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The tips in this article complement the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.

IT’S NO original insight that writing can be a problematic gig vis-à-vis your mental health.

This seemed evident again on the way to the bank last week when I saw a Mapuche man with the perfect look of a TV or movie ‘Indian chief’ only he was dressed more or less like me (jeans, collared shirt) and stood on the sidewalk unwrapping a stick of gum.

Suddenly I thought of a short story or perhaps feature film idea where the protagonist’s brain is wired so that whenever he sees someone, their clothing, hairstyle, jewelry, all magically revert back several generations to their original ‘ethnicity’.

In this case the Indian man would have on skins, possibly war paint. The girl of what appeared to be Spanish descent walking by us with the ass-enhancing pantware would instead have on some kind off Medieval gown. My wife (of Swiss, German descent), would be sporting an Oktoberfest maiden’s beer serving apparel and Teutonic braids. That sort of thing.

Of course even as I was visualizing all of this I realized that (a) trying to apply any kind of reductionism to one’s ethnic lineage seemed dubious and deluded and borderline dangerous, (b) presenting people this way was far less interesting and life-affirming than seeing their ‘real’ reality right at present time, ground level, (c) part of this idea occurred surely because I have a tendency to reduce people this way myself, say 14% of the time–not appearance-wise, but more a form of cultural / behavioral stereotyping, and (d) the beleaguered protagonist could be played by Ashton Kutcher in a ‘breakout’ production which somehow involved Twitter, Larry King, and the first ever “real-time major motion picture experience with live social media back chat.”

Actually I just invented that last one. By the third or fourth step past the Mapuche man I’d already given up on the idea.

Instead of contriving a story arc wherein Kutcher’s character learns to ‘see people for themselves’ (the payoff of which would surely hinge on a make-out scene with someone ambiguously ‘ethnic’ (but definitely hot)), I began to think about ways of seeing people that can sabotage your writing. Here’s what I have so far:

1. Romanticizing someone else’s life (Ex.: A mountain guide in Ecuador.)

2. Appropriating someone else’s problems / struggle as your own. (Local people being displaced by newer, wealthier immigrants or tourism.)

3. Believing that someone is a “father / mother / brother / sister figure”

4. Making assumptions based on cultural heritage.

5. Isolating people from time / place / family relationships so that they become, essentially, symbols or simply props for the narrator or author’s ego.

6. Attributing the emotions someone made you feel (especially if you’re observing them from a distance instead of interacting) back to them. (Ex. “The carefree Cuban woman.”)

7. Dismissing material / economic connections between yourself and others (The “incredibly affable taxi drivers,” in Costa Rica.)

8. Seeing people exclusively through the filter of strictly-held philosophical, religious, or artistic beliefs / aesthetics.

For travel writers moving quickly through a place, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing quick notes or impressions, which by default tend to reduce people to symbols or caricatures.

More difficult, more time consuming, is digging for the people’s voices and stories over time and finding common ground in spite of cultural differences, language, and geography.

Finally, how to ‘overcome’ problematic ways of seeing people? The first step is obviously recognizing when you’re doing it. Just being self aware–knowing that you have certain ways you look at things and being as transparent about it all as you can–goes a long way.

*The travel writing course from MatadorU gives you access to freelance leads for paid travel writing, travel jobs, and press trips, as well as connections to travel editors at Matador and beyond.

 

 

About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    I’ve come to realize that my first impressions of people are never, ever accurate, so I’m very aware of the judgements I now make. Solid advice, David. Thanks!

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      no doubt Candice.

      i don’t know where the whole ‘first impression’ concept came from, but i’m with you; what’s under the surface is what counts, and it always takes time to know.

      i’m seeing this new trend of writing where it all just stays on the surface; writers don’t even try to get to know characters or present characters other than as these kind of ‘objects’ through which they feel different emotions.

      in some way this is a ‘way around’ falsely presenting characters-but i just can’t see the world like that…people more or less disconnected from one another.

      i believe in common ground.

      • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

        I agree, and I think people overlook the importance of developing good characters in travel writing. For me, the human interraction is just as important as the place.

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    weighty advice, tips that reach far beyond the craft of writing, i think. call it the craft of living respect.

    enjoyed the healthy humor in this too, dahveed.

    • http://matadorabroad.com Tim Patterson

      Yeah – well said, Hal. Living respectfully.

  • http://cuadernoinedito.wordpress.com Julie

    Enjoyed this piece, David, and once again, it seems like the Matador team is synched on similar thought waves… I really enjoyed Sarah’s piece about this same idea over on her blog: http://www.posatigres.com/2009/12/11/the-pink-airplane/

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      wow. [just read sarah's blog]. somehow i totally missed sarah’s blog over the last few days. you’re right – we’re all so much in the same flow right now.

      • http://matadorabroad.com Tim Patterson

        Sarah’s essay is one of the best things I’ve read in the past month.

  • Adam Roy

    Loved the article. If you’re writing non-fiction, there’s really only one legit way to see people: how they are. (It’s incredibly hard, too – I’ll let you know when I get the hang of it ;-)

  • http://milesofabbie.com Abbie

    After you pointed it out, I totally do #1 and #6. It’s so important to be aware and conscious of these things when writing or even just about people in general. Thanks for this article!

