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Photo by Christgr

Travel writers are a weird bunch of people who tend to think too much.

THEY TRAVEL AND write to make a living (or a vague approximation of one), but sometimes it seems as if they don’t enjoy either activity.

They write fact, they write fiction and sometimes they write both in the same paragraph. They consistently come up with the most creative and original excuses for missed deadlines in the entire publishing industry.

What types of people are drawn to travel writing? What types of people succeed? As I contemplate an extended foray into the profession and look for role models, I wonder – who are these people?

I’ve come up with 6 possible types of travel writers:

The Intrepid Monk

The intrepid monks of travel writing don’t spend all their time scribbling quietly at the back table of tea shops.

Many of the truly great travel writers are loners, monastic personalities who speak softly and carry a very big notebook. Pico Iyer is a classic example. One of the very best active travel writers, Iyer is a teetotaler who lives simply and anonymously in a Japanese suburb and does much of his writing in an actual monastery.

Iyer’s writing is precise, lyrical and permeated with heartfelt personal emotion, but as a person, he is most comfortable blending into the crowd.

The intrepid monks of travel writing don’t spend all their time scribbling quietly at the back table of tea shops. They are, after all, intrepid. They take risks.

They venture far from the guidebook page. They are unconventional and unassuming, and though they write from a personal perspective, their personality is unobtrusive enough to never get in the way of the story, and the deeper themes of place, culture and interconnection that give weight and meaning to their prose.

The Epic Adventurer

These guys (and ladies) always up the ante. They may be good writers, but their writing is always secondary to the sheer audacity and creativity of their next adventure. The covers of their books often feature themselves – clinging to the edge of a cliff, or gripping an oar in the face of an Arctic storm, lips locked in an expression of grim determination and masochistic delight.

The unique angle, or hook, of their stories often involves some sort of stunt, an added layer of difficulty that has nothing to do with the territory they traverse. Across The Yukon, a title might read…By Tricycle!

If Epic Adventurers also happen to be excellent writers, like Mark Jenkins or Rory Stewart, their work can easily become a classic of the genre. Otherwise, no matter how far they push the limit, their literary careers rarely last longer than the initial rush of adrenaline.

The Naked Introvert

Naked introverts spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about their constipation, and then write about it in excruciating detail. They are funny, honest and extremely self-deprecating.

Naked introverts are especially well-suited to writing about travel because travelers are bumbling fools, and naked introverts are most entertaining when they find themselves in awkward and uncertain situations.

David Sedaris is the archetypal naked introvert, and I can’t think of another writer whose byline I’m more excited to find.

The Walking Party

Walking parties don’t query editors – they invite them out for beer, which turns into Tropical Karaoke Night, which turns into shots of tequila to greet the dawn. The next week the walking party e-mails the editor a story with “Cheers!” in the subject line.

The editor, having gotten over her hangover, can only remember that she had a great time and figures she must have signed off on the story. When the story is published the walking party invites the editor out to celebrate, and the cycle repeats itself.

Walking parties are fun to hang out with. They network naturally, and like to leave inside jokes on editors’ facebook walls. David Farley is one walking party I’ve been lucky enough to meet.

He’s writing a book about his quest to find the missing foreskin of Jesus Christ. See – you just laughed, didn’t you. That’s how walking parties work.

The Public Relations Professional

The PR Pro is seldom a good writer. She knows how to play the publicity game.

The PR Pro is seldom a good writer. She doesn’t need to know how to write. She has contacts with half the tourism professionals in the state of Florida. She knows how to play the publicity game.

She has a stock of exactly 8 adjectives with which to describe a new beach resort, but rarely bothers to use more than 3 of them. She is highly organized, has never heard of Alexandra David-Neel, and probably makes more money than any other category of travel writer.

The Guidebook Writer

Guidebook writers actually fall into two categories: the expert and the fool. The expert knows the territory he covers like the back of his hand. He may even be writing the entire guidebook, and he’s capable of doing a great job.

