Each month, Perceptive Travel, the webzine, brings you compelling travel narratives by some of the best writers in the business. But what’s the story behind that story? I wanted to know, and so starting with the June 2010 issue, I decided to ask. Look for a new edition of PT Writers at Work every week or so.

I’m kicking it off with a writer who’s also an old friend, Rachel Dickinson.  She’s written for a variety of magazines, from The Atlantic to Yankee; her most recent book is Falconer on the Edge (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009).  In her latest for Perceptive Travel, Trapped Beneath the Volcanic Ash Cloud, she tells the story of a recent trip to Ireland that became infamously prolonged.

Alison Stein Wellner: In your story, you mentioned that you were in Ireland to blog about it. When did you know that you were going to write this particular story?

Rachel Dickinson: The minute I got stuck there and found myself sobbing in front of the hotel manager, I thought here’s something I really could write about. Lord knows, like most people I like to write about myself. Oddly enough, I tend to use myself as the lens through which to see everything.

ASW: Did you start writing right then?

RD: I started taking notes. I am really compulsive about taking notes, I should buy stock  in Moleskine — I don’t even buy the fake-o ones, I buy the real ones.

Anyway, I know that if I force myself at the end of every day to sit and take notes, draw pictures and whatever, I can always call back on it. The more details I can get right then the more details I can use later on.

“This is the day I hit rock–bottom and the concierge found me crying in the hall. “I just need to get home,” I sobbed. I tried to book passage on the Queen Mary 2. Looked for rides on freighters. Do you know how few choices there are for a transatlantic crossing? Got pissed off because the British press didn’t give a rat’s ass about Americans trapped in their country. That government made plans to send British war ships to France to pick up stranded travelers. I emailed the American consulate in Belfast and asked when I could expect an American war ship to pick me up. I didn’t hear back and am probably on the kind of list you don’t want to be on when you travel for a living.” – From Trapped Beneath the Volcanic Ash Cloud

ASW: Wait, you draw?

RD: Yeah, I’ve taken to drawing stupid pictures, that’s what I call them, stupid pictures. I draw just like a ten year old, a stick-figure bird, or whatever — it’s like looking at really bad elementary school drawings. But there’s something about them…if I try to draw what I’m seeing, it  pulls on some extra sensory “stuff”, so when I get home, I have my notes, I have my photographs, and I have my stupid pictures to refer to. I loved the architecture in Belfast,  so I was glad I had to spend some more time there, drawing some rough sketches of buildings and The Giant’s Causeway. I was  just trying to draw what was outside my window. Obviously since I was looking at it for six days, I was able to refine those drawings several times! (Read more about Rachel’s note taking and stupid picture drawing here.)

ASW: Did you write a first draft when you were still in Ireland?

RD: I actually don’t do drafts of stories…or maybe my notes are my drafts? Anyway, I ruminate on things. I was spending time driving around, and in between being petrified of being killed by oncoming cattle truck, or of driving off a cliff, I was thinking: what’s the story, turning that over in my head. When I sit down to write it, it’s in one draft —  that is, it’s already fully crafted.

[Pause while I hate RD for a few moments as my process is way more tortured.]

[And we’re back.]

ASW: So where did you actually write the story?

At home. I have my laptop in front of me, I boot everyone off to school, and then the dog bugs me. The  dog and I have a thing, he nips at my feet, I yell at him and then we both get back to what we were doing.

I sit in my living room at a little table at a bay window.  Last year, I had to turn the table away from the window.  I was looking out and there was robin making a nest at eye level. I couldn’t get a flipping thing done for months! So  I had to turn my back on my nature.

ASW: Any advice for aspiring travel writers?

This is what I always say: I never know what the story is when I go someplace, I’m always looking and always open to anything being the story.  I always do take a lot of notes, and I don’t discount anything as being stupid or frivolous. You just don’t know what’s going to be the story.

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Alison J. Stein

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