Restless writing with Mary Morris, travel memoirist

I have this fantasy of writing not just one travel memoir, but many. Of traveling and writing for a living. Of making this journey into a lifestyle.

So I was thrilled to interview a woman who has done just that. Mary Morris has written four travel memoirs. Four! And she’s done it without becoming a complete nomad; she teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and also writes novels. Her most recent book is The River Queen. And her most well-known: Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (1988), which, in my mind, is one of the premiere memoirs written by a woman traveling alone. Mary also has a fabulous blog.

Mary, thanks for being with us today.

Author Mary Morris

On your Web site you write, “Somebody once told me that my travel writing isn’t really travel writing, it’s a story that takes place during a journey.” Can you talk about the difference? Why does the latter work better for you?

That comment was said to me in Japan by a Japanese writer and it has stayed with me. I think that first and foremost I am a storyteller. And by that I mean anything I write involves some kind of a story. Something with an arc. Some kind of beginning, middle and end. I began by writing short stories and I still write them all the time. But many of my stories happen during journeys.

For example, my family and I have done house swaps for years and I have a whole series of stories that involve house exchanges. Travel and narrative for me go hand in hand. I am always thinking about how one thing leads to another. You go on a journey and get a flat tire. You take a wrong turn. You miss a flight. And things unfold that were not anticipated. To me real travel writing is predominately about place. But in my travel writing it seems to be more about people (and often I’d have to admit myself) as some story is unfolding.

I so admire the writers who write eloquently about place. Henry Miller and Pico Iyre come to mind. I am just rereading The Colossus of Marousi and I am dumbstruck by certain passages when Miller speaks of how he sees Greece. My writing is more restless. It’s more about what’s happening than where it is happening. Or as I once told someone, you won’t learn how to get from San Cristobal de las Cases to Panajachel in my travel writing.

When you begin a travel memoir, how do you approach it? Is your theme clear from the start, or does it emerge as you write? How long does it take you to write each book?

Mary Morris' latest book.

All my work begins in journals and, when I travel, I am constantly writing things down, recording, making notes. Often I travel with a main journal, which usually has good paper because I also do watercolors, and lots of small notepads. During the days I might wander around with my notepads. Then at night or in the early morning I write things down in a more elaborate way. Or some days I just sit dreamily in cafes, writing in my journal, drawings, painting. Days can go by like this. I never know what the theme is going to be and it always emerges from the writing itself.

In my earlier work everything was in the journals and I didn’t even know if it would become a travel memoir or not. But with the last memoir, The River Queen, well, I needed a contract for that book  because I couldn’t afford to go down the Mississippi in a houseboat without some financial assistance so I had to at least put the theme down on paper, but the final book  in fact has little to do with the proposal that got me the contract. But that’s another story.

The theme always really emerges in the writing. I almost never know what I’m writing about until I am writing it. So it takes me a long time to write a book. Often three-four years. Or, in the case of Nothing To Declare, I thought about that book for a very long time and then it wrote itself very quickly. This is also true of a novel of mine that I particularly like called Revenge.  I thought about that story for a decade, but wrote it in six months.

How has your writing process changed since Nothing To Declare came out more than twenty years ago? What have you learned since then?

When I lived in Mexico, I didn’t know that it was going to become a book one day. I just kept me diary and when I got home, I had all the notes in journals, and Nothing To Declare emerged from those notes. I had no idea it was going to become a book. And I didn’t actually sit down and write it until a decade after living in Mexico. But that’s another long story. I have to say that perhaps of all my travel memoirs it is the one I like the best because it didn’t know what it was going to be while it was happening to me. I was just living my life south of the border.

I’d love to be able to return to that innocence again. I wish writers didn’t need time or money. I wish we could all just take off and do whatever we want. But, of course, we can’t. Very few people can. But I think if I’ve learned anything it is this: writing isn’t a premeditated act. Rather it should be a crime of passion. Something that bursts out of us; nothing we’ve planned. And we should be surprised by its ferocity. This is the most honest kind of writing I know.

You write both fiction and nonfiction. What skills do you use to approach each genre? Which do you prefer?

As I said above, I see myself primarily as a storyteller. In a sense it doesn’t matter if I am writing fiction or nonfiction. I’m always looking for the story. And the voice. Writing has to have a voice. Whatever I write has to have these elements – as well as good scenes, dialogue, a sense of place. The same skills apply to both, I believe.

In terms of fiction versus nonfiction I suppose I’d have to say that I prefer writing fiction because I can give my imagination full rein. And I don’t have to be accurate. On the other hand, many thoughts and ideas lend themselves to one genre or the other. A couple years ago I broke my leg and I wanted to write an essay about it, entitled Disability, which is about traveling with a wheelchair. I knew that was going to be nonfiction, but I had a lot of fun with it.

