Planning a trip to an exotic destination that has yet to be tainted by tourism? Good luck in finding one. The widespread use of blogs, social-networking sites, webcams and cell phones places just about every corner of the planet at our fingertips. Suddenly, anyone with a computer can be a travel writer and any day spent far from home can be instantly shared with “friends” you’ll never see.
Does all this imply the end of literary travel writing? Hopefully not, but in the age of globalization, the world has be-come more accessible and undeniably more “connected,” at least in technological terms. Travel has shifted in style and scope while tourism—that market-driven substitute for a voyage of discovery—runs the gamut from “packaged” to pretentious. In the 21st century, the well-crafted travel essay has begun to look as nostalgic as a dusty khaki safari jacket sans logo.
But what is more satisfying than a literate ramble around a beautiful city or a seemingly empty beach with a lively, articulate mind? The hook need not be as dramatic as a great escape from warring tribes or some life-threatening meteorological event. Travel is internal as well as external, and so the “story” is free to focus on subtle shifts of inner awareness. In the words of Norman Douglas, writing in the 1920s, good travel writing “invites the reader to undertake three tours simultaneously: abroad, into the author’s brain, and into his own.”
As long as wanderlust exists, an engaging travel essay will appeal to readers who expect more than mere information. (Leave that task to the travel guides.) And while there is no foolproof formula, there are a few “rules of the road.” Your travel essay will be a success when it leaves readers with a fresh, vivid memory of a place they’ve never seen.
Because a good travel essay should be readable in one sitting, it takes an artful approach to focus your lens, calibrate your timing, build your structure, and discover colorful threads to weave through the fabric of your essay. As the writer, your task is to use your imagination to “omit and compress,” as Alain de Botton describes it, in order to steer your reader to “critical moments” and, I would add, unforgettable images.
Here are some steps to get you there; the first two deal mostly with prewriting preparation.
1. Learn the backstory in order to take your reader behind the scenes. Your essay should give your reader an inside perspective that is real, reflective and accurate. This will probably require some good, old-fashioned research. Reading before and after a trip—history, biography, anthropology, literature, newspapers, magazines and/or other travel writing—will help shake off false assumptions and open windows in your creative mind. But do be careful about how you work facts into your essay. As Patrick LoBrutto said in these pages (April 2008) with reference to fiction, “The trick is to rub the information into the grain” and avoid an “information dump.”
In my essay “Alone in Amsterdam,” in the literary journal Fourth Genre, I set out to write a “cityscape” anchored by famous works of art, but it was reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo and the poignant Diary of Anne Frank that helped me catch the thread of meaning I was after. In the end, my essay turned out to be about the many dimensions of aloneness, including my own, that had been lived on those streets. Planning a trip? Start reading now.
2. As you travel, be alert to details that will allow you to establish the essential identity of the place on the opening page. If you’ve just arrived in unknown territory, walk around, talk to the locals, smell the coffee, and get a feel for what this place is about. A.A. Gill refers to this as seeking “the key, an image that unlocks everything else.” In my essay about Tahiti, “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” I opened with the late-18th-century voyage of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. In a similar fashion, I tracked 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of an untainted paradise. As I began to realize that Gauguin never found what he was looking for, I played all of my images and experiences in Tahiti against my core metaphor of an elusive quest.
To test the waters, try describing the essence of the street you live on in one vivid paragraph, and remain open to where your own description leads.
3. Begin with two levels of information. The “collage effect” appropriate to travel writing requires artful transitions from one theme or scene to another in order to create a sense of wholeness. It also calls for two distinct levels of information that might be summed up as background and foreground. Remember, your readers need a sense of place and a sense of who is taking them on this journey. Descriptive prose provides the larger context while you, the writer, bring a strong sense of your personal motives, state of mind, and situation as we embark on the trip together.
The “hinge” of these two levels allows you to pivot and shift your point of view as you move through the pages. Remember, your goal is to come full circle, so always take time to check and see if your last few paragraphs relate to the beginning. You can get a sense of this full circle by “checking the echo” of beginnings and endings in the travel essays you’re reading now.
Think of your essay as a flight into the unknown, which it should be for the reader (even if you know the place inside out). There are many techniques for starting, ranging from a short, punchy statement to a patch of dialogue with locals. In “Alone in Amsterdam,” I began with an imaginary dialogue between myself and the “Dutch Masters” in Rembrandt’s iconic painting “The Draper’s Guild.”
Other writers, like Jan Morris in her introductory chapter to Venice or Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City, plunge in with sensuous word paintings of cityscapes. Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World begins by explaining the circumstances that motivated his 4,000-mile exploration of China’s Yangtze River, then he is free to take the reader along with him on his tour.
