Oh, I love the way you write.
Seriously. Such a thrill. I’ve read a lot of travel writing (and a lot of “How To” travel writing) online and offline — and it’s such a relief to read someone who truly gets it. I love your stuff.
Here are three reasons why.
1. You’re Subjective
A really good way to sound an idiot is to define what travel writing isn’t – but in this case I’m going to risk it. Good travel writing is not just a string of facts. It’s never, ever that. Never mind the shaky foundations of the whole concept of “facts” when applied to human affairs – no, the point is that facts are not the reason why people read travel-writing. I don’t read your stuff to find out things I could discover myself with a little creative Googling. Anyone can list facts about a place. And this is the problem – too many do.
Not you, though. You know that facts are an ingredient, not a recipe. This is because your writing is smart enough to put aside silly notions of objectivity, of pretending what you’re writing is inalienable truth – a truth built with facts. You’re wise enough to know the truth of a place is always a matter of who you are and where you are. It’s negotiated, thrashed out, agonised over, and rarely survives contact with another person’s mind. And hey, you also know that people who draw a line between “subjective” and “journalistic” are being really daft – as if journalists aren’t people.
Put slightly differently: facts do not convey an experience.
Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands to the north of Scotland, it covers roughly 200 square miles and its administrative capital is Kirkwall, which is nothing to do with the one in Dragon Age 2. It is windy.
This isn’t your kind of travel writing, the kind I love. It’s too….factual, you know? Blahdy-blah, yadda-de-yadda, plod plod and then we’re done. So come on. How did it make you feel? How big was the sky? Was it so deliciously quiet that after a while you started to hear all your demons and all the pressing worries in your life, and you went a little nuts? (Hey, me too).
What did the haunting tone of the horn of the evening ferry from the Northern Isles do to your breathing? Are the flies really that bloodthirsty?
Come on. Let me in here.
2. You Sound Like You
Sometimes we meet people and we blink, because we were expecting…well, someone different somehow. Their voice is all wrong. The words, the cadence, the way they string sentences. Is this the same person?
Others, they sound just like their writing.
In most cases, I don’t reckon the latter comes naturally. It’s the end result of a long and difficult process of unlearning to write. See, we’re taught all these rules, and all these grown-up hats to wear, and after a while we have these different ways of behaving. There’s Hi There, Welcome To [Mike’s Day-job Workplace], Can I Help? and there‘s Hai! My name’s Mike. I can fit 4 Snickers bars in my mouth without passing out – wanna see?
(Incidentally, I recommend meeting me for the first time while I’m at work. I hope it’s fairly obvious why).
We have Formal Us, and we have Relaxed Us. It’s unavoidable and necessary, but it’s also a way our true writing voice, the one filled with charm and character and irreverent, childlike curiosity, gets muffled. We start doing a really bad impression of ourselves.
Not you, though. Your writing is always true to the way you think. It’s wry where you’re wry, morbidly reflective where you’re morbidly reflective, as tenacious and contrary as you are in all three messy dimensions. It sounds like you. It is you. And I know that’s the scariest thing for a writer – to write as yourself, and to let the world see it. I know how much it costs you – but I also know how fulfilling it is.
(I hope I can be that brave, someday).
3. You Write Stories
I remember looking through one of your notebooks. What really struck me, apart from how dreadful your handwriting was? It was just notes. You don’t write stories, you write notes. I’d never have known that if I hadn’t seen it. Because your writing always suggests you wrote down everything at the time, in sequence, starting with Once Upon A Time and finishing with The End.
And that was when I realised you do exactly what everyone else does (only better). Travel writing is storytelling. It’s not a string of events that writes itself. It is cherry-picked experiences structured in a way that emphasizes particular characters, events and themes. It’s a story.
(I’m not suggesting you make things up. Although I bet you do. You know, just at the edges).
But I just love that. It’s such a relief. Travel writing is storytelling. I know that now.
And I love stories.
“Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing” – Don George (ed.)