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I originally wrote this article for the June 2006 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the book links at the bottom of the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can purchase the books. -Terrell

Better Write It Down

I know you all are getting ready for your summer trips. We’ve been talking to customers who’ve got some amazing things planned: motorcycling across America, renting a house in Tuscany, sailing along the coast of Turkey with six women who recently turned fifty. I’ve just got one request. Please write it down. Keeping a journal of your trip is a gift to yourself. It preserves your memories, records details you may want to look up later, reminds you of what you were thinking at a particular moment in your life. It can also be a gift to future generations. On a recent trip to Dallas, I found a little book on my mother’s shelf I had never noticed before. It turned out to be my great-grandmother’s diary from a trip she took to Europe and Constantinople in 1915. Being rather a grand dame, she had copies printed for friends and family and one fortunately found its way to my mother’s library and now to mine. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be able to read the thoughts of this woman who shares my name—she was a Terrell too—and who I never had a chance to meet.

            

Ready to write? Great, I thought you would be. Now let’s talk a little about what makes a good journal, the kind your grandkids will really want to read. Here are a few pointers I’ve picked up from reading great-grandmother’s diary.

Make it personal. Although I enjoyed reading the descriptions of famous monuments, my favorite parts of the diary are when she records her own reactions to things. Her raptures on the colors of the sea near Greece and her thoughts on Italian agriculture make both her trip and herself real and vivid to me. Be sure you put in not just what you saw but what you thought about what you saw.

Detail, detail, detail. I loved reading about the things grandmother probably thought were totally unimportant. The kind of carriage they drove in Istanbul, the names of the hotels, the number and speed of cars (a fairly new innovation) in Paris, going to the American Express office to pick up mail and read the papers from home. Even though these things were ordinary to her, they’re fascinating history to me.

Avoid the laundry list. Grandmother was a renowned art collector. One of my favorite passages in the diary is when she expresses the hope that the little gallery she started with friends in Dallas might someday resemble the museums of France and Italy. That gallery is now the Dallas Museum of Art. Unfortunately, she also feels compelled to collect art in this diary with pages of listings of artworks she saw as she traveled. I know it was thrilling to her, but it makes for dull reading now. If you want to make a list, make it an appendix.

What does it mean? Many people have noted that travel provides an opportunity for insights into your own feelings and beliefs. Fortunately, grandmother recorded some of her insights in her little book. I was proud to read that my grandmother was welcoming of the immigrant steerage passengers on the homeward bound ship, wishing them success in America. I was touched by the depth of her feeling for family when she talks about her little granddaughters. And I was a little shocked by her attitude toward the Turks, product of a classical education that she was. All of these introspective passages really give this little book significance by transmitting her beliefs across the years.

Journals aren’t just for grownups, you know. Getting your kids to write while traveling might be tough but what a gift it can be to their adult selves. On this same trip to Dallas, I also recovered the diary that my eleven-year-old father kept (at my grandmother’s insistence) during his family’s 1928 cruise around the world. The handwriting is terrible—he did grow up to be a doctor after all—and the spelling is atrocious, but the memories of exploring the Parthenon, seeing the newly discovered King Tut’s coffin, visiting temples in Colombo and Rangoon, and climbing volcanoes in Hawaii are amazing and precious. Make it a fun project by adding photographs, souvenir tidbits and drawings. My dad’s diary includes a photograph of the captain of the ship, a map showing the route they sailed and a piece of python skin from the petting zoo in Singapore where he had his picture taken holding a lion cub. Too cool.

               

 

A note on the electronic age. Many travelers these days rely on modern media to record their thoughts. Nadia documented her travels in India last winter with a series of vivid and enthralling emails sent to friends and family. Ron’s walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago last spring is recorded on the blog he and friend Ryan kept with photos and entries uploaded almost daily and space for friends to post comments. These are, of course, terrific ways to keep a journal but by their very nature, fleeting and impermanent. I encourage you to make hard copies of your electronic diaries. The blog space will disappear, the computer files may crash, and who knows what kind of media our computers will be able to read in 2095. If you want your great-granddaughter to be thrilled by the discovery of your travel diary, you’d better write it down.

May we recommend…

  • Paperbank’s Slim Bleu Japanese-bound silk covered blank book ($12.95)
    Nadia’s favorite journal

  • Moleskine’s Cahiers set of 3 lined paperback journals ($11.95)
    Looks like I finally found something better than my beloved composition notebooks

  • Mudpuppy’s My Travel Journal ($10.00)
    Just for kids

  • Travel Writing by L. Peat O’Neil ($14.99)
    This book is intended for people who want to write professionally but it has great tips for improving your journaling skills.