Memories of travel are often about excitement and anticipation—that moment when you wake up and know that in a matter of hours you will be in a plane crossing the Alps or the coastal forests of Eastern Canada in just as long as it takes to eat your breakfast. But as well as thinking about how to tap into all that anticipation, it might be useful to reflect on what travel has meant to us in the past. The idea of the journey occupies a central place in our creative literature, as if 'journey' and 'story' were synonymous. Almost all fairy-tales involve a journey: to grandmother's house, away on mysterious business with gifts brought back for the children, in a carriage which is also a pumpkin, into the forest escaping from a step-mother, bringing back impossible gifts and so winning the hand of the princess. There are the amazingly vast journeys performed by the hero of 'Finist the Falcon' a Russian fairy-tale that combines motifs from so many other tales. The journey as quest, also as pilgrimage, as proof of endurance or devotion, proof too—if you survive—of willingness to encounter, and overcome, whatever horror or obstacle is planted in your path. This, of course, will not be the experience we expect when travelling in present-day conditions.

Journey then, and diversion, distraction; but never journey as distraction, journey as pleasure. Chaucer, of course, allowed his pilgrims to toy with the idea of journey as pleasure, a new-fangled notion in the fourteenth century. Before that time, and for centuries afterwards, travel undertaken under precarious conditions betokened a purpose of the most serious sort: you come back changed—if you come back at all—and wiser. You lost your innocent sense that life was a spree. Even anecdotes relating what happened to us on this or that vacation get most attention according to how catastrophic they seemed. 'We only went to enjoy ourselves BUT.', the story implies. Yet perhaps that wasn't the reason at all. Maybe the strange encounters, the unfamiliar food and plumbing arrangements were the point, after all. We get away from it all, 'it all' meaning not only drudgery and routine but also all that we count, and count on, as predictable. Not only that: when we come back, our ordinary world has, in our absence, acquired something of that tangible unfamiliarity belonging to elsewhere.

The visits to towns and countrysides of our past, old home places, are more obvious pilgrimages. But even the pure pleasure-seeking instinct we go into a travel agent's with might conceal some less obvious appetite—for story perhaps and, if so, what kind? Romance, adventure, danger, risk? What kind of journey is it we are making? Why does it stop at one place and not another? What are its turning-points? Are these the result of circumstances, cash running out, missed trains, or of more mysterious causes? Memoirs of travel become interesting, not just because what happens is being described in close-up, but when the motives of travelling are investigated. A pilgrimage? A quest? Initiation? What's it really all about?

What we are hinting at here is that journeys are metaphors. We often speak of other experiences as journeys—ones that have nothing to do with travel as such. Illnesses might be one such example, as in two recent autobiographies: Out of Me by Fiona Shaw and Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel. Some might think of long-term illness as a challenge, a struggle—you against it, so that your journey will be to overcome and triumph, be restored to the person you were before. We might call this a restorative journey. Your illness might be a quest (another type of journey) to discover what you can learn about yourself, about your relationship with yourself and with others as you begin to accept that your condition might be unalterable. Is it something that isolates you or enables connections with other sufferers? Always there is the undeniable need to be getting somewhere—without this, travel and journeys (and perhaps illnesses) can seem to have no point. But the endurance can be disruptive as well as highly pleasurable. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson, trekking over two thousand miles through Maine and the Appalachians, talks not just about mountains and hills but also heavens and hells:

When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where the chilled air smells of pine-sap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain's open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting, in a distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen.

(Bryson, 1997:46)

Later, 'It was heaven. It's splendid, no question, but the thought you cannot escape is that you have to walk this view.' Later still: 'It was hell.' He knows what his readers might anticipate—the summit view, glow of achievement, happy exhaustion—then tells us what it was really like. Notice his use of 'you' in the passage, how it makes the experience both generalised and specific, as if he is dumping not just himself but us too—or anyone with these kinds of aspirations—on to that slab of rock.

Even without travelling there are ways of incorporating the collective experiences of travel into the writing of memoir so that you use its breadth of association to develop observation and insight. Bill Bryson's experience isn't one most of us have the opportunity to attempt, but we all will have visited places where travelling happens: rail stations, motorways services, wharves and docks, airports, the underground. Pub conversations about travel, depicted here by Bryson again, can be enough to illustrate attitude to it, in this case found only in England:

If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other; and blow out air as if to say, 'Well, now, that's a bit of a tall order', and then they'll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it's better to take the A30 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner; swivelling your head in quiet wonderment.

'You know that layby outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?'—one of them will say. 'You know, just past the turn-off for Little Puking before the B6029 mini-roundabout By the dead sycamore.'

