The Journey of a Story

Partly because I wrote Lonely Planet’s guide to travel writing and partly because I’ve been a travel writer for more than 30 years, people assume that travel writing is easy for me.

It isn’t.

It’s painful.

And exhilarating.

But it almost always begins with pain.

For writers who despair when a story doesn’t start smoothly or when the words don’t flow, I thought it might be helpful to relate the journey of my most recent story, which was about a one-week stay in Cambodia, and which ended up taking me a month to write.

The first step in my process is always getting back mentally to the place I’m writing about. For the first few days after returning from my journey to Cambodia, I resisted this step because I knew how much work it was going to be.

Every time I considered digging out my emails and notes and poring through the pictures I had taken, I suddenly thought about dishes that needed cleaning, laundry that needed washing, shopping that needed doing, emails that needed answering. Even dusting!

Finally, with great reluctance, I burrowed into my duffel bag and got out the journal I had kept in Cambodia. I transferred the photos I had taken from my phone to my laptop. From my backpack I took out two plastic bags in which I had stuffed all the brochures, temple admission stubs, menus, and bar napkins I had collected. I located the emails I’d written during that week, the maps and guidebooks I’d used, and, in a dusty Ziploc bag, the three mini-cassette tapes I’d recorded throughout my stay.

Over ten days I typed up my notes and read through my emails and printed passages that helped me recapture the trip. I looked through all 1,620 photos and printed a dozen that showed the most memorable places I had visited. I listened to 90 minutes of tapes and transcribed the parts I might want to use.

I fanned out the maps, brochures, printouts, and passages on my desk and on the floor around me and played snippets of ambient sound I’d recorded—the sputter of tuk-tuks, chirps of birds, impromptu zither and drum music—to transport me back.

Step by step, I returned mentally to Cambodia. Then the next stage in the tortuous writing process began: asking myself what I’d learned on my journey, and how. Figuring out exactly what I wanted to say.

My trip had started with three nights in the country’s cultural capital of Siem Reap. From there, I ventured to a northern village called Banteay Chhmar for a homestay, then finished with a final night back in Siem Reap. My original idea was that I would isolate the most edifying scenes from my travels and write a description of each, linking together what each had taught me.

The first place I’d visited was Angkor Wat, the temple that had originally drawn me to Cambodia. So I tried to write an opening focused on that iconic place.

I also thought writing in the second person might provide a more intimate bridge between me and the reader, so I began this way: “Angkor Wat. This was why you were here. You had first seen a photo of this monumental stone poem four—five?—decades ago in a National Geographic magazine.”

Over the course of a week I wrote three slightly different versions focused on my pre-dawn visit to Angkor Wat. Then I realized that it wasn’t working: Maintaining the second person was going to be too constricting, and something about my first experience at the temple seemed less than engaging.

So I tried a different tack in draft four: “Here’s what I want to tell you about my trip to Cambodia.”

While I still wanted to write about Angkor Wat first, I thought that if I spoke directly to the reader it would help me cut to the heart of what I wanted to communicate. But what did I want to communicate?

I knew I wanted to write something about puzzles: I had been deeply struck by the amazing work of the archaeologists who were piecing together the riddles of ancient sites to illustrate the achievements of the Khmer, and it seemed to me that these efforts corresponded to my own attempt to piece together the puzzle of Cambodian history, past and present.

I listed the moments that defined my stay in Siem Reap—exploring the temples of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon, and Banteay Srey, and then contemporary Siem Reap, where expats and Cambodians mingled, innovative cuisine was being served, and a cosmopolitan cultural crossroads was evolving.

Trying to write these scenes was like metaphorically beating my head against a wall. Every day I dreaded wading back into Siem Reap, wrestling with the story I wanted to tell, dredging up the minute details that would bring a temple site or a bar encounter to life for someone who had never been there. I wrote five drafts in 10 days and at the end was stuck like a tuk-tuk in one of the country’s rain-flooded roads. This vehicle wasn’t going anywhere.

All this time I had felt deep in my gut that what I really wanted to get to was off-the-beaten-path Banteay Chhmar. A number of scenes from my stay there were leaping for attention in my brain. But I kept thinking that I needed to begin with Siem Reap.

Then one morning I awoke and thought: Why do I need to begin there? If Banteay Chhmar is clamoring to be written about, why not start with that? In fact, who says I have to include Siem Reap at all? This is my story, my experience of Cambodia!

Suddenly I realized that I had been paralyzing myself by trying to recreate moments that really weren’t important to me. As soon as I liberated myself, the scenes flowed out of me. After an uninterrupted day of writing, I saw that the focus of my story needed to be Banteay Chhmar—because that’s where Cambodia had really come to life for me.

Suddenly the process became pure pleasure. I sketched the salient scenes, broke them into defining parts, and wrote. It was exhilarating.

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Of course, there was still hard work to be done—recalling precise details, deciding what to use and what to leave out, determining the structure the story should take. If my purpose was to present aspects of my experience like the building blocks of a Cambodian ruin, did the story need to be chronological? Or simply organized by subject, or theme?

I decided to start when I first entered Banteay Chhmar, in a taxi from Siem Reap. Then I backtracked briefly to describe why I had come to Cambodia, covering my first days in Siem Reap in a single paragraph. The rest of the story focused on what happened after I had left for Banteay Chhmar, when I really got inside the country and it got inside me.

Once I had begun, I wrote the 7,000-word piece in four days, block by block.

What did I learn?

I learned that even after writing hundreds of articles, I’m still extremely capable of crippling myself by thinking about what a story should be rather than what it was for me.

And I learned once again that as travel writers guiding the journey our readers take, it is our responsibility to relive that journey in prose as passionately and profoundly as possible—to make sense of its meaning in a way that connects our story of a far-off place with the puzzle of the greater world.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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