Are You a Victim of Travel Writer’s Catch-22?

So I was hitchhiking from Auckland up to the furthest reaches of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand. I envisionined basking in the sun while soaking in a self-dug pool on Hot Water Beach; hiking to the picturesque Cathedral Cove for a morning adventure; and staying with a Couchsurfing host who was ripe with stories from a recent visit to India.

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That’s when I realized: oh yeah … don’t I really need to sit down and type up a new article for Vagabondish?

Triste (II) - Sad (II)
Triste (II) – Sad (II) © BloOwITt

Every word I type is a lost opportunity somewhere in the world. When I arrived via high-speed train in Kagoshima, Japan, my days in the city were spent in an internet cafe, updating my blog entries. Of course, I got out every so often to walk around town and visit the nearest hot springs. But what should have been a grand opportunity to explore and meet new people was overshadowed by the need to share other past experiences with strangers around the world.

So it has been and so shall it be with travel writers, bloggers, and other aspiring novelists. It’s the ultimate travel writer’s Catch-22: feeling the urge to be out on the road at every moment of every day, yet feeling so restricted by your profession that one feels the need to take time from traveling to huddle in a corner and let the words flow.

Did I ever cut a traveling experience short by the subconscious need to get the most recent one on paper before I began anew? Even now, as I pound the keyboard while listening to the rain gently pound the roof of my meditation hut in New Zealand, I know I’ve been devoting entirely too much time to my writing (no offense to present company). There are forest trails to be run in my new barefoot style, waterfalls to be explored, meditation techniques to practice, and visiting monks whom I would love to engage in Dhamma discussions.

How can we, as writers, find the means to keep the poetry in our words without sacrificing too much time in the traveling world?

Brainstorming © MikeOliveri

Master the Art of Taking Notes

Your high school teachers taught you the basics. However, they probably anticipated you struggling to write the essentials while listening to the droning voice of a history professor rather than painting a rough picture of the mustache of your last chain-smoking driver as you stick out your thumb and hope another car will save you from the incoming rainstorm.

For the equipment, I find a small moleskin journal and a space pen work best for travel writing on the go. Some would say digital recorders, but I never listen to everything again.

For the time to do so – and this is key – there’s almost never a good time to sit down and take notes. Sure, you think you have seven hours in the international terminal to do some writing. But that could just as easily be spent people watching, meeting someone interesting at the airport bar, cracking open a new Lonely Planet, which will most likely draw the attention of backpackers headed in the same direction … and so on down the rabbit hole. The point being: minimize the time you spend putting pen to paper:

  • Actual story: my ride for a 30 km stretch of road was an ice cream connoisseur who warned me of the dangers of white-tailed spiders in New Zealand (author’s note: you may not notice the bite, but they can result in loss of limbs).
  • Notes taken: Bombay to Maramarua. Loves ice cream. Crazy spiders.

Resist the Urge to Write: Travel Comes First

I’m living on a Buddhist monastery just south of Auckland. Every morning I awake to a lovely sunrise, rolling green hills, and a different species of bird chirping at my door.

So why, oh why, do I feel compelled to steal a few minutes of internet time everyday to research my stories and submit new articles? I have to wait until the monks go down to the dining hut just so I can dash to their office and get in range of the otherwise inaccessible wireless network; something tells me that’s not especially good kamma.

Think about how you spent your traveling days before the Internet. Before Twitter. Before Facebook. One can spend months without Twittering and still lead a healthy, normal life. Seriously? Seriously.

You don’t have to update your blog as often as you ingest food. Your experiences will still matter even if you forget the finer points and never share the story with another living soul. It may feel perfectly natural to want to write down your feelings immediately following your first bungy jump or experience walking on hot coals, but look around: are you alone? Aren’t there others nearby, on a traveler’s high encouraging conversation and possibly a lasting friendship?

Stepping away to get your thoughts on paper might help you meet that deadline and earn enough to stay another week in a hostel. But overall, it’s contrary to the entire vagabonding mindset: you’re traveling for you, not for a publisher, and not for blog readers.

