On Looking: How Travel Writers Pay Attention

MikeachimTravel, Writing9 Comments


How much do we see – and how much do we miss?

 . . . on my return I felt plenty pleased with myself and my walk. Surely I had seen all that really mattered on the block. Not a car passed without my gaze upon it; nary a building got by un-ogled. I had stared down the trees; I even knew one’s name. I had eyeballed the passerby; noted a daring squirrel; spied a wooly caterpillar. I was consciously looking. What could I have missed?

In On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz sets herself the challenge of paying attention. She chooses a single walking route round her neighborhood and tests out her observational skills, assuming they’re more than adequate (she teaches psychology and animal cognition at Columbia University, and her previous perception-investigating book, Inside Of A Dog, was a New York Times bestseller).

Instead, she learns that paying attention isn’t something we can just turn on and off at will. Almost all of us have very specific ways of looking at the world, and outside of each narrow focus, it’s a blur to us. It’s invisible, even when we see it every day.

As it turns out, I was missing pretty much everything. After taking the walks described in this book, I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.


In this gorgeous, riveting book, Horowitz explores the depth of her perceptual ignorance. She takes the same walk again and again, accompanied by experts with their own very specific ways of seeing the world. A geologist. A typographer. A sound engineer. Accompanied by a globe-trotting blind woman, she learned to see with her ears – and accompanied by her dog (the subject of Inside Of A Dog), she goes on “smell walks”. Her conclusions are filled with unsettling revelation:

I reckon that every child has been admonished by teacher or parent to “pay attention.” But no one tells you how to do that.

Read Maria Popova’s enthusiastic write-up of the book here (she describes it as “breathlessly wonderful”).

Watching the crowd gather outside the Treasurer's House, York. Ghosts gather outside the Treasurer’s House, York. Alternative title: Mike’s Photography Has Some Way To Go.

At TBEX Dublin, I listened to Don George talk about his approach to travel writing.

My notes are a wild scribble (I was really into his talk) — but the things that came out again and again were:

Find your passion points — the things you’ll obsessively research because you care so much. Embrace your inner dork.


Continually ask yourself “What Am I Learning Here?”

Travel writers interpret the world for their audience, and the results are always subjective. The way Jonathan Raban might interpret a scene could be very different from the way Bill Bryson does (for a start, these days everyone knows what Bill Bryson looks like. It’s no wonder that veterans like Colin Thubron work incredible hard to stay anonymous when they’re on the move).

Good travel writers see the world like literary journalists do, finding the “felt details” in ordinary things that make the story feel real to its audience . . . the material human truths everyone can recognise. Bad travel writers strip-mine the voices of all the writers they’ve ever read, ignoring what their own senses are teaching them. They do the literary equivalent of not listening to what someone is saying because they’re thinking up their next witty retort. They miss everything.

Travel writers who have journalistic backgrounds have training of some kind, either formally or just by being around people who know how to look for those details that bring stories alive. And travel writers without that background? It doesn’t matter if they’ve learned those skills another way – but some don’t. What gets classed as “bad writing” by editors and industry veterans is usually writing that doesn’t try to see. Its authors miss the details and in doing so miss the story, ending up with something flat and joyless that struggles to do its job.

When I look at my worst travel writing & blogging, it’s guilty of the same thing. There’s a lack of attention to detail that I’ve tried to paper over with sweeping statements. I didn’t see enough at the time, so I backfilled a little with my own imagination – not enough to lie, but too much to effectively capture what it was really like. In contrast, my best stuff conveys a pretty good approximation of what I was experiencing, with the emphasis on “I”, subjectively presenting a personal argument. (Usually something about how self-inflicted misery is wonderful and everyone should get out there and wallow in it for their own good.) My passion points – cultural anthropology, travel literature, a deep & masochistic love of sleeping in a garish sack in the open air –  are my bias, and my writing filters through them and takes on a distinct flavour.

What I’m now wondering is — just how different are the many different travel writers out there, in terms of how they see the world? What are their specific ways of seeing the world — and what can they teach us?

I’ll do some digging another time. Stay tuned.

We see the signs, but not their meanings.

I do this all the time when I’m out walking. I see glimpses of things: almost certainly random chance at work, but they usually feel like a message I’m on the verge of understanding . . . but never do.

Above: sunlight through trees, trying to spell something out.

And from an icy puddle, a startled bird taking flight in a scatter of feathers – except it isn’t, it’s just ice forming on a puddle, right? Unworthy of attention? Boring?

Not if you’re an earth scientist.

And so it goes.

All photos: Mike Sowden

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