After a few editions though, jaded by a lack of royalties and the monotony of the work, the expert gets lazy. He doesn’t bother to fact check or visit properties he reviewed five years ago. Finally, he stops returning his editor’s e-mails, at which point the editor hands the ball off to…the fool.

The fool is young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He or she is probably intelligent, especially if working for Let’s Go Guides, and is absolutely thrilled to be on assignment as a professional travel writer.

The thrill lasts until the eager young writer gets off the plane and realizes he doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t have a clue about the culture and needs to turn in an exhaustively researched compendium by the end of the month.

At which point the fool checks into a youth hostel, crawls into the top bunk, pulls the sheets over his head and emerges only to throw himself on the mercy of the unfortunate English speaker at the Tourism Information Office.

Which type of travel writer do you enjoy reading? Which one is most like you?

BNT contributing editor Tim Patterson travels with a sleeping bag and pup tent strapped to the back of his folding bicycle. His articles and travel guides have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Get Lost Magazine, Tales Of Asia and Traverse Magazine. Check out his personal site Rucksack Wanderer.

Writing

 

About The Author

Tim Patterson

Tim Patterson is a long-time contributor and former contributing editor at Matador Network.

  • http://www.newyorktraveler.net Mrs. Mecomber

    What a terrific article! Quite enjoyable. I suppose I am a bit if a misfit, as I don’t travel professionally at all…. but I DO travel and blog about it. I suppose my own style is the Epic Intrepid Monk Adventurer that sneaks out of the monastery from time to time to mingle with the unwashed masses on the mountaintops?

    Ever read John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”?

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Thanks for the comment Mrs. Mecomber. I’m glad you liked the article. Travels With Charley is a great book, but Steinbeck’s best travel narrative is Log From The Sea Of Cortez. Highly recommended!

  • http://robbiewilliamsandme.blogspot.com Ekaterina Petrovna

    Tim,

    as usual I had quite a laugh! Witty, funny and up to the point!

    Thank you!

    Magical writer

    Has anyone seen a raven?

  • Cedric

    Very original! Tim, how do you find time to write between the sun-tanning, beer drinking and electric spinnach?

    I suppose I fit between The Epic Adventurer and The Naked Introvert. Maybe a new catagory The Mad Idiot…
    You can read some of my latest here..

    http://www.communityofsweden.com/Pages/Stories/Stories.aspx?userId=329&storiesFrom=allTime&sort=recent

    By the way Tim and Ian, I am working on some more stories for you guys, will be in the mail shortly…

  • Cedric

    PS. Bill Bryson, Tim Cahil and Tom Robbins always make me laugh. I want to be Switters, form Fierce Invalids, Home From Hot Climates…
    People of zee Wurl, relax!

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Ah, Cedric I only wish the reality of my life was as frivolous and cool and ‘electric’ as the image I project ;)

    looking forward to checking out your articles.

  • http://www.twistedcompass.com/pnomads Jacob Bielanski

    I would think that many travel writers, like Cedric, are as pragmatic in their style as their destination; pushing the limits in an epic journey, while stopping to log a PR article or write a guidebook and then returning home for some much needed introspection…before doing it all over again.

    I actually think you touched upon this in your interviews and commentary–authors who do not label themselves “Travel” writers, but rather travel becomes the source of their inspiration. (Dave Sedaris, Ted Conover in particular). Travel is such a niche market that a narrow focus would seem to be economic suicide. Pico Iyer (a man whose books I’ve never read, admittedly) touched upon this in the interview you linked, remarking that being in such a small section of the bookstore gives him greater visibility than being labeled a “fiction writer”.

    But I guess, in the end, everyone becomes a victim of their own habits (like writing long comments). ;)

  • http://www.hudin.com Hudin

    Very good summation. I might add in the, “Committee Writer” as well, as I’ve found there seem to be those who can really only write with others, but then again, the committee is an amalgamation of a number of these types, so maybe it’s not a true species…

    Hudin

  • John M. Edwards

    Hi Tim:

    Great article! I laughed up a storm. But I would add one more personality type to your list:

    7. The Cowardly Liar

    I’m trying to think of a safe example, without singling any one out, but most travel writing today seems to be covering up something–names are changed to protect the innocent, what really happened is refered to by “euphemism,” and events are distorted to make the author look good. I mean, come on. I’m not, uh, suggesting that they are flat out fiction writers, making it all up, though, or. . . . (The sound of shrill whistles at Wimbleton!)