Freedom ©

Another Catch-22 (to Further Complicate Things)

The irony, of course, is that without these travel stories you may have never been bitten by the bug in the first place.

The irony, of course, is that without these travel stories – without that obscure book you found in the back of a Barnes and Noble written by someone so moved by their experience on the road that he or she felt compelled to put pen to paper – you may have never been bitten by the bug in the first place. Travelers beget travelers, my friends, whether by story, living the example, or petty jealousy.

Finding balance isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, nor will you necessarily be able to stick with it even once you’ve found it.

During my time in Japan, blogging and writing became a necessity. I had all this information, these experiences I felt would explode out of my chest (apologies to Alien fans) if I didn’t tell someone about them immediately. Without a steady supply of English speakers, my Japan blog was born.

In New Zealand, however, most of the places I visited, even though I had my unique perspective, had been written and obsessed about ten times over by backpackers. Who wants to hear yet another traveler’s recount of walking around Auckland? In the end, this feeling killed my desire to blog or even write journals.

I’m not saying you have to be in virgin territory to achieve decent writing, but it helps to know you’re one of the few. Lets the creative juices flow a lot easier.

What are your thought on Travel Writer’s Catch-22? Let us know in the comments below!

  1. I find that a digital camera is the answer to our blogging woes. It takes far less time to snap up several photos of everything you want to talk about, than to write down notes. You’re going to bring your camera with you anyways and memory cards are dirt cheap. It’s also more convenient to take a picture of the landmark captions and descriptions than to jot them down and google the information later. Plus, then you have photos for your next blog post. :)

  2. This article is so spot on. Just last week in Venice, gathering more material for my upcoming book, I kept finding myself in situations with friends telling me stories in cafes where I would be thinking, “That would make a great intro for a chapter…” Unfortunately, at this point the moment is lost. Friends see me staring into space instead of listening to their conversations.

    So I try another approach. I enter a restaurant with the intent of reviewing it for my blog, but as the food arrives and I find myself surrounded by only Venetians wanting to enjoy their lunch in this “Venetian only” location, out of respect I choose not to take photos or notes inside the restaurant. This, of course limits the information I can give to my blog readers as well.

    It’s truly a delicate balance, one which we each will follow our own path to find.

  3. Perfect timing that I read this today! My eyes were falling out of my head earlier, burned to crisps from staring at the computer screen for hours upon hours all this week. When I finally got out of the house to enjoy a snowshoe hike with my canine pal, I was busy snapping pics with my camera (to post to blog), contemplating the upcoming blog post I’d be writing, and considering the deadlines I still had yet to tackle today.

    My head and eyes ached even more at the thought! Yet I have to do the work; deadlines are deadlines, after all. So while physically I got exercised, my brain & psyche didn’t get a break during my wonderful outdoor excursion. My solution/suggestion? I’m working another 2-3 hours today, then calling it good–until at least 2pm tomorrow. And tomorrow morning, I’m getting out of the house again, neither camera nor internal recorder on hand, and enjoying my life and my surroundings without once thinking about Twitter, my blog, or deadlines! Will probably do a good round of yoga & meditation beforehand to clear my mind. Balance will be achieved a snippet at a time.

    Great post, excellent points to consider. Thanks for it.

  4. Wow – great article, Turner. It totally resonates with me …

    I love the writing – crafting a well written blog entry or article really gives me a great feeling of achievement. Knowing where to draw the line is key, however – as you say, at the end of the day you are travelling for yourself, not for the people at the other end of a computer screen.

    I’ve been guilty of justifying an hour or two writing or seeking out a dodgy free wifi connection to upload my latest ramblings on the basis that ‘I had time to kill anyway’ or ‘I didn’t have any plans’ … despite knowing full well that it’s when you don’t have plans that the best travel adventures come along.

    Your advice is well and truly taken onboard. More time travelling, less time writing about it.

    Thanks – I mean it!


