This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
There really is something about travel writing. From James Baldwin’s masterful “Another Country,” originally published in 1962, to the more current example of Paul Theroux, we and the broader reader have long loved the comfortable escapism this niche genre requires. Getting to view a place, whether one we already love or have never set foot in, feels a bit magical. At least in my personal experience, it tends to embody everything I have always loved about reading: losing myself to a new world, discovering myself in that space between the lines.
For the past two weeks, I was in England and Wales with my partner. His family is originally from there and since we started dating (seven years this December) we’ve talked about making the pilgrimage to visit that side of his story. It was the first time he’d been back in six years, thanks to the pandemic. Though I’d been to London with my family before and visited other parts of Europe, I’d never been to these specific places. So my entire knowledge of what to expect depended on his memories from childhood: the favorite castles he visited; the Robin Hood playground he swore existed but showed up on no maps; the faint scars from scrambling up beach boulders with his brother. In other words, he was an unborn travel essay, and I his beta reader.
Traveling is a fantastic source of inspiration for writing because it can be so insular. The winding roads of memory and histories we pull from for larger memoir pieces — or attempt to disentangle from each other for the shorter personal essay — can find respite in the sidelines of our minds when we venture into travel writing. Not that it’s a necessity, but definitely a perk.
However, I’m reminded of two things right after I type that: this SNL skit of a Roman Tours travel service insisting that visitors’ problems will indeed follow them no matter the vacation, and “Les Calanques” by Melissa Febos.
In the essay, Melissa spends her time in Cassis haunted by her first trip to France and, thus, her twenty year old self. The cicadas around her rise and fall in obedience to the story’s tension. When she’s alone in the brisk early morning, their raucous shimmer is replaced with an eerie silence. Her heavy breathing post-run up one of the many calanques is matched in severity by the now awoken insects. The timelines beat against each other until they finally converge, head on with the cicadas.
While there seems to be a gentle hum of growth and change throughout the entire piece, the two distinct trips didn’t offer much in the way of astronomical-change-by-travel. The young Melissa hopes Paris will whip her clean of a heroin addiction, but it doesn’t. And the older Melissa comes to France eight weeks after a back spasm; her pain now manageable, but still: her body does not magically transform itself into something bright, shiny, and new, simply because the landscape is. In fact, alone in that first hostel, backpack shoved between her knees, it dawns on her: “It is a particularly crushing disappointment to realize, again, that your problem is yourself. The chasm of despair that I’d felt in New York was still with me, in me.”
On this trip to England, I tried to not focus on how I could turn the Liverpool buskers or Welsh rolling mountains into metaphors for some big personal change. In fact, I don’t feel changed post-travel, and believe nothing character defying occurred during the trip. At least, not that I’m recognizing now. Yes, I climbed — or rather crawled — a mountain in Snowdonia, but reaching the summit provided me no groundbreaking relief or transformation. I fell to my knees from exhaustion, sucked on one of the many clotted cream toffees littering Jonny’s backpack, and hyped myself up to make it back down.
I spent the trip enamored with my love for my partner, for his patience throughout the trip. I’m not always the easiest person to travel with thanks to my sometimes debilitating anxiety, but we met each day slowly and graciously, excited simply by being somewhere different. Maybe in a few years time, however, I will look back at these memories and discover within the cracks the start of a bigger piece. The haunting of some old me, or changed me, showing up in the hazy outlines of memories.
But I have been changed by travel before, and I have used it to fuel my writing. During a family trip to Italy a few summers ago, I had a horrible panic attack in the middle of hot, sweaty, packed Florence. It tore my body open and nearly ruined the entire trip. More specifically, it created a rift between me and the men of my family, who still bring up the experience as proof of my being a “bad traveler.” For another piece, the trip became about my Judaism and my attempts to discover where I fit inside the religion. Even small travels to Minnesota and Florida have influenced pieces. But now that I’m writing this, I realize perhaps not enough.
This blog post in reality is concerned with two very different types of travel essays and/or travel writing. Someone like Pual Theroux writes of the travel. The works by Melissa Febos and James Baldwin offer up a different interpretation (and I don’t think this is anything I’m making up). They more travel and then later, in hopes of figuring out what the heck happened there — or because they’re haunted by images of themselves there — write in the aftermath. Perhaps we don’t always yet know what the travel story is while we’re traveling, but need the patience to let it wash over us when something else, something entirely new, hurtles us backward in time, connecting the dots.