Image by Helga Weber

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.