I have friends who are starting adventures living abroad in China, Egypt and Italy. I encourage them to keep a regular journal and write down impressions of their new culture. Later, when the culture is familiar, it will be harder to notice the details in a new way.
The writer’s ultimate job is to pay close attention to the surrounding world, physical and not, and share those observations with readers in a meaningful way. When you, the writer, finds yourself in an unfamiliar land, it is easier to notice the similarities and surprising differences between this new place and home.
So how can a writer both navigate the new culture and keep a journal? I remember being exhausted, completely exhausted, when I first moved to Florence, Italy, in 1996 as a study abroad student. Little things, like ordering a coffee and then running an errand to buy hangers, took every ounce of energy I had because it was work simply to ask basic questions and understand the answers, let alone figure out the bus system to return home again. When I finally found myself back in my apartment, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up a pen and jot down notes on my recent adventure. In fact, I felt embarrassed that ordering a cappuccino had turned into an adventure in a country whose language I supposedly knew.
I eventually did write, although not as regularly as I should have, and kept notes on what I saw, did, thought and felt. There were so many questions and thoughts running through my mind that it was hard to avoid writing.
The key to keeping a journal is to write about and ruminate on subjects that interest you. If you give yourself the task of writing down every little thing that you did that day, you’ll slowly bore yourself and stop. Instead, choose something baffling, inspiring or funny to share. Allow yourself to focus in on that architectural detail you noticed and the pastry you had for breakfast, but also respond to a news article a friend posted on Facebook. With the freedom to explore whatever you’re thinking about, you’re more likely to craft something new and surprise yourself, which is the key to eventually surprising your reader, too.
Being in a foreign culture makes it easier to notice the world around you, partly because you pay more attention and perhaps because you are a bit isolated and have more space to think, but it isn’t required to leave the familiar. Wherever you are, take some time everyday to record your thoughts. You never know what might turn into the seeds for a more polished piece of writing.
You might write regularly in a physical journal, on your computer, in letters or email or even in blog posts. Whatever form your journaling takes, the regular practice will help to improve your knowledge and skill of the craft of writing and the development of your ideas.
I invite you to share your thoughts on journaling in the Comments Section below.