Is a Travel Memoir Really a Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

When I started studying memoirs, my original focus were the conventional ones like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” or Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” At first, I didn’t understand why some travel books were sold as memoirs. Travel books weren’t about the author’s childhood, and they included a lot of journalistic descriptions of the places they were traveling through. And yet I realized they were first person accounts that let me get inside the author’s point of view and see the world.

To understand more about what goes into a travel memoir. I read a few like Doreen Orion’s travel memoir, “Queen of the Road,” and Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now.” I’ve also dabbled in others like Tom Coyne’s walk around Ireland recounted in “A Course Called Ireland” and Rosemary Mahoney’s solo trip in Egypt, “Down the Nile Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff.”

Based on my research, I decided travel books indeed could be considered as a sort of memoir. In fact, in my perfect world, the book store would have a whole bank of memoirs and autobiographies, including sub-sections for Coming of Age, Overcoming Hardship, and Travel memoirs, to name a few. Here are a few of the features of travel memoirs you might consider when reading your next one, or planning your own.

On the road alone means inside your mind

Travel provides the fascinating unfolding, as places appear in the distance, come closer, and then whiz by, fading into the past. From this perpetual flow of locations, comes a variety of outer experience.

And while the miles disappear under the tire, hull, or shoe, the protagonist’s main activity is… nothing. With nothing to do but move your body from A to B, traveling is a sort of meditation in its own right, providing the protagonist ample time to reflect. That’s what Bob Pirsig did in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and when Mark Richardson road his motorcycle along the same path, he too reflected about life in “Zen and Now.”

Since Doreen Orion is traveling with her husband in an RV she has other options. She can read, or banter with her husband. Considering she is a psychiatrist, I wonder if her absence of introspection is a sort of subterranean irony, a feature I have noticed throughout Orion’s entertaining approach to her material.

Wrestling with your Stuff

Traveling raises all sorts of issues about stuff. First you have make a list of what to take, buy what you need, and then pack your luggage. You have to store it somewhere and lug it along. Sometimes you can’t fit much. On his motorcycle ride, Mark Richardson could only bring a couple of pairs of underwear. When he stopped in a motel, he methodically unpacked his saddlebags, including motorcycle repair tools. Then the next morning, he packed them up again. At the other extreme, Doreen Orion packed her luxury RV with all sorts of amenities, such dozens of pairs of shoes. But even she had limits. One day she jumped in the tagalong SUV and went shopping, and when she tried to put the purchases away, she realized she had run out of room for her stuff.

Describe the people you meet

During travel, you meet people, and these meetings add character to the journey. Richardson tells about the small town girl working in the motel, and the Russian couple who own it. He describes other bikers he meets at stops, and he looks up some of the same people who had met with Pirsig during the original ride. He even stops in a town and speculates about which tree Pirsig and his son might have sat under, and asks some of the locals to help him figure it out, while Orion chats up the other campers at the RV parks – neighbors for a night.

Focus on your vehicle (boat, feet, RV, motorcycle)

In “Zen and Now” Mark Richardson focuses in detail on his motorcycle. This is a neat trick that emulates Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Both motorcyclists do an excellent job of showing how their world has collapsed down to their vehicle and the stretch of road they are on right now. By describing the motorcycle they let you feel intimately connected with their contracted world. Doreen Orion also showed us her small world by bringing inside the cab of her luxury RV in “Queen of the Road.”

Journalistic accounts of the world

In the musical “Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews walks along a country road with the kids, and suddenly they all burst into song. It’s entertaining, albeit a little out of place. Something similar takes place in a travel memoir, when the author decides to insert a little background description about something they are seeing. My quirkiest example is in Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road.” In a night club she visited with her husband, a girl performed a clog dance. Orion included a brief history of clog dancing. Not your typical memoir material, but it worked as a lovely way to pass the time in her company. Of course, the scenery, the towns, and the people are all fodder for the writer’s research, should they choose to add a few details about the world they are moving through.

Getting there and back is a perfect container for a story

The whole purpose of a good story is to portray a sort of journey, that takes the protagonist as well as the reader from the beginning of the book to the end. Travel memoirs turn this into a literal journey from one geographical location to another. When you insert your experience into travel, you allow your reader to go along with you as you prepare, pack, and go forth from your home. Leaving your familiar world behind, you enter a new world with different rules and make progress through obstacles. This allows for the curiosity and adventure of discovery, as well as the contrast with the familiar. At the end, you complete the journey, providing the appropriate metaphorical as well as circumstantial ending.

By breaking the protagonist out of the daily grind, travel memoirs still provide plenty of room for an inner journey, too. Under the stress of confusing situations, or the tedium of the passing miles, or the curiosity of new observations, travelers discover new things about themselves. As the outer miles go by, the inner journey is also underway, making the travel memoir an excellent framework for writing about life.

Notes

For discussion about some of the classic memoirs, see my essay, “Why so many memoirs about dysfunctional childhood?

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

19 thoughts on “Is a Travel Memoir Really a Memoir?

  1. Try reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charly”. This is the story of his trip all around America in a camper with his dog Charly. Excellent writing and quite funny.

    Steve

  2. Thanks for the comments, Steve and Chas.

    Yes, I read Travels with Charlie years ago, and I can still remember his warm relationship with his dog, and some really good laughs. I ought to read this again someday, and see how it fits in with the current wave of memoir writing.