Remember, at the start readers need a “big picture” sense of location, preferably visual, combined with a sense of who is telling this story. Their two key questions might be reduced to: Where am I going, and who am I going with? Let’s put you to work.
First paragraph: As an exercise in answering the first question, create a “landscape in words” of the place that is going to be the focus of your essay. This may only be the point of departure, but that’s OK. The important thing, as a writer, is that you bring this to life with descriptive detail that sets the mood and weaves imagery, color, texture, sound, light, architecture and nature into a believable background. Resist the urge to overwrite this paragraph, but build it out to paint a picture that will serve as a point of reference for all that follows. Limit yourself to six to eight sentences.
Second paragraph: Now, practice the art of shifting focus to the travel guide and companion—you—with a much shorter paragraph of three or four sentences. In this paragraph, your reader should feel jolted out of a dream as the focus shifts to a particular human dilemma, goal, conscious sensation, or problem that co-exists with the lyrical quality of your opening paragraph. You might, for example, shift from the description of a winter landscape to a wounded bird on your windowsill and the dilemma of how to help this tiny animal, or from a “perfect” day in a lively city to the realization that your wallet has been stolen.
Use this technique of shifting from descriptive prose to the here and now to drive your narrative forward. These two paragraphs—taken together—will create a sense of anticipation about the story and the place we barely know. What we must know early on is that a voyage of discovery awaits, as soon as we turn the page.
4. Use the toolbox of fiction to bring it all to life. “Travel writers actually face the same problem of plausibility that confronts so-called novelists; the actual must be made to appear believable.” Paul Fussell hits the nail on the head with this observation. The arts of fiction—color, rhythm, imagery, narrative tension, dialogue, scenes—all belong to travel essays and books, which are often collections of related essays.
In her masterful, genre-defying book The Emperor’s Last Island , Julia Blackburn deploys a variety of techniques to create a stirring portrait of Napoleon’s remote island exile on St. Helena (1815 to 1821), where howling winds, a damp climate, isolation and astonishing dullness become the strangest “house arrest” of all time. During Blackburn’s time at sea, she observes rainstorms in the distance as she catches “the scent of hot earth” rising off the coast of Africa:
As we watched and the sun began to set, the clouds became saturated with wild luminous colors; purple, yellow, grey and red, boiling in the distance.
Similarly, Rolf Potts’ essays gathered throughout a decade of travels in Asia often startle the reader with a well-placed image, like the “rocky yawn of cool air, clean water, and darkness” that describes his first experience of the Heup cave in Laos. Potts is also adept at dialogue that “places” the action, as in this passage from “My Beirut Hostage Crisis,” which refers to Fijian soldiers stationed in Lebanon as part of the United Nations Interim Force.
After I chatted with the blue-bereted soldiers for a couple of minutes, a loud explosion rang out, and a plume of smoke rose up from a hill on the horizon.
“Israelis?” I asked the Fijians nervously. “No,” Vasco laughed. “Arock quarry.” “How can you tell the difference?”
“Well, the Israelis usually call on the radio before they start shelling us.”
Inspired by Blackburn’s quality of visual reflection and Potts’ gift for mingling down-to-earth dialogue with strong imagery, why not challenge yourself to work the arts of fiction into your prose? Listen for the sound of a tale unfolding by reading your work aloud, to yourself.
5. Don’t intrude in your own essay. Your voice, thoughts, predicaments and discoveries are what will make your reader eager to follow you. But don’t turn your travel essay into a diary. It is your mind, not your personal life and quirky tastes, that serves as the filter for the essay. As one editor once bluntly asked of an essay of mine: “Who cares what she ate for dinner?” Well, I cared. I even thought that my luxurious, herb-encrusted salmon with creamed asparagus served in a clam-shaped “pastry shell” worked beautifully as a contrast to the theme of Irish-famine immigrants arriving in Canada. But in the end, that digression into a gourmet restaurant came off as smug, self-referential and off-point. I had intruded in my own essay. Next time you think you have achieved a final draft, go back and interrogate the relevance of every “I” in your essay.
Travel writing inevitably includes the author’s presence. But when is personal experience irrelevant or intrusive? Here is an early draft of a passage from my essay “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” which is about elusive quests and the 19th-century Impressionist painter’s pursuit of an untainted Eden.
In the final draft, I’ve related my feelings of anxiety and fear to the larger themes of the essay.
Patti M. Marxsen is an American writer based in Switzerland. She is the author of Island Journeys, Exploring the Legacy of France, Beyond the Village: Essays Out of Switzerland and a short-story collection, Tales From the Heart of Haiti. Her travel essay “Alone in Amsterdam” earned a special mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prizes. Web: pattimarxsen.net.
