What do you need to consider when writing travel memoir? How fear of judgment and fear of failure are real issues even for established authors, and more in these selected excerpts from interviews with J.F. Penn around Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways.
In this episode, I talk about:
- How Pilgrimage fits across several sub-categories of the travel genre and the perils of writing cross-genre
- Fear of sharing personal aspects in the memoir, fear of launch, fear of failure, fear of judgment, and being terrified of doing a Kickstarter (recorded several days before the launch)
- How journals can be the basis of writing a travel memoir, structuring a book around theme, and why you have to think of the reader
I have a Kickstarter running as this goes out for my new travel memoir / solo walking book, Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways, and I’ve been doing interviews on the topic on various shows, so I wanted to share some snippets.
It might also introduce you to new shows that you might enjoy and you can find them all on your podcast app, wherever you’re listening to this. The clips are from Travel Writing World, Wish I’d Known Then, and Sacred Steps, and I was also on Into the Woods.
I’ve included different clips on my Books and Travel Podcast, more about the walking than the writing side, so you can also listen there.
I also wanted to let you know that we reached the stretch goal — even though I was scared of not making it!
All backers will get an extra audio with a transcript on how I turned hundreds of pages of hand-written journal entries and hundreds of photos into a finished travel memoir.
This will only go to backers, so even if you’re not that interested in pilgrimage, you might want my tips on writing travel memoir, and you can back the campaign with just a few pounds.
Just go to JFPenn.com/pilgrimage and that will redirect to the Kickstarter until 5 Feb, after which it will take you to where the book will be available later in the year. So let’s get into it.
In this clip from the Travel Writing World podcast with Jeremy Bassetti, I talk about how Pilgrimage is sits across different sub-genres of the travel niche.
Transcript of the clip from Travel Writing World
Jeremy Bassetti: You'd mentioned your journal and leaning into your journal while writing this book. It has kind of this memoir or travelogue component, it has an account of your pilgrimages, but it's also kind of like a guidebook, if I may, for the idea of going on a pilgrimage itself.
So, it does many things this book, but I was wondering how would you describe it?
Jo Frances Penn: Well, you know how difficult this is!
Originally I thought I would write travel guides to the routes. I thought I would just have three travelogue-type books. And then I thought I would do a travel memoir about all the travels of my life.
And then I realized after I finished the Camino that I did have a personal arc, a character arc.
Memoir, I think is defined by some kind of transformational arc in the person.
So, I mean, you can go on a trip like your photography trip to Bolivia, for example. It doesn't have to change the direction of your life. It can just be a trip for taking photos and whatever.
In terms of how I would describe the book, it's kind of a travel memoir, so it is a personal, emotional, spiritual transformation, but it's also a self-help guide for people who want to do solo walking. And I put in the appendices some very practical things, including accommodation and gear and stuff like that.
So, I feel like it can do both, but of course, that makes it very difficult in terms of a particular genre. I guess it falls through the gaps of so many sub-genres, but I hope it's both useful to people who consider the idea of pilgrimage, but also those who practically want help.
Jeremy Bassetti: You mentioned that you originally set out to write travel guides and also like a memoir, so I was wondering if the evolution of the idea of the book happened as you were writing it, or did that happen in the earlier stages when you were trying to figure out what it was exactly you were going to write?
Jo Frances Penn: It really happened right at the end there, once I came back from the Camino. I mean, I had over a hundred thousand words in a Scrivener project.
And like yourself, I've read very many travel books over decades. And so I had a lot of quotes and I had a lot of musings, and I just didn't know what the book was going to be until I returned from the Camino and I realized that I had discovered home, for example, which is something I really hadn't felt before, which is quite weird. But I think many travelers feel this, like, where is my home? And I did kind of discover that.
I also had the sort of midlife realizations around things. I had so much material, and this is the problem with writing travel books. Of course you can end up with so much material but when I read it, so much was repetitive.
And this is a danger of the travelogue, I think. I mean, if you are walking pilgrimage routes or any multi-day walking, every day is the same. So I ended up just doing one small chapter on the pilgrim's day, but it's a very simple life, right? The bigger question is — what is the transformation?
So yes, I really didn't know until the end. And in fact, even my book cover. My audience thought they wanted this particular cover, sort of a commercial travel guide cover with blue skies and sun.
And I ended up choosing one of my own pictures from the St. Cuthbert’s Way, which is one of my photos of a hill to climb and stormy skies, which is far more of what pilgrimage is to me, and for probably most people. It’s more truthful.
So yes, pilgrimage is a challenge and writing a book about it is certainly a challenge.
