I feel like I should start this post with the words “and now for something completely different.” You see, although I’ve been blogging for six years and although I’ve always primarily considered myself a writer (and very secondarily a travel expert and photographer) I’ve never really engaged in the meta process on my site of writing about my writing.
If you come to The Mother of all Trips only to get my stories or tips about family travel, feel free to pass up this post. But if you’re curious and would like a behind-the-scenes tour of what makes my writing tick and what I’ve got planned hopefully this post will illuminate that for you.
(I’ve also included some more photos from my trip to Scotland, mostly as window dressing, but also because they show what and how I see and also the beauty I’m hoping to routinely capture in words here.)
Why write about writing?
I was invited to write this post by a new online friend of mine, an extraordinary woman who came into my life via Facebook and has lodged herself squarely in my imagination and day-to-day work.
I’ve never met Amy Gigi Alexander and can’t tell you what her voice sounds like or what it’s like to break bread with her. But I do know her writing, which is utterly original and inspired, a beautiful combination of travel stories and memoir. This is true not only on her website but also on social media where she can tell a meaningful story with such grace and economy of language that her Facebook statuses have been known to bring me to tears.
Gigi as she likes to be called is the one who invited me share my writing again, who woke me from the sleep of doubt, and who asked me to write this post and answer the questions that follow. How could I refuse such an invitation?
What am I working on/writing?
Isn’t this is the sixty-four-dollar question? I have a long list of stories that I want to share here and I’m constantly adding to it. Whether or not I can be said to be working on these stories is another question (see my notes on my writing process below). I’m constantly tossing them around in my head, seeing what lands on the top of the pile, and then asking myself if anyone else wants to read them.
Among the stories I’m hoping to write about in the coming months:
- The tale of the elderly, yarmulke-wearing shop owner who accosted us on Orchard Street in Manhattan as he has surely been doing for generations and his father before him. He showed photos of his grandchildren on his phone and then tried to lure my husband into buying a suit.
- How I communed with my father’s spirit in Maine last summer and watched my children build fairy houses on an island that also has its own share of ghosts and sad stories to tell.
- A meditation on the perils of daytripping with tweens and also the blessing and curse of portable electronic devices.
- The story of a 40-something woman traveling solo after more than a decade of family travel (for this story to be written, I’ll actually have to take a solo trip).
I don’t have any bigger projects going at the moment. I finished a book last year (learn more about it here) and since that time have not embarked on any big writing projects. But lately I’ve also been thinking about pulling out the draft of the narrative book about traveling with a toddler I wrote over a decade ago and exploring the possibility of recycling some of its content in a book of essays about traveling with children as they grow.
How does my writing differ from others in its genre?
I hope that what sets the Mother of all Trips apart, and what has always set it apart, is that it offers the kinds of tips and advice that busy parents want and need when they are planning a trip or learning to take a toddler to a museum but also (and to me the key lies almost entirely in the “but also”) tells stories to bring these tips alive.
This matters to me because it is the type of writing that I myself like to read. I believe in the power of stories more than anything else – I have learned so much by following the example of others before me. I like to imagine that my stories are part of a larger fabric without end, like something on a huge loom. The stories trail on the floor, brilliant colors, but its impossible to make out what’s coming next as the pattern routinely changes.
There are many ways I try to go about sharing these stories that I hope distinguishes them in the middle of this gorgeous cloth. I try to inspire without intimidating. I try to be conversational and maybe occasionally funny. I try to imbue my descriptions with gorgeous language (I love words intensely) to make the places I have been vivid. I try to share small moments, the many moments that make up childhood and parenthood, and show how precious they are. I try to move my readers so that they too believe in possibility – maybe not the same possibility as my own, but something that is beyond what they knew they could do that morning when they got out of bed.
Whether I succeed is a matter of opinion.
Why do I write the way I do?
I have always felt compelled to share the story of things that are happening to me. Not because I think that I am so interesting or my life so worthy of note but because the world around me has always seemed wondrous and because I want others to see it that way as well. That’s why travel writing has proved such a perfect genre for me.
