WriterFilter/JournoFilter: Tim Cahill Swallows. But How?
December 18, 2010 5:44 PM   Subscribe

How do working writers digest and dramatize their experiences into working literature (or some close proximity thereof) in such quick order?

Here's a rather vague question, which may end up being more philosophical in nature, than anything else. Brainhacks and genreal advice are very welcome, however.

I'm a traveler whom occasionally likes to stop and jot down his experiences. I've got a handful of great yarns which will some day enthrall the world.

In the meantime, however, the major problem that I'm having is that when I write about a recent story, it falls flat. I recall the events and there's is little pathos to my perspective and the entire recollection veers towards the style of a checklist, no matter how hard I try.

When I let a story digest, and recall it from memory or basic notes months later (I find that the sweet spot is about seven or eight months) it's positively stellar, by my standards. Or at the very least, it has a narrative and a beginning, middle & end.

How do I digest and re-contextulize recent events into entertaining stories at a faster rate, increasing my mental metabolism, as it were? How do working writers, especially in the travel writing industry, go about this?
posted by seansbrain to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If your goal is to render the events exactly as you experienced them, I'm not sure that you can redigest them at a faster rate; when the events are still so recent that you aren't yet sure if you've reached the end, or are still somewhere in the begining or middle, its impossible to write them down as though you know where you are. However, if what you're primarily interested in doing is creating entertaining and compelling fiction based upon your experiences, you need to create a narrative structure and select the details from your travels that fit within it. But this doesn't sound like what you're looking for in your original question.

I'm not a working travel writer, but why is 7 to 8 months too long to wait, especially if your work turns out to be great? Good writing tends to take a lot of time, even among those who are very practiced at it.
posted by wansac at 5:55 PM on December 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm guessing you need to leave stuff out. The checklist effect is probably from trying to stuff too much material (narrative, description, characters etc) into the story. The reason it works better after a few months is that you forget the stuff that isn't most poignant, interesting or relevant.

So you could try to artificially create this by imposing arbitrary restrictions on yourself. E.g. I am only allowed to include two characters in this story. Or only describe the location in five sentences, scattered throughout the narrative. And/or I am only allowed to write about three scenes (a scene being an event that occurs in a single location during a very short period of time, or a single conversation). Play with these sorts of conventions, and they should force you to choose the most interesting events, people and locations to describe. And they will also force you to decide which people, locations and events are representative in some way of the whole trip.
posted by lollusc at 5:55 PM on December 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The only time this becomes problematic is if you are writing a travel story for publication and need to verify the details in hopes that other travelers will visit those places and partake of similar experiences.

For instance I recently published a travel essay about a visit to a park in Agra, India. Except that in the intervening time between my experience and when I wrote the story down, either things have changed or my memory has embellished a little. It's also entirely possible that I misunderstood some of the details at the time. All of this meant that pinning down the bare facts to turn my essay into a travel guide was really complicated.

Aside from that? Most people who write memoir-based nonfiction embellish a little for the sake of telling a good yarn. The rock-bottom details are ultimately not that important.
posted by Sara C. at 6:19 PM on December 18, 2010

First, "I'm a traveler who" — not whom. I'd normally let this slide, but you say you want to write, so I'm calling you on it.

I'm not a travel writer, though I aspire to be one. Instead, I write about personal finance. That sounds dry, I know, but my most successful pieces are actually personal essays. For me, the best travel writing tends to be the same. So, I'm going to assume there are similarities.

For me to write an effective personal essay, I have to be aware that the story is happening to me in the moment. This used to be tough. After many years of writing, I've become more attuned to Significant Events, and can now spot them even as they start. For example, during a recent trip to Paris, my wife and I went out to wash our clothes at a laundromat. Mundane, right? But as soon as I walked in the door, I knew this was a Story.

When I sense that something might be significant, I become hyper aware of the situation. I listen to what people say (nobody in the laundromat speaks English and our French is poor, so they help us by gesturing and trying to find cognates!). I watch what they do (the young couple is arguing in whispers as they move their laundry from the washer to the dryer!). I note my own reactions to events (I'm baffled but also a little bit scared, which is odd because who would be scared in a laundromat?). I try to pick up on a few important details (the English instructions are hilarious: "soupline" for "soapline").

After the even happens, I do a brain dump as soon as possible. I learned long ago to carry a notebook and pen with me, so this isn't a problem. (Well, sometimes it's a problem. The other day, I had to borrow several business cards and a pen to do a braindump. It was embarrassing, but I'd rather be embarrassed than miss the "freshness" of the event.) For me, it's very important to do this brain dump right away because my emotions and impressions will still be raw and unfiltered. The longer I wait, the less oomph the braindump will have.