My discussion with Jeremy continues into why walk a pilgrimage when I am not religious, why walking is healing and pilgrimage in particular can heal deeper wounds of the soul, how the gifts of pilgrimage come with hindsight, why we travel, and how to figure out what kind of travel book to write.
You can listen to the rest of the episode on Travel Writing World on your favourite podcast app. Jeremy also has interviews with travel writers like Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron, and many more on his show, or check out his website TravelWritingWorld.com
Jeremy has also been on this podcast talking about the different sub-genres of travel writing, tackling imposter syndrome, and more.
In this next clip, I’m on the Wish I’d Known Then Podcast with Sara Rosett and Jami Albright, and we’ve known each other for years so we have a great in-depth chat.
In this excerpt we talk about fear — fear of sharing personal aspects in the memoir, fear of launch, fear of failure, fear of judgment, oh my goodness, so many fears going into this, for sure!
Transcript of the clip from Wish I'd Known Then
Jami: Speaking of things being scary, was it scary to write a lot of personal things? I mean, I'm an oversharer, so for me that would not be that hard. But I know you're not.
Jo Frances Penn: It's interesting because of course we all have our boundaries, right? We have all our lines and of course I do share, I share a lot and have done since I was online in 2008.
And also in my fiction, I share a lot of my thoughts on like religion through my characters. So Morgan Sierra particularly in my ARKANE thriller series has thoughts about religion and various things that come from my own experience or some of my travel experiences are fictionalized in other books.
But this is the first memoir where it's like, this is actually me and it's not fictionalized and so it is really kind of emotionally revealing. To me anyway, I feel the book is emotionally revealing in a way that I haven't been before, and that's scary.
It's also the fear of judgment. I always have fear of judgment about any book.
I don't know what I'm scared of, but I'm really scared!
I mean, I almost feel now that the book is done. I cannot change it. And in fact, I only gave it to my husband when it was finished. And I only gave it to my mum when it was finished. And those two people, I was like, I really hope they don't say I can't publish it because it's already done. I actually gave them the hardback.
Sara: Oh wow.
Jo: And yes, because I felt like it's my story, and if they don't want me to publish it, I'm going to have to argue that. Thankfully they both said it was okay.
Although my mum was sad because she felt like she didn't know necessarily at the time, what I was going through, but I said to her, and this will be true if anyone's having mental health issues, sometimes when you are going through things, you cannot ask for help because you are in the darkness, right?
Sara: So you don't even realize you're going through things until you look back later and go, oh, that was not a good time sometimes. I'm in self-denial a lot about a lot of things, so I understand that
Jo Frances Penn: Right. But that's why journaling is so important. I mean, I read some of the journal entries that I've put in the book and I'm like, I don't even know that person.
Sara: Well, speaking of fear, let's talk about the Kickstarter because I totally identify with being a little worried about — a lot worried — about the Kickstarter.
Talk to us about the fear around the Kickstarter
Or maybe someone may not do a Kickstarter, but they might do a launch — and when I did my Kickstarter, I was like, okay, I remember now. I used to feel this way when I launched a book, and now I'm more in the routine of launching a book, so it's not as scary, right? But the Kickstarter brought it all back. Talk to us about that.
Jo Frances Penn: Well, thank you for your help because I emailed you and you've helped me with various questions like international shipping, which in itself is, which is terrifying, because you realize, like specifically, I had put “Will ship to all countries.” I'd come up with a price for all countries and then I just checked a few things, like, okay, how much to send to Peru or Malawi or Indonesia. And then I was like, okay, then I can't use that!
Sara: Maybe delete that!
Jo: Yes, I did. So, essentially we are recording this just a few days before it starts. I've put six main countries and then I've put, please email me if you want me to add your country.
But yes, in terms of the fear. It's so funny you talk about launches because I also realized that I have not properly launched a book for probably eight years.
All I do is finish the book, I do a very short pre-order, sometimes like just a month when it's already finished.
I upload all the formats and then on when it goes out that day, I just send an email, talk about it on the podcast, and that's about it really. I might put a few ads on and so I haven't really launched a book in so long that this feels very, very weird.
Like you both, I'm quite low-key. I don't do hard selling, so I’m normally like, here it is, buy it whenever you like. It doesn't matter. It’s very low-key.
But the Kickstarter is like, buy it in this two-week period (23 Jan – 5 Feb, 2023).
And you have to I guess tell people more often, like email more than once a month or do some videos and maybe do social media every day and yeah, all this stuff that I haven't done, like probably ever.