I also want, as I believe all good writers want, to use my own specific experience and relationships to illuminate our common humanity. So when I write about visiting places with my children, I may describe that place and what we ate and did. But I’m also writing about parenting, about being a child to my own parents, about relationships and how we connect to each other and the world around us.
That’s all nice to say of course, and lofty as a goal. But when one is writing primarily about one’s own experience, self-indulgence is a big pitfall and one I’m sure I’ve fallen into on more than one occasion. That’s why blogging has proved almost the perfect medium for me because it forces me to think always about my audience, which unlike in print can interact with me directly. I can tell when I’ve struck a chord because my readers tell me so. In many ways it has shaped me as a writer and has helped me find a distinct voice.
It’s also brought me the discipline of writing regularly, which, as I think the next section will demonstrate, is something I needed.
How does my writing process work?
When I first saw this question, I thought I absolutely knew the answer – I fool myself. I sit down at my computer and plunge in, as if into a cold bath, before I know what I’m about, and emerge spluttering with paragraphs of text in front of me. I don’t necessarily start at the beginning, just wherever I’m feeling brave enough to begin, which means I often write the last paragraphs first.
And this answer isn’t wrong, just incomplete. Because in fact I’m almost always thinking about writing, in particular when I’m working on a piece that means a great deal to me or one that is giving me trouble. I think about structure, tease out descriptions of people and places (Was there dandruff on the shoulders of his dusty black coat? How did those rocks feel beneath my feet?), and even write entire sentences in my mind while I’m driving to baseball practice or washing dishes or doing the many other domestic things that my life demands of me.
A better and more disciplined writer than I would undoubtedly stop and take notes at these moments and sometimes I try to do this. But more often than not these thoughts go into a mental file where I can pull them out when I sit down to work. I’ve gotten surprisingly good at doing this –too good I sometimes think, as occasionally the details are elusive or I forget the exact turn of phrase I had intended to use.
I’d like to say this “process” of mine is a function of my life circumstance – busy mother trying to juggle writing with a million other tasks – but the truth is that I’ve almost always written that way. I did it in graduate school when I had nothing but time, and I do it now twenty years later. I buy myself notebooks, tell myself I’m going to capture impressions, keep journals, and they sit mostly blank. Perhaps I should admit that I’m not going to change but I am human and so stubbornly deny my own immutability.
One final note
This piece was supposed to be part of a “Blog Hop” where I share the names of other writers who then continue the theme on their own sites. But I will be honest – I felt shy about asking the writers I really admire to participate because I haven’t been taking myself seriously as a writer. In addition, some of the friends I know who I’d be most likely to ask are already participating via different connections.
Although I am sometimes paid for what in the travel industry is called “service writing” – pieces that offer tips or how-tos or reviews – I am yet to be paid for narrative writing by any print or online publication. Most of what I consider my meaningful writing is self-published here on this site. And during the past year, I’ve published much less of that more thoughtful writing. My site has grown a layer of dust, as I started to question whether I really was meant to be a serious writer at all.
But Gigi’s presence in my online life came like a bit of sunlight into those dark thoughts, opening me up to the possibility that maybe all I need to do is start writing and sharing once more. So instead of passing up the opportunity I decided to put this piece it out into the universe, without the “hop” element.
However, I will make a blog circle with some of the other writers who have participated, many of whom I know and admire from near and afar. Let’s start with Ellen Barone, who originated the Blog Hop idea and who writes beautifully about her own process on her site The Internal Traveler.
And then there’s Lola Akimade, who not only is one of my writing and photography heroes, but one of the nicest, most humble people I’ve ever met. Visit her site to read her insights on writing but also to drink in her award-winning photography.
Leigh Shulman is a glorious writer. She also is committed to helping others find and share their voices. She offers a host of writing help on her site The Future is Red including prompts and tutorials on how to pitch to editors. I loved reading about her process.
Finally, there’s Amy Gigi Alexander, brave and fierce and wise, a woman who has been around the world and seems to have observed every person she has ever met with care and exactitude. I recommend her stories to you utterly without reservation.