At this point, you'll find you are the only person in the group not nodding vigorously.

(Bryson, 1995:15-16)

As a master of detail, Bryson's grip on the point is tightened by these exaggerations. And the Underground: 'There's something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train.. And it all happens in such orderly quiet: all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators, stepping on and off crowded trains, sliding off into the darkness with wobbling heads, and never speaking, like characters from Night of the Living Dead: (Bryson, Ibid.: 35)

Doris Lessing catches a moment when such order and quiet suddenly unravels: in seasonal terms the Underground's version of spring:

Charing Cross and everyone gets out At the exit machine a girl appears running up from the deeper levels, and she is chirping like an alarm. The girl is a fey creature, blonde locks flying around a flushed face. She is laughing dizzily, and racing a flight or flock of young things coming into the West End for an evening's adventure, all of them already crazed with pleasure, and in another dimension of speed and lightness, like sparks speeding up and out. She and two girls push in their tickets and flee along a tunnel to the upper world, but three youths vault over, with cries of triumph, and their state of being young is such a claim on us all that the attendant decides not to notice, for it would be as mad as swatting butterflies.

Not just platforms but seasons, even a hint of the myth of Persephone escaping the underworld, 'crazed with pleasure'. Again we find the writer building worlds, producing images, making time eventful and extraordinary in words that seem to be passing through the moment, shaped by its energy. We feel the privilege of having been there too. All good writing achieves this, and memoir writing is about 'being there', even if 'there' happened to be your climb to the summit of a mountain in America, your first meeting with your new baby brother, hearing your mother talking about 'love'—in Lessing's case very differently from Berger's. The writing moves among spaces, people and objects; the world is present sensuously, heard, seen and felt, and the writer is also thinking, exploring early sources of later attitude, curious about experience. Journeys are not just periods of transit between one point and another. For some even an arrival at a tube station one evening will be an adventure.

Travel writing started long before Kerouac's On the Road was published in 1960, yet this book, still widely read and deeply enjoyed, celebrates travel as initiation. Into what? The writer isn't sure, which is part of its charm. Here is Kerouac describing how it feels to be lying on the floor of a car travelling at high speed and driven by your friend with the asphalt inches away from your face. The road is an image, dangerous, accessible, with an unknown future: travel and time transformed into speed and energy. Notice the mixture of long and short sentences:

One of the boys jumped in front for the fun. Great horrors that we were going to crash this very morning took hold of me and I got down on the floor and closed my eyes and tried to go to sleep. As a seaman I used to think of the waves rushing beneath the shell of the ship and the bottomless deeps thereunder—now I could feel the road some twenty inches beneath me, unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel. When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. When I opened them I saw flashing shadows of trees vibrating on the floor of the car There was no escaping it. I resigned myself to all. And still Dean drove, he had no thought of sleeping till we got to Chicago.

(Kerouac, 1991:234)

The next extract in this section, a piece of unpublished personal narrative, 'Permanent Nights, Winter 81/82', by Eric Jackson, also involves dangerous driving. Here, too, the writing is sensational, made so by the uncomfortable extremes packed into it:

Sometimes I'd be half-asleep and it was difficult to tell how much was real and how much was just hanging behind my eyes. The alarm tearing into my dreams: a cold clenched fist in my stomach. Everyone else would be sleeping, Dad snoring in the next room. I'd sleep with most of my clothes on, slump out of bed—fatigue and resentment a single emotion— and do as much as I could in darkness.

Black coffee to scour a clogged throat, woke me up as if there were some purpose to this. Kid myself. In the bathroom I'd put the light on.

Sting my eyes like shampoo does when you're a child. In the mirror always the same vampire face, the matted hair, red eyes, pale skin. So tired, so incredibly tired and fighting against it.

I'd tip cups of water; cold, over my head. A shock like toothache to bring me alive. After the coffee go outside shivering to try and start the van. Freezing in scarf, gloves, hat, everything. Often I'd fill hot water bottles and wear them inside my coat across the small of my back The heater in the van didn't work and there were gaps around all the windows. Once I'd started the engine I'd have to get out again and clear the ice from the wind-screen. There'd be snow in the driveway and the cat's footprints over the roof of the van.

The drive to work A roller coaster of left-over dream images and sudden black bends. Trees and walls leaping out of nothingness directly into my path. The line between sleep and wakefulness as blurred as the hedgerows rushing past. Reaching the outskirts of town—a flood of orange lights, the odd police car; cats and lovers hurrying home down some side-street; the warehouse.

