Teaching Travel Writing That Takes a Deeper Look

Ideas and Exercises to Help Students Sharpen Their Powers of Observation

On a recent night in England, where I spent the fall semester teaching abroad, I ended up as I often did, sitting at a sticky pub table older than the Tudor dynasty, exchanging travel stories with friends. Doug, an expat from Ireland, began telling me a tale from his time in Vietnam. As he and his brother walked by a shoeshine stand, he said, a man reached out and grabbed Doug’s foot.

“You need a shoe shine. I give a shoe shine,” the man said.

“But I’m wearing a sneaker,” Doug said.

The shoe-shine man held Doug’s shoe—a slip-on Vans. Cloth base, navy and white checkerboard pattern, white rubber sole—and would not let go. “I can fix this,” he said.

Before Doug could stop him, the man removed his shoe and began hammering on a leather sole with a square heel, something fitting a man’s dress shoe. He then proceeded to smear white paste over the fabric while simultaneously asking for sixty dollars. At this point, Doug’s brother stepped in: “Dude, you’re getting ripped off. Come on.”

“It’s cool, it’s cool. Don’t be such a freakin’ tourist,” Doug replied.

Of course, it was not cool. These were Doug’s only pair of shoes because he didn’t want to be “such a tourist” who arrived with six pairs of shoes for a six-day trip. And when the shoes were handed back, fashioned now with a leather sole and heel, sticky with white paste, they were utterly un-wearable.

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I think about this story often and how it fits in to the broader context of the travel story: the slip-on cloth sneaker being refashioned into a dress shoe; the meta-narrative underlying any travel story where you realize you are creating a story—and seeking it—as life unfolds around you. And the intense desire not to be a tourist when there is nothing else you can really be.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent the fall teaching in England at an American college called Harlaxton, about an hour north of London. I taught two creative writing classes there to American students studying abroad. The program was safe, planned in advance, and mostly taught by American professors with American accents to American students. So naturally, every three-day weekend my students wanted to go adventuring, desiring stories and experiences and transformation. I couldn’t blame them; I wanted this too, but I also found there was a consumerist quality to it all: the desire to have something meaningful happen and the assurance that a train ticket to Greece and just enough money for beer, bread, and a hostel bed ensured that.

Along with this desire to have “experiences” was the desire to tell stories about these experiences, maybe in an essay or Facebook post, or simply an Instagram picture or scrapbook. Like most travelers, my students possessed an intense need to record their experiences, and sometimes to embellish them as well. I believe this is because at their core, the travel stories we tell are less about where we’ve been and what we’ve seen than an attempt to say who we want to be. Through them, we endeavor to create a self, expressing our underlying belief that experience creates essence.

This is one reason travel stories are fraught with problems, but there are others as well. And as a study-abroad student in both high school and college, I’m sure I made all the mistakes I see my students making now in their writing: The tendency to see one’s culture as primary; the inability to understand how the tourist’s presence changes the place they are visiting; the inclination to look at the locals as a group rather than as individuals. And these examples don’t even begin to approach the problem of the essays I see that unintentionally (or intentionally) support institutionalized racism and othering.

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Doug’s story about his shoe, despite describing a mess of a moment, is actually a very good travel story. The lack of a lesson is part of its charm. How Doug presents himself as the fool, rather than the wise one, is also part of the charm. Doug’s story is not about using others as a way to understand the self, which is often a central trope in travel stories. Instead, it’s about the self as the other, and learning how to negotiate that.

As a creative writing professor at Harlaxton, I thought a lot about how to avoid the “and then I saw a poor child and realized how wealthy I was” story in my students’ writing. I avoided altogether assignments where the goal was to reveal a lesson in life. As we all know, life doesn’t happen like that. We are taught plenty when we least expect it—and often at our own expense.

Instead I focused my assignments for my students on how to record what they saw around them with the notebook and pen as their camera. I wanted to force them into being in the moment rather than trying to extrapolate from the moment. So much of life is mediated by the lens through which it is seen; I wanted my students to practice mindfulness, to go from being roving, rapacious Americans hungry only for “experience” to being present in the moment, focused observers of whatever place they happened to be.

When I returned home, it struck me that this type of writing practice needn’t be only for travel stories. I have since assigned these exercises to my students here in the US to help them practice seeing what is actually around them.

What follows are a few road-tested assignments and exercises that could be useful for an educator leading a study-abroad trip or a workshop at home. If the students are travelling as writers, I cannot stress enough the usefulness of holding a series of discussions about race, culture, and identity before the students leave. Two friends of mine, Aaron Bremyer and Dionne Irving Bremyer, who lead trips to Jamaica with their students from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, begin the trip by having students read selections from texts such as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. Discussing how to make students more aware of issues such as othering before they arrive in a foreign country is a worthy essay unto itself. This essay’s focus, however, is on exercises and assignments that can sharpen students’ powers of observation, helping them to see and record more clearly what is happening right before their eyes.

