Perceptive Travel Writers at Work #1: Rachel Dickinson

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.


  1. Jane Boursaw July 7, 2010
  2. Alison Wellner July 8, 2010
  3. pelu awofeso July 10, 2010

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