Writers On Writing / Jan Cornall

‘The brilliant thing about the process of writing a travel memoir is you get to experience your travels all over again, sharing the insights gained and the transformative nature of the journey.’

Writers on Writing is our regular conversation with a writer or industry professional about the writing craft, industry insights, and their own practice. This week, we spoke to Jan Cornall about the craft of travel writing, ahead of her workshop The Art of the Travel Memoir on Saturday 2 December.

Being a travel writer sounds like a dream job! Is it as glamourous as it sounds, or have you come across a few challenges along the way? Any unexpected travel experiences?

I don’t call myself a travel writer, but a writer who loves to travel. From 2002 to 2013, Indonesia was the inspiration for my early prose works (I previously worked in theatre and film). My fictional memoir Take Me To Paradise is set in Bali between the bombings of 2002 and 2005. My collection of stories, songs and poems, Archipelagogo: Love Songs to Indonesia, is based on a decade of travel around the Indo islands. My recent memoir Looking for Duras: a Mekong Journey, is set in Vietnam and Cambodia and follows the footsteps of the French writer Marguerite Duras who lived the first 18 years of her life there. 

I love to travel solo but more often I bring other writers along with me. Since 2004 I’ve been taking groups travelling and writing to Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Italy, Paris, Morocco, Burma (before the military coup) and most recently India. We’ve always been blessed with good weather and good conditions, except once in Japan when we had to get out of the way of a typhoon, and in Morocco in early 2020 when we had a scramble to get home as borders began closing due to the Covid pandemic.

I usually take time at the beginning or end of an international journey to do my own solo writer’s retreat. In June this year I had six days in Venice and four days in Amsterdam on either side of our Italy immersion, ensconced each time in an Airbnb room with a view. I’ve also done official writer’s residencies in Java, Istanbul, Iran and Morocco — another great way to travel and write.

How important is it to document your travel with photos and journals? Is it possible to have a set writing routine while travelling, or is it better to take notes and do the majority of the writing when the trip is over?

My rule of thumb when I travel is to take notes non-stop on everything going on around me. I try to make a pact before stepping on the plane in Sydney, to capture every skerrick of detail on every mode of transport until I return. I’ve even written while riding a camel in the Sahara. When I get home those notes become my most important resource. Photos are good to have too, even bad photos can help jog your memory, but words on the page are far superior. Not only are you exercising your writing muscle, the more you write or jot, the easier the flow of words to the page will be. Don’t worry about perfect phrases or perfect sentences, just capture what you see in concrete detail. Start with lists and keep the writing going until a flow kicks in.

How do you decide which travel experiences are worth including in a memoir?

As the storyteller/main character, you are taking us on a journey, and that journey has a beginning, middle and end. Stuff happens along the way — it may be dramatic, hilarious, awkward, difficult, confronting or wonderfully blissful. Choose the most engaging/dramatic/poignant moments, the most interesting characters, and start weaving them together. You can follow the ‘Hero’s Journey’ model or take a more non-linear approach. Remember to engage the senses and convey the sounds, smells, tastes, colours, and textures of the world you are taking us into. Pore over your notes and soon the story will emerge. Making a mind map is useful at this point, listing significant events, turning points, themes, a timeline and so on.  You can even make a chapter outline — do it quickly, off the top of your head. Make up quirky headings, you can always change them later, this will give you a backbone to start writing from.

Remember too your responsibilities as a western traveller and how to use your storytelling to give something back to those you are writing about. The brilliant thing about the process of writing a travel memoir is you get to experience your travels all over again, sharing the insights gained and the transformative nature of the journey.

Who are your favourite travel memoir writers?

A few of my favourite travel memoir writers are: Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle; Ruth Reichal, Comfort Me with Apples; Monisha Rajesh, Around India in 80 Trains; Michael Ondaatje, Running In the Family; Walter Mason, Destination Saigon;  Tom Doig, Moron to Moron: Two Men, Two Bikes, One Mongolian Misadventure; and Lori Tharps, Kinky Gaspatcho: Life Love and Spain.

Writer/performer Jan Cornall has written 15 produced plays and musicals, a feature film, and two books set in Indonesia — a fictional memoir Take Me To Paradise, and a collection of poems and stories, Archipelagogo. Awarded several grants and fellowships, Jan has an MA in Cultural and Creative Practice and has taught writing at writers’ centres, community colleges and universities in Australia and Indonesia. With her company Writer’s Journey, Jan mentors writers and leads international writing workshops and retreats. A number of writers working with Jan have gone on to publish with major publishing houses. Jan’s current project is a travel memoir set in Vietnam that traces the footsteps of the French writer Marguerite Duras.

Join The Art of the Travel Memoir at Writing NSW on Saturday 2 December, 10am-4pm.


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