THEY TRAVEL AND write to make a living (or a vague approximation of one), but sometimes it seems as if they don’t enjoy either activity.
They write fact, they write fiction and sometimes they write both in the same paragraph. They consistently come up with the most creative and original excuses for missed deadlines in the entire publishing industry.
What types of people are drawn to travel writing? What types of people succeed? As I contemplate an extended foray into the profession and look for role models, I wonder – who are these people?
I’ve come up with 6 possible types of travel writers:
The Intrepid Monk
Many of the truly great travel writers are loners, monastic personalities who speak softly and carry a very big notebook. Pico Iyer is a classic example. One of the very best active travel writers, Iyer is a teetotaler who lives simply and anonymously in a Japanese suburb and does much of his writing in an actual monastery.
Iyer’s writing is precise, lyrical and permeated with heartfelt personal emotion, but as a person, he is most comfortable blending into the crowd.
The intrepid monks of travel writing don’t spend all their time scribbling quietly at the back table of tea shops. They are, after all, intrepid. They take risks.
They venture far from the guidebook page. They are unconventional and unassuming, and though they write from a personal perspective, their personality is unobtrusive enough to never get in the way of the story, and the deeper themes of place, culture and interconnection that give weight and meaning to their prose.
The Epic Adventurer
These guys (and ladies) always up the ante. They may be good writers, but their writing is always secondary to the sheer audacity and creativity of their next adventure. The covers of their books often feature themselves – clinging to the edge of a cliff, or gripping an oar in the face of an Arctic storm, lips locked in an expression of grim determination and masochistic delight.
The unique angle, or hook, of their stories often involves some sort of stunt, an added layer of difficulty that has nothing to do with the territory they traverse. Across The Yukon, a title might read…By Tricycle!
If Epic Adventurers also happen to be excellent writers, like Mark Jenkins or Rory Stewart, their work can easily become a classic of the genre. Otherwise, no matter how far they push the limit, their literary careers rarely last longer than the initial rush of adrenaline.
The Naked Introvert
Naked introverts spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about their constipation, and then write about it in excruciating detail. They are funny, honest and extremely self-deprecating.
Naked introverts are especially well-suited to writing about travel because travelers are bumbling fools, and naked introverts are most entertaining when they find themselves in awkward and uncertain situations.
David Sedaris is the archetypal naked introvert, and I can’t think of another writer whose byline I’m more excited to find.
The Walking Party
Walking parties don’t query editors – they invite them out for beer, which turns into Tropical Karaoke Night, which turns into shots of tequila to greet the dawn. The next week the walking party e-mails the editor a story with “Cheers!” in the subject line.
The editor, having gotten over her hangover, can only remember that she had a great time and figures she must have signed off on the story. When the story is published the walking party invites the editor out to celebrate, and the cycle repeats itself.
Walking parties are fun to hang out with. They network naturally, and like to leave inside jokes on editors’ facebook walls. David Farley is one walking party I’ve been lucky enough to meet.
He’s writing a book about his quest to find the missing foreskin of Jesus Christ. See – you just laughed, didn’t you. That’s how walking parties work.
The Public Relations Professional
The PR Pro is seldom a good writer. She doesn’t need to know how to write. She has contacts with half the tourism professionals in the state of Florida. She knows how to play the publicity game.
She has a stock of exactly 8 adjectives with which to describe a new beach resort, but rarely bothers to use more than 3 of them. She is highly organized, has never heard of Alexandra David-Neel, and probably makes more money than any other category of travel writer.
The Guidebook Writer
Guidebook writers actually fall into two categories: the expert and the fool. The expert knows the territory he covers like the back of his hand. He may even be writing the entire guidebook, and he’s capable of doing a great job.
After a few editions though, jaded by a lack of royalties and the monotony of the work, the expert gets lazy. He doesn’t bother to fact check or visit properties he reviewed five years ago. Finally, he stops returning his editor’s e-mails, at which point the editor hands the ball off to…the fool.
The fool is young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He or she is probably intelligent, especially if working for Let’s Go Guides, and is absolutely thrilled to be on assignment as a professional travel writer.
The thrill lasts until the eager young writer gets off the plane and realizes he doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t have a clue about the culture and needs to turn in an exhaustively researched compendium by the end of the month.
At which point the fool checks into a youth hostel, crawls into the top bunk, pulls the sheets over his head and emerges only to throw himself on the mercy of the unfortunate English speaker at the Tourism Information Office.
Which type of travel writer do you enjoy reading? Which one is most like you?