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  • When an anthropologist goes to research a new site, he or she starts with an organizational diagram, drawing a line down the middle of a blank page. On one side the researcher writes “Observations” and on the other side the researcher writes “Reactions.” I tell my students to use the same technique before attempting to describe a place, whether new or familiar. Such a simple division helps young writers untangle their judgments from their observations and forces more description about what they are seeing. Instead of a “pretty” street, they now have to write “pretty” under the judgment column and find those multiplicity of details—100-year-old maples lining the sidewalk or the honey-colored limestone of the buildings in Bath—that gave the impression of “pretty.” I suggest that my students fill at least a full page of notes. In class, we share our lists in pairs so that each student can help another make sure that the observations and reactions are correctly separated.
  • I’ve found that nothing is more powerful for helping my students learn to write good dialogue than having them record two people speaking. I ask my students to go to a café or coffee shop, put in their earbuds so it looks like they are doing their own thing, and record for ten minutes the conversation between two people near them. Whenever I assign this task, students really struggle with it, but that’s the point. They often return to class complaining about how banal the conversations were, how they jumped around, how there were many more sympathetic noises being made than actual words spoken. This leads to some wonderful conversations about how we don’t really want dialogue in stories or plays to be completely realistic, but how we want to make it sound realistic. Talking about “realism” when students have a boring three pages of conversation in front of them deepens a craft conversation that could easily turn philosophical. After we talk about our experiences transcribing a conversation, we read Richard Bausch’s story “The Voices from the Other Room,” which is told all in dialogue. The two characters in this story often say one thing while meaning another, so it’s an interesting piece to analyze as students start to understand that dialogue is not always so straightforward as imagining what someone would “really” say.
  • Find a form or style that is central to some famous writers in your particular region, be it a pantoum while in Malaysia, Montaigne’s early journal entries while in France, or the Greater Romantic Lyric while in England. If your class is not travelling, see if there is any particular form or movement associated with your location. The United States offers so many micro-climates of literary movements, many of which may be unfamiliar to beginning students. For example, Chicago’s poetry slams have contributed to the growing popularity of the spoken-word movement across the US. Some students from Minnesota may be surprised to learn they are living in a place where a major shift in American poetry occurred; while living there, Robert Bly championed a new type of poem that broke from the Modernists and focused on image and personal details, a style that came to dominate poetry in the 70s and 80s. Other areas of influence abound, from the New York School to the Black Mountain poets of North Carolina.

I start this assignment by presenting a couple of famous examples of the particular style or form I’ve chosen and providing students with an historical overview. I follow up that discussion with a field trip to where some of this work was created along with providing a few more examples, perhaps more contemporary ones that have innovated on what was begun there. Finally, I break down the structure for the students and have them try an imitation for the next class.

One of the most memorable experiences in England was taking my poetry class on a five-hour hike through the Lake District after reading Coleridge, Wordsworth, and contemporary examples of the Greater Romantic Lyric. First, though, I explained to the students the structural movements of this type of poem, which many had felt but hadn’t verbalized. I pointed out that the poems often feature a speaker who looks out upon the landscape, describes it, and in so doing, begins to mull over a personal problem or philosophy. The poems conclude with a change within the speaker and also return to the description of the natural landscape where the poem began. After we looked at some classic and contemporary examples, we hiked along the Coffin Trail, a famous walk that Wordsworth and Coleridge would take. We noted the contrasts of the Lake District (which are contrasts one finds in their poetry) such as the shadows and light, the highs and lows, the community and the isolation—and then we stopped by a grove of trees to write about what we were seeing.

Teaching students about forms that originated or were developed in their region—and then setting off with examples of it, a good trail map, and the challenge to write in that form—leads to a more authentic understanding of that country’s literary landscape.

  • One last poetry and travel essay assignment that has worked well is one I call the spectacle assignment: I tell my students to try to detail a memorable—or strange—occurrence without making any attempt to “wrap it up.” I want them to avoid telling the reader explicitly what the experience “means” or what the writer has made of it. A student of mine this past semester wrote about traveling alone to Iceland. This particular student was studying to be an actor, and she had the look of an elegant 50s starlet combined with the brains of an honors English major. Her essay detailed in list form the dates, times, and locations whenever someone asked, “Are you travelling alone?” The essay’s conclusion involved a cat call at night, her non-response, which then turned into a beer bottle thumping against her back with the man yelling, “You’re too pretty.” She ended the essay with her picking up that beer bottle and describing the feel of its cold glass, the heft of it as she reached it behind her shoulder, debating whether to throw it back at him. If it weren’t for the assignment, she would have instinctively tidied up the ending and given us her parting thought. But the essay is more memorable—and perhaps more honest—as it hovers over that final image with the beer bottle over her shoulder, reader and writer alike wondering what she might do.

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As the poet Miller Williams told his class in Arkansas, “We admire perfection, but we can’t love it.” Successful travel writing embraces the fractured sense of a self that doesn’t have all the answers. It needs to convey the messiness of travel. The boringness of it with its endless toiletry bag packing and train station pacing. The vulnerability of it. The pride, let’s say of being a woman traveling alone, as well as the gnawing anxiety of whether you are safe. The sense of continually being slightly off-center—not sure if you are ordering your coffee correctly, even though you have bought a coffee every day for the past ten years of your life.

In the end, travel writing is a way to let us see what was always there. It is a way to practice how to record what is around us with our eyes and our pens. It is ultimately about being open to where we find ourselves, both body and mind, and the bottles or shoes that we encounter along the way.

Photo credit (top) Aidan Meyer

Charlotte Pence’s first book of poems, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), received an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. The book explores her father’s chronic homelessness while simultaneously detailing the physiological changes that enabled humans to form cities, communities, and households. She is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. In the fall of 2017, she will become director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama.

One response to “Teaching Travel Writing That Takes a Deeper Look”

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    I absolutely love this piece and its take on travel writing. As a teacher and starting travel blogger, I will be referring to the tips in the article. Thanks for sharing!