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As a writer I’m sometimes wondering what editors are thinking. As an editor, I’m often wondering what writers are thinking. Here are a few thoughts on writing and the idea of ‘self-awareness’.

Note: this piece is a kind of ‘follow-up’ to last week’s Notes on Marketing Language and Youth

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM I HAVE with most people’s writing (including my own) is when it strings you along on one emotional level. When it’s emotionally flat-lining.

When this happens, the writer tends to come off as if he’s been sheltered his whole life, as if nothing unpleasant or difficult has ever happened. There’s a kind of mild ‘wonderment’ or ‘excitement’ over whatever experience is being recounted, and that’s as deep as it goes.

I’m talking more about narratives here, but this same kind of emptiness also kills a lot of informational-style pieces about travel or social media or whatever subject.

Authors of these kinds of pieces would have you believe that all you need–in a metaphorical sense–is to pay for a ticket, pay for insurance, and everything will be taken care of.

People who know who they are

What saves me is good writing. Stuff that’s real, that hits all different emotional levels. Sad, happy, funny, whatever. David Sedaris comes to mind immediately, as does Sherman Alexie.

[As kind of a side-note: It seems like a disproportionate number of these kinds of 'alive' writers have always been gay, from Whitman on up the line. I have a weird theory about this. Basically my theory goes: gays / lesbians have traditionally been discriminated against in most if not all societies. Certainly ours. So, in my mind anyway, gay people are probably forced to do a lot of extra thinking about and 'coming to terms' with who they are.]

What most of my favorite writers, gay, Indian, Jewish, or not, seem to share is this sense of total self-awareness. They know who they are and write from that ‘place’. Or they’re still don’t know what the hell but still write from that ‘place’ anyway.

Self Awareness as a ‘technique’ in fiction

. . .to me, self-aware writing is smart writing. I never forget I’m reading a book. I’m never reading a book and transported into Narnia and forgot where I was. I always know it’s words on a page. So I’m not going to try to pretend that the person who reads my book isn’t going to be as smart as I am or is basically going to give themselves up to whatever concept I might be proposing.

Chuck Klosterman, interview at Boulder Weekly

A different, but perhaps slightly related form of self-awareness happens in fiction when the narrator basically breaks in and reminds you that this is all just a book. It goes against the tradition of creating a kind of seamless fictional realm where the reader ‘suspends disbelief’.

You can apply a similar kind of self-awareness to nonfiction, which is one way to check yourself from ‘glossing over’ a subject or narrating a story all on one emotional level.

There are many ways to do this. Here are a few obvious ones:

  • Connect the writing of the story back to real time. Example: You tell the story, only to come back later and say “This all happened three weeks ago. In the time since. . “
  • Recognize things you didn’t understand or feel or notice at the time that you’ve now learned or feel or maybe still don’t but at least are revealing it.
  • Recognize your vulnerability as a traveler and a writer instead of maintaining the appearance of your journey as a kind of seamless event culminating in a tidy conclusion. Life is never like that.

On one hand I feel like I’ve conflated the idea of ‘knowing who you are’ with ‘utilizing self-awareness as a kind of contrivance’. The main idea is basically that you think about who you are–and trust in that–and not be afraid to break in and let all different parts of yourself flow into the writing. There’s already enough boring crap out there. Say what you really need to say.

Travel Writing Tips


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.

  • Julie


    Important observations, and while I agree, I found myself reading this and thinking about “Yes, but” scenarios.

    Just as it’s important to insert oneself unapologetically to “keep it [the writing] real,” I also think it’s important, in some sense, to be somewhat vigilant against hyper-emo transparency. A question that’s worth coming back to once in a while is, “What’s the purpose of this piece I’m writing?” And some others: “Who is my audience? What are their needs and expectations?” I think about these questions, for example, when I think about the writing of Augusten Burroughs and Jeanette Walls. While I recognize that their books have been important and liked by many readers, as I read them, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the writing was simply an exercise in catharsis that had little merit beyond the personal emoting.

    And I think the relevance of these questions to travel writing is particularly important because within this genre there are so many sub-genres. Can a piece that’s intended to be informative include personal experience and emotion? Yes– it must. But not, perhaps, to the extent that other narrative travel wriitng might.