So that's one thing, the fear of launch, and also, this is a new genre with travel memoir, and a new format — I’m doing this special hardcover with a fly leaf with color photos inside, which I've never done before. It's got silver foil, I mean, it's really beautiful.
It’s also a new platform, Kickstarter. So new genre, new format, new platform. I think if I'd thought about that beforehand, I may not have gone ahead.
Jami: Just dive into the deep end!
Jo Frances Penn: And it's so funny because last year in 2022, I built my Shopify store, www.CreativePennBooks.com and that was a massive project too, putting my entire backlist onto Shopify and all that.
So, yes, I’m afraid of the emotional potential response to the book. I'm afraid of getting something really wrong that affects the money.
I'm afraid that I will be very embarrassed because this is not aimed at my target audience. So I may not fund. I've put it really low, so I hope to fund but to be frank, I've got a platform, I’ve got a book on How to Market a Book, so if I can’t fund, I'll be very embarrassed, basically.
So, yes, it does feel like a risk. And yet I was reflecting on this this morning thinking, this is good because I've been publishing since 2008 when I published my first book.
It’s good to switch things up and to push your comfort zone.
If this was still the same year after year after year, we would be bored and we would go do another job.
So that was recorded just a few days before launching the Kickstarter and as I record this the campaign is at almost £14,000 (around US$17K) and my goal was very low at £1000 so thank you to everyone who has bought the book through the campaign and as I record this, I am still scared of the response to the emotional side of the book as it hasn’t gone out yet — but at least I can say the campaign is going well!
In the rest of the discussion with Jami and Sara, we talk about intuitive writing, how Indies can now make beautiful books, direct sales and empowerment, and some futurist things around incorporating AI into our writing.
There are loads of great interviews and discussions on Wish I’d Known Then across a load of genres, as well as writing craft and business tips, plus Sara and Jami are lovely, friendly hosts, so check that out wherever you listen to podcasts.
Sara has also been on this show before talking about structuring and writing series.
Kevin is also writing a travel memoir, and we discuss how our journals are the basis of writing a travel memoir and why it might be easier to structure around themes, but also why you have to think of the reader and change your perspective if you want to use your journals in writing.
Using journals in travel writing
Kevin: Specifically on the journal side, I found the easiest, the most comfortable way to present this was really around some simple themes. And for me they are faith, hope, and love.
What are those elements of my pilgrimage where those have been evident, the lessons learned around them. There are days that brought forth these simple tropes of, this is how I was impacted in these three thematic ways.
And as you said, people do pilgrimage for different reasons, but for me, it's been considering what are the questions I should be asking myself about these three elements that are so important in my life, and what are the answers that have been inspired by my experiences or my time to think about these things. So that's really the context for me.
Jo Frances Penn: The other thing about writing a book we should say is that it's also for other people.
You can keep your journal as your own experience, but when you write a book, they are for other people to read.
So in Pilgrimage, I have a lot of practical tips, for example, about solo walking and gear and other stuff like food. I have a chapter on suffering, my spiritual faith journey, and all of that kind of thing. But I do think that our tips from doing these longer walks can also be useful for others.
I also wanted to comment on Truth (with a capital T ) versus truth (with a little t) because this is important for you writing a novel as well.
So Truth is the things that you are going write in fiction, potentially that means love, hope, and whatever, but you will be fictionalizing or concatenating or changing or exaggerating things that didn't happen that way in order to underscore the bigger Truth of pilgrimage.
This is really important to keep in mind when people are reading a travel memoir as well. The writer will sometimes potentially change the truth in order to underscore the Truth.
Certainly some of my journal entries that I include in the book are from different points, but I use them in the same chapters around certain elements to underscore the point that I hope will be useful for other pilgrims. So yes, the experience of writing a book is almost a pilgrimage in itself.
[NOTE: I have more episodes and book recommendations on writing memoir here, many of which talk about the element of Truth vs truth.]
So I hope you found those clips interesting, and you can listen to the complete episodes on the podcast feeds for Travel Writing World with Jeremy Bassetti, Wish I’d Known Then with Sara Rosett and Jami Albright, and Sacred Steps with Kevin Donahue. I was also on Holly Worton’s Into The Woods Podcast.
You can find different clips on my Books and Travel Podcast if you’d like to hear more.
As this goes out, Pilgrimage is available on my Kickstarter campaign. Just go to JFPenn.com/pilgrimage and it’s available in a special limited edition signed hardback, as well as a paperback, ebook, audiobook narrated by me, large print edition, and a workbook.
It will be on Kickstarter until 5 February 2023, and then you can still visit that link to find it on all the other stores later in the year.