect, foreign-language insults to learn, places to get lost (and found), people to meet. This will jumpstart your imagination and feed that hungry little travel bug.
~ LIKE MONEY IN THE BOOK. Evelyn Hannon, editor of the website Journeywoman.com, offers this ingenious tip: Lay some money flat on the inside cover of your journal and tape your itinerary over it. I also highly recommend including a copy of your passport, several passport size photos, and even a credit card for emergencies (if your journal is lost, it’s a snap to cancel the card).
~ THREE’S COMPANY. Make three columns toward the front of your book: Date/Destination/Discovery. Date and destination require no further explanation. “Discovery” is your call—a highlight or lowlight, that spot-hitting mole platter in Guatemala, a perfect limoncello in Sorrento, the fireworks over Edinburgh Castle. The only rule (and the hardest part) is to choose just one moment from your day.
About the Author
Lavinia Spalding is coauthor of With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and her work has appeared in such publications as Sunset Magazine, Yoga Journal, Inkwell, and Post Road Magazine. She grew up in New Hampshire and Flagstaff, Arizona and graduated from the University of Arizona creative writing program. She has kept travel journals throughout thirty countries on five continents. Although her inextinguishable wanderlust prevents her from ever really staying put, she currently lives in San Francisco and can always be found at www.laviniaspalding.com. For more info about the book, see www.writingaway.net.