Writing on the Road | Karen Kao

On the road sounds mythic, doesn't it? Think about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Or, if you've been binge-watching old movies these days, you'll know all about Bing Crosby and Bob Hope on the road to some place exotic.

Writing while on the road is a whole other ball of wax. Could I do it? Would I do it? These were the questions that haunted me as we set off on our 7 month long journey. I tried to prepare myself. Uploaded a handful of works-in-progress. Made sure my devices would store everything into the cloud. Resigned myself to the fact that I could not write with pen and paper while on the road. Typing with two thumbs was what I had to do.

I wanted to produce something more than What I Did on my Summer Holiday. In short, I was aiming to write new fiction. Now you want to know: did I?

On the road in Australia
Shrines for your Domestic Wishes by Marcia Espinosa. Photo credit: Karen Kao


Reading on the Road

For me, reading leads to writing. Of course, every writer does a certain amount of research. But like all readers, I long to be catapulted out of my armchair into the lives of others.

To read while on the road presents its own challenges. I prefer physical books. This, in and of itself, does not present a problem. Plenty of travelers leave home armed with a book or two, which they then trade or leave behind as they move further on the road. Here's the problem: I covet books. Not only do I like the way they feel in my hands, I make them mine by writing in the margins, dogearing the corners and, yes, breaking their poor spines. Impossible to bring enough books for 7 months. Impossible to leave a single one behind.

Enter the podcasts. Excellent entertainment for the many miles ahead. For example, I listened to Andrea Lee read "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami while on a long-haul flight from Honolulu to Auckland.

By the time our journey ended, I had read more books, stories and essays than at any other time in my life. As a result, I produced 21 book reviews. But did it help my fiction writing?


Time on the Road

On the road in Kyoto
A quiet cafe in Kyoto. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The strange thing about being on the road for 7 months is that time slips away. You rush out the door for that must-see temple or museum. Take a scooter around Hoi An or a hike along the Na Pali coast. I kept a journal and a photo log of our trip. Some days, those entries did little more than list the sights we'd seen. I had no time for reflection, let alone the distance I need to write.

We were in Kyoto, halfway through our trip, when I finally cracked. I threw my husband out of the house and gave myself permission to do nothing that day except write.

Over the course of our journey, we spent more and more time in cafes learning how to write while on the road. I didn't use noise-cancelling headphones. I bought no new device to achieve this wonder. My silver bullet turned out to be the realization that I'm happier when I write.



It's hard to say whether being on the road has improved my writing. It has definitely influenced me. Bomb shelters in Seoul and Gwangju inspired me to a write a short story about nuclear fallout on the Korean peninsula.
On the road in South Korea
Bomb shelter in Gwangju, South Korea. Photo credit: Karen Kao

My reading on the road has also crept into my writing. From Katherine Mansfield, I learned the joys of juxtaposition. Inspired by Annie Dillard as channeled by Alexander Chee, I'm forcing myself to use active verbs. And while I didn't discover Joseph Scapellato until we got home, I'm taking on board his suggestion to look at the shape of my story rather than its plot.

But most helpful of all was the thing I forgot at home. My manuscripts live in the cloud. I assumed they would therefore be easily accessibly while on the road. Not so. This proved to be a godsend for a story I've struggled with for years.

Did it work? That remains to be seen. In any event, over the past 7 months, I wrote 3 short stories and 1 essay, submitted 3 pieces to literary journals, and saw 1 of them published by the time we returned home. Not bad, if I do say so myself, for writing while on the road.

Note: Writing on the Road was written following a 7 month trip around the world. It was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


How interesting. I think you did very well to produce so much during your travels - what I sometimes find is that I can't write much while actually away on a trip but it does help me write more when I get home. But then, I have never done a marathon journey like yours. I am sure that would be quite different from my random week-long forays.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for sharing your road experiences with your sequestered colleagues here on AE! Having grown up in the last days of radio drama, I love podcasts and audiobooks. Great writer comes alive when read aloud - especially by a fine voice actor. I look forward to your newest fiction as it becomes available.

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