Unexpected Lessons from a Traveling Writer

From Jeff: Curt Devine is a writer from Florida. He recently finished a year of traveling around the world on a mission trip called the World Race. You can follow him and his writing on his blog or via Twitter: @curtdevine.

I recently returned from a year-long trip around the world. As I reflect on my journey, I realize I’ve learned some unexpected lessons about traveling and writing. And it all starts with feeling stuck in Nepal.

Travel Writer
Photo credit: Curt Devine

Writer’s block on Everest

As I sat in a mouse-infested bungalow in the middle-of-nowhere Nepal, I couldn’t write a word.

All I could think about were the beads of sweat sliding off my face, splashing onto my keyboard. I tried to concentrate, but when an idea came, a fly would buzz in my ear and steal the thought away.

Outside, I could hear shouting farmers, screaming chickens and the groans of the neighbor’s injured cow. The noise was unbearable.

After a half hour of zero inspiration, I looked down at my laptop and saw I had written six words: Shut up, shut up, shut up!

Write from the heart

I used to watch the Travel Channel for hours. Tantalized by the television, I would imagine the stories that awaited me.

The Philippines, Cambodia, Kenya, Tanzania, India and Romania — I assumed these countries and more would be packed with adventure, giving me ample inspiration for writing magazine articles and blog posts.

Yet, there I was in Nepal, staring blankly at my computer screen with nothing to say.

I had such high hopes that travel would cure my writing pains, that great stories would jump out of real life and fall neatly into my word processor. But they didn’t.

I stood up and paced around the wooden bungalow, accepting the fact that I had no exciting tales to awe my readers with. I was defeated.

Then I had a radical thought.

What if I was honest? What if I stopped trying to impress everyone and simply wrote from my heart?

What happened next

First, I deleted the six furious words that mocked me on the empty screen.

Next, I prayed for help in rejecting my fears of failure.

Then, I went for it.

After typing heatedly for about an hour, I didn’t know if what I had written was garbage or gold — I only knew it was honest.

I walked a mile to a ransacked Internet cafe, posted the article and put it out of my mind.

A week later, I checked my inbox only to find a flood of comments and messages about the piece.

Friends said that they connected more with it than anything else I had written. Others thanked me for my brutal honesty. One guy even said he didn’t believe in God, but because of the way I described my struggles, he wanted to dialogue about faith.

Where you are doesn’t matter

Wild stories and tall tales are great, but the most powerful writing always comes from the heart.

I can’t deny that I had great opportunities on my journey to write about orphans in the Philippines, prostitutes in Thailand, and gypsies in Romania. I would encourage every writer to travel and get fresh perspective. But at the end of the day, people connect with honesty, not grandiose content.

I’ve heard it said that stories live in our blood and bones.

After 25,000 miles, 3-dozen cities, 18 different languages and 5 sicknesses, I’ve realized I don’t need epic experiences to write well. I just have to stay to true to myself, my muse, and my audience.

And so do you.

What have you learned about writing from traveling? Share your own epiphanies in the comments.

Do you have a story about traveling and writing? Include the link in the comments.

35 thoughts on “Unexpected Lessons from a Traveling Writer

  1. What a great post. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve had the same experience on my blog – the posts that flowed from my fingers, the ones where I hit the “publish” button holding my breath, thinking “I can’t believe I’m really going to put this out there” – those were the ones that resonated the most with my readers. The clever ones that I researched, worked and re-worked, worrying about who might think what – they might be “good writing” but they didn’t resonate in the same way.

  2. “At the end of the day, people connect with honesty, not grandiose content.”

    This is so true. You don’t always have to write something spectacular for it to be memorable–people are much more likely to connect to something raw and honest because they can relate to it. 

    I’ve certainly found this to be true on my own blog–one more than one occasion I’ve published a post that I was unsure about because a lot of it was about my own experience, but I’ve found that more times than not those are the posts that get comments like, “You read my mind,” or “I needed to hear this.” Those are the posts that are memorable. 

    I haven’t had the opportunity to travel that much, but it sounds like you’ve learned a lot from your experiences. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  3. Honesty DOES make a vivid, heart-capturing piece.  Whenever I write something that I want to write, or write to get something off my chest, then it turns out better than the 9999…th draft of any other drivel I’ve written.

    Thanks for this, Curt Devine.

