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.
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.