Sometimes there'd be thick, bitter tea in unwashed cups. A treat if it was the foreman's night off. There'd be nothing to say. I'd be looking at their dead white faces, tanned by neon and touched by moonlight more than sun, thinking: Is that me? Do I look like that?' Like defeat and acceptance and long since abandoned bitterness.

The machine would rattle and hum and my fingers, the skin, too colourless to bleed, would crack on the strapping as the parcels piled up. In the yard, wagons shunted and lumbered (Left hand down') spewing carbon monoxide into the loading bay, gears grinding and grating on my nerves. As far back as I could remember; as far forward as I could see.

They'd give me forty five minutes to do the deliveries, because they thought it was impossible. I'd do it in thirty five. Stack the parcels properly in the back, that was the key, then alter the brain to sleep while reactions took over

I'd leave the yard with tyres spinning gravel and the door still half-open. Leave the window down to hear the engine, the screaming rubber to flood the van with night.

Never cruising. Always accelerating madly or breaking desperately, blocking out the times, a dozen a night, when I'd leave the tarmac and lose control. Just for a second but long enough careering down unlit country lanes on the wrong side of the road, the rush of fear was the one spark of life in this robot existence.

Still in darkness I'd tear past the milk floats back into town, ignoring red lights, one way systems, pavements. (If it's flat you can drive over it.') And the metal of the van would screech in protest, remembering its twisted frame and buckled wheels and shattered glass not so many nights ago on a road exactly like this.

All this to possess those last ten minutes and say, 'These are mine'. To park on the road along the beach and hear the engine ticking as it cooled, and outside hear the surf and the gulls. I could watch the sea and watch the sunrise, watch the birds with marble eyes scavenging the empty chip bags, coca cola tins, rubbish stacks. See the first light paint the sky and glint across steel grey waves and the aluminium doors of Gilly's Fun Palace, Big Prize Bingo, and the Original Gypsy Rose Lee's Palmistry Stall with its faded pictures of Des O'Connor, Les Dawson, and Frankie Vaughan.

I didn't need her magic.

I saw my future and my past: a hall of mirrors reflecting to infinity in all directions with me at the centre, staring through the filthy windows of a Ford transit, watching the sea and shivering inside.


What do we know about this writer's feelings? From the last image he clearly feels trapped. His sense of relief is transitory, but we are not told this explicitly; we feel it without the need for direct comment. He could, for instance, have begun his piece with a list of explanatory details: 'Two years ago I was working shifts driving a van in Redcar for a transport company. I hated the job but needed money for a trip to Peru', etc. Would more data have benefited? The only information of this type is the merest: '1.45 a.m.'

By being real to the writer as he writes, this experience becomes real to the reader. Much of it consists of things which exercise physical rather than mental reactions, but even those parts which do reflect on the experience go a step further: 'Do I look like that? Like defeat and acceptance and long since abandoned bitterness.' The writer assumes that given this particular set of conditions, most of us would respond as he is doing. That moment of freedom and peace at the end is one we can each relate to. 'All this to possess those last ten minutes and say, 'These are mine'.' The statement is both anonymous and personal, and succeeds in saying something about work and its squalid demands. Given that is the issue, the finer and more detailed the exactness, the stronger the bridge between writer and reader. Instead of explaining: 'Then we drank some tea', he almost chokes us with it; we can taste it. We feel we have experienced what he knows. We feel this because of the strong dominant viewpoint, but also because the writing is like a magnetic field; every detail points in the same direction. It has rhythm. It speeds. It drives impressions home, phrase after phrase. The rhythm changes for the final paragraphs: 'All this to possess.' The sentences tick over like the engine; they are longer and slower than the stabbing rhythms. They reflect on what has happened, but without losing touch with the new circumstances: the litter and the gulls and the sea itself. And this rhythm is just as important for their meaning as what the words actually say. In this passage, although Redcar might not be Chicago or Acapulco, in its momentum, tumbled thoughts, fullness of world, sudden glimpses of close-up and wider perspective, it revives some of the same qualities of perception and enactment as Kerouac s On the Road.

Finally, at another extreme, travel can lead to encounters with people whose ways of life differ profoundly from ours. The result casts deep shafts of enquiry into the traveller's mind, so that we feel we have almost left travel writing behind and crossed a border into philosophy. The Arctic explorer Barry Lopez writes:

What did Columbus, sailing Zaiton, the great port of Cathay, think of the reach of the Western Atlantic? How did Coronado assess the Staked Plain of Texas, the rawest space he ever knew, on his way to Quivera? Or Mungo Park the landscape of Africa in search of the Niger? What one thinks of any region, while travelling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imagines, and how one is disposed.