    Jerry

  3. One of the most fascinating observations I have seen in travel memoir comes from Dayton Duncan’s Out West, which follows the path west that Lewis and Clark had traveled 200 years earlier. Once he gets to the Pacific, he remembers he has to go back home, and his personal, physical trip becomes a metaphor for life generally and for the progress of America itself. He sees for the first time that “we [as Americans] are still trying to come to grips with the realization that the journey out gets us only halfway to a final destination.”

    After talking about American initiative and knowhow, Duncan makes this sobering observation: “We have pushed forward relentlessly, with great things to accomplish and in a rush to get there and do them. Our national Road Rule has been to proceed on, to keep moving and never stop unless there was no alternative. . . . Then we hit the coast, the frontier closed. We had to turn back, and turning back is a new and different national experience. Success and progress have been defined by moving on; turning back was failure. ”

    The amazing thing about all travel literature is that in moving from point A to point B the writer can carry us from mental point A to mental point B and give us the tools for our own progression through life.

  4. Thanks Gene. I love that Dayton Duncan’s memoir follows Lewis and Clark, analogous to the way Mark Richardson followed Robert Pirsig. It sounds like a terrific technique for a memoir writer. And for a memoir reader provides all kinds of multi-dimensional tools to get insights through a series of historical reflections. Now let’s see. Whose journey should I follow when I write my memoir…

  5. I am the author of the newly released “Travel Absurdities” which is full of recollections of my travels from the age of nine to now, at 60. It is a memoir about humorous mishaps that happened to me along the way. Through my writing I try to tell others about the small world we live in, for instance; my daughter found something that belonged to me when I lived in Washington State and she discovered it in Turkey. I share the oddities of bathrooms around the world, how our food appears to others and much more. Hopefully my book will spark a little “Nomadity” in others or just let them, as armchair travelers, experience some of the world.

    Thanks for letting me share my view of why we write travel memoirs as well as discriptions. I think when you talk travel you have to discribe somethings in detail.

  6. Jerry, according to my Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, “A memoir is a record of events based on the writer’s personal observation.” That’s exactly what I did in my travel/memoir book “Memoirs of an American Housewife in Japan.” I write about my experience living in rural Japan, 75 miles northwest of Tokyo, the people, their homes, their educational system, their social customs, my humorous faux pas committed due to my ignorance, my travels inside Japan and other fascinating Far Eastern countries such as Malaysia, Southern China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. I write in detail about my personal experience in these countries. I leave the lodging and food to Fodor’s travel books. Thanks for letting me set the record straight, at least in my view.

  7. My memoir is about my travels through South America as a fresh-faced 19 year old in the early 70’s. Thanks for this article; it’s so true and very helpful.
    And waves at Jerry Waxler!

  8. Thanks for the waves, Sharon. I’m glad you find the site useful. It sounds like your travels coincided with your coming of age, which also coincided with crazy times in our culture. I can’t wait to read it.

    Jerry

  9. I’ve been reading more of your blog, and I find there are several parallels in our lives; I too dropped out and, after a trip to India, back in again! People tend to think of India as th eplace where people totally let go of reality; for me it was the opposite.

  10. Thanks, again, for reading the blog, Sharon. That’s what it’s here for. Over the three years since I started, I have lost track of how much about myself I’ve written, since my emphasis is on helping readers write their own. So I’m actually fascinated to learn that you know I went to India, naturally a prominent feature in my memoir-in-progress. Well, your comment gets to the heart of the sixties – the whole 60’s idea of dropping out was so darn impractical, and yet, there were many lessons that were learned during those attempts at reinventing reality. I just heard an interview on television yesterday (chairman of Xerox Corp.) about how the boomers were often seen as self-involved, but maybe over the next couple of decades we’ll find ways of giving back. Certainly telling our stories is one way to do that. Jerry

  11. Andrew,
    After receiving comments, I often go to check out their authors. I enjoyed discovering your website, and Amazon reviews, and as a result am ordering one of your memoirs. I am also fascinated by your earlier acclaimed memoir, Catfish and Mandala about your bicycle trip through Vietnam, and hope (wish) to have time to read that too. Vietnam played an important role in my life, since I tried to hurl myself against the machine that was creating the war. Now, in my passion for memoirs, I have hurled myself with equal vigor into the search for wisdom. Books about those periods, written from other people’s points of view, are giving me a more complete understanding than I ever dreamed I would be able to achieve. If you are interested, check out my other travel related essays. Click here for one about a bicycle ride through Vietnam by a group of war veterans in this essay.
    Jerry

  12. P.S. In answer to your question about travel memoirs in general, I suppose they started from the beginning. Any time someone wrote about their travels, for example Herodotus or Marco Polo, it became a travelogue. Perhaps the thing that differentiates a travelogue from a memoir is that during a memoir, the character learns and grows. The protagonist in a memoir has a character arc. Click here to see my essays on Japan took the JAP out of me by Lisa Steinberg-Cook. It’s a great example of such a memoir .

  13. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Jerry. I enjoyed reading about that ride by those vets.

    And thank you for your kind words, Jerry, and for addressing the question. I’ll put it to my students. We’ve been debating the term “travel memoir” for some time.

    Cheers,

    Andrew X. Pham

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