  5. 100% true. I cannot travel without taking photos. Seriously I can’t. At first I wondered if it was taking away from the experience but I’ve discovered it’s quite the opposite. I meet new people all the time. In fact shooting pics for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca led me to meet several families that wanted their graves photographed as well. That later turned into a fantastic conversation with a woman who owned a restaurant there and she invited us the next day to eat at her place. We walked away with friends, email addresses and phone number.

  6. Ooops I hit send before I was done….I think a way to get around the daily posting and spending hours online every day is to set yourself up to write 1 or 2 days a week – all day. Those are your work days and you can write several blog entries then. The rest of the time you are completely free to do whatever else you want. If you think you might forget something then carry a small recorder with you and speak your thoughts into it. It will take a lot less time then writing and you should be able to remember how you felt at that time.

  7. We really have to get better at note taking. We’ve been on the road for 6 months and have been on sooo many tours and information sessions but just recently started being consistent about carrying a notepad and pen…now we just have to remember to use it. Great article, thanks for posting.

  8. I need to master the art of taking notes and more pictures. Fortunately my trips are of shorter duration than long term travelers so I get the chance to get home and write up then. But as with everything in life – it is a balance. Writing up your posts gives you time to reflect and remember your experiences. They can very easily just roll into one mangled mismatch of (good) memories.
    For twitter – I use an sms service that works really well (although it doesn’t allow me to read other tweets). I can send a text in 2 mins and update my folloers.

  9. Bethany is right. It helps if you look at this as work. :gasp: I know that’s a dirty word when traveling, but if we think about having to ‘work’ 2 days per week, we’ll buckle down and do it. Plus it is still a better life that the 40+ hour cubicle life.

  10. I dunno. If you’re working as a travel writer, then you’ve made an active choice to work while traveling. It’s part of the job and yeah, you’re going to have to sacrifice some free time to get work done. Folks still seem surprised to learn that travel writing is work.

    I love to write. LOVE it. So it’s not a sacrifice to find myself somewhere with a keyboard. But I also say no to guidebook-type work, the kind of stuff that requires you to rush everywhere “seeing everything, experiencing nothing” as a friend once said in reference to the travel writer’s curse.

    I also find that sitting down to write helps me clear my head so I’m ready to take on whatever adventure is next. The benefits of sitting down to write rather than rushing off to see something that I’m just not going to be able to squeeze in on a trip.

    Chilling about not trying to do/see everything and going with the joy I get from writing seems to allay any potential frustration. I know that sounds lamely sunshiny, what about the elephant trek — or whatever you passed up to sit and write? But if writing is part of the excitement of travel, then it’s not a compromise it’s just part of the experience.

  11. I can see your struggle because I’ve been there. It seems to break down into two things:

    How to best manage your time between travelling and writing?
    How do you stay original when talking a well-trodden path?

    I dealt with the first question last year in my article Travel Writers Need Time to Reflect, too. in which I discussed how a writer is always alternating between “taking off” and “touching down”.

    As for the second question, I wouldn’t worry about it. As long as you’re writing about what excites YOU about where you’re going, then you’re providing your unique perspective. In the beginning, I worried about this at times, but as I’ve written about more places and I’ve visited, I’ve gotten better at giving an old place a new spin.

  12. Interesting stuff Turner. Liked it!

    I think that we just can’t travel or move all the time. Or at least I can’t. It’s good to take some time out every now and then even during a trip. A change, a rest, call it what you will but taking time out to write up some notes is also a time to rest up, contemplate, gain perspective, that kind of thing.

    I agree with some of the other comments. If writing about your travels is how you make a living then it’s just tough, I guess. You have to get on and do it. This is the danger of turning something you love into a career/work. Still, it must be better than the 9-5 gig.

    Keep at it, I say!

  13. Nice article. I can relate. Writing flows much easier when traveling through places like Asia and India than Europe or America. I struggle at home to come up with a decent topic for my blog if anything at all. On the road, in an exotic land, I can belt out an interesting article and post it with photos in less than an hour. Inspiration, motivation, and boundless amounts of energy come easy when I’m out and about but when I get home it mysteriously vanishes…..

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