Two new struggles of being a travel writing student abroad: First, you have to be your own teacher. Second, you really have to be your own teacher and actually make yourself finish a piece once you start it.
The first issue of having to be my own teacher while abroad is trying to figure out what to do when I get stuck. With a 10.5 hour time difference between myself and everyone who I look to for writing advice, I can’t run by my advisor W. Scott Olsen’s office or expect a quick email back from one of my writing professors after just a few minutes. I either have to wait several hours to hear back (by which time I’ve probably forgotten what I was even trying to communicate), or I have to try to figure it out myself. I’ll come back to that later.
The second issue comes with having to make myself actually write about the experiences I am having. I keep telling myself that I am just taking everything in right now so I have more to write about, but honestly, I could use that excuse for the rest of my life. Without a deadline looming over my head, I have turned into the ultimate procrastinator. And you know what they say—if you don’t use it you lose it. By that, I am saying two things. First, a person only becomes a better writer by actually writing. It is something that comes with practice like shooting free throws or parallel parking. Second, if I don’t write down what I’m seeing/hearing/smelling/tasting/feeling, I’m likely to forget it. The details will become less sharp and the quality of any writing I do about it later will be much worse than if I had written something down right away.
I have been in India for sixty days now and only have forty-nine left. I have visited six different states and seen countless amazing things. I also haven’t finished a single essay. I have multiple half-baked pieces that just sort of peter out at the end, but for all my time here I have not written anything I’m proud of. Part of it is writer’s block, and another is laziness. With no teachers here to help me overcome these two hurdles, I’ve had to rely on myself to figure out what I should do. In the cases of writer’s block, I thought hard about what my advisor W. Scott Olsen would say. I could almost picture the scene: I would be sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of his office, right in between the miniature chess set and the bookshelf filled mostly with travel writing. He would be sitting in his desk chair, his hands folded on top of his stomach as he leaned back and waited for me to stumble upon the solution to my problem. After a few minutes of me floundering he would eventually tell me, as though it were obvious, “Read,” he would say. “Look at what the people you admire have written, see what they’ve done and find some inspiration there.” And so I did. Rachel Friedman, Andrew McCarthy, Mark Jenkins, and Cheryl Strayed—I looked to all of them and more, looking for some inspiration, for a new way of looking at or doing things. Once the gears started turning though, it was time to find the solution for my bigger problem: laziness.
The program that I am studying on is not like your conventional study abroad program. I’m not attending a university in India, or even staying on a campus or in an apartment. Instead, I am staying with other students from Concordia and Gustavus Adolphus College at an NGO dedicated to peace studies, and we have one professor from Gustavus teaching us along with one instructor from India. We are at the NGO for a week at a time and then we leave to go on field visits to the rest of India. Because of our irregular schedule and the fact that it is pretty inconvenient to bring a computer along on field visits, I have just told myself that I am too busy and I’ll get to it later. But then I realized I was forgetting things and I could hear my advisor’s voice in the back of my head, “Journal every day. I don’t care f you are a writer or not—you’re going to want to remember these things someday.” It was advice from a previous trip I had taken with him to London and Paris, but it held just as true for this trip as it did then. I may not be able to always have my computer with me, and I may not always write a lot, but my journal can go anywhere, and I can pull it out at a moment’s notice to write down something I smell or hear that I think is interesting. Or, if I have time, I can begin writing an essay, working through ideas that I formulated while reading some of my favorite authors. I may not be very good at it yet, and I know I’m stealing lines from other professors, but I’m slowly learning how to teach myself how to be a better writer.
Editorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.