(Lopez, 1987:243)

Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realised that they are more afraid than we are. On a day-to-day basis, they have more fear Not of being dumped into cold water from an umiac, not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A Central Eskimo shaman named Aua, queried by Knud Rasmussen about Eskimo beliefs, answered: 'We do not believe. We fear.'

Later on he talks of tribal warfare among the Eskimos, 'families shattered by alcohol, drugs and ambition'. But he knows, vaguely, yet conclusively, that 'the land, in a certain, very real way, compels the minds of [these] people'. This attitude, very unlike our own civilised distance from the natural world, could have been left deliberately unaddressed, but Lopez does not choose this direction. All he has are his own culture's methods of enquiry, questions about being and practical life. These are his means of approach:

In moments when I felt perplexed that I was dealing with an order outside my own, I discovered and put to use a part of my own culture's wisdom, the formal divisions of Western philos-ophy—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and logic—which pose, in order; the following questions: What is real? What can we understand? How should we behave? What is beautiful? What are the patterns that we can rely upon?

As I traveled, I would say to myself, What do my companions see where I see death? Is the sunlight beautiful to them, the way it sparkles on the water? Which for the Eskimo hunter are the patterns to be trusted? The patterns, I know, could be different from ones I imagined were before us. There could be other; remarkably different insights.

Those days on llingnorak Ridge, when I saw tundra grizzly tearing up the earth looking for ground squirrels, and watched wolves hunting, and a horned lark sitting so resolutely on her nest, and caribou crossing the river and shaking off the spray like diamonds before the evening sun, I was satisfied only to watch. This was the great drift and pause of life. These were the arrangements that made the land ring with integrity. Somewhere downriver, I remembered, a scientist named Edward Sable had paused on a trek in 1947 to stare at a Folsom spear point, a perfectly fluted object of black chert resting on a sandstone ledge. People moving, over the land.

The Personal and the Collective

There's no reason why personal narrative should mean writing entirely about yourself; it's also striking how often and to what good purpose the writing of a memoir includes other people, portraits, comments on social life. To take this idea one step further, it can also be fruitful, and interesting, to explore the personal narratives within a group or community, showing contrasting perspectives, shared perceptions, difference and coincidence. The example below, written by a demonstrator against nuclear weapons in 1975, shows how memoir can weave together the personal and collective:

I set off to Greenham as a critic—not as a critic of the issue of nuclear war/weapons—but as a critic of what I expected would happen: of the long and passionate speeches, full of clichés, and 'guilt-tripping' statements about what we should all be doing. Basically I was tired of emerging middle-class leaders in the peace movement making careers out of telling us what we should be doing and how we should be doing it! As a working class woman I've felt alienated from the peace movement and, worse still, guilty that the problems of surviving as a single parent meant I had little energy left to direct into any campaigning—no matter how important I felt that campaign to be. Nuclear disarmament is the ultimate issue of the day and so I've always made a point of attending most of the local and national demonstrations. In terms of the media, numbers are important, and so I was content to be a 'head to be counted'! However; after a while, this can be a demoralizing and tedious way of making a protest—you come away feeling tired, anonymous, and with a feeling that the demonstration would have gone on quite well without you.

On December the 12th at Greenham it was different. All my own criticisms, based on previous experiences, disappeared within reaching a hundred yards of the fence. I don't think it was the day, the event, or the common cause which was responsible for making every woman present feel a vital part of the day—it was the fence itself.

(Bretton Women's Book Fund, 1983:14-16)

Collections of personal narrative can open doors on the experiences people share, at school, in a college, a town, a workplace, a community. Each generation will produce different narratives, will develop its own attitudes and idioms. You may be able to develop a project reflecting in vivid and accurate detail the kinds of experience that distinguish your generation as it develops from childhood and on through the various stages that follow.

You will need to focus on experiences shared by people in a group.


Autobiography and memoir are forms of personal narrative. Autobiography is a complete personal narrative covering at least several years in duration, while memoir enables you to focus on a comparatively short period of experience lasting days, even hours or minutes. You are telling a story about yourself. But it can, of course, be one that involves other people and groups. One of its strengths is its conversational tone, as seen in the extracts above, and the way it opens up a discussion with its readers.

Personal narratives need ideas and themes and also dramatic illustration, moments captured through description, dialogue, close-up, angle and focus. But sometimes writers start off not knowing what they are going to discover. In this approach, all they have is the sense that this or that experience is real to them in some important way. The writer aims to find out why it matters. He or she unearths the ideas as they go along, and reaches an understanding during the process. The writing develops a tone of reflectiveness, leading to a new sense of the importance of a memory and its place in the story of the self. The piece by Eric Jackson is a good example of writing as discovery.

