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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about a Journey, Quest, Pilgrimage

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October 2012
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Dave Hood

One way to write a personal narrative in creative nonfiction is to tell a story about a journey. All journeys have a starting point and destination. The journey usually begins with some question, which the central character desires to learn from the journey.  Along the path, the character is a participant in a series of events, which impact his/her psyche. The character also faces setbacks and obstacles, encounters a crisis, participates in story that has  climax, and ends with a resolution. The journey also provides the character with new insights or illuminations, which help to answer a nagging question. Often the central character experiences an epiphany or a lesson that you learned.

This is certainly true for the creative nonfiction book, ” Into the Wild,” a true story written by Jon Krakauer,  about a young, idealistic man who abandons his possessions, gives away all of his $24,000 in a savings account, and then journeys across the United States, then to Alaska, where he dies by misadventure. It is a sad, true story of a journey about a naive man. Near death, dying from unintentional poisoning (He eat poison berries in an effort to prevent starvation), Christopher McCandless, the central character, realizes that “man cannot be an island unto himself.” Happiness must be shared.

Writing about a journey, a quest, or a pilgrimage is a popular form of creative nonfiction. Esteemed writer, E.B White, in his narrative a journey called “Walden”, shares a story about his trip to pay homage to Henry David Thoreau. (You can read it in Creative Nonfiction by Eileen Pollack) He writes about the trip by car, the surroundings at Walden pond, and personal reflections at Walden.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a bestselling book called “Eat, Pray, Love” in which she shares her journey to find herself after her marriage ends. She shares her reflections and describes the surroundings, adventures, new experiences, people she meets, cuisine, and culture while  traveling to Italy, India, Indonesia.

Not only can a writer craft essays about a journey, the writer can also write entire books about a journey. Author Michael Krasny wrote about a spiritual quest in “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” Krasny narrates a life story about his struggles with faith, his ambivalence toward religious doctrine, and his desire to answer a variety of metaphysical questions, such as Does God exist?

In this article, I’ll explain how write a personal essay or literary journalism essay about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage from a creative nonfiction perspective. First, I’ll define the difference between a journey, quest, and pilgrimage. Then I’ll explain the elements of a story, followed by an explanation of the narrative arc or story structure. Finally, I’ll identify a few tools and tips for writing about a journey, quest, or narrative.

Definition

There are three ways to write about an adventure. First, you can write about a journey. A journey involves traveling to some place and experiencing some epiphany or a lesson that you learn.

Secondly, you can write about a quest. It is a journey in which you seek to find or discover something of value.

Finally, you can write about a pilgrimage. In this type of journey, you travel to some place to pay homage or show your respects to a religious place or religious person, or to uncover something of spiritual or moral significance.

A journey, quest, pilgrimage also includes setbacks and obstacles. For instance, if you are writing about a bike trip, you’d include the significant obstacles you faced, such as the horrendous traffic, rainy weather, bumpy roads. You’d also write about the setbacks you faced. Perhaps you got lost. Perhaps someone stole your wallet. Perhaps you fell off your bike and were injured. Perhaps you were forced to repair a flat tire in the rain.

A journey, quest, or pilgrimage also has a climax or turning point. For instance, the turning point in your bike trip could be achieving the destination and realizing you’d wasted your time. There is also a resolution to your journey. All unanswered questions are answered, and loose ends are tied up.

A journey, quest, or pilgrimage should also include some insight, illumination, or epiphany. Otherwise, readers will say to themselves: So what? What is the point of your story?

In Creative Nonfiction, author Eileen Pollack suggests that a journey, quest, or pilgrimage requires several elements:

  1. A question that the writer has a desire to  answer
  2. A destination-where are you going?
  3. Motives for taking the journey.
  4. Observations and experiences as you journey
  5. Personal reflections, insights, illuminations, or an epiphany.

What is a Story?

Whether you are composing a narrative poem, short fiction, or some sort of journey based on real-life experience, the elements of a story are the same. A good story includes the following elements:

  • Central character or protagonist. If you are writing a journey about yourself, you are the protagonist. Every central character has desires, wants, needs, goals to achieve.
  • Conflict. The conflict can be within the character’s psyche or external, such as a conflict with another family member, a religious group, society.
  • Plot. All stories require a series of related events in which the central character participates. As the character moves forward, attempting to achieve a particular goal, want, need, a series of related events unfold.
  • Complication. A good story includes one or more setbacks or obstacles that prevent the central character from achieving a desired goal, need, want.
  • Resolution. A good story requires that all unanswered questions are answered, the conflict is resolved, some sort of epiphany or lesson that is learned from the journey.

And so, when you write about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage, make sure to include character, plot, conflict, complication, and a resolution.

