Hannah Tinti | Travel Journal Time Machine

Hannah Tinti, during her first visit to Alaska in 2011.

Hannah Tinti is the 2018 Tutka Bay Writers Retreat guest author and instructor. There are just a couple of open spaces left in the 2018 retreat, so if you’d like to be one of the lucky few to experience the beautiful surroundings at Tutka Bay Lodge and the world class writing instruction from Hannah, please apply today

I kept my first travel journal when I was six years old. Our family was heading to Ireland to visit relatives, and my mother gave each kid our own a bag to carry. We could only take what would fit in the bag. Along with one stuffed animal, I packed a spiral notebook and some pencils. I can still remember the feeling of satisfaction as I filled those pages. I also remember this: small white cottages, crumbling ruins of castles, the bright green of the fields, the sting of nettles, the smell of burning peat, the sound of my grandmother’s brogue. Somehow, turning myself into an observer made the experience more vivid.

I keep a daily journal now. But the pages always burst into a special kind of life whenever I travel. I tape in receipts and postcards and fliers and tickets. I sketch landscapes, transcribe conversations, describe meals, and try to soak up every bit of the setting that I can. Now I am a professional observer. And I know that everything I collect is going to be used.

In The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, each chapter is set in a different part of America where I’ve visited or lived: the rocky shores of New England, the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the desert landscape of the Four Corners, and the wilds of Alaska. To bring these settings to life, I didn’t do a lot of research. Instead, I simply walked over to my bookshelf and pulled down my journals, then used details from my real life to build my fictional world. For example, a visit to Child’s glacier in 2011 was recorded like this:

“Watched pieces fall off the glacier—there was a sound of thunder cracking and rumbling like thunder, even though the sky was blue. The chunks seemed to fall in slow motion, like a building collapsing, and then the crash into the river sent giant waves and sprays of ice toward the beach. Reminded me of 9/11, watching the windows explode and shimmer as the floors collapsed, a feeling of disaster that can’t be stopped.”

Child’s Glacier

Years later, I used that description to guide the following scene in my novel, where the character Samuel Hawley is living in Alaska, and stands in the same place I did in 2011:

“Time slowed as the hunk of ice traveled, and when it finally smashed into the river, a ripple went back up the side of the glacier, and then the whole face of the shelf came loose and started sliding down. It was as if the earth were collapsing. A skyscraper thrown over a cliff. The sight made Hawley ill, like some part of himself was falling with the ice. Everything that ancient, frozen water had seen, the passing of millennia, the formation of the continents, and now, here it was—the end of the road. When the slab finally hit, the river exploded in a spray of brown and white, shooting columns of ice and water so high into the air they transformed into clouds of smoke and sparkled like glass, splintering and shimmering and shooting directly for the beach.”

My journals have become an essential resource for my creative writing. Not only do they provide facts, details and emotions to weave into my stories, they offer new directions when my writing gets stuck. They are my own personal time travel machines. I flip the pages and I’m back in Wyoming or Paris or Ireland, surrounded by donkeys and sheep. And suddenly—I have an idea for what happens next.

Part of being a writer is creating a routine that works. Juggling your daily life while also finding time to get that word count in. Making a schedule and sticking to it is key. Some writers get very focused on their patterns, sitting at the same table every day at the library, or drinking the same coffee from the same mug (I am guilty of this). But just like stories that becomes too predictable, that routine can grow stale and make the writing stale too. That’s when you have to break the pattern, to shake things up and refill the well. Traveling is a great antidote. A vitamin shot for your words. Unfamiliar environments are disorienting, and when you’re disoriented, your senses are on alert. You notice the smell of the trees, the taste of the food, the height of the buildings, the sound of the ocean. This new awake-ness stretches time, making days feel like weeks. Life slows down and you start to see the stories hidden all around you. Being a writer is about noticing things that other people don’t notice. So notice what you notice. And then: write it down. In between those train and planes and descriptions of glaciers, you may just find the beginning of your next story.

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