Can you share a few pieces of writing advice that you give your students?

The main piece of advice I give my students until I am blue in the face (or they are sick of me) is write in scene. I make my students really learn what a scene is (my definition: a single action that moves the story forward). I know it’s so boring to hear, but showing does work better than telling. And I make them practice writing scenes. You get up in the morning, you take a walk, the path diverges, and so on. There are certainly moments to step back from your narrative and reflect, but first, get me into your story.

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Podcasts for writers

It’s been years since I’ve spent this much time on cardio machines at the gym. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve long been a compulsive exerciser. But in Houston, I ran outside all year round. And upstate New York? Not so much.

So this winter, to pass the time on the treadmill, I tried something new: podcasts. I’m kinda embarrassed to admit this, because podcasts are so yesterday’s technology. But I’ve always been more of a fan of the written word than audio.

Turns out there are quite a few podcasts out there for writers! Whatdoyaknow. If you’re a newbie like me, you can listen to most of these audio files right on the Web site or download it to your iPod through iTunes. In addition to listening to the latest ones, check out the archives.

Podcasts for writers:

  • The New York Times Book Review. Interviews with authors whose books are reviewed by The New York Times. Each podcast also includes an industry update and overview of bestseller lists. This is one of my faves. It’s also shorter than some of the other podcasts, so my child-like attention span lasts for the entire thing.
  • Writers on Writing (or Pen on Fire). Live interviews with writers, poets and literary agents. Hosted by author Barbara DeMarco-Barrett.
  • I Should Be Writing. Mostly about fiction, but motivational for all writers. By Mur Lafferty, who says she’s a wanna-be writer just like her listeners.
  • Writing Excuses. I’ve yet to try this one, but I’ve heard it’s quite popular, so wanted to include it here. Several contributors.

And, of course, there are lots of fabulous podcasts out there that aren’t writing specific. I like the New York Times’ Story of the Day and World Story of the Day (I can’t find links for these but you can subscribe through iTunes). Lots of people are super into National Public Radio’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and This American Life from Chicago Public Radio.

What are your favorite podcasts?

Using themes to stay focused (& the importance of Post-its)

I keep a yellow Post-it note behind my computer. It reads:

*Why you should follow your dream*
Appreciate what you have
Value of solo travel

You can probably tell what these three phrases have in common: they’re themes in my book.

Why you should follow your dream gets asterisks because it’s the main theme. I’m writing about taking a leap in life, and I hope my story will inspire readers to do what they’ve always wanted to do, whether or not it involves travel. I want to help people realize that if I could leave a job I loved to backpack solo, they can make their dream happen, too.

I keep the Post-it on my desk to remind myself just how important these themes are to my book. More important than the premise (woman backpacks solo through Africa). More important than the story (which I ain’t giving away just yet). (And if you don’t know the difference between your book’s premise and story, here’s a blog post from Writer’s Digest to help you figure it out.)

My themes keep me on track. Whenever I start to feel frustrated or lost in my manuscript, I check out my Post-it. Is the scene I’m working on helping to advance one of those ideas? How can I use this part of the book to strengthen a theme?

Notice that none of my themes are really about me. Yes, my travel memoir is about my experiences in Africa. But although memoir is the story of an individual, it’s never solely about the author. Memoir is about something bigger than the author. It’s about resonating with readers. And how do you resonate with readers? With your themes.

If you had a Post-it on your desk, what would it say?

Discovering how to tell the story

Author Dani Shapiro said something in Monday’s interview that struck a chord with me:

The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story.

If she’d told me this before I wrote my memoir, I wouldn’t have believed her. Memoir is largely about recounting what happened during a life span. In my case, my travel memoir recounts my experiences over a six-month period. How many ways are there to write about what happened during those six months?

But as I moved forward with this project, the more I wrote and revised, I watched my book turn into something I didn’t expect. The premise — a woman traveling solo through Africa — hasn’t changed; it’s still what I envisioned from the beginning. But where it begins, how it ends and the parts I decided to leave out — most of that was unexpected. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know how I would write the story. I had to get it down on paper to see where it took me.

I remember walking in the woods with a writer named Andrew during my residency at Hambidge. He told me that he had sat in front of his computer the night before to rewrite a chapter, and his character did something he didn’t expect. The surprise had something to do with death — the character had died one way in the first few drafts, and then, suddenly, it seemed he wanted to die differently.

This was all fine and dandy, but Andrew was writing fiction. That will never happen to me, I thought. I’m writing memoir. I always know where the story’s going.