The last step is to do as you say: Let the story (and notes) sit for a period of time — a few days or weeks or months. Then, go back and (to use your term) re-contextualize to create a cohesive narrative. Sure, you'll have trouble remembering some stuff, but I think this is a generally accepted principle of personal memoir. You're recalling things from your perspective, and most intelligent readers understand that there's some embellishing and/or misremembering going on. (This doesn't mean you should make shit up, but it means it's okay to re-arrange the order unimportant things happened, for example, in order to improve narrative flow.)

So, your problem is that you want to get better at performing this last step more quickly, yes? My advice? Practice. In writing, there's never any substitute for practice. The more you write, the better you get. And the more you write in a specific style or using a specific technique, the better you get at that style or technique. So, practice practice practice. That's the key to all great writing.

This is actually a pet peeve of mine. I hear so many people say, "I want to be a writer but...". Or I read about "writers" who do everything but write. They read about writing, they take workshops, they offer opinions about the right and wrong ways to write, and so on. But they hardly ever write. You're not a writer unless you actually write. And the only way to write is to actually do it. (For more on this, see this great blog post from Kevin Anderson.) It doesn't matter how shitty your stuff is. It'll get better. The same is true with practicing any particular writing technique, including quick turnarounds on personal memoir. If you want to get better at it, then practice. Start making shitty attempts to tell your story a week after it happens instead several months. Eventually, you'll make it work.
posted by jdroth at 6:51 PM on December 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

After the even[t] happens, I do a brain dump as soon as possible. I learned long ago to carry a notebook and pen with me, so this isn't a problem.

I find that informal blogging is a great way to infodump. In fact, I came to travel writing via a casual blog I kept mainly for my mother's benefit while I was backpacking around Asia.

This is, however, different from Having A Travel Blog for the purposes of personal branding and building a portfolio. Which is something I'm trying to figure out now, because it's probably semi-embarrassing to have my name attached to all these pieces which are basically infodumps for articles I end up writing later. Maybe a travel LiveJournal would be better.
posted by Sara C. at 6:56 PM on December 18, 2010

Two data points. A well respected Oz based international major daily newspaper travel writer who reviewed our accommodation venue took three months to get his 800 words down on paper. He was a really nice guy and kept in touch with us about the progress of the publication of his review/story (not mentioning that he was waiting out the story's gestation while sojourning through Iceland, Vanuatu, Brazil...). A week after his last call it was published.

Helen Garner, a respected Oz novelist and biographer of events takes notes all the time and keeps them in little notebooks not unlike Bruce Chatwin. It may take a few years for a few months of notes to coalesce into a book.

In other words, let your mind work at its own pace.

However, if you are really keen on speeding up the process, here's what I teach
*Buy packs of index cards and a pack of ballpoints/pencils you really like.
*Go through your notes once a week/month and add to your notes on index cards. Flesh out the story with your gestated insights and memories. You also have to cultivate the subtle memories as well as the intense especially those which may be lost if you don't understand their insightfulness immediately. Actively cogitate.
*Whenever you want, or three months after starting (whichever comes first), sort your cards to ascertain if you have an energetic and engaging story structure and drive amongst them.

Is your delay related to the '?' section in the above?
posted by Kerasia at 1:37 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all fantastic feedback. Thanks for the advice, folks.
I think things skewed a bit more towards advice to a total amateur, rather than my present situation of being a partial amateur (smiley emoticon.)
Yes, I even got schooled in my objective cases. I'm still blushing.
Cheers to self-imposed restrictions and just writing the damn things until they start coming out good.
I'm intend to go cogitate as soon as I finish writing this. I intend to use both hands. We'll worry about the profit part later. Right now I just want to get it down on the paper in the most engaging way possible, preferably with a timely turnaround.

I really appreciate all of this. A huge thanks to everyone on here.
posted by seansbrain at 9:38 AM on December 19, 2010

This might be too practical an answer to your philosophical question, but this is what I think. (I'm coming from the place of someone who has written a lot of travel stuff, published a little tiny bit of it, and read a ton about both the creative and business side because I really want to publish more in the future.)

If you have an assignment when you leave, you also have a deadline, so you write the thing on time because you have to. If you haven't queried before your trip and intend to write it up later, either for yourself or as an essay to be submitted, then does it really matter? Personally I like to write things as soon as I can, because the memories are fresher and it's easier for me to capture the place, both the general atmosphere and little details. Despite taking notes I tend to doubt myself if I wait too long (was that building really red, or was it pink? did I really see a bison? etc.) I also tend to want to submit things as soon as I can, because that would mean a paycheck! But that's just me. If you happen to do your best writing after you've had months to ponder, then I don't think that's bad. Although it is limiting, if you want to do the kind of writing that involves deadlines and you can't handle them.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:45 AM on December 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

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