Writing Away - Introduction

By Lavinia Spalding

"For behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal, or a window opening on something more than itself."
—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.



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