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?