Travel Writing


On Travel Writing


Travel writing is one of the last great “generalist” professions, where you are integrating all this knowledge—geography, history, religion, language, culture, art, literature, music, architecture, ecology, biology, anthropology, sociology, storytelling, politics, philosophy—into one coherent narrative that communicates place and culture to the people back home.Rolf Potts [#]


Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park of golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and the library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves. —Alasdair Gray, Lanark


Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner, and one hot July week in Oxford I was moved to spend an afternoon walking the graveyard looking for his stone, a kind of courtesy call on the owner of the property. A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image, and not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones. It is hard to see one of these places claimed by fiction without a sudden blurring, a slippage, a certain vertiginous occlusion of the imagined and the real. —Joan Didion, The White Album ("In the Islands")


At a time when the world feels chaotic and frightening, writers who go out to see it and describe it seem more important, not less. Even fluffy, expository stories about pretty places matter if people are less inclined to travel, since then the writer acts as the reader’s proxy, bringing back the world that most people might be reluctant to go out and see for themselves. At the most elemental level, the world’s troubles are the result of people turning inward and turning away from whatever and whoever is different and unfamiliar. If a writer can make even one reader feel more open to someone or someplace new, I think he or she has accomplished something well worth doing. —Susan Orlean, My Kind of Place


Our writers are certainly not telling us what we shall see or feel ourselves, if ever we go to the parts they write about, and it is no good complaining that our own responses were different, if we happen to have been there already. For they are other minds that we are traveling with here, other sensibilities, and as any philosopher knows, the truth about anything is nobody's monopoly—not least, the truth about a place.Jan Morris [#]


I start by banishing clichés and vague descriptions. “Hardscrabble, down-and-out, fading”—into the garbage. I think long and hard before talking about palm trees, trailer parks or cornfields to illuminate a place. The view through my windshield is only a shard of the story. I live in the nuanced specific. —Jack Healy [#]


Now, engaging a vast audience is an institutional obsession. Our coverage cannot be chin-stroking and scholarly; we have to wade in. Especially if we take a point of view, the people we’re writing about read our pieces instantaneously, look for inaccuracies and tell us we’re full of baloney. This is not glamorous. It regularly makes my stomach flip over from anxiety. But it is basically a good thing. It makes us better.
Second: If you do your job even decently well you’re going to make someone angry. […] If we listen to criticism too much, it inhibits our ability to say anything, which is, after all, why we’re here. —Ellen Barry [#]


Instead of more consumerism—the buying of experiences, the accumulation of things, of eating the ‘other’—perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated? Where is your food produced and by whom and how does it travel to your local market? What are the names of the rocks under your feet and around you? What formed those geological features? Who were the first humans here? What flora and fauna live upon it and what are their habits and interfaces? What stars whirl above you and what names have they been given, what lore? How can one trace the relations, find the slippages between histories, the linkages, to find the complexities in naming and of the named? Travel as one’s carbon footprint; travel as a footstep, travel as a naming in a landscape in all its complexity. Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being. —Hoa Nguyen [#]


All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. —Leo Tolstoy (apparently)