What’s travel writing to you?

In her interview here last week, author Mary Morris offered some great insight that I think is worth fleshing out. She wrote:

To me real travel writing is predominately about place. But in my travel writing it seems to be more about people (and often I’d have to admit myself) as some story is unfolding.

I had made this distinction even before talking with Mary. Why? Because I’m not good at, nor do I enjoy, writing about place. It’s a challenge I butted up against as soon as I started writing while traveling.

How can that be, you ask, when I’m writing a travel memoir?

I love telling stories about people, narratives that occur in places I visit, situations that sometimes happen as a result of place — but not writing about places themselves. I can create a great one-line description of a city or street corner or cemetery to include as part of an article. But it’s difficult for me (and scary) to write an entire piece about a place if there’s not, as Mary says, a story that takes place during that journey.

To give you some examples of what I’m talking about, here’s a piece I wrote for the Houston Chronicle about trekking in Dogon Country, Mali. It came out all right, but it’s not my strongest. Now, check out these stories I reported also while in Africa: one about how polygamy is becoming less common in Cameroon, another about a pediatric AIDS clinic in Burkina Faso. (Bits of both, by the way, made it into my manuscript.) Because I was telling a story — and even better, a story with a news peg: my forte! — these two articles read far better than my travel piece.

But plenty of people love writing about place and are good at it. Much of the New York Times travel section focuses on places, as well as the trip ideas section of Matador Network. As Mary pointed out, this kind of writing takes talent. It takes a certain type of writer to describe a place eloquently enough that we all want to go there, even without a narrative or story to weave that description around.

What’s travel writing to you? Do you prefer writing about places or stories that happen in those places? Which one comes easier?

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9 Responses

  1. I have never been anywhere so I would have to say that stories that happen in those places are more interesting to me. The differences in culture make for an interesting story, even if it is just a county away.

  2. I’m with you on this one, Alexis. It’s the stories about the people in the place that draw me in, not lengthy descriptions of what a place looks and feels like.
    Karen

  3. I love to read stories about people who travel to other places and their experiences, what they see and how it affects them. I do like reading about places in general, but if I’m going to commit to a book length travel story, I want it to have a personal point of view. I love to see how a place is painted in regards to someone’s personality, background, vision. Especially when I read about a place I’ve been. It gives depth to a place as well as a new light.

    Jen

  4. I tend to write better when I’m telling a story about something that happened in a certain place rather than describing the actual place in detail. Like you, place is not my strong point.

    When I read travel writing, I can enjoy both types – though I’ve noticed that if someone is writing more about place, they have to be a really strong writer to hold my interest. I think I just love stories. If someone has a really interesting story that happened in a place they visited, I’m more likely to want to go their than if they just give me the details of the place.

  5. Well, this is often said to journalists starting to write features: Get to the person, immediately. Get to the human details in the first line. That’s your story. That’s why people are reading.

    Evoking a place — its distinct astmosphere, smell, terrain, quirks, and routines — is extremely important in writing, but it is very rare that the place itself can actually be the main character. It takes a unique kind of writer to do that, someone like Joseph Conrad (who, incidentally, traveled a whole bunch.)

    In a way, I have an easier time writing about place than people. But if I wrote a whole book focused on it, people would surely fall asleep. 😉

    • Though, thinking about this, I looked at my blog post I just put up and realized it is ALL about place — the people that appear in it are all but cast aside!

  6. I think if you describe too much of just the place it feels like reading a bland history book or travel guide. We want to see a person in the place 🙂

  7. http://e6n1.blogspot.com/

    Writing about the essence of a place, so that readers can travel vicariously

  8. Really enjoyed ” What’s travel writing to you ?” and I can’t wait to spend more time on your blog.
    Cheers
    Dave Banks

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