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.
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?
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.