On Travel Writing

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot
When I travel, I want as few prejudices as possible. And by prejudices I mean, “The people are friendly.” A kitten dies every time a person makes saccharine generalizations about how friendly the natives are. Friendly people are everywhere. Unfriendly people are everywhere. You need to try harder than that if you are going to hook me in long enough to read.
We’ve all gotten better with this, but too much travel writing still has embedded comparisons. We should act more grown-up about Indian toilets and dog meat. Everywhere is dysfunctional and functional in its own way. Some writers may need to stop orientalizing and exotifying. When you are in a location foreign to you, you are the exotic object, not them.
Let’s talk about travel blogging. Travel blogging is not travel writing. Most popular travel blogs are for PR/marketing/meeja hos. There’s nothing wrong with being a meeja ho. These are the people you may admire in the blogosphere, as I sometimes do, because they are getting comped things like airfare, hotel, food, luggage, and cameras. Best of all, they get publicity. The exposure is priceless. I doubt many of them make enough money to save, but breaking even is cool and once in a while they make it truly big.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed most bloggers can’t write anything more than a list. “Top Ten Beaches in the Philippines” and “Best Bars in Austin” isn’t travel writing. It’s listing. Writing is secondary to some travel blogs. Others try a little harder. But we see a lot of this:

“The fynbos whizzed past, as I stared out the window at the endless expanse of vineyards in the distance. Ah, this is the Western Cape at its best.”

And every time I see it,  I just can’t get past the first line. Get out of your own head, and learn how to speak to us, your audience.

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I was raised to think of travel as something people did, not something that people wrote or read about. Without much armchair travel experience, I don’t think I write travel pieces well. You can’t write well what you don’t read.  Not having enough bad experiences makes a lot of my stuff sound like, “The fynbos whizzed past…”

Blogging is different, because it allows for pithy snapshots of people, places, and things. It’s easier. We might also get people to read our stuff, instead of having to pitch to an editor.
If we are good, we get all five senses in a few seconds without any impressionistic ramblings. Yet most of what is out there seems trite. For one, the obsession with lists has gone too far. All of the lists are starting to sound the same, whether it’s best dive sites in Mauritius or best bars in Prague. The ones about “How you can quit your job and live your dream life” are boring too. No one has a voice anymore.
Plus, blogs are not that practical. Travelers can no longer count on guidebooks, but are blogs any different? Now we have too much information, and too few reliable sources.

There is also a PR/marketing undercurrent that is hurting the credibility of travel blogging too. I would like to raise the bar, and give the world what it really needs–a fusion of traditionally well-written material condensed into bite-sized morsels for the attention-deficient readership.


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Precious few writers can capture the bitterness as well as the sweetness, the contradictions, the anger, the ambiguity, and all the other things that make all humans…human.

I’m on vacation now, digesting my travels in Vancouver. I will be reading. And in the process of reading, I will also be writing. Maybe I’ll even write about my travels!

Currently on deck is The Geography of Bliss. I like it so far. The author also explores the anthropology of happiness, providing a theme-based lens with a sharp focus. His prose is superb: succinct but personal; humorous but deeply thoughtful. It is what I would call good travel writing. 

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