    One of the most cowardly travel writers I can think of is: Richard Halliburton, who wrote a book called “The Royal Road to Romance” (or something unnecessary like that). There was a somewhat mocking tone to his intensely megalomaniacal work, but he came up with some whoppers, such as claiming to have swum the English Channel. The only reason I feel comfortable categorizing him as The Cowardly Liar is that he has been dead for some time. So there is no danger that the prevaricating adventurer will appear at my loft and give me a drubbing.

    I, too, would occasionally fall under this category. Some of my friends sometimes joke, because of the nature and degree of my misadventures abroad, and my tendency to slightly embellish a good tale, that I am “a notorious coward.” We’re all much braver in retrospect, and in the retelling.

  • http://www.lemurworks.com/lola Lola Akinmade

    Fantastic article Tim!.

    Unique, original, and quite refreshing. Sounds like most people I know (read) fall between Epic Adventurer and Naked Introvert.

    Travel writing is a highly competitive field. After all, everyone who loves to travel and carries along a camera would love to be paid to do so.

    Many start out as Epic/Naked and then gradually move into
    guidebook writing to make it as a professional travel writer.

  • http://www.wildwriting.com.au Kim Wildman

    Hi Tim,

    Great post. It had me laughing out loud on an otherwise quite Sunday morning.

    Having done the guidebook author thing for a number of years, I can relate to being both “the fool” and “the expert”. Though, I hasten to add that “the fool” only made one brief appearance and that as on my first assignment, which, mind you, almost made me pack up my backpack and give up my ambitions of being a travel writer entirely! After that “the expert” quickly took over.

    These days I’m not too sure where I’m placed on your list…but, I am striving hard to follow the path of “the intrepid monk”.

  • http://www.wildwriting.com.au Kim Wildman

    P.S. Sorry, I do know how to spell “quiet” – but it is after all 7am on Sunday morning, so I’m not fully awake or compus mentis yet!!

  • Chris

    Why is the Guidebook Writer a “he” and the public relations professional a “she?” Sexist much?

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Chris, I took pains to use both he and she throughout the article. Maybe I should have just used he or she, or only one pronoun…I dunno. Sorry if you were offended. Alexandra David-Neel is a more intrepid traveler than any man I’ve ever heard of.

  • http://surfeatsleep.blogspot.com Brenda Yun

    tim:
    this was a great article. i don’t think anyone can pin him/herself down to just one personality. i also think this accurately describes your multifaceted talents as a travel writer as well. hope you’re well in chile!!! turns out i might be returning to south america in march — you should hop up there and visit richard and me! :)

    aloha,
    bren

  • http://travelswitheman.blogspot.com Eman

    Good thoughts. I find myself writing like the Naked Introvert. I tend to get myself in interesting situations when I travel. And traveling can be very very awkward. At least for me. But I don’t mind at all…

  • http://www.travelingmamas.com Shannon

    Tim- I just loved reading this while drinking my morning Cafe au Lait. I laughed so hard that now I am cleaning up my computer screen with the sleeve of my fuzzy robe.

    Very entertaining. Thank you for the post. I’m sure it will be the topic of many future research trips. I think it is hard to put oneself in a category, because as writers of travel, we never think we are THAT writer.

  • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

    Ah, but Tim, which one are you? Epic Adventurer for me, as soon as I heal.

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Thanks for the good words everyone.

    The Fool was a self-portrait.

  • http://www.wranglingrhinos.com N. Chrystine Olson

    Great insight. Considering the only other living being cretures I talk to are my dog, cats and the occasional mosse walking by the front window, I fall into the monk category, substituting the Idaho back woods for the monastery

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Idaho backwoods are probably one of the best monasteries on earth. Ever read Gary Snyder?