But the next morning — the very next morning — it happened. I typed on my keyboard, trying to figure out how my second chapter would begin, and out spewed a scene that I’d never considered including in my book. It’s about my sister and I, looking at a map of Africa in her apartment, the first time I told her exactly where I planned to go. “What if you get malaria again?” she asked, reminding me of my bout with the illness during my first trip to Cameroon.

That scene works. It still opens Chapter Two. (Although I can’t promise an editor won’t nix it along the way.) And I had no idea it would be part of my manuscript.

Other things reveal themselves through memoir, too — things that are bigger and more important than a scene. While writing this book, I’ve made connections, had realizations and drawn conclusions about my trip, the people I met and myself, ideas I never would have come up with had I not taken the time to reflect with purpose.

Writing a memoir is a journey of self-discovery. You may already know what happened, but in discovering how to tell the story, you’ll also discover pieces of yourself.

What have you discovered through your writing?

Reading this will make you a better writer

Every week I read the New York Times’ Modern Love column. Not because it’s about love (although that helps). I read it because it’s often a good story. Occasionally it’s written really well. And since a different contributor writes the column each week, it always has a different voice.

In other words, reading this column is not only enjoyable, it makes me a better writer.

This week falls into that occasionally category — it’s written very well. This woman’s words are simply pasted together beautifully. And to top it all off, she tells a great story, mixing background into a scene in a way I’ve grown to appreciate since I started writing my book.

But the best part — the reason I’m sharing this story with you — is that I’m betting each and every one of you will relate to it, particularly the last paragraph. And that’s what good writing is about. It’s about telling an awesome story (check), pasting your words together beautifully (check) and weaving together something that will make the reader say, “Wow, I totally get that.” (Score!)

Read it here.

Thoughts?

The Babysitters Club is BACK!

I promised I wouldn’t blog this week. But how can I ignore the return of The Babysitters Club series?! (New York Times, thank you for reporting news that matters.)

I grew up reading these books. I was that geeky, speed-reading tween who carried a book everywhere just in case I had time to get in a few pages. And more often than not, the book I was reading was from The Babysitters Club. That series is one of the reasons I’m a good writer.

The books were such a large part of my childhood that I saved them for my own kids. That’s right, as a teenager I stored them in boxes in my attic, knowing I’d want to share them with my daughters decades down the road. But now my kids won’t have to read the dusty, old-school versions, because Scholastic is releasing updated copies! (That saves me from having to explain terms like “perm” and “cassette player.”)

This is epic. I’m so going to read the prequel. Wait, did I forget that? A new prequel written by the original author, Ann Martin, will be released, too!

Like I said, epic.

Stephen King’s On Writing

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the craft.

Since I started my travel memoir nearly a year ago, I’ve read quite a few books on writing. So far this is my favorite.

Why? Because King offers practical advice. Instead of emphasizing that writing is different for every writer, he tells us what works for him and what might work for us.

Full disclosure: I skipped the first third of King’s book, the part about his life, and went right to the sections on writing. I’d never read one of his books before — I’m not a horror fan — so I wasn’t much interested in learning about his life. But the writing parts were so well done and offered enough enticing glimpses into his personality that I may re-read from the beginning.

A few things I learned from King:

~ When you start writing, it’s okay not to know how the book will read when you finish. Start with an idea — a situation, King calls it — and uncover the story like a fossil. Symbolism in particular should not be plotted; if something is meant to be symbolic, he says, you’ll notice when you revise and polish till it shines.

“Once your basic story is on paper,” he writes, “you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”

While he’s talking primarily about fiction, this advice also can apply to nonfiction. I thought I knew how my travel memoir would turn out; after all, I experienced it. But ideas, themes and realizations have become clearer through the writing process.

~ Think about your story as a What If? What if a woman decided to backpack alone through Africa? What would happen? And since I’m writing nonfiction, what did happen?

~ 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10 percent. I love this formula partly because it reaffirms my own revision process, which has included cutting about ten percent of my first draft.

~ It can’t hurt to hear certain advice a second, third, fourth time. Don’t use adverbs. To write well, read a lot. Write every day. Description is a matter of how-to and how-much-to; don’t overdo it. Even though I’ve heard all this advice before, King’s explanations of why they apply, as well as his specific examples, were helpful.

(Want more? Read excerpts from the book here.)

I was also shocked to read advice that King attributed to novelist Elmore Leonard: Leave out the boring parts. These exact words came out of my mouth three months ago when I was talking with a writer at my Hambidge residency. I was trying to explain how I would cut word from the first draft of my too-long travel memoir, and when I said that, the phrase sounded awkward, not well-thought out. But the writer friend (or, more accurately, best-selling author friend) told me the following day that he’d thought a lot about those words, that they would change how he revised of his own book. Little did I know they’d already been said and attributed.

Any fans of On Writing out there? Care to share what you learned?