On Travel Writing and Writing Well

Good travel writing doesn’t come from exotic locations. Any place can spark insight, nuance, or inspiration. Appalachia provides as good material as England, Ukraine, or Thailand.

To write well requires a mix of entrepreneurial spirit to act as historian, journalist, tourist, guide, and sociologist. It leads to historical quirks or overlooked towns for subject material.

It’s difficult to condense history, perspective, or the political outlook of a country into 1,000 words. Most travel blogs don’t bother, writing a chronological narrative instead: arriving, finding the hostel, eating lunch, visiting an old castle, getting drunk at night. None of that makes for an interesting post. I can buy a guidebook from Rick Steves or Lonely Planet for all of that, without clichés about a city being cheap/friendly/beautiful.

My writing gets better the more I travel, which comes from jarring my perspective. It informs me and makes me realize my limitations. As Bill Buford said in the introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2010, “place defines us more than our habits allow us to know.” Leaving a familiar place allows for self-examination and comparison.

Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts, declared that “at its very best, travel writing should be a technique to explore history, art, and politics in the liveliest fashion possible.” Approaching travel writing as a technique, rather than a genre, loosens restrictions to allow an examination of the self, the foreign culture, or the native culture the writer leaves.

Likewise with Paul Theroux in Travel Writing: The Point of It: “The job of the travel writer is to go far and wide, make voluminous notes, and tell the truth. There is immense drudgery in the job. but the book ought to live, and if it is truthful, it ought to be prescient without making predictions.” Combine the practical and the literary; that is, write to enhance the understanding of a foreign culture.

All that said, travel writing need not be about place. Many stories could be in any city and it wouldn’t lose value in the transition. Yet I’m obsessively interested in place, almost fanatically. Place shapes culture, preferences, political ideals, moral convictions, and economic and social mobility. Place presents problems and provides solutions, and that’s what I aim to discover: place as an extension of the past, the control of the present, and the shaping of the future.