Keeping a Travel Journal You Love, Part 1

[Summer often means travel and/or entertaining guests who have traveled to see you. Often times, we think of this as taking time away from our writing, but keeping a travel journal can keep us writing during our travels and during others’ visits to see us.

I find no better advice on keeping a travel journal than in this article by Tarn Wilson from deep in the Writing It Real archives.

I think you’ll appreciate what Tarn shares with us.

Remember–you can be a tourist in your own town. All it takes is the mindset to explore as you would in a place new to you. Dress in clothes you don’t usually wear and walk or bus or train around and you’ll be paying attention to your surroundings differently than usual. If it helps, take a guide book with you and explore some of what the book suggests–or take an insert from your local newspaper that speaks of things to do and see.

And if you have guests–take them around and see the town through their eyes and you will be traveling, too. — Sheila]


Here’s Tarn Wilson on the subject:

Why keep a travel journal? There are the obvious reasons: to create a memento; to share your adventure with family and friends; to create a work of literature, such as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie; to gather details that you’ll later weave into short stories or essays; to give yourself, finally, the luxury of time to write.

For me, though, the most valuable reward of travel journaling happens in the moment of writing. Humans, like rabbits, are burrowing creatures — we feel safest near home and with a predictable routine. Though exciting, the change and uncertainty of travel can disorient us and, especially in the beginning, make us feel distant from our experience. Writing helps us to slow down, to notice, to enter our own adventure.

When I first visited Las Vegas for a winter graduation, we stayed in the old mafia hotel, The Flamingo. I awoke early the first morning and, while looking out the fourth-floor window, wrote:

Below me is the Flamingo’s outdoor tropical garden . . . only it was in the thirties last night. I see tropical penguins standing in a pool with no water. Now they are all waddling in the same direction, bent and shuffling like old men.

From where I sit, I can see four flamingos standing in a shallow pool. Even from this distance, I can hear the waterfalls. It must be luscious in the summer. Seems a little chilly now. Morning sun is just hitting the tops of the palm trees — they look as if they are getting their hair dried.

The skin on my face is dry. I have a wet towel on my head. My feet are cold. My neck and back are stiff. Even the flamingos seem a little stiff and waddly this morning.

Recording the details of the moment helped me to make the transition from my busy, regular life to a new environment. Also observing specific details assured that I experienced the real Las Vegas — not the one of my imagination, created by the stories and images I’d formed before I’d arrived.


When we keep a travel journal to share with friends and family, we often censor ourselves and in the process miss discoveries. So, I recommend that, initially, you write only for yourself. Give yourself permission to complain, to ask difficult questions, to experiment with a new writing style, to draw ugly pictures, to explore an issue in your life–all without fear of being read and judged. Then, from this montage of half-formed thoughts, rants, brilliant insights, careful observation, and sweet moments, you can choose what you want to share.

On a motorhome trip around Alaska with my in-laws, I grabbed a rare moment to reflect:

We did not get much sleep last night and I am the kind of tired that makes me feel as if all my insides have been scooped out — empty and vulnerable inside with floppy, loose skin on the outside.

Again, no moments to write, don’t know how to capture my experience, what to capture, why I should write down certain events, what to hold onto and why.

“Are you all caught up in your journal?” Mom asks. I don’t know how to answer because my journal is not a day-to-day list of activities and events, although perhaps it should be.

“Anyone keeping a diary?” Dad asks, baiting me, I guess. But I know I’m not doing what he does in his trip diaries: detailed lists of places, names, people met, all positive without exploration of emotion.

But I suppose we are both driven by the same compulsion — to hold onto something. I write primarily to discover and understand rather than to record, but then I keep these journals upon journals upon journals — so obviously I am trying to hold onto the changing ephemera that is my life.

Although much of my journal was a celebration of Alaskan landscape and notes on history, I also processed the sometimes challenging dynamics of traveling with five family members. But noticing the contrasts in the way my father-in-law processes and records his experiences forced me to examine myself and to ask questions, not only about writing, but about the way we each make meaning and preserve memories. Although this is not the sort of entry I’d show to someone interested in my trip to Alaska, it is useful none-the-less: it contains the seed ideas for what would become this article.


Don’t give yourself homework; start in the present moment.