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/elizabeth-zito Elizabeth

    I think Antoine de Saint-Exupery truly put it best when he utilized these very methods to celebrate what they convey about humans and our depth during a time in Chile:

    “What a space between men their spiritual nature creates! A girl’s reverie isolates her from me, and how shall I enter into it? What can one know of a girl who passes, walking with slow steps homeward, eyes lowered… More surely than if she were on another planet, I feel her to be locked up in her language, in her secret…

    Punta Arenas! I lean against a fountain. Old women come up to draw water: Of their drama I shall know nothing but these gestures of farm servants. A child, his head against a wall, weeps in silence: there will remain of him in my memory only a beautiful child forever inconsolable. I am a stranger. I know nothing. I do not enter into their empires. Man in the presence of man is as solitary as the face of a wide winter sky in which there sweeps, never to be tamed, a flight of trumpeting geese.”

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      yes!

      thanks for that passage.

      “I am a stranger. I know nothing. I do not enter into their empires.”

      I think this really gets at what I wanted to say more than anything. There are all different levels of immersion into place, into community. I feel like many people write as if they ‘know’ what happens in a place instead of acknowledging, as Saint-Exupery does here, the limits of our understanding of one another. ultimately, this is the kind of writing that is truly ‘placed’.

  • joshua johnson

    In any relationship, husband and wife, writer and subject, the sabotage is to believe you have someone nailed down and figured out. It will show in your art and it will show in your life. People want to figure things out, define and that puts you one step further from the unfolding mystery.
    And everybody knows that the unfolding mystery is where all the good stuff is.

  • http://lonelygirltravels.com lauren

    Great post. I find myself falling into these when I’m lazy, tired or just not being totally truthful. It’s a lot easier to skim the surface and slap on labels than to delve into the complexities of character or place–easier both mentally/artistically, and emotionally. But ultimately, that’s what we’re here to do, right? Thanks for the reminder.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      Thanks Lauren.

      This question sticks with me: “It’s a lot easier to skim the surface and slap on labels than to delve into the complexities of character or place–easier both mentally/artistically, and emotionally.But ultimately, that’s what we’re here to do, right?”

  • http://www.shantiwallah.blogspot.com Marie

    “Just being self aware–knowing that you have certain ways you look at things and being as transparent about it all as you can–goes a long way. ”

    I think this is the most important point. Writers are like the lens filters between the reader and the subject matter, be it a person or place. That filter can be opaque or it can be clear, or anywhere in between. But it’s definitely there.

    A friend of mine who is American in heritage but has lived her whole life in Japan (she’s in her 50s now) once told me that there are very few books she’s read and liked written by foreigners in which the characters are Japanese. She said they seemed “fake” somehow. I always remembered her saying that and the points you make here could well be the reasons.

    Although it’s very difficult to consistently remember to account for your own role in a story, especially if that story is not about you, it’s something for us to strive for as writers. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://www.Travel-Writers-Exchange.com Travel-Writers-Exchange.com

    It’s easy to judge people based on first impressions because we’ve been condition to think “first impressions are lasting impressions; you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” These are memes — thoughts/beliefs that someone else placed in your head that you didn’t question.

    If you really want to develop your characters, get to know the people who will be in your story. Screenwriters and novel writers know and understand character development. You become intimate with characters and get to know them inside and out. They come to life on the BIG/Small screen or within pages of a book. The next time you meet people, instead of making judgments, get to know them. Your first impression will change.

  • http://mprokop.wordpress.com Mars

    Your thoughts on cultural stereotyping and reductionist thinking are really well written– another great thing about Matador! Thanks for sharing yourself with the community so honestly. When I go through this same critical thinking process myself, I always wonder what “the other” is thinking about me, how he/she is breaking me down into a stereotype. Good stuff to ponder!

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      appreciate that mars. if there´s a necessary ethic in a postmodern life / culture / travel / writing – it has to be material transparency:

      ´I always wonder what “the other” is thinking about me, how he/she is breaking me down into a stereotype.´

      exactly. getting down exactly what your thinking / experiencing without filtering it.

      that, to me anyway, is the response to working online where everything is filtered.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      appreciate that mars. if there´s a necessary ethic in a postmodern life / culture / travel / writing – it has to be material transparency:

      ´I always wonder what “the other” is thinking about me, how he/she is breaking me down into a stereotype.´

      exactly. getting down exactly what youre thinking / experiencing without filtering it.

      that, to me anyway, is the response to working online where everything is filtered.

  • Nasreen

    Im from a very mixed ethnic heritage. My dad is Afghani/Pakistani-Russian with mongol roots and my mom is Phillipino-Chinese with some probable spanish blood, I was wondering if someone reduced me to MY “original ethinticity” what that would look like? Thats a laughable image, im thinking : dark skinned, blonde haired, woman with teh bound 3inchfeet of a chinese woman, astride an afghan mountain horse at a “party” meeting

  • Kirsten T Smith

    There’s a big spelling mistake in here!

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