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10 Reasons to Keep a Travel Journal

by Lavinia Spalding Apr 3, 2014
1. Because memory is a slippery bugger.

When I was 31, I backpacked alone through Vietnam without a journal. I’d recently purchased a pricey camera, so I enthusiastically snapped hundreds of photos, never bothering to write down a word. Not surprisingly, what I retain from that trip are imprecise memories and a shoebox filled with slides of people and places I can no longer name. Furthermore, because I traveled solo, I can’t even poach my friends’ memories for missing details. In short, I didn’t bother asking myself what I’d want to remember and what I’d likely forget.

When traveling, we assign more significance to our experiences than we do to the happenings of our daily life. That outlook, along with our tricked-out digital camera and its generous memory card, instills a false sense of confidence about how much we’ll retain. Out on the road, life is so electric, jazzy, fresh, and funky — how could we ever forget? But we do. We forget, and then we hate ourselves later for mistreating our own memories.

No matter how unique, powerful, outrageous, or touching our story, the mind’s flimsy hard drive simply cannot be relied upon to safeguard the particulars. But a journal is personal travel insurance, protecting our memories from strolling off unchaperoned, vanishing without a goodbye or backwards glance. This is the driving force behind most people’s road journals, and although basic, its importance cannot be overstated.

2. There’s no better keepsake than a tattered notebook.

Journals get tucked away in drawers or basements to be dusted off years or generations later and enjoyed for the tactile sensation that only an old, beloved book can deliver. Nothing can replace a road-worn journal filled with scribbles, coffee cup rings, doodles, and bus tickets.

Years from now, when your journal unexpectedly finds its way back into your hands on a day when you have time to open it, it’s time travel — a complimentary door-to-door shuttle delivering you back to your most fearless and fascinated self, when you were out roaming, eyes wide open, connecting to the world and its people, tracing the journey within the pages of your messy notebook. It’s more than a collection of words; it’s a personal artifact.

3. Because you need an anchor.

Any way you look at it, travel stirs us up. It’s a stimuli smorgasbord with a menu of curiosity, frustration, self-consciousness, bliss, courage, vulnerability, stress, alienation, titillation, fear, loss, boredom, lust, loneliness, awe — you name it. And in addition to emotions, we’re perpetually absorbing information and sensory phenomena. But a notebook is a traveler’s salve, soothing the commotion of our relentless thoughts by providing a safe container for them. The act of writing anchors us, slowing and deepening our reflections so that we articulate with more honesty and precision than when we think and talk. To my mind, this is the ultimate reward of a travel journal: being forced, routinely, to slow down and pay attention.

Journaling demands stillness and extreme concentration. If we set aside even a few minutes a day to sit with our notebook and write about where we are and what we’re currently experiencing with all our senses, it becomes a practice. It frees us from thinking only of past and future — the site we’ve just visited or our next destination. We can let go of hopes and fears as we bring attention to this moment, then the next, and the one after that. Over time these brief, disconnected moments of awareness form a cohesive thread, a solid habit of increased mindfulness that can carry over into all areas of life.

4. And a sacred space to call your own.

When we travel solo, a journal keeps us company. Conversely, traveling with others means we get our fair share of camaraderie but routinely forfeit our privacy. We double up on rooms, rides, meals, and lavatories; share maps, gear, and dry socks. But your notebook is private property. You won’t be asked to lend it out. It can thus become a haven, a sacred oasis to come home to when travel has thrown you off-kilter — a personal traveling shrine or altar where you commune with only you.

5. Journaling is a profound vehicle for self-discovery.

While any journal is a portal to expanded awareness, the travelogue is an unparalleled avenue for self-discovery. Paired with the myriad rewards and ordeals of travel, it can solicit breakthroughs that other journals simply cannot. Travel tilts us off our axis and enrolls us in a crash course in cutting through desire, attachment, aversion, and ignorance.

On the road, we’re in constant flux — it’s an impermanence free-for-all. Leaving home demands that we surrender control, break out of cozy routines, and confront inconvenience and obstacles (travel’s ever-present entourage) around each corner. We’re continually forced to reassess our entrenched beliefs, as well as question social and cultural concepts we’ve grown up accepting as appropriate and normal — from the way we discipline children, to what constitutes breakfast food, to how we bathe, shake hands, and clothe ourselves. Keeping a journal while navigating the discoveries and obstacles that come with travel is a rare and extraordinary opportunity for growth.

