1. Pick Your Pen And Paper
Although I recognize in the digital age that many people “write” on an iPad or phone, I’m a big believer in the benefit of noting thoughts down the old-fashioned way, on paper, because the mind-body connection is more immediate. First, be sure you like the pen you select! Black felt-tip PaperMates have been my pen of choice for decades, and I’m very territorial. I don’t even like lending them to my husband!
I’m equally particular about my notebook. The wrong size or shape will never do. My requirements are that it’s 5” by 7”, its pages lie flat, it’s lined and hardback. If you’re traveling abroad, you might find it fun to shop for a journal wherever you’re visiting, because you’ll find a different selection of notebooks than you find in your home country.
My husband is British, so whenever we’re visiting my in-laws, I love picking up A5 notebooks in stationery shops. An evocative article in The New York Times by novelist Mary Gordon describes her pleasure in buying notebooks in France, Ireland, and Italy.
2. Choose When And Where To Write
You can start your diary before you even begin the trip, describing your plans and hopes, and continue it when you’re back home. When you’re embarking on a trip, you can describe your hopes, intentions, and fears; as you’re returning home, your memories, feelings, and next steps.
Different times offer different benefits: I’m a fan of Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” concept from her bestselling classic The Artist’s Way, where you scribble your wayward thoughts just after waking up. But you could also write late in the day, reflecting on your day’s explorations. And it always helps to record your impressions soon after you experience them, while they’re fresh.
As for where, certainly in your hotel room or rental apartment works. But it’s also fun sitting in a cafe, watching people while jotting notes down in your journal. One of my favorite memories is writing in a Seattle restaurant, where I spent several hours waiting for a late-night bus, eavesdropping on conversations I heard at the next table and scribbling snippets into my journal, making up stories about the other diners.
I love writing on airplanes, where sitting at 35,000 feet and looking at the clouds and the changing landscape below gives me a big-picture, expansive feeling.
What about trains? On a train in India, a man sitting to my right peered over my shoulder, started reading my journal, and proceeded to tell his friends what I had written — which luckily was not about them! Rather than offended, I burst out laughing. It made me realize how radically different boundaries are in different cultures. I couldn’t imagine someone openly reading my journal in the U.S.
3. Include The Day, Date, And Location
Your future self will thank you! In my early journals, I thought it looked hip thinking I was transcending time by skipping the date. Now, it’s a pain trying to find an entry back in the annals of my history.
4. Develop Your Observation Skills
A journal offers the opportunity to notice everything from architecture to wildlife. Focus on all your senses, then describe what you experience. Hearing, for example: When I’ve visited Muslim countries, I’ve been deeply moved by the haunting tones of the call to worship. Texture? The feeling of cobblestones under my shoes. Or taste — whether you’re describing a gumbo in New Orleans or a risotto in Sicily, putting down your impressions of a dish you savored will help to keep the memory alive.