ARTA Writing Contest: Crafting a Travel Vignette

It won’t be long until the 2023 edition of ARTA’s annual writing contest will be open for submissions. As usual, the contest will invite ARTA members to submit their own original poetry, works of fiction, and travel vignettes.

It’s easy to imagine the winners of past writing contests being life-long writers and storytellers, but that’s not always the case. In fact, the winner of the 2022 travel vignette category, Charlotte Parker, doesn’t consider herself to be much of a writer at all, just someone who took a chance, put in the work, and told her own story.

Charlotte is a retired nurse who spent most of her forty-year career in the operating room, far from any pens or keyboards “I’ve always been more drawn to activities that allow me to work with my hands,” Charlotte says. “My mom always loved to write, and she encouraged me to write too, but I was just never that interested.”

Nevertheless, at the gentle urging of her husband, Charlotte summoned the courage to sit down to write something for the ARTA writing contest. She chose to explore a vivid memory from her recent trip to England: The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. “As I thought about our trip, I settled on that memory because it was unique and stirred a strong emotion in me,” Charlotte says. “I spent time unwrapping the various aspects of it, and I watched for a theme to emerge. There are a lot of ways to tease out a theme. Perhaps it is inspired by something that contrasts to your usual surroundings, or maybe it’s something that surprises you, catches your breath, or moves you to tears.”

After the theme was determined, Charlotte moved onto the story itself, and looked for ways to engage with the reader. “I like to connect with the reader’s emotions,” she says. “Things like curiosity, fear, joy, surprise, awe. I use them all in the process of rewrapping my memories to make a gift of adventure for the reader.”

Charlotte tries to put the reader in the same place she was through sensory descriptions as well. She asks herself what she remembers hearing in that moment? What made her stare? What did she smell? Taste? Feel? It all helps the reader feel what Charlotte felt in that moment and shows them why the moment she is describing is special.

Finally, comes the difficult part: editing. “I handed my first draft over to my husband for feedback,” Charlotte says, “It’s so frightening to give something you’ve written to someone else to judge. But my husband was smart enough to phrase his feedback very kindly. Even still, when he was done, I thought, ‘This is going to be too hard to fix, I’m just going to quit.’ But after some reflection, I realized I had already put in too much energy to just quit, so I buckled down and started to work on my next draft.”

Charlotte went back and forth with her husband until she had a vignette she was happy with. “A big part of my editing success was just taking time away from my writing and coming back when my mind was fully cleared,” she says. “I read it aloud too, to see how it flows. Sometimes there would be too many long sentences in a row, or too many short ones. You need variety to hold your reader’s interest.”

“I think if I’m brave enough to do it, anyone can be. I’m not a retired English teacher, or someone who has a background doing this kind of thing. So, if you’re thinking about submitting, I say, just go for it.”

You can read Charlotte’s winning travel vignette in the Spring 2023 issue of news&views.

Keep an eye out for the official 2023 writing contest announcement in the summer installment of news&views coming out this June. And if you’re thinking of submitting a travel vignette of your own, here is Charlotte’s advice, step by step:

  • Choose a vivid memory from a travel experience that resonates with you.
  • Choose, or discover, a theme that unites the piece and elevates it from an anecdote to a vignette.
  • Focus on the craft of writing to connect with the reader and put them in your shoes. Make sure the story flows and catches their attention.
  • Edit and revise. Ask a trusted friend or family member for feedback. Step away from the story and come back later with a fresh mind.