Good travel writers must push through their vague, cliché, and even racist presuppositions about a foreign place. ~Arron Hamburger, The Matador Network
I found a French book club here in Seattle. I know, I can’t get much more pretentious, could I?
It would be easy to give up French, to let it slip from my memory here in Seattle and forget that I still can’t tell the difference in sound between an accent agiu or an accent grave or that yesterday, I said, “page soixante-dice-sept.” Embarrassing.
Now that I can make a decent sentence, I refuse to put French into storage with a pile of things I used to do: Breed swordtails. Play the flute. Drink vodka straight.
Anyway, we’re reading L’engime du Retour by Dany Laferrière. Even though I only understand about 70-80% of it sans dictionaire, I can tell the writing is beautiful.
He captures the perpetual snow of Montreal and contrasts it with the vibrant tropics of Haiti, his home country. Even thought the words aren’t in my native tongue, I am right there with the author, watching the snow collect on windowsills in Montreal or birds fly overhead in Haiti.
I may never be able to capture a place the way he does, but I have learned through trial and error (mostly error) what not to do when it comes to travel writing. I put together a list to help some of you break into this glamourous world of small paychecks and (sometimes) free hotel rooms. Enjoy!
Travel writing cliches
Hidden gem: When did this start? And why is it used so often used in reference to chain hotels, that are not hidden, just partly shrouded by more chain hotels in front of them?
I rounded the corner of the industrial park, tired and thirsty. The golden lights of the Best Western’s windows reflected in the puddles like beacons, begging me to come in and rest my weary bones. Behold! A hidden gem.
Authentic: Completely necessary sometimes, like when one is describing a type of food steeped in culinary tradition. Completely obnoxious other times.
That McDonald’s apple pie was so…what’s the word for it? Authentic.
I also hate it when reviewers use authentic when they’re eating Mexican food in Mexico. Ok, we kind of figured since you were in Mexico, you’d be eating Mexican food.
The ___ is the new____.: When I was a beginner copywriter, I would write like this. I thought it was a clever turn of phrase. “Polka Dots are the new stripes!” “Giraffes are the new owls!” Now when I read, “Wichita is the new Austin” or “Bogata is the new Rio,” I get queasy and wonder how many people rolled their eyes at my own writing. I haven’t been to Bogata (one day!) or Wichita, but I am pretty sure it’s impossible that they suddenly turned into an entirely new place.
“Oh those poor natives”
Some travel writers write about their experiences as a privileged person encountering the so-called third-world for the first time (there’s one world!). And they write about the horror on the begging children’s faces and how they went back to their hotel and cried all over the 800-thread-count sheets and had some epiphany or moral crisis and cease to identify themselves as an American.
There they were, a sea of children, barefoot and begging. I snapped off a couple photos for my blog. I couldn’t get their faces out of my mind. That very night, I cried myself to sleep.
Stop doing that. Don’t dehumanize people, especially not children. Write about connections. I am not saying travel writing has to be overwhelmingly positive. But a writer shouldn’t put him or herself over there <————– and the other people here ——–> and talk about how horrified he or she is seeing this stuff on a vacation. Or how warm-hearted and gregarious the writer must be to be accepted into this unique tribe.
Visiting slums isn’t a safari.
Remedy: Write about connections. I have a lot of friends from developing nations. Some spent a portion of their lives in refugee camps. I feel disgustedly pampered every time we hang out. I could write about how shocking it is to discover how little people have elsewhere and how hard their lives are and how their stories contrast deeply with my life of happy hours, art museums, and beaches. But I’d rather try to capture their wide smiles, the way they move as a family unit, the way they are similar to me. I could (and will) write about our hilarious miscommunications.
Focus on a connection you had or a humorous encounter. Or take yourself completely out of the story. Don’t be afraid to quote someone, journalist style.
It all ends with a sunset
I love sunsets and sunrises. But in pictures, not travel writing. Putting a sunset at the end of your writing (along with a vow to return one day) is like bowing to your audience. I will never forgive the makers of Garden State for ending the love story at the airport, the laziest ending to what would have been a great movie. I can’t even listen to the “Shins” without seeing Natalie Portman sitting in tears in the terminal. Did he get on the plane? Did he not get on the plane? Oooh the suspense.
Not every travel story ends with a dramatic sunset. Not traveller wants to return to a place. Maybe it ends zig-zagging through the streets in a cab or a cavity search or an argument on the steps of Hans Christian Anderson’s childhood home or a bizzarre TSA encounter.
Or maybe it ends just.like.this: À bientôt!