Narrative Arc or Story Structure

How do you organize or structure your story about a journey, quest, pilgrimage? Use the fictional technique of a “narrative arc” to structure you adventure. Writer Jack Hart, author of “Story Craft”, explains the narrative arc in his chapter on “Structure.”  This narrative arc has five phases:

  1. Exposition. It is the first phase of the story. The writer provides a backdrop to the story, such as the setting. He introduces the background details of the story, main character, and inciting incident that starts the character on a journey. Sometimes the writer begins with a crisis instead of the inciting incident.
  2. Rising Action. It is the second phase of the story. A series of related events unfold in which the central character is a participant. These related events create dramatic tension. Often there is mystery and suspense. As the character takes the journey, he experiences one or more setbacks or obstacles, which make it more difficult to complete the journey. Sometimes, the writer shares background information as one or more flashbacks.
  3. Crisis. It resolves the complication. It includes the event just before the climax. The crisis takes the story to its main event or climax. It is the point in the story in which everything hangs in the balance. For instance, suppose you are writing about a journey to take a trip. You are at the airport, experiencing conflict about whether to hop on the plane or remain behind. This conflict creates a crisis, whether to begin the journey or not.
  4. Climax. (resolution) It is the main event of the story, and turning point in the story. It is the event with the most tension and drama.  It leads to a resolution of conflict and crisis.
  5. Falling action (denouncement) The pace of the story slows, the drama subsides, unanswered questions are answered. Often the writer shares an epiphany or lesson that he has learned from the journey.  Sometimes, the writer ends with a quote or final point. The reader knows that the story has reached its end.

Other Techniques of Creative Nonfiction

Your personal narrative about a journey should be written in scenes, summary, and personal reflection. When writing about significant events, write in scenes. A scene shows the reader what happened. It includes action, dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view, imagery.

To explain, use summary. It tells the reader what happened. Your true story about a journey also requires personal reflections. How did you feel? What did you learn? What insights came to you about the people and surroundings and the experience?

Include intimate Details. These are images and ideas only you know. They are images and ideas that reveal a truth about a person, place, event. Readers will not be able to imagine them unless you share them in your writing. In short, you are writing about the intimate details that capture the essence of the story or heart of the story. Intimate details are those that readers will not imagine without you writing the details in your story.

Use the inner point of view.  You share what you see, feel, experience as you take the journey, quest, or pilgrimage. If you are writing about your own journey, use the first person point of view (“I”). If you are writing about someone else, use the third-person point of view (“he/she”).

Also include concrete and specific description, poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery.

If you are writing about someone else, you’ll be required to conduct research, such as interviewing, immersion, and fact-collection from the Library or Internet.

Your journey requires a theme. What does this mean? You’ll have to determine the meaning of your journey, quest, pilgrimage, and share it with readers.

Tips for Writing about a Spiritual Quest, Journey, Pilgrimage

Here are a few tips for writing about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage:

  1. Avoid using clichés and jargon. Write with fresh and original language.
  2. Begin with a question you want to answer, then take a journey to answer your question.
  3. Engage the reader by telling a true story or narrative about a spiritual journey, quest, pilgrimage. A story includes a beginning, middle, and end. A narrative includes elements of an inciting incident, setbacks or obstacles, climax or turning point, resolution, some insight or epiphany, a universal truth about the human condition.
  4. The best way to structure your story is to use the narrative arc. A story begins with an inciting incident, includes a personal motivation or desire to achieve some purpose, requires setbacks or obstacles, has a climax, turning point, and insight, lesson learned, or epiphany.
  5. Don’t proselytize, which means to attempt to convert others to your religious views and beliefs.
  6. Write with the purpose of informing, educating, entertaining the reader.
  7. Use both scene and summary. Craft scenes when writing about setbacks or obstacles and a climax. A scenes is like a scene in a movie. It includes setting (time, place, social context), dramatic action (something happens), dialogue (spoken words of significant people), intimate details (including details that the reader would not be able to visualize or expect to imagine), inner point of view( experiencing the word through the eyes of the person you are writing about) Use summary to explain, to condense, to compress. Summary means “to tell” or “to explain.”
  8. Use personal reflection-share your emotional truth. Share  how the spiritual journey felt to you.
  9. Avoid self-centred writing, focusing on yourself. Unless you’re writing in a personal journal, creative nonfiction writing must be an unselfish activity. Otherwise, readers will stop reading. And so, seek to engage readers with the outside world—the journey itself, the quest itself, the pilgrimage itself.
  10. If you are serious about writing about a spiritual journey, read “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostics Quest by Michael Krasny.”  His book illustrates how to write about the spiritual from a creative nonfiction perspective—with scene, summary, personal reflection. His memoir is a personal and philosophical journey in search of God, in search of spiritual meaning and purpose, in search of faith, religion, spirituality, supreme being he could believe in.

In writing about a journey, quest, pilgrimage, always keep in mind that you are telling a true story.  As well, you purpose is to inform and educate readers about the journey itself. You must entertain your readers by using the fictional techniques of storytelling, such as character development, narrative, setting,  and use poetic devices, such as simile and metaphor.  You`ll also create scene, summary, and share personal reflection. Structure your story as a narrative arc.  The journey, quest, pilgrimage should end with an epiphany or lesson learned.

Resources

For additional information on writing a personal narrative about a journey, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny
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2 Comments

  1. amaya ellman says:

    Thanks for this excellent article. I haven’t tried creative non-fiction yet, but this inspires me to consider it as another form of expression.

    Best wishes,
    Amaya

  2. Lucie says:

    This is an excellent blog. Keep up the good work!

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