Why Writers Should Travel

In the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch (Buy it! It’s so pretty!), Richard Tillinghast talks about the importance of traveling and its effect on our writing.

“Everyone who travels knows that one of the biggest emotions one experiences is an intoxication: eating new foods, seeing signs in a new language, seeing different styles of architecture, and new people. That kind of intoxication has a lot to do with the intoxication a person feels when he or she is writing poetry. For me, travel and writing have always gone together” (132-133). 

I hadn’t traveled to a foreign country in at least 7 years when my husband and I went to Athens, Greece on our honeymoon. While I was there, I didn’t write poetry. I wasn’t “intoxicated,” per se. More like, I was overcome with laziness and enjoying it. It really wasn’t until after I came home that my experiences there started to influence some of my writing.

One of my greatest wishes for the trip was to see the caryatids, beautiful women-shaped columns of at least 8 feet that support the Erechtheion. I first saw a picture of the Erechtheion in my Humanities class when I was 15. I loved how beautiful and how strong the columns looked.

When my husband and I went to the Acropolis, I was disappointed to find out that the columns supporting the real Erechtheion were actually plaster copies. They had moved the real ones to the Acropolis Museum (though one is also in the British Museum). When we went to the museum, we were both annoyed we couldn’t take pictures inside. It was an amazing museum with tons of carvings taken from the Acropolis site, restored, and on view. The caryatids were going through laser cleaning one at a time, so there were only four out (there are 6 total). While a guard was looking the other way, I reached out and touched one of the thighs of the caryatids. A lightning bolt should have come out of the sky and killed me immediately for doing such a thing (compromising posterity’s chance at seeing it!). I left so giddy that I was nearly crying (my husband thought this was really weird). I didn’t even want to wash my hands. I kept rubbing my fingers together and delighting in the fact that I had touched something so wonderful and so beautiful that hundreds of centuries before other people may have touched in the exact same place.

It took me a couple of months to write a poem about that experience. It was actually easier for me to translate my experience from Greece into fiction first because I wanted the space to really explore the experience. I didn’t want to distillate it. Greece was populated with probably thousands of stray dogs, and I wrote a short story called “The Last Hurrah” (that has already received encouraging rejections from One Story, Pankand The Missouri Review. My wish this year is to get some fiction published, so here’s to hoping someone picks it up!) about a couple that lost a baby that travels to Greece. The wife falls in love with the dogs, and the husband is lost in his own little world of whittling.

As I’ve talked about in previous posts, place in a story or poem is important. Having read for a literary journal, I know a piece with a strong sense of place stands out. Traveling is a way to help that come more naturally. You go to an exotic place (Remember how the Pen/O Henry stories for 2011 were nearly all travel narratives?), and get some new experiences, and then you even come back to your own home, and your perspective is different.

Right now, there are two awesome chances for you to get your travel on:

1. Summer Literary Seminar Contest: Deadline Feb 28th, 2012. $15 entry fee.

Contest winners in the categories of fiction and poetry will have their work published in print in the Black Warrior Review, and online in The Walrus. Additionally, they will have the choice of attending (airfare, tuition, and housing included) any one of the SLS-2012 programs – in Vilnius, Lithuania (July 15 – 28, July 29 – August 12); or Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya (December).

Second-place winners will receive a full tuition waiver for the program of their choice, and publication in online magazine Joyland (fiction) or Branch (poetry). Third-place winners will receive a 50% tuition discount and publication in Joyland (fiction) or Branch (poetry).

The contest winner in the category of non fiction will be published in DIAGRAM, and will have the choice of attending (airfare, tuition, and housing included) any one of the SLS-2012 programs.

(see their webpage for guidelines)

2. Study Abroad in Spain with the University of Memphis: Deadline March 1st, 2012. $2 entry fee. Must be at least 18 years of age and have not graduated from, or are not currently in, an MFA or PhD Writing Program. (Undergraduates, apply apply!)

Chance of winning one full fellowship covering tuition and all room and board and program fees for the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis in Alicante, Spain (approximately $3000 value, covers everything except airfare). There are two $750 scholarships available. (see their webpage for guidelines)

5 thoughts on “Why Writers Should Travel

  1. Congratulation on the encouraging rejections! Hope your story finds a home :]

    I traveled to Egypt about a year and a half ago now, and I still haven’t quite been able to write about it. It snuck into one fiction story–though I’m now on the third draft and it’s still not quite right–but the idea of writing a short memoir about even the most minute of my experiences there is completely overwhelming. It’s hard to translate life-changing travel into decent writing!

    1. Thanks!

      I do get that. On the second day of my honeymoon in Greece, the economic riots started, and for a short time, we were in the thick of it, trying to walk to the bus station, blinded by tear gas and burning garbage. I tried to write a short story in which the guy decided to join the riot. It didn’t end up working at /all./ I ended up keeping the setting as in Greece, but removed all traces of the riots.

      I’m really not a memoir writer. Anything memoir-ish seems pretty overwhelming to me. Maybe we just need to sit with it for another 10 years and it’ll come out of us into awesomeness?

  2. I’ve had mixed success with working my travels into my writing. My honeymoon with the ex-wife in Cancun (specifically Chichen Itza) made it into one of my stories, and a trip with the same ex-wife to Machu Picchu made it into another one. In both cases the setting was relevant; El Castillo at Chichen Itza played a direct part in the climax of that story, as did the caves beneath Machu Picchu. Just throwing locations into the story because you were there doesn’t work. It has to be relevant. (Both stories have been published; the first, “At Chichen Itza,” is online at the Black Market Review.)

    Similarly, I had set a different story at a beach just outside of Hatteras, NC. (Most beautiful coast anywhere, BTW.) I hadn’t been there in a dozen years when I wrote the piece, and the summer after I decided to go back to the place I had written about to do some follow-up research… only to find that I’d gotten most of the details wrong. Not that that necessarily mattered, so long as I made everything plausible. That I wanted the beach to be that particular beach didn’t matter; I wanted a beach, and that was my initial frame of reference. (That story remains unpublished. It needs still more work, and other things always seem to take precedence.)

    The point is: you can’t force it. It has to come naturally, organically. Don’t worry about it… let it flow.

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