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In our continued discussion of travel writing, we look at pathos and different forms of narration. Join a growing community of thousands of travel journalists and develop your skills in travel writing, photography, and film with a course at MatadorU.

LAST WEEK WE EXAMINED how failing to recognize rhetoric can undermine a writer’s intentions, often transforming writing into “plight writing” or travel “porn.” Today, in another excerpt of new lessons from MatadorU, we’ll look at similar concepts from a different angle: the narrator’s level of self-awareness.

Two key concepts here are pathos and self-awareness, the latter having multiple related concepts: self-absorption, self-effacement, and self-deprecation.

For our purposes, pathos can be defined as:

the quality of a work of art or writing which arouses feelings of compassion, sympathy, tenderness, or other emotions.

Self-awareness can refer to many things, such as one’s:

  • Recognition of delusions, good/bad judgment, illusions, and motivations
  • Awareness of shortcomings, limitations, failures (or conversely, talents, gifts, good fortune)
  • Acceptance (or rejection) of one’s life, plans, culture, career
  • Cognizance of one’s own role or “place” in society, or as local / traveler

In the context of writing, the way in which a narrator expresses (or fails to express) a sense of self-awareness can directly affect the level of pathos a reader experiences.

The self-absorbed narrator and “applause pieces”

Oftentimes, beginning writers and bloggers will narrate stories in a way that’s so self-absorbed that they’re (ironically) unaware of how they sound. These kinds of stories typically cast the narrator and his / her exploits in a kind of heroic light, as if the reader is supposed to simply applaud because the narrator traveled to, say, Costa Rica, or engaged in a certain activity such as taking a hot air balloon ride, or, in the following example, buying coconuts from a local vendor:

We rounded the corner, stopped at one of the stalls in a row of coconut stands. I pantomimed; the woman picked two small, nicely shaved coconuts, hacked them open with a machete and handed them to us in plastic bags. She placed the straws gingerly in the hole she’d cut. She smiled a big, warm smile and said thank you.

“Man, people are nice here,” Jacob remarked, taking a deep long sip.

I nodded.

This particular story was attempting to dissect a complex subject — the narrator’s need for validation in her choice of study abroad programs — but instead of being self-aware about this need, instead of the story being about her experience, it’s all about HER, which occludes or blocks any sense of pathos in the reader. The story ends with the narrator and another character sipping their coconuts and literally walking into the sunset, as if begging the reader to applaud.

As they are so common in travel writing submissions, Matador editors actually have a shorthand term for these; we call these kinds of pieces “applause pieces.”

Self-effacement and self-deprecation

But if, on the other hand, the narrator had expressed self-awareness in ways which were accessible to the reader, there would’ve been an opportunity to feel a certain pathos for her and, moreover, for her need for validation.

Two of the most straightforward — and yet often overlooked — ways to express self-awareness are self-effacement and self-deprecation.

Self-effacement is basically “getting out of the way” of the narration. As opposed to trying to make the narrator the center of the action, and especially his / her exploits sound “heroic,” the self-effacing narrator downplays what he or she does, instead focusing outward. Note how this works in what another writer might have treated as a “heroic” moment, summitting Mt. Katahdin in Maine:

At the summit there’s a crowd and a bonhomie that prevails. There’s awkward room on the stones, a joyful understanding, not just of the clear accomplishment of the top, but of the humility at the center of 360 degrees of laws beyond us.

This is literally a high point, an “accomplishment,” and yet what the narrator finds is “humility at the center” — helping to create a sense of pathos, of shared joy in the reader.

The self-deprecating narrator

Another way in which a narrator can express his or her self-awareness is through self-deprecation, or making light of / joking about exploits. Example:

I was twenty one and working in Baghdad when the idea to move to Kyrgyzstan first came to me. I was working at the US Embassy as a media analyst with my boyfriend, Farrell, a guy I met in Arabic class at university, who somehow convinced me (and my parents) that it would be a good idea to follow him to a warzone.

With self-deprecation, there’s almost always an element of humor that can help lighten — and ironically, make even more poignant and emotive — certain situations or subjects. And as a general rule, if you can make your reader laugh, they’ll want to keep reading more.

*MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.

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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.

  • Jools Stone

    I’m curious, are all these examples from submissions you’ve had here at Matador, or even blog posts or articles published here or elsewhere?

    • david miller

      hey jools, thx for commenting. 

      the second two examples are from pieces published at matador and the first is from a submission. 

      it’s worth noting that the author of the first example has also published some of my favorite pieces at matador.

      i feel like we can pick out these ‘negative examples’ in almost anyone’s work, as we could positive examples. 

  • Amit Sonawane

    I enjoy these posts. Thanks, man. 

    • david miller

      thx amit, i’m glad you’re finding these useful. 

  • Marie Lisa Jose

    Thanks David for these notes. Every time I read one of your posts on writing I go back and check my work. More times and one I find myself guilty of the things that you write about.

    • Patricia S. Berrios

      Every time I read one of your posts on writing I go back and check my work.