6. You might need that odd bit of information.

On the most basic and practical level, a travelogue is a vault of information that you wish to preserve — the name of that historic hotel in Livingston, Montana, the artist you discover at the Uffizi Gallery, the family you bunk with in Tunisia, or the location of a dreamy holistic spa in Jamaica. A journal can store practical info that you want to remember but not necessarily share with your blog readers or email list.

Some photographers keep journals of locations, film, and camera settings, while chefs store recipes and lists of ingredients in their journals to reference later. If you’re a detail hound, you can even 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).

7. It’s the world’s best writing exercise.

In Fresh Air Fiend, Paul Theroux commented, “When people ask me what they should do to become a writer, I seldom mention books. I assume the person has a love for the written word, and solitude, and a disdain for wealth — so I say, ‘You want to be a writer? First leave home.'”

Travel has the ability to make writers of us all, and keeping a journal is what can turn the potential into reality. Throw yourself in the mix and you’ve got the winning trifecta: Travel supplies endless material and inspiration, the Travelogue provides a canvas and demands commitment and examination, and you, the intrepid and attentive Traveler, are the prime candidate for the position.

One of travel’s great benefits is that once we cross a border, we needn’t even seek out creative inspiration — it’s everywhere. We step off the runway and within hours find ourselves surrounded by plants and flowers we don’t recognize and animals we’ve seen only in zoos or on TV. We interact with people who speak only words we can’t understand, observe customs contrary to our own, pay for exotic trinkets with Monopoly money, eat unidentifiable food. For some, this can be unsettling. For the writer, it’s a windfall.

8. “Elsewhere” is a place creativity grows.

Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” That problem, I think, can be solved with travel. Travel renews our youth, giving us dispensation to reclaim the original zest for art so often rooted out of us as adults. Surrounded by the unfamiliar, we regain the eyes of a six-year-old, and suddenly we’re handed all the conditions necessary to become an artist again: inspiration, free time, a portable canvas (the journal), and a cornucopia of exotic materials at our disposal. Can you think of a better environment for revamping your creativity?

Infusing your notebook with visual components is more than a pleasurable, relaxing activity with a visual payoff; the act of doing so also immediately intensifies your connection to a location, adding another layer of self-awareness and expression. By deciding to include artwork of any kind, you’re signing on to register impressions in a new way — with keen observation. When you return home, accompanying you will be a dynamic hybrid journal that interweaves writing and imagery — a tribute to your experience and destination.

9. A shared journal can help you connect.

If you’re traveling with a friend or spouse, creating a shared journal can bring you closer and foster a sense of unity. The upshot of this is multifold: First, by sharing the goal of a travelogue, you’re more likely to commit since you’ll be loath to flake on each other. Furthermore, when you’re not feeling the writing vibe, he or she may be — you’ll egg each other on. Knowing you’ll be sharing your words will also up the ante, adding zing to your writing. One more bonus is that you’ll no longer rely strictly on your own mind, so when your memory falters, your friend might provide insight into the circumstances that led to you falling off your camel in Giza or your barstool in Berlin.

If you’re in a group, you can create a feeling of community by starting an “open” notebook that members of your group can contribute to at any time. At trip’s end, photocopy it for everyone or create a separate album with pictures, quotes, names, inside jokes, highlights, and lowlights. Even if you and your friends are together 24/7, you bring to the book distinctive perspectives. You’ll appreciate accessing their take on shared experiences, and you’ll learn from these secondhand impressions. Ultimately, your friends’ stories will inform your own.

10. It’s a wonderful outlet for handling travel stress.

Travel isn’t always easy; sometimes it can completely derail you. On these occasions, the journal can be your lifeline, something solid and steadfast to grab hold of in the midst of upheaval. When feelings of homesickness, powerlessness, frustration, or fear wiggle their nasty little fangs into your erstwhile perfect vacation, you can draw strength and comfort from writing — using your journal as a refuge and a reminder of how resilient you are and how courageous you want to be. If you start losing your temper (or sense of humor), you can call on your journal to help you find it again. That’s what it’s there for. Your journal will help you cope, like a portable therapist. You might even find you can be more honest with your notebook than with your therapist. This post is excerpted from Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler and was originally published here.

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