Sometimes when we’re having new and fascinating experiences, we tell ourselves, “I must write about this in my journal,” and then we have just given ourselves homework–and homework feels like a burden and invites procrastination and resistance. Instead, start with what is on your mind the moment you begin writing and then follow the threads of thought wherever they may lead you.

On my short, full trip to Jordan, I couldn’t keep up with recording all the new sights, sounds, scents and thoughts. So, when I opened my journal, I began by expressing that frustration.

Tuesday. Dead Sea. So much to record, think about. Not sure what to write, how, in what order.

And then I comforted myself with advice from Hemingway.

Write true sentences.

So I continued with what I knew to be true in that moment:

Some sort of dove coos. And a large finch (I think) trills. We are on lawn chairs staring over a small, cool pool, behind which stretches the gray-teal Dead Sea and the dry hills of Israel. A palm tree behind us. And the spa: a Mediteranean style villa playing New Age music mixed with Arabic rhythms.

The music reminded me of how the Jordanian radio stations had surprised me:

Radio stations here: Michael Jackson’s “I’m bad,” followed by Arabic pop — Arabic words and instruments with synthesized anywhere-in-the-world pop rhythms–followed by traditional music. Then Frank Sinatra.

That cultural mixing reminded me that I had also been surprised to see a Starbucks in Amman.

A four-story Starbucks, the neon sign shining green, in English and Arabic. A latte and a muffin cost six dollars — almost a day’s wages for an average Jordanian who earns $300 American dollars a month.

Facts about disparity in incomes tugged me away from descriptions of landscape into more complex territory:

I can’t help, here, thinking about privilege. I, who am decidedly on the lower end of the middle class [in the San Francisco Bay Area] — still rent a small house, live on a budget — am positively wealthy here. A new and uncomfortable experience for me in a country where only the wealthy can afford a coffee and a muffin.

This led me to another area of discomfort: gender roles in the Middle East and my difficulty negotiating the social codes around eye contact, proper clothing, traveling without men, visiting places of religious worship, etc. This led me to reflect on perceptions of female sexuality in Amman and the Bay Area.

So what that says to me, the leering, the horn honking, the covered women, the censorship of American movies for sexual content but not for violence, is that the Middle Eastern culture believes sexual desire is a powerful force, an uncontrollable force, and that force is somehow in women: covering, no eye contact.

Different than the Bay Area where it seems, people are so busy and tired and, perhaps, class conscious, that I can look at people all I want and they rarely notice.

I can look at their clothes, their mannerisms, their absent-tight expressions, what’s in their shopping carts. I look and look, learning, and rarely does anyone notice.

So we appear to live in a more sexualized culture (women in hardly any clothes, etc.) — one that frightens, understandably, Muslim conservatives–but it seems to me that so much exposure create, not respect for women necessarily, but a kind of numbness.

So a journal entry that started with the sound of a bird and Israel’s dry hills led eventually to insight into my own culture. If I begin in the present moment, no matter how mundane the details, my mind eventually works itself toward its most essential concerns.

My motto for journaling is: “Make it a habit; not homework.” The more regularly we journal, the easier it is to write quickly, freely, and freshly, and we are more likely to journal if we make it play rather than obligation.


Try Tarn’s approach. It will get you writing even when you think your travels and guests are too distracting to write.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Tarn Wilson

Tarn Wilson earned her MA in education from Stanford and her MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her recent work appears in A River and Sound Review, Brevity, Defunct, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Inertia, Ruminate, South Loop Review, and The Sun, among others. The Slow Farm is her first book. Learn more on her website.


Keeping a Travel Journal You Love, Part 1 — 5 Comments

    • She is a wonderful writer and reading how she comes to keeping a travel journal is very instructive for all of us keeping journals to foster our writing. I am happy you found her approach of interest.

  1. Ah, yes. In 2015, P.J. and I wrote TANKA ROAD TRIP while we traveled from Tucson to Grand Canyon. The whole chapbook was written in Tanka (5-7-5-7-7) form. What fun! Here’s a sample:
    September 11, 2015 Friday

    Heading for Flagstaff
    in “new” Buick just for us
    taking 101
    avoiding I-10 shooter’if it’s at all possible.
    Only 20 pages in this little book, but a complete record with pictures. The experience kept us counting on our fingers and the miles flew by. Less is more.

Leave a Reply