What makes for a quality travel story? According to Ernest Hemingway, “good writing is true writing.” Honesty is especially crucial in travel writing, but it’s sometimes difficult for writers to achieve.
When we travel, we step beyond our comfort zones, into a realm of uncertainty. For a writer trying to capture the essence of a place, it can be tempting to assume a tone of artificial confidence. Jangly nerves, upset stomachs and genuine observations are lost in favor of breezy, artificial suavity.
When that happens, as one contributor to this week’s round-up says, “the bullshit comes right through on the page.”
The stories below stand out not only for literary quality, but also as examples of true writing. One piece, Bill Simmon’s “Queasy in the the Big Easy,” was so honest it almost got him lynched in New Orleans.
Sometimes, true writing stands out in descriptive details, like Bruce Northam’s precise paragraphs about sea gypsy culture in Burma’s Mergui archipelago.
Other times, true writing requires the acknowledgment that human motives are never clear, and epic journeys, like walking across America, can lead to more questions than answers.
I hope you enjoy this week’s selections and look forward to comments!
1) “Around the Globe With No Clothes On” by Michael Yessis
I once lived near Canadian World, a bankrupt and abandoned theme park in rural Hokkaido, Japan. It was downright weird to explore the dusty, overgrown grounds of Canadian World, but Michael Yessis’ experience in Osaka ups the weirdness ante dramatically.
Yessis visited Japanese renditions of Italy, France, Finland and Greece in only 3 hours. And he was naked the whole time.
2) “Lost in America: Steve Vaught’s Staggering Journey To Find Redemption” by Steve Friedman
Regular readers of this column know I’m a big fan of the Best American Travel Writing series. “Lost in America” was recently selected for inclusion in the 2007 edition of the Best American anthology, but it’s still available online for free.
It’s the story of a troubled, intelligent and overweight man who decides to walk across America, and whose journey leads to fame, fortune, poison oak and, above all, to more questions – about happiness, commitment and moral wisdom.
Steve Friedman’s writing strikes exactly the right tone, and although this is a long article, it will hold you to the end.
3) “Burma: Drifting With Sea Gypsies” by Bruce Northam
I’ve always been fascinated by the Mergui Archipelago, a vast island region in the Indian Ocean, off the southwest coast of Burma. Bruce Northam’s outstanding article about the Mergui islands and the sea gypsies who live there is heartfelt but not sappy, descriptive but not too wordy, informative but never boring.
It’s easily the best piece of writing on the Mergui islands I’ve encountered, and now I’m more excited than ever to explore those deserted beaches, mangrove forests and sea gypsy encampments. Anyone up for an island adventure this winter?
4) “Growing Queasy in the Big Easy” by Bill Simmons
Babbling Bill Simmons is easily one of the most entertaining and successful Internet writers, a master of conversational, witty blog posts that make for ideal bathroom reading.
Simmons started out making cracks about the Red Sox and Celtics on his own tiny website, and is now one of the most popular columnists on ESPN.com. A few years ago Simmons went to New Orleans to cover a Super Bowl and ended up writing an article that nearly got him lynched at the time, but now stands as a poignant monument to pre-Katrina New Orleans.
5) “Arkansas River Notes” by David Miller
David Miller’s latest blog proves that you don’t need to venture too far from home to write a great travel story. Sometimes, a trip can even be a way of coming home again, finding yourself naked and grinning by a river in a field of wildflowers.
If you missed my interview with David last week on BNT, check it out here.