One of travel memoir’s most important elements is personal growth and how it drives your story arc.

But what if you don’t recognize that story arc from the beginning? What if you have a story to tell, but you’re not sure how you grew along the way or the best way to portray that to the reader?

Here’s my advice: Start writing anyway.

The beauty of memoir is that the process of writing reveals insight you’d never expect. Writing helps us find meaning in our experiences, understand the whys behind those events, and see more clearly how we’ve changed because of it all.

When I’d written at least half a dozen chapters of my travel memoir, I saw down with my writing partner to figure out how my personal growth would fit into the story. Or, more accurately, what my personal growth even was. I’d changed in so many ways while backpacking solo through Africa that it was difficult for me to see which thread was most important.

“Maybe you weren’t sure whether you could do this trip on your own,” my critique partner suggested, “and you learned that you could. Did you gain confidence in yourself?”

I chuckled. That would’ve made sense for most narratives. But, the adamantly independent twenty-something that I was, I’d started out overconfident, without a doubt that I could accomplish the trip on my own. Traveling alone in Africa had turned out to be more difficult – not easier – than I expected. “It was actually the opposite,” I told Peggy. “I think I learned that I can’t do everything by myself.”

Saying it aloud flipped a switch in my brain – I knew we were onto something. After another half hour of talking it through, Peggy and I had pinpointed how I’d grown: I’d realized the value of leaning on others.

From there, my story arc grew and morphed. I added an element of learning to live in the present rather than always looking to the future. Another about appreciating the opportunities I’d been born into while others on this earth had so little. But the personal growth we identified that day ended up at the core of my story.

For my next travel memoir, I like to think I’ll figure out my own personal growth from the beginning. I’ll recognize it more easily now that I know what it looks like, how it feels, how it shapes the story. After all, it’s easier to write a manuscript when you can map out that growth from the beginning.

But even if the story arc is initially hidden from view, I’ll keep writing. Because putting bits and pieces of the story on paper and thinking through the ups and downs of one experience after another helps the person I’ve become eventually shine through the fog. And when it does, my story will be better for it.

If you’re interested in this genre, I hope you’ll join our Facebook group for Travel Memoir Writers.

Alexis Grant is a journalist who’s writing a book about backpacking solo through Africa. She blogs at The Traveling Writer and tweets as @alexisgrant.

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