  • Namrata Jadhav

    Nice article Tim. As an amateur in this field, this article has been a great help to understand the concept better. ;)

  • TL Iwafuchi

    I have a few to add!

    The “Icon Collector.” This is the travel writer who has suggested outlines for “day trips” that include only places or things you can brag about to other people, and in such a short period of time there is no actual way for a tourist to visit the sites. The Icon’s ‘one day tour’ of Paris includes the Arc de Triomphe, the Musée du Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Eiffel Tower, followed by a trip down the Seine and maybe an evening trip to the Opéra de la Bastille or the Moulin Rouge. The only way a traveler could possibly visit all of these places is by hiring a car to drive them from place to place, and having their picture taken in front of the “icon,” and then moving along. (Notre Dame? Check! Eiffel Tower? Check!)

    There’s also the “Specialist.” The specialist usually either collects something (Buddha, t-shirts, etc.) or likes a particular food and looks for it everywhere. A very good traveler friend of mine plans his every trip around pizza. His travel writing includes descriptions of the places that are next to or near the pizza restaurants he’s visited in that particular country, or the adventures he has had trying to get to the pizza restaurant, and of course. lengthy description of pizza, pizza ingredients, pizza preparation, and pictures of pizza… you get the idea. Another friend of mine collects frogs. Even in countries where no frog has ever laid a flipper, (oddly, they are almost everywhere except Antarctica) you will find my buddy hunting for frogs. Many a fruitless evening has been spent at a local bazaar in search of amphibians, and if he doesn’t find one that “calls” to him, his trip is ruined.

    I also like the “Service” writer. This type of travel writer is concerned with cleanliness and making sure that certain hotel or attraction “standards” are met. I find this type of writer does best with Automobile Association guides and working as a private hospitality industry auditor. The “Service” writer spends most of their time in the hotel room looking for any sort of error, omission, speck of dust or stain. They also perform various service tests (ordering room service and timing delivery, using the laundry service and seeing if the hotel gets the stains out or sews on a button, etc.) In their heads are the checklists of dozens of clients and their expectations for a hotel room. They freely admit to crawling under beds to looks for panties, rubbing tissues on picture frames to see if they have been recently cleaned, and never sleeping with the bedcover (germs!) They check the expiration dates on the back of the mini-bar chips, and never use the miniature bars of soap or shampoo. (They bring their own!) While this type of travel isn’t always the most exciting style of writing, I have come to appreciate it more in my old age. I have learned to heed the warning of the “Service” writer. In one suburban hotel that had been panned by a “Service” writer, I found an old dried-out spaghetti noodle underneath the chair cushion. That night I dreamt I was being chased by a meatball. If I’d only listened! I am myself a service writer, and quite boring, but I always keep a little diary of the odd things that happened to me. The client doesn’t care what happens to the Service writer on the way to a dull report, but maybe a mainstream reader will have some laughs about the vent check gone awry, where one misstep on the top of a large camel backed couch has you literally clinging to a (dusty!) tapestry and trying not to fall out of a window…

  • angelita

    I thought your comment about PR types was pretty naive, partiularly the comment “The PR Pro is seldom a good writer.” At least in terms of PR-types pitching articles, you’d be shocked how many “respected journalists” have unabashedly borrowed from press releases. (I can easily recall at least one “reporter” who published an entire press release on the front page of a newspaper and then slapped his byline on it). Publicists are often the unsung heroes of writing, receiving little acclaim for what is, in reality, their original works.

    As for travel-writing publicists, I personally think there is an ethics issue for anyone who uses their client media contacts for placing their own travel stories.

  • http://www.thetraveltart.com The Travel Tart

    Sometimes, travel writers are a reflection of a number of Travel Personalities, which I wrote about in a post titled ‘Travel Personalities Explained’.

    http://www.thetraveltart.com/travel-personalities-explained/

    I’m a cross between the Pisshead and the Minimalist!

  • Maddie Gressel

    why is the PR pro the only one referred to as a “she”?

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