The Travel Journal: A Creative Memoir Where No Rules Apply

When Wendy Wilkinson took a post-college trip around the world, the three things she always kept nearby were her camera, a pen, and her journal.

Her 14-month odyssey was documented in photos, but what helps her remember the "essence" of her travels is her writing.

"I filled three thick books with my adventures," says Ms. Wilkinson, who works in a New York public relations firm. "Now after a hard day of fighting NYC crowds, I go to my Brooklyn apartment, pull out my journal and take a Turkish bath, climb the pyramids, or take a stroll by an Amsterdam canal."

Ms. Wilkinson is one of countless travelers who keep a travel journal whether to preserve memories, become a better writer, or take what some describe as an "inner journey" that fosters personal growth.

"It's not just about what you're seeing, but what you're learning along the way," explains Amy Watson, a travel writer from Laguna Beach, Calif., who started keeping travel journals while she was in Australia and backpacked some 10,000 miles by herself.

At a time when the popularity of books with reflective reminiscences such as "Griffin & Sabine," "Chicken Soup for the Soul," and "My Old Man and the Sea" has soared, personal writing is enjoying renewed interest.

Journal writers can be spotted in various places: nestled in chairs at picturesque cafes or nudged up against backpacks on trains. Some are diligent and have a system they adhere to, while others are completely free-form in their approach.

Many get home from trips and pad their journal with ticket stubs, tiny maps, photos, and other mementoes.

Then, there are people like Nancy McBride. A worldwide traveler, she keeps a travel journal of drawings. "It's a way I unwind. My day comes out my fingers," says the public relations director of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

Nobody can tell you how to keep a journal, you need to find your own way, says Tristine Rainer, a journal-writing teacher at the UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) Extension and author of "The New Diary: How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity" (Putnam, 1979). "It's really the only form of writing where no rules apply."

In general, people have outdated concepts of the journal, says Ms. Rainer, such as it's an every-day duty and a place to just record events.

Another misconception is that personal writing like this is an illegitimate hobby unless you publish. "Yet we don't say that about photography!

"Everything about a journal is so completely individual that you learn so much about yourself," says Rainer, reached by phone. The nice thing about keeping a travel journal is that you have a beginning, a middle, and an end, she notes. "What you're going to find most valuable when you reread your journals are the perceptions, feelings, and experiences," says Rainer. "Be sure to include conflicts," she advises. "The most amusing and interesting parts of travel are often the things that go wrong, or the unexpected. That can transform travel from frustration into the fun."

Like Rainer, many travel diary keepers stress the importance of going beyond the obvious and writing specifically about the people you meet.

Dan Kenneth Phillips publishes his travel adventures and stories on the web, as the editor of the Web Surfer Travel Journal. ( He's also written a travel book on the web titled "Four Corners" ( fourcorners.html)

Mr. Phillips says he usually keeps a little pocket journal to record things throughout the day so he can remember them when he sits down to write much later. "I just keep rapid notes: weather, temperature, the feel of the place - the most important element - and I keep my eyes open for the unexpected. ... Then each night before going to sleep I write a summary of the day."

To be sure, Phillips shares his experiences with a lot of people. But most travel journal keepers have definitive opinions on whether or not their diaries are for others' eyes. Usually this decision is made from the get-go.

When Wendy Wilkinson was taking her trip around the world, she found that she was constantly rewriting her journal in the form of letters home to her parents in Fargo, N.D.

"My problem was solved when I met an Australian woman in Syria. She was using carbon paper to make copies of her precious journal to send home. Pure genius," exclaims Wilkinson. "She not only saved time but also made an extra copy of her journal should the one she was traveling with get lost."

Journal writing can also be a family activity. Ann Coon, assistant dean of liberal arts at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., recalls sailing trips her daughter and husband took when they kept a daily log and read it back at night. "It was part diary, part record of the weather," she says. "It was a nice way to create a common response to the experience."

Others find joint efforts create more-lasting memories. When Elizabeth Eschbach met up with a grad school classmate in China, they wrote poetry together. "After each city there was a lengthy train ride - 36 hours between Guangzhou and Shanghai in peasant class - and we'd pass the journal back and forth. He would start it, write a few lines, then hand it over to me, and so on. Sometimes we would reread and revise. It was really meaningful."

Amy Watson, the travel writer in Laguna Beach, has the people she meets contribute to her journal. "I also include something I would remember them by, such as a poem, a recipe, a quote, or song, as well as their address and phone number," she says.

Another important element in is humor, Watson adds. "When you reread your journal it makes it a thousand times more enjoyable. Humor takes you back. You feel the emotional feeling you had at the time. "Keeping a travel journal is one of my great passions in life.My journals are treasures. They are in my bookcase with the glass over it."

It's the personal touches that bring travel journals to life; things that evoke special memories to you, but may appear to be just a collection of odds and ends to someone else.

Tips Gleaned From Travel Writers: Be Observant, Look Beyond the Obvious, and Don't Forget Humor

* Buy hardcover journals at bookstores, stationary stores, and art supply stores; spiral-bound or paperback journals don't hold up as well. Some travelers like to buy journals made in the place they're visiting.

* Decide what you want your journal to be: Will it be arranged chronologically? Will it feature writing by just you or will others be involved? Do you want to include photos, pressed flowers, ticket stubs, and other flat souvenirs? (You may want to leave room.) "I save a few pages in the beginning for a table of contents," says travel writer Amy Watson from Laguna Beach, Calif.

* Be observant. Look beyond the obvious for things to write about. Research beforehand will help deepen your inspiration. Write about the surprises, the "extras," says Dan Phillips, editor of the Web Surfer Travel Journal.

* Have fun. Don't treat journal writing as a chore, and don't feel that you have to write at length in it every day. But do keep a few notes to jog your memory such as weather, proper names of places, mode of transportation, food, costs, people you wrote postcards or letters to, meaningful reflections, people you meet, surprises.

* Try to always take your travel journal with you, or at least a small note pad for details. "Travel is intense living," says Watson. "Revelations come at the least convenient times."

* Write about what's interesting to you: It's usually not the Eiffel Tower, but the interaction you witness between two people below the Eiffel Tower.

* Take note of the things you are reading during your trip, what novel or guidebook. Also include local expressions, humorous sayings and/or inside jokes you have with people you travel with and meet.

* Save maps, photos, menus, mementos that you may want to paste in your journal later.

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