The Outer Journey

Setting the Stage

By Dave Fox

When we venture into a foreign culture, we’re taking two simultaneous journeys: the “outer journey” and the “inner journey.” Once you learn to weave these two journeys together in your journal, your writing will become more powerful and insightful. Understanding how these two elements of a trip interact with each other, you’ll gain a new perceptiveness about yourself and the world around you.

Your outer journey is your stage, so to speak. It’s everything that surrounds you when you travel. It encompasses all of your senses — what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel (in terms of physical touch), and so on. It also includes where you go, what you do, who you meet, etc. The outer journey is the framework for your travel journal.

Most people tend to focus on just a few aspects of their outer journey when they write. This can leave journals feeling flat. As you wander through your day, take time to scan all of your senses. You will often find that one or two senses are overshadowing your awareness of the other ones.

For example, if you walk through a Turkish spice market, the first things you will likely notice are the exotic scents and the brilliant colors. When you write, it’s easy then to ignore other sensations, like the sounds in the market — shopkeepers vying for your attention, glasses clinking as tea sellers squish their way through the crowds, Turkish pop music (or perhaps Madonna) spilling from portable stereos. And what about your physical sensations? Are people jostling against you? Are your feet throbbing from a busy day of roaming?

You don’t have to write all of these senses down. On the contrary, trying to cover every one of them begins to sound strained. But if you spark your awareness of all of your senses — not just the one or two strongest ones — you may find that the more subtle sensations are having a more profound impact on you than you realized.

Show. Don’t Tell.

In capturing the outer journey, it’s also important to be as descriptive as possible. People travel to Norway and write that the fjords are “beautiful.”


We all know Norway’s fjords are beautiful. If we plan a trip to Norway, we know they’re going to be beautiful before we ever get there. Norway’s fjords have been beautiful for centuries. Writing in your journal that the fjords are beautiful is wasting precious journaling time when you could be getting more descriptive.

Some people take this mistake a step further. “The fjords were SO beautiful!” they write. “The fjords were the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” They emphasize this with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!!!

When you go back and reread your journal in 20 years, this isn’t going to spark a lot of memories.

Instead, go for detail. Follow the “Show, don’t tell” rule. What is it about the fjords that makes them so breathtaking? The swooping cliffs? The turquoise waters? The little maroon farmhouses that freckle the nearby land? For me, part of the fjords’ beauty is the seagulls. They follow the boats, flapping their wings with a grace that to them is second nature. Glacier-fed waterfalls send an icy mist plunging toward rocks below. On a foggy day, the haze that settles over the fjords is mystical. You expect the trolls to come lumbering down the mountains at any moment.

Details like this breathe life into your journal. If you’re journaling for yourself, these details are what will keep your memories alive long after you’ve returned home. If you share your journal with others, people need these details in order to really feel like they’re there with you.

Mind Journaling

Documenting these details can be tricky. Often, by the time we find a moment during a trip to write, we are no longer in the place we are writing about. The best trick I’ve found to remedy this is what I call “mind journaling.” I narrate in my head throughout the day. I make mental notes of things as I see them, dictating to myself what I would like to write down later. Doing this helps me keep scanning all of my senses.

Later, when I sit down to write, do I remember everything I thought about? Of course not. And sometimes, even from what I can recall, there’s simply not enough time to write down all the thoughts that have flashed through my mind throughout the day. But mind journaling makes it easier for me to recall key points later on. And it helps my written journaling go more quickly because I have already outlined in my head what is most important.

Published on Thursday, January 1, 2004

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