I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.
My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.
With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”
In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.
I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……
Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.
Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:
- half a phone book from ten years ago
- a dried-up bottle of cochineal
- iron burn marks on the sheets
Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.
I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.
I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.
One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.
- dumb as a cow’s arse
- she flapped her lips
- give it to Old Pisquick over there
I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.
- names of things – utshani = grass
- exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
- orders—faga punzi = put it down
Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.
Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.
And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.
Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.