On Travel and the Writing Life
Whether from nature, nurture, or a combination of both, I was probably destined to travel. My father grew up during the Depression watching the planes fly overhead as he picked cotton on the family farm in Arkansas, wondering where those planes went. At 17, he joined the Navy, sailed to the Far East, and never looked back.
And, as soon as she got her degree from Appalachian State University, my mom loaded up her car and drove to Florida to accept a teaching job—much to the shock of the small North Carolina community she’d been raised in. When we were growing up, my dad managed to save at least one or two weeks of his vacation time so our family could travel up and down the East coast in our pop-up camper. So it’s no surprise that I enjoy traveling to new places.
Still, when I moved to South Korea to teach abroad for a year at the age of thirty one, no one, especially me, knew that one year would turn into twelve. I stayed for many reasons; I loved my job teaching at Korean university, the pay and time off was plentiful—but even more than that, I became addicted to travel, which I did for months on end.
Now that I live in less exotic (but just as interesting) Chattanooga, Tennessee, I still love to travel, not because it’s fun (which it often is) or that it expands my horizons (which it does), but because I believe traveling makes me a better writer.
I’m not alone in this thought. Travel across the country, from city to country, to Europe or even farther has been considered a rite (or should I say “write”) of passage for many writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Baldwin, and Cheever. These days, bestselling memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love use travel as journey for self-discovery. The best thing travel does for me and my writing is to broaden my sense of the world and its possibilities. Even if I never write a short story or novel about my three weeks in Mongolia, for example, I’m sure my memories of staying in a yurt, the enduring the pervasive smell of mutton, and feeling the sand of the Gobi desert in my hands have indelibly affected the way I see the world and write about it.
Because of my love of Thailand, I decided to center much of my debut novel, The Life Plan, in that country. Unlike me, Kat, the main character, doesn’t want to travel—especially to a third world country—and her comfort zones are expanded more than she would like. By the end of the novel, though, Kat has a new appreciation for other cultures and lifestyles. Whether my stories take place in the American south or in other countries, my characters are challenged and shaped by the place they live.
For writers, I believe travel can be a great way to get inspiration or give you a new perspective on a character or scene. Of course, many writers don’t have the time or money to travel like I have, so I want to expand the definition of “travel.” Travel can mean going to a new street or store in your own town or just getting in the car and driving, seeing where you’ll end up. For example, one night I may go to our city’s most exclusive private club where I’ll listen to rich old men drink and lament the world that is leaving them behind, and the next night I’ll go to the all- black soul club near my house and dance the night away. Or I’ll go to a restaurant in the small Hispanic area a few blocks from my house and order food off the Spanish-only menu.
Another type of travel is from health to illness. My father died of cancer a few years ago and one of my closest friends, still in her thirties, has stage four breast cancer. While I’ve been fortunate enjoy a life of good health, the journey I’ve witnessed others take has definitely affected how I see the world and how I write about it.
Travel is a state of mind that allows you expand your comfort zones, which in turn allows you to add depth and compassion to your writing. If you have writers block or feel that you need inspiration, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and travel—whether it is to a hospital, a church, a mosque, a homeless shelter, the forest, the middle of downtown, or even just a street away from where you’re reading this now. Go on, take a step, take a breath, see something new, then return to your work with fresh insight and a new perspective.
The allure and alienation of American travelers and expatriates have heavily influenced Sybil Baker’s writing, including her debut novel The Life Plan. A fast-paced romp through exotic Thailand, The Life Plan has been called a “screwball comedy for the 21st century” and “the most original, no-holds-barred, well-informed and readable traveler’s guide to Thailand.” Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including upstreet, Alehouse, A Woman’s World Again (Traveler’s Tales), and The Writers’ Chronicle. She is currently a creative writing professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. For more information visit http://www.sybilbaker.com or her blog at http://sybilbaker.blogspot.com. You can see the book trailer for The Life Plan at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RVu8VbHEbY&fmt=18.