  • Amble Resorts

    Self-awareness is something of a consequential result of being a “writer” in the first place… If you write 3 self-indulgent pages before you arrive at a more universal meaning that you think your readers may be able to relate to, then cut those 3 pages. You’ve done your job right. We’re all a little self-absorbed at times, but good editing (self-editing and otherwise) can keep your writing from reflecting this. A very thought-provoking post, David. — Rachel Kowalczyk, Managing Editor at The Ambler

    • Nichole L. Reber

       That’s curious. Indeed one of the fundamentals of being a writer is self-awareness. I like to think of it more as awareness of what’s outside of you. It’s by reflecting on that, showing our attempts to learn from it, that we start to write well, eh? The power of the essay…

      • Amble Resorts

        Self-awareness is definitely one of a writer’s more useful tools; I’d put it right up there with a rich vocabulary. I think of it less as a state of being, more as a continuing journey. You never arrive at total self-awareness but a good writer can engage others in their journey towards it.

  • Nichole L. Reber

    Cheryl Strayed does a magnificent job of self-effacement in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail– to the point of painting herself in places as an antihero. Many readers won’t make it through that.  It results, though, in a less self-absorbed portrayal of herself, and a deeper trust by readers in the story’s narrator.
    Overall it’s finny to discuss this topic. So many fiction writers think we nonfiction writers are the most self-absorbed of the genres.
    Anyway here’s a successful result of not being too self-centered. One thing I learned in the process of writing ‘Burqa’ was that creating poignant pathos requires knowing which combinations of emotions to use within a singular sentence.

    Cheers y saludos,

  • Diana Ogilvie

    This is very sobering. I’m so glad my education at Matador U is continuing after “graduation”. I will now write with this new energy.

  • Rose Macaskie

    Was not the first writer more likely trying to convey what it was like to be fed coconuts and the smile of a foriegn woman and also her suprise at being part of something new, like, we tell things when we think they are out of the way to our neighbors and so of interest, like, I am a person who is so unimportant that I think that writing about water melons is exciting and certainlly for many it is not an experience they have ever had and is nice to hear about it, while the second person seemed to be trying to just sound good. He used fancy enough language and also he said he felt humble, how excrutiatinlgy ingratiating can you get! The only character in english literature who tries to make his way by saying he is humble is Uriah Heap, the king of abusive behavior. Saying you are humble is self defeating, you are being vain of being humble, I know lots of religious people who do it, they seem to be required to say it, so I sort of forgive them the vanity but you must be vain of it if you say it, to say as much is boasting and every one around, unless they are very thick and don’t understand that to say you are humble is to boast of yourself, finds that a particualy sickening sort of boast. It is sort of nice to hear people say when they feel good about an acheivement, “how great I am”, anyone can see if that person is permanently over full of their own abilities or if they just occasionaly get pleased with one small triumph while they are usually squirming about some fault, so they know that this person is not overly vain just that they are in a moment of triumph, maybe of hard won acheivment, so it is just fun to see them pleased about something but to crow about being humble is so unjoyful, humility is rather a depressing characteristic at the same time as being, usually, a way of asking for special consideration, of stealing a march on others, it is a way of leaving companions who are not given to boasting of their humility at a moral disadvantage, so it is doubly depressing. rose macaskie madrid.

  • Rose Macaskie

    There is a fair amount of criticism about people giving unimportant details of their lives on face book and I think it is a bit of criticism that shows lack of understanding of traditional female role and the sense in the goings on of women. Women had the psychic care of the family in their hands and my nmother said that mothers have to be interested in what their children do because, after all, maybe the children at school think their child is boring to talk to and ditto the teachers, so if even your mother finds their childs small worries and acheivments uninteresting then that child is a bore indeed the child cant know tha tit has a mean mother it is liekely to think other mothers find their children fascinating and mine does not I must be unattractive indeed.

    Of course mothers aren’t nice to their children because their children are fascinating, though children have their charms mothers are nice because it would be unkind not to be. Women also do the same to men, they pretend to be interested in what they say stupid or fun, they are there to make a relationship with men and to sooth the worried brow. Mrs banks being receptive to the terrible Mr Banks. It is not very nice to live with someone who does not have time for you and you cant always be being brilliant, so women understanding this try to relate to their husbands what ever they say.

    Also women tell things about themselves and as they are not boasting, boasting is not a big part of soothing the worried brow, they don’t use the longest word they can find and try to give what they say enormous importance, these things that they talk of are humble enough things, just an indication that they are trying to share their lives with the rest of the family, while in the office it is, I don’t have time for a lot of extranious gossip, just tell me the important part. If people love you they do like to sort of share your day with you, like even to think that now you have to go to the loo and social media is a place were people have these friendly relationships in public and then they get ridiculised.

    This sort of trivial chatter is not a joke, when you are with the sort of person who is only interested if what you have to say is of great weight, a thing that usualy is unlikely enough, then you are likely to stop all communication, you can always make going to the loo as metaphyscal as trudging up mountains but unless you do that there will seldom be a real enough reason to talk to each other and I have spent so long with that sort of person, that I know that it is hell, it is what Heidi suffered from in the Frankfurt a total emptyness of relationships.

    As women all start to go work only talking of serious topics is likely to spread to all bits of society, then man will no longer enjoy the soothing comforts of the presence of a person who seems to want to talk to them, she tries hard enough to do it and who they can cruelly ignore because they don’t deign to talk of frivolities, though my experience is that they are more likely to talk to women of frivolities while that is just everyso often and has to do with their dinner than of serious things, they refuse to talk of anything serious to you and when you have stopped trying to talk of such things with them they turn round and point out how frivolous you are. It is not that they minded serious topics it is just that they did not listen to you talking of them because they wanted to knock you out of the running, so not talking raising their ego at the expense of their partners in the unholy union called marriage. rose macaskie madrid.

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