  4. Being in another culture sharpens or dulls your senses. It all depends on whether you perk up to the challenge or shut down from overload. I’ve been fortunate over the past two summers to travel to Europe (2010) and the Middle East (2011). In both cases, I used writing as a means to keep tabs of my own overseas experiences. From my European experiences, I wrote my first published magazine article and my first newspaper piece. Great and encouraging opportunities.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience, Curt. I’m beginning to invest more time in my blog, and this is valuable advice.
    I’ve already had some unexpected feedback myself. Some posts that I invested time and effort didn’t quite had the impact I expected, and some posts that I wrote which I feared that I was exposing too much had a very positive feedback.
    Being honest is the key, you got that right.

  6. I think the thing that hits you the most is how blessed we are with all we have in this country compared to else where. What we call garbage I know some of my family in Kenya would fight to get!

  7. It’s funny, to this day I still have fear every time I open my computer to write something. I continually ask myself, am I writing to impress other people or am I writing to share something thoughtful,entertaining or inspiring? Motivation makes all the difference. 

  8. “at the end of the day, people connect with honesty, not grandiose content.”

    So true. When I made the personal switch from trying to write epic content to writing about what I’m actually going through and processing myself, I noticed a huge change in my writing and my impact. People want authentic, not forced. Great post Curt!

  9. First, I love that picture!  Just beautiful.  Great post.  It’s the vulnerable writing that catches my attention.  I connect with people willing to share their fears, their failures and their heart.  That’s my goal when I write as well.

  10. Great post!  Someone recently told me something along the lines of ‘good bloggers channel their inner exhibitionist.’  I guess what he meant was that there comes a point when one must be willing to make their vulnerabilities known and honestly show what would be more natural (in terms of self-preservation) to keep hidden.

  11. I often battle over what’s “worth” posting and what goes “too far.” Prudence is definitely needed as I don’t necessarily want my blog to become synonymous with a personal journal, but I know my favorite posts by others are when they’re most vulnerable and honest about their lives. So I’m learning to face my fears and head-on and write those gritty posts.

  12. Amazing to think of writer’s block on Mt. Everest, but I love the idea of just letting go of impressing people and just being honest.  I also truly believe that, of all the luxuries money can buy, travel is the most worthwhile.  What it does to us can’t be taken away again.  So much better than a new car or wardrobe.  Great article.

  13. Curt,

    You just outlined one of the most difficult lessons for any writer to grasp. 

    It’s amazing how convoluted and complicated the process may seem at times. 

    Truth is, the most complicated aspect of the writing process is the writer.

    Thank you.

  14. I loved this post. I like that Curt said the most powerful stories come from the heart. Makes me think of the overflow of passion that led me to write this: https://matthew-snyder.com/2011/05/16/sketches-of-impossibilities/

  15. Great post! I had to laugh when I read that you were in Napel and having writer’s block. No offense, just can totally relate. “Culture Shock” sometimes takes my mind away from what I love doing or what I should be doing. I think God has used “culture shock” in my life to just remind me of who He is and who I am. =)
    I live overseas with my family and three kids. I write about raising kids overseas at raisingmytcks.wordpress.com, which is a new platform for me. It is a work in progress at the moment, but I guess it should always be.
    I have another blog about my writing life, homeschooling my special needs daughter, and whatever else I randomly think about at umdmaurer.blogspot.com.  I do some writing on Taiwan here, but after reading this article may want to write more about what I love about this place I’m calling “home” for the time being. 

  16. It is often difficult to get past yourself so that your true self can break through. Thanks for writing this. 

    We haven’t traveled much, but we have moved a lot, and have learned some about life and what is important in the process. I wrote a post about it called “What I Learned from Wandering” https://www.tillhecomes.org/wandering/

  17. I’m still processing a pretty enlightening trip to Nashville. 🙂 Lots of little messages and moments that are echoing in my mind. Had a convo with Chad J that included a lot of what you and I talked about. I’m currently doing some de-cluttering, quietly, that will hopefully provide more time for me to think & reflect. Whether or not that’ll end up in a blog post, I’m not sure. But I’m certain it’ll end up in some distinct changes for me.

  18. I travel a lot for my ministry, and I often blog about people or events that affect me during my trips.  I love meeting and learning from people in different cultures.  I rarely give travelogs–I tell how I was impacted.  Pictures help.  Truth is essential.  You’re telling a story, not writing a report.

  19. I agree with the idea completely, obviously. I think it’s great advice, which I will think more about, when crafting my themes/subjects to write about. However, one of the most personal articles I wrote, was the one with least impact: https://monicanastase.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/playing-the-piano-in-a-hostile-world/. I’m still thinking why. Could it be it was too personal / too negative / not clear enough of what was the problem…? 

  20. Totally, travel is essential for a writer..it opens the unknown, cultural differences, untampered beauty, undiscovered ideas and it brings closer to one’s ownself.

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