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YOU DON’T MISTAKE travel writing for punk rock. Most of it just isn’t loud or raw enough. Publicly, at readings, travel writers tend to restrain themselves from smashing the podium or lighting shit on fire.

The process of creation itself (and the audience’s reception) is generally an ass-to-chair kind of deal, often with food and / or beverages nearby [writing these lines with a tomato and cheese sandwich + coffee in a cafe in Santiago].

Finally, as Chuck Klosterman observed, anytime punk rock tries to explain or justify itself, it’s finished. By contrast, most travel writing seems to be, at least on some level, a way for the writer to explain or justify whatever trip he or she is on. That’s the basic gig.

Still, I’d like to imagine a scenario where travel writing was 100% punk. Where you were all-out free to write anything about anyone or anyplace in any style you wanted, free to investigate and write the stories of what’s going on in say, the cruise ship industry, only from a deckhand, not a passenger’s point of view. Or with the Kalahari Bushmen. Or maybe the fucked up lady that lives right above you in your building.

The fact that we all actually have this freedom but so few of us choose to exercise it is partly a reflection, I’m guessing, on human nature (paraphrasing Saul Bellow: “We get as much truth as we have courage to ask,”) and part straight up bitch-slapping economics.

There appears to be no dearth of paying markets for stories that lend themselves to advertising, but far fewer options (and certainly far less sustainable options) for writers going after stories on people and their relationship with place, which, to me anyway, is what travel writing is. As Jim Harrison wrote “How could we disappear into ourselves and forget our subject matter, the earth?”

Obviously I recognize the need for other kinds of writing (and have actually enjoyed having a copy down here of the Fodor’s Patagonia that Tim Patterson and I contributed to last year).

But most of all I’m interested in reading the stories people write not out of a need to accomplish or get paid but just out of a raw need to tell the story. And unless or until someone is out there writing / editing / and publishing their work in real time as they’re getting shot at in Iraq or patrolling the mountains in Afghanistan, I guess that’s as close to punk rock that we as travel writers can get.

15 Vital Matador Narratives

So all of this blathered, I asked around our crew what we should include in a list of travel stories published at Matador which are the most punk rock, the ones that seem to keep reverberating:

- 8:46am, 9/11 Manhattan

- Huayhuash: A Convergence of Change and Resilience

- Notes on Los Pitayeros

- My Chinese Clown

- Another End of the Road: (Still) Searching for Surf in Centroamerica

- Carnaval. Darkness.

- What would you give for your traveler’s moment?

- The Ringer

- Golden Trout

- My Hometown in 500 Words: Lagos

- Wrestling, Pig Skin, and Beer

- Birth of Layla Miller

- Growing up in East Germany

- Notes on Not Being Able to Pray at the Wailing Wall

- Hiking the Chacaltaya Glacier

*Get access to paid freelance travel writing opportunities and an active community of travel journalists by enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

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.

  • Simone Gorrindo

    A wonderful way to highlight the great narrative work on Matador. Tom Gates 9/11 piece is one of my favorites on the network, and I’ve returned to it several times. Those last lines always get me.

    I’m reading a collection of Gay Talese’s portraits and encounters at the moment. The guy is incredible. Even though he’s called the “father” of new journalism, I think his work remains so innovative and fresh, newer than almost any creative journalistic work out there today. He almost makes you forget that you’re reading reporting. Seamless.

    One thing I’ve been trying to do in my own narrative writing is organize the flow not around chronology but around theme. It feels more natural to me, more the way I think. Maybe more punk rock. ;) I recently published a piece on Abroad where I tried to do this: . Just another example of a way to do a narrative!

    Thanks for all this concentration on the form, David. Loving it.

    • David Miller

      ah Simone,

      your comment was a big stoke. Gay Talese remains one of my biggest influences / people I look up to. I think he, along with Truman Capote (check T.C.’s short portraits on people, especially the one where goes around NYC with a housekeeper), are really the first people who turned short nonfiction sketches into literature.

      this is the flow i’ve been trying to follow and promote ever since first reading it.

      you’re right on as far as thinking chronologically working against us as writers. in everyday thought, our minds never work that way. even as we’re moving downstream we’re still thinking about events that happened back upstream.

      the best stories seem to do everything and move in every direction at once.

      bigups on your piece at abroad. i remember reading it and liking it very much, although as a surfer i tend to recoil anytime there’s content about marine life inflicting damage.

  • Carlo

    This is so right on David.

  • Craig

    Hear, hear! Let it be. Writing as subversion is an old motif, but one that needs to constantly reinvent itself.

    And some powerful writing linked here, by the way :)

  • Paul Sullivan

    Van Morrison once said: “Music is spiritual; the music industry is not”. I think the quote can be paraphrased for the travel bizz. Real narrative travel writing comes from the heart and, where necessary, flips its gnarly finger at the industry. And just like David says – it’s all the more authentic and compelling for it. Rockin’ article DM – literally.

  • Sophie

    Of these, I’ve only read the hometown story before, which is an excellent portrait of Lagos. Since I have limited time now, I decided to read one more and my eyes were somehow drawn to “Notes on not being able to pray at the Wailing Wall”. I’m not religious and I struggle to understand people’s need to worship. Yet I thought this story was very powerful; all the more for saying so much in so few words.

    Thanks for the list. I’ll read the rest soon,

  • David Miller

    #16. How Travel Saved My Life

    I was brushing my teeth this morning and realized I totally forgot about this story by Josh Johnson.

    damn. sorry josh.

    I’m sure there will be more I realize I’ve missed.

    Will just keep adding them here.

  • Sarah

    It’s really inspiring to see all this in one place. Vamos, Matadorians! Thanks for this, David.

  • Nancy

    Ahh-raw need to tell a story. That’s what it’s all about. Inspiring links here. Thanks for this post.

  • Juliane Huang

    “My Chinese Clown” was the story that really sold Matador to me. And it’s still one of my favorites on the network.

  • Nick

    I love the concept of travel writing as punk rock, “to write anything about anyone or anyplace in any style you wanted”.

    Although these stories do that, I don’t know about calling them punk. Even the most raw of them…shimmers. I’m not sure punk ever did ; )

    Something that strikes me about all of them is that whilst each is intensely personal and intensely honest, they also all point towards something universal. I guess that’s why they are all so powerful; why they resonate.

    Thanks for collecting them all in once place.

  • AdventureRob

    A good list of narrative writing here :-)

    There are certainly similarities with travel writing and punk rock. I think travel writing is a bit more universal though and more likely to stay mainstream :-)

  • Punk Outlaw

    I really enjoyed this perspective.. I’ve always felt a close relationship between authentic travel (independent, non touristy travel) to punk music. Both are my passions and I am attempting to combine the two on the site where I travel Latin America documenting the local punk experience.

    The gritty cities in third world countries, the hard working poor, the indigenous people who’ve been exploited, there is something there that strikes the same chord with me as when I’m listening to punk music. Many punks where I’ve traveled are discriminated against or oppressed (i.e. Cuba) and while there is a language and culture gap, it is consistently overcome by our mutual love of punk music and the punk philosophy (whatever that may be).

    I never return from a trip the same and that is a good thing.

    Thanks again for this article and the links.

  • Vacation Ideas

    ‘Punk to me was a form of free speech. It was a moment when suddenly all kinds of strange voices that no reasonable person could ever have expected to hear in public were being heard all over the place.’
    -Greil Marcus

    Cheers for the great article! :-)

  • Truck Punk

    You want travel….

    You want Punk Rock….




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