The Art of Travel Writing

I’m the most undisciplined person when it comes to writing. Oh I have mad dreams of making it one day as a fiction writer (now that’s embarrassing to admit) but that big story yet untold is hibernating in my head. OK, maybe it’s more than hibernating. It’s probably in some coma.

But signed up I did for Beth Yahp’s travel writing workshop. In fact, I believe I could have been one of the very first eager beavers to send her a cheque.

The first workshop began last Saturday, with another happening tomorrow. Held at the YMCA, the course brought an eclectic bunch of us wannabe writers together – a doctor, a paratrooper-turned-engineer, a retiree, engineers from a local MNC, a business consultant and two entrepreneurs. We were there because we loved writing and wanted to learn how to tell a better story.

Beth is a thoughtful teacher. She wanted us to think before we put pen to paper. She asked 2 questions at the start – “Why I write?” and “Why I travel?”.We had each 5 minutes to scribble down our reasons for writing and travelling. The questions forced me to look inside myself and be honest.

You want to know my reasons? I write because I want to share. I want it to be a legacy to my children (not that I have any right now) and my children’s children. It’s a record of my life and my identity. It’s probably the same reason why I blog.

After such brutal soul-searching, Beth started us off with some writing exercises which forced us to think about our senses. For instance, she asked us to describe “moonlight to someone who had lived underground all their lives and never been to the surface” or “nasi lemak to someone with no mouth”.

To say the 9 of us were stumped is an understatement. Our jaws dropped. The first thing we all thought of (with wrinkled and furrowed brows knit in confusion)….errr, how ah?

That was just the beginning! Next came even more workshopping exercises. This was not going to be the usual-I-teach-you-listen workshop. It was a real hands-on, no-holds barred type.

We had to write about a place we had travelled to, complete with the sights, sounds and smells. It was to have description, dialogue and action – that constituted a ‘scene’. This could be the first part of a story so it had to hook interest and grab the reader by the jugular.

Once we wrote our piece, we had to read it aloud in front of everyone and then sit back, zip our mouths shut and wait for their individual critique of our work!

Initially it was nerve-wracking. Would these strangers be kind to me? Or would they deride my piece? Thankfully we were all newbies and did not bash each other’s pieces up. We had to be constructive in our feedback.

I loved the exercises we did during the workshop as it showed me that I was inadequate when it came to certain sensory description of experiences.

I learnt that I wasn’t very observant – and a writer has to be able to observe and re-construct a place, a time and an experience if the story is to be told successfully and realistically (if you want to know what observant is, read Robert Raymer’s blog. He’s deft with description).

We were told to keep a writer’s journal for a week to record what our five senses experienced but in ways that showed we were alive to the experience. This helps sharpen our senses and our ways of seeing, as writers. Otherwise we would not be able to re-create that time and place for our readers. That’s why certain stories fail to captivate.

I’ve been disciplined about keeping my eyes and ears open for the writer’s journal. Journalling for 20 minutes each day and describing people and places is a difficult task. It’s hard to put it into words sometimes. And hell, I write for a living. It shows the more I know, the more I don’t know!

If you have a chance to take a writing workshop, go all out for it. It will change the way you write (of course) but it will also open your senses to the world. I think I’ve become more mindful of what I do each day (mindfulness is also exhorted in Buddhism). Being mindful means living from moment to moment and living in that moment.

0 thoughts on “The Art of Travel Writing

  1. writing renders solitude spaces for thinking, disgesting and re-evaluating ideas in our mind. To know that there are such workshops offered out there is truly inspiring. I believe once we have learnt the basics of writing, it is then for us alone to reconstruct and create our own writing identity. We write with many things/people around us in mind and the experiences that come with it (i.e. the senses exercises), then the art of writing gradually turns inwards…I do believe writing is a lonely journey, at times. Nonetheless, amidst the company of writer friends who share the same passion will be the most rewarding…

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