A journal that makes sense

On my first morning in Paris, I awoke to the sounds of suitcase zippers and rustling plastic bags. A couple of girls whispered to each other as they brushed their hair and sprayed their too-sweet deodorant about. My mouth tasted of yesterday’s airplane. At first I was disoriented. So I lay for a while, wrapped in my sleeping bag and taking stock. Once my fellow backpackers left I eased my feet down the bony metal bunk-bed ladder and onto the not-quite-sticky carpet. At the arched window, I drew the curtain. The room was on a pretty Parisian street. A few people passed on the pavement below. Pot plants filled with geraniums flowered on the balcony next door. I saw a Boulangerie a few doors over. Around me were classic white buildings, each – like mine – three or four stories high. In the one immediately opposite a young man appeared in the full-length window holding a mug in his hand. He was dark, and handsome. He was also completely naked. ‘I’m in Paris!’ I exclaimed to myself.


The truth is, there’s only one part of those paragraphs that I remember with any certainty (the naked man, of course). The rest is made up from my fading, unreliable memories and images of Paris I picked up over the years. I could never publish those pars as non-fiction – and even if I tried, I think I’d be called on it. There’s a certain authenticity missing from my descriptions.

Had I kept a better journal I may have been able to take you into that room. But (like most of my travel journals since) my notes were about what I did, ideas, events and occasionally frustrations. I’ve always known that I’m a bad travel-journaller but it wasn’t until Natalia Rachel Singer’s presentation at NonfictioNow that I realised where I was going wrong. Singer is the Craig Professor of English at St Lawrence University in the USA, Contributing Editor to The North American Review and writer of a memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties. She was presenting a paper in the session, Immersion Writing, and her advice was this: keep a journal of the senses.

‘A good journal… allows you to be alive in the moment, to experience it fully through your five senses, your mind and heart, and then to record it in such a way that you’ll be able to relive it again and again,’ she writes in a brief for her students (whom she takes to India and France). ‘What I’m asking you to record is not so much what you did…as to what your body experienced there: visual impressions, colours, textures, smells, sounds. What it meant to be alive there. How the place got under your skin…’ she tells them.

Sensory memories can call us back to a place for decades to come says Singer. For Marcel Proust it was a madeleine. For me, it’s the smell of freshly cut grass which, still reminds me of visiting Australia from my childhood home of Hong Kong (even though I’ve now lived in Australia for over 30 years).

Singer writes that, ‘when you take your body somewhere to learn something about the world it is your instrument, your compass, your astrolabe, your archive, library and memory palace… It all depends on being alert, being a good listener and recorder, being attentive, and finding the means, through language… to gather enough sensory material to make the piece you write feel authentic, vivid, lived in, true.’

I have so often eschewed journal-writing during travel for the promise of truly being in the moment. (I had all but given up on the idea of writing travel stories). But now I am starting to think that a journal of the senses will put structure to my travel notes. It will enable me to write lists rather than prose when I’m so inclined. This is how I research and take notes for my non-travel stories (I allow myself to be in those moments as a writer). Somehow up until now I’ve seen travel differently.

As Singer tells her students, this model of journaling has wide benefits, ‘Part of what a good piece of journal writing can do is capture, evocatively, a mood which can be just as fleeting as the passage of a cloud… If you’re really being attentive, your journal of the five senses will help you find an epiphany or central metaphor for a piece of writing.’

Over the years I have learned to document the facts of travel (things like addresses, telephone numbers, prices, times, dates, opening hours etc.). I kept paper artefacts in my journals for purely aesthetic reasons. They included ticket stubs, brochures, business cards, maps, coasters and wrappers. As Singer notes, keeping these things can save time detailing costs and basic facts. A glue-stick will go nicely with your journal of the senses.

I wonder how much better my description of Paris would be, had I documented my senses rather than the events. It’s the sensory details we forget over time. They’re the ones that journaling can rescue decades later. As Singer says, I should now consider my travel journal as a, ‘passport into time and place, a way of capturing moments as they shimmer past.’

Singer’s presentation was part of a panel on Immersion Writing that included Peter Doyle, Robin Hemley and Kate Rossmanith. An audio recording will be available on the nonfictionlab.net.au website in early 2013.