Personal narratives often occur in clusters round basic themes. In the extracts I have included examples of writing about memory, travel, and collective narratives. These branch out into a range of topics, closely related but offering a wider scope. Always think about what your chosen topic might branch out into. For example, the idea of a journey might include the experience of illness or disability, or the sense of a quest or a revisiting. Memory can get you thinking about why you remember this or that particular event, or why you might have forgotten certain things. Work with your memory. Write to show, illustrate, dramatise your experiences as well as to explore them. Try to discover more than you thought you knew.

^ Suggestions for Writing

Aim to make your experiences vivid and real to your readers. See where you can use close-up focus, finding the angle and approach that will reveal places and events in detail, moment by moment. Look again at how Sylvia Plath and Jack Kerouac focus on sensation in their writing, yet still need ideas to give it direction. Try to avoid taking your reader somewhere they already know. Take them to new places, emotionally, in terms of response, thoughts and ideas. This means being careful to avoid clichés and any sentimental reactions—the predictable. However moving your experience was to you, your readers will not appreciate this without the sense that your writing has opened doors, shown something new, fresh and surprising about the real world of our experience. Refuse the obvious. Take that extra step towards the real.

1 Writing about childhood. Think about memory, using focus and close-up. Build your writing around a starting point: an object, a person, a place, an encounter or event. You could choose something unusual, or quite ordinary and familiar. You must aim to make this person, object, event or place interesting to your readers, using narrative, dialogue (if appropriate), vividness of detail, and other features. A particular combination of sensations—sounds, smells, colours, voices—may be a useful trigger for your writing, a stimulus to your memory, a way into a forgotten experience. The experiences you describe here could be useful for fiction, but you need to approach your experience first as an adult looking back.

2 Ideas and Issues. All good personal narrative includes ideas; it's a way of making contact with your readers and holding their attention. Investigate one particular issue— local, national, global—that has affected you personally. The issue could involve gender politics, sexuality, or education, health issues, the law, social reform. It might involve solutions to a practical problem: housing, social benefits, traffic, pollution. You will need to describe your own experience, your story, in a way that illustrates the issue for your readers. You may need to do some research or to interview people with a similar (or slightly different) experience to your own. (See a related exercise in Chapter 6, Number 8, page 226.)

3 Turning Points. Explore a period of transition in your life. It may involve physical changes such as moving house, living in a different city or country, meeting new friends or losing old ones. You might tell the story of how you felt about a loss or bereavement, the end of a love affair, or the beginning of a new relationship. Again, you will need to develop insights, offer ideas, illustrate them with close-up detail, narrative and focus. To stimulate your writing you might make use of a still photograph or moving image film of a person or group. What was happening before and after? Who were you then? Who is no longer part of the group?

4 Journeys. Tell your story of an actual journey, short or long distance. It could be anywhere. (Eric Jackson's dawn rush happened near Redcar.) Or it could be a metaphorical journey—back to health, a readjustment of your sense of identity, reaching or failing to reach some goal that preoccupied you. Think about the meaning of this journey—not only for you but for any other people involved, your attitude, theirs. Write so that your readers will get to feel a sense of involvement.

5 Plural narratives. The main difference between this approach and the others listed above is that these are the stories put together by a group of people who share similar goals, values, ways of speaking and thinking, yet who might not see eye to eye about everything. What holds them together? What threatens to drive them apart? There's an opportunity here for comic and serious writing, social insight, recording of experience common to your contemporaries. This could be a group project, using research, interviews, sound and video recordings to reflect the experiences of friends, family, community, workforce, a team or a group sharing in one activity at a certain time and place: a gap-year experience of travelling together might be one example. The aim is to build a selected narrative record.

As you begin to develop your memoir, it may be that some of your ways of showing and illustrating your experience provide you with creative ideas for a short story, poem, or a piece of drama. Personal narrative can provide a good jumping-off point for working in other creative genres.

Revision and Editing

Look back at your whole piece. Have you made use of detailed focus, reality-effects? Have you used other ways of 'relating things well'? For example, speech and dialogue (if and when appropriate), vividness, the sense of a story being told, an appropriate tone— possibly like conversation but in well-written form with clear, strong sentence structure.

Does your writing contain ideas and themes, an attitude? If you achieve these it will mean that you and your readers are confident that your writing has found a forceful and definite aim: it is going somewhere.

Is your piece a narrative? Story-like qualities (events linked together—a reflection on a single, main event) will usually increase the impact of memoir writing. Does your piece lose touch with its narrative and, if so, can you revise and edit it to keep it on track?

One of your aims should be to get your readers to think, to have some new thoughts about an experience they may have shared. Keep them thinking right until the end of the final sentence.

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