  • Christine

    Have to say my favorite form of narrative travel writing – or really any writing in general – is the humorous one. I know not everyone has the same sense of humor, but I think that making wry observations about oneself (I know that isn’t really a word) in the context of their experiences of the world is what really connects me to what they are saying. Gives it another level for me to grasp an understanding of what they are saying, perhaps.

  • David Miller

    Thanks for the comments y’all.

    @Julie – yeah I hear you. The emo self-absorption can get super asinine and annoying just as much as anything else. I guess what I’m really trying to say overall here is to take chances.

    i haven’t read Augusten Burroughs or Jeanette Walls so it’s hard for me to place your comment exactly.

    @ Christine – ‘know not everyone has the same sense of humor, but I think that making wry observations about oneself (I know that isn’t really a word) in the context of their experiences of the world is what really connects me to what they are saying.’ that’s right on.

  • Sarah

    Great piece David–

    To throw in my two cents, I think the key in writing and traveling is being aware of oneself without being obsessed with oneself…there’s an anecdote that always comes to mind when I try to describe this, from Annie Dillard’s An American Child (Annie Dillard is my favorite writer of all time). She describes how at a certain moment in childhood she could feel herself separating from herself, could feel the shadow of her body meeting her body as she dove into a swimming pool, could feel her mind floating outside of and reflecting on herself. And I think traveling and writing should be some sort of balance between the two, being completely immersed in oneself and then being able to drift outside a bit…Being able to rein oneself in when things get a little carried away.

    Maybe I could phrase it this way: how can you really see, without being super-contrived and only conjuring up what you want to see, or without being so detached that you lack any real, intuitive vision?

  • David Miller

    Hell yes Sarah. A great perspective. I think you’re right on — “how can you really see, without being super-contrived and only conjuring up what you want to see?”

    I read somewhere–I think it was Hemingway–that the first draft is for the writer, the second for the reader.

    Annie Dillard was one of my favorites early on as well. I’ve read some funny letters as well–sent to her from Ed Abbey. Old Ed got after her for her ‘flowery-ness’ or something, but in the letter you could tell he admired her, or maybe was just trying to seduce her?

  • Sarah

    Annie Dillard is quite the seductress–she’s been married a couple of times. The first time she married her writing teacher, and the second time, from what I remember, she read a book of poems and loved them so much she hopped on a plane to visit the author and then married him shortly after.

    Now those are the stories the writing life should be made of. Unfortunately, for me it’s more like sitting in front of the blank page with a bag of ruffles and a beer trying to make something happen.


    Thanks for the great advice. I’ll have to check out Annie Dillard’s work.

    When I read travel writing, I tend to lean towards more controversial and thought provoking pieces. I’m interested in a writer’s experiences: Did he or she change? What caused the change? What about the people? Who are they? What are their thoughts on tourism?

    When I travel tend to focus on the people, culture, and history: what is going on around me and within the country/city itself. I have been always drawn to more controversial writings — they make you think. Then again, I do enjoy a good read about art and culture and festivals.

  • Tabatha

    I’m relatively new to the Matador Network, but I’ve been reading my way through the articles over the past few weeks. There are some that I get to the end of and think, ‘wow, I’ve never thought of it quite like that, but good point!’ Then I look at the author at the bottom (I know the author’s name is also at the top, but I’m just so excited to dive in and read the article. . .) and it’s inevitably David Miller. I thoroughly enjoy your perspective, insight and advice. Cheers!

  • darmabum

    For anyone wanting an introduction to Annie Dillard, I suggest “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Recently found it for Kindle. It’s one of my Sacred Texts and can now go with me anywhere. And Annie’s “The Writing Life” is the one of my two sacred “how to” writing books that have been Kindle-ized; the other, Wallace Stegners “On Teaching and Writing Fiction.”

    Thinking too about “knowing who we are”, as it compares to “being who we are.” “Knowing” is one thing; but if we can’t “Be” who we are, then We remain a secret :) Whoever We are, it serves us all, I believe, in our own ways, to “come out of the closet” :)

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