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TransitionsAbroad.com invites you to enter its 2015 Narrative Travel Writing Contest with a $500 first-place prize and no fee for entry.
Professionals, freelancers, and aspiring travel writers are invited to write an article which describes how traveling in a slower manner and attempting to adapt to the space and time of locals, their culture, and their land has deepened your experience of both the people and the destination. One of the results of a slower form of immersion travel is the experience of epiphanies that change one’s perceptions of the world, of others, and of oneself. We urge you to translate one or more of those moments into a narrative which will convey this view to many who still tend to see travel as a way to “do” as many countries, cities, and continents in the world as possible—as if travel was some form of competition or consumption.
Rather than seeing travel as competition or a materialistic exercise in one-upmanship, Transitions Abroad has always observed that more experienced travelers and travel writers seek to engage more deeply in a destination by staying for a longer period and thereby immerse themselves in the culture and homes they are fortunate enough to visit as guests. Learning to ask questions, share stories sad and humorous, cook, learn a craft or language, work, volunteer, and participate in other daily activities or rituals is one way to deepen the travel experience and transform it into a two-way street in the process. The Slow Food movement born in Italy and the aesthetic spirit of the Slow Movement are a manifestation of the urge now felt by many more travelers to participate in the daily lives of the host community and not simply as consumers of their culture and land.
We are not looking for destination pieces that describe in flowery “amazing” terms your experience, moralistic essays on the pros and cons of a postmodernist view of travel, nor are we looking for travelogues or blog-like posts that are often too overly personal and self-involved to resonate with others on their own paths of discovery. We are looking for well-written inspirational pieces that will lead others to experience the sense of engagement as a global citizen. We are looking for a more “universal I” and not the “personal I” in a narrative voice — after all, the “universal I” is a huge component in all great (travel) literature that stands the test of time across cultures.
Accompanying photos which enhance the narrative are highly preferred, as the visual often adds a substantial component to a travel narrative on the web. Photojournalistic essays or accompanying videos will also be considered, and gentle (self)irony or humor is always appreciated.
Please include an optional bio of 1-3 sentences which reference your websites, blogs, books, and contact information in the body of the submission. We can include 1 link in the final winning version.
TransitionsAbroad.com will publish the top three winners’ entries as well as those of the selected runner-ups. See past contests for examples.
Notification of your participation in the contest via Twitter, Facebook, or other social networking sites would be appreciated (see our links/buttons at the top and bottom of this page).
In this year’s Narrative Travel Writing Contest, the first-place winner’s entry will receive $500 (USD), the second-place winning entry $150, and the third-place winner $100.
Any other articles selected as runner-ups will receive a $50 payment.
Who is Eligible
The Contest is open to professional, freelance and aspiring travel writers from any location around the globe and of any nationality.
How to Enter
Submit an original and previously unpublished essay from 1,000 to 5,000 words. Supporting photos in .jpg or .gif format are welcome to illustrate the experience and are considered part of the essay submission. Please do not embed the photos for the travel essay in the .doc files.
To enter the Contest, attach your essay in Microsoft Word format or copy and paste it into an email as a last resort. Please include your the essay title, full name, complete postal address and phone number in both the email and Word document and add a brief bio if you so choose. Please type “2015 Narrative Travel Writing Essay Entry” in the subject description of the email and send the email to email@example.com.
The Contest begins April 1, 2014, and all entries must be received by January 15, 2015. Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. will require first-time Worldwide Electronic rights for all submissions which are accepted as contest winners and for publication. In addition, Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. will reserve the right to reprint the story in a future publication. The writer may republish the unedited submission as desired six months after initial publication on TransitionsAbroad.com.
Editors of TransitionsAbroad.com will judge entries based upon the following criteria:
- Sensitivity to the people and culture being described
- Ability to engage the reader
- Literary quality
- Rich photographic/video illustrations
Winners will be notified by phone, mail, or email by January 22, 2015 for publication in March due to the time required for all writers spanning the globe to send in Agreements and payments to be cashed.
There is no entry fee required for submissions.
Decisions of the judges are final.
Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. is not responsible for late, lost, misdirected, incomplete, or illegible email or for any computer-related, online, or technical malfunctions that may occur in the submission process.
Submissions are considered void if illegible, incomplete, damaged, irregular, altered, counterfeit, produced in error, or obtained through fraud or theft.
Submissions should be previously unpublished, either in print or on the Web.
Submissions will be considered made by an authorized account holder of the email address submitted at time of entry.
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners—along with any others accepted for publication—will be paid by Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. either by check or Paypal as preferred by the author.
All federal, state, and local taxes are the sole responsibility of the Contest winners.
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