Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Strategy for Travel Writing

by Sheila Bender

My daughter Emily Menon Bender took a trip with her husband, children, and parents-in-law to India, where her husband has many relatives. During the three-week trip, I was very happy to be able to follow her travels through photos and writing she shared on Facebook. Her Facebook posts took a form that made me think of William Stafford’s poem, “Things I Learned Last Week,” and the way I use that poem’s writing strategy to help people find the specifics in their experience.

I asked Emily how she came up with her technique.

mumbai1“We started our trip in Mumbai where we had the good fortune to stay with Vijay’s cousin and her husband. They were very keen to teach us about their city and their country. Our first day there, I learned surprising facts and I wanted to post the information on Facebook. I had known that on Twitter, TIL means “Things I Learned” and is used in a self-deprecating way as if to say “Duh! I should have already have known that,” but I had the phrase in my head, and it felt like a good way to share my experiences with my Facebook friends. Here’s that first post I made:

Today I learned: In Maharashtra a permit is required to “drink” alcohol, though this is largely ignored and people just pay fines (bribes?) on the rare occasions that it is enforced. Also, leopards live in the national park visible from Vijay’s cousin’s house. Development has encroached on the park and the leopards don’t have enough prey, so some mornings people in the buildings closest to the park (not this one) find leopards prowling around in their lobby.

I wondered how that original post led to daily posts using this TIL strategy. Emily said she had a particular friend back in the States who wanted to hear her impressions of India while they were fresh. She didn’t have many chances to chat with her friend online while she was traveling, and posting about what she learned each day was a way to give her friend a short version, at least, while it was new and striking.

I see that writing about what she learned, rather than what she did, brings the reader along with her on the trip in a way that feels more grounded and more interesting than just a travelogue about where one goes and in what order. Emily told me that once she decided to make her TIL posts a daily habit, she started looking for things to learn throughout the day. “What in all the experiences I was having did I note learning something that was of personal interest to me?” she asked.

Sometimes, the learning was from people explaining things to her, but not every day involved a tour guide (or relative interested in playing tour guide), and so then the learning was more about direct perception, she says. Here’s an entry from a day spent in transit, first on a long flight from Mumbai to Kochi, and then a very long drive through very windy roads up to the hill station resort of Munnar:

teabushes112/15/12 Today I learned: Rolling hills covered with tea bushes look remarkably like giant turtles. Also: There are also quiet places in India. Finally, one extra one from yesterday: Our networked world makes for an impressive amount of shared reference between my son Toby and his cousins in India. They quizzed each other on Harry Potter and then danced to Gangnam Style together.

Framing things in terms of what she learned was to Emily like taking a close-up photo of the underside of a flower, a departure from the expected depiction.

Here’s are two more of her posts:

12/18/12 Today I learned: It’s prudent to remove all photos from the memory card in the camera before entering the wildlife preserve. Also: Elephants have 10,000 muscles in their trunks. Finally: Modern mahouts are not only trained in the care & handling of elephants, but also in the use of digital cameras.

12/12/12 Today I learned: In Mumbai and Pune and maybe other parts of India, honking means “I am here!” and “Coming through!” and not “Get outta my way!” or “You idiot!”. This is probably why trucks all say above the back bumper “Horn OK Please”. Also, I am able to eat an entire meal of curry & rice with my hands without getting the scarf of my salwar set dirty. Finally: when coming to India for the first time after marrying into an Indian family, even if said wedding was 12 years ago, one extra suitcase for carrying things back is not enough.

Try this whether you are traveling or at home–it is an excellent writing exercise and will allow you to find some interesting writing topics!


Writing with All Your Senses — A Learnable Skill

image002When beginning writers read flowing prose full of dazzling descriptions, they may think, “I’ll never in a thousand years be able to write like that!” They may grow depressed and consider throwing their computer off a bridge. Nobody is immune.

When you hear those thoughts, rest assured that your Inner Critic is the source, and that they are both true and false. They are true because our writing voices are as personal and unique as our speaking voices. You could study and practice that author’s style for fifty years, but you’ll never write exactly “like that.” Your challenge is to develop your own best style and message, not to mimic anyone else.

They are also false because writing dynamic description is a learnable skill. It takes practice and dedication. In my experience, a three-pronged approach has worked well to hone description skills to a keen edge. One prong involves reading, another involves awareness of surroundings, and the third is deliberation.

I am a purposely slow reader. I savor words and phrases as a gourmet savors flavors. I always have a pad of sticky flags at hand when I’m reading a novel or memoir so I can mark words and phrases I admire. Some books may sport only a few; others resemble a hairbrush. When I read an innovative description, I savor its richness, reading it aloud to practice the sound and feel of it, letting it sink deeply into my mind. I imagine, for example, Charles Frazier sitting in a trance at his keyboard, raptly engrossed in a scene he envisions for Cold Mountain. I see him reaching for scrap paper to doodle some thoughts before he finds the phrase that evokes a smile and nod of satisfaction: “the air … so damp it caused fresh sheets to sour under him and tiny black mushrooms to grow overnight from the limp pages of the book on his bedside table.” Wow! The pure genius of that dismal description gives me goose bumps!

After I finish the book, I head for my computer and type the flagged passages into a Word document. I review that file now and then for inspiration.
Turning to the second prong, awareness of surroundings, when something captures my attention, I often ponder ways to describe it. What is unique about its color, texture, shape? What does it remind me of? What metaphors or similes might work? I scramble up the side of my perceptual rut and stretch toward new ideas, relying on the tool I just mentioned — thinking about how other authors come up with phrases I admire.

Deliberation, the third prong, comes into play while editing. I challenge every sentence, seeking fresh ways of stating the ordinary and artful ways of arranging words. To borrow an example from Jennifer Stewart’s rollicking Writing Tips newsletter, our prehistoric ancestors might have bred by engaging in “Paleolithic passion.” Free association and visualization are the bedrock of this process.

This is art, and it has a musical component. Students of writing and literature hear a lot about a writer’s voice. We each develop our own, as unique and personal as our speaking voice. I may admire Rosamund Pilcher from daybreak to dusk, but my writing will never sound like hers. It won’t sound like Sue Grafton’s either, and certainly not like Steven King’s or William Zinsser’s. My writing will sound like Sharon Lippincott’s, as it should. My challenge is to continually strive to stay on pitch and in rhythm to keep my writing as crisp and clear as it can be.

Write now: scan the room around you and find one specific item that catches your eye, then write about it. Describe it in an unusual way and strive to involve two or three senses. Find other things to describe until you’ve covered all your senses at least a couple of times in several variations.

This post is excerpted from The Heart and Craft of Writing Compelling Description, Sharon Lippincott, 2013

Photo credit: Rochelle

Sharon Lippincott is an evangelist for lifestory writing and memoir and the author of four books. Her most recent, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing Compelling Description, helps writers transform tales from blah to brilliant.  She teaches writing courses online and in Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh Osher programs and cohosts the Life Writers’ Forum YahooGroup. She is founder of the Pittsburgh area WE WRITE! Creative Writing University and serves on the NAMW advisory board. She has been blogging at since 2007.