Travel Memoirs and Sailing Ships

Nobbys LighthouseOfficially, I have written four drafts of my travel memoir.

Unofficially? When you add up the re-written bits and pieces, the number is probably closer to forty. As I prepare to fine-tune my proposal and query letter for the next round of agent-hunting, the doubts once again settle in.

What if this is crap?

The word ‘I’ appears an awful lot in this manuscript.

There must be a better way to open the first chapter.

etc, etc.

At some stage, of course, you have to tell those doubts to shut up and get lost. I am able to do this – not always easily – but I know enough about my writing process by now to know that I’m not writing for everyone else, I’m writing because I can’t not. I’m also not doing it to produce a perfect work, though it took me a long time to accept that fact.

What I do still struggle with is the concern that my story’s ship has sailed. Is the sense of discovery that comes with solo travel still strong enough to create narrative tension? Technology has made the world small; even if you’ve never been to a place, it’s much easier to imagine what it might be like. Details that used to be a mystery until arrival are now accessible instantly through Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, and travel blogs.

The influx of blogs about young people finding themselves through travel is no longer revolutionary, and has not been for a while. Many of us can now reference someone we know who quit their job, sold their stuff, and took off to see the world.

My story is not quite that story, but it is not that far off. It’s the story of a white, middle class woman from Indiana who spent her 20s traveling in search of the perfect job only to realize (through a series of largely avoidable missteps) that identity and career are not the same thing at all.

It’s undeniably a story, and one I am personally fond of, but the question remains: is this a story that needs to be told? I have been living with this book in its various iterations for over a decade, and I worry that it has gone stale on the shelf. That it has melted into the books that came before it and will come after it, a pointless exercise in detailed journaling.

I am so far removed from the person I was at the beginning of my travel memoir that it’s easy to forget what it was like to be her: nervous, excited, ambitious. It’s easy to forget that every year there are young women graduating from university and preparing to take their first nervous steps into the future, women who are hungry for stories that reflect their own.

Newcastle Harbour

Sometime last year I received an email from a reader. She had recently graduated from a university in the Midwest and was contemplating her own working holiday in Australia. I gave her the advice I always give, which is go. If you are in a position to go, then go.

In January of 2016 I received another email from the same reader (Hi Hannah!); she was in Sydney on a working holiday visa. A few months later our schedules dovetailed, and she came up to Newcastle for a night.

We went for a beer at the Grain Store and we talked about her experience so far; she told me how this working holiday had already snowballed into more travel plans beyond Australia, and how excited she was that this was just the beginning. She was aware of how much she had to look forward to, and her enthusiasm was contagious.

Hannah was more focused than I was at 22. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do yet, but she was actively considering options and asking thoughtful questions, such as what I actually did on a day-to-day basis. She was aware that it might sound exciting to work in international marketing, but that the reality could actually be quite different.

As I talked to Hannah, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was talking to a version of myself from 12 years ago. (A version of myself that was unlikely to veer into serious debt over the next decade, but a version of myself nonetheless.) It was almost eerie, the way her words mirrored ones that had come out of my own mouth years before.

Some of her friends and family had expressed doubts about her ability to succeed on her own in another country, just as some of mine had. Others thought it was crazy, taking off for the bottom of the world when the sensible thing was to take your degree and go secure yourself a job with healthcare.

Yet there I was, sitting in front of her, proof that even if you veer from the conventional path, there’s a pretty good chance that things will work out just fine. In fact, they might not look all that different: I have a steady job, a husband, a house, just as I might have if I’d stayed in Indy.

What I also have, though, is an unrelenting wanderlust. A knowledge that where I am now is likely not where I’ll be in five years’ time. Pursuing that feeling has given me the confidence to walk away from a situation that doesn’t work because I trust myself enough to know that I have the tools to figure it out. I had to earn that confidence (thanks, largely avoidable missteps), but I’m grateful that I eventually did.

Newcastle CBD Panoramic

What do you say, then, when you come face-to-face with a reminder of your younger self? I said good luck and have fun because Hannah didn’t need direction from me. She’ll live her own story, just as I lived mine. It might be similar, it might not, but it’s a story worth telling either way.

When we said goodbye, she was the one who gave me advice, whether she meant to or not:

Keep writing. Seriously, keep writing.

It was what I needed to hear. I may write more drafts of my book. They may be great; they may be crap. I may never get an agent; I may self-publish. Either way, I’ll keep writing.

A lot can happen to a ship once it sets sail. It may sink; it may come back to where it started; it may crash into a beach; it may glide gracefully into port. While it is still afloat, though, the possibilities remain endless.

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  1. I totally know how you feel. Have you read Big Magic yet? I know Mom said she was going to give it to you-it talks about some things that address a lot of the stuff you mention-I found it helpful!

  2. Lauren I get these feelings all the time too! I wonder sometimes why I even write in a blog. Are my posts even that interesting?! Does anyone really care?!

    I think you are totally right that we need to write for ourselves and no one else and not worry about producing a perfect work. Thanks for the reminder and definitely keep writing. Can’t wait to read that book!

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