SOME OF THE BEST STUFF I’ve ever read has been written by travel writers. When you throw yourself into the world like travel writers must, it’s hard not to come back with at least some insight on how it works.
At the same time, some of the worst stuff ever written has been written about travel. No genre is more prone to cliched, boring writing. Don’t believe me? Check out the travel abroad blogs of pretty much anyone you went to high school with. Or read some ad copy for a cruise line. Sex writing isn’t this bad.
Naturally, as consumers of travel writing, we can make things better — we can start clamoring for a change of priorities, or we can just talk with our clicks. Though I’m sure another person’s list of things they want to see in the travel writing world would include “Fewer Lists,” I’ve put together a list of things I’d love to see more of.
1. More diverse voices
A few weeks ago, I published an article on Matador about a bunch of great books about travel to read while traveling, and my list turned out to be all white and all male. It wasn’t an intentional choice on my part — I didn’t notice until some of the article’s commenters pointed it out — and I had a brief moment of panic when I realized I hadn’t read any travel books by women. Not even Eat, Pray, Love.
I’m certainly not saying my ignorance means there are no women travel writers, or that all travel writers are white, but we white dudes definitely dominate the field, especially when it comes to getting books published.
Travel writing can have a certain element of privilege to it. How many times have you read a piece about a rich white kid “finding” themselves on a trip abroad? I’ve been that rich white kid, and I’m not saying there’s no place for that type of travel writing. But the fact is, it isn’t only rich white kids who travel — virtually everyone does, and for a host of reasons. Those voices need to be heard more as well.
2. More context
Blogs lack the resources to support a lot of in-depth journalism, and as such, the internet age for travel writers so far has involved more personal experiences and travelogues than it has actual reporting. But reporting on travel is something the world desperately needs, because otherwise, we’re not learning about the world the writer is traveling to — we’re just learning about the writer.
3. More entertainment
As a writer, one of the first things you need to come to terms with is that, unless you’re a celebrity or an authority on something, nobody gives a shit about you. Don’t believe me? Start reading the comments on the articles you write. Everyone is dealing with their own things, and they just don’t care about what’s going on in your life.
The point of writing isn’t to bare your soul to the world, it’s to provide other people with something they can use or enjoy. There’s definitely sharing in those moments, but good writers don’t just write for themselves — they write for an audience.
The thing that surprises me most about travel writing is that it isn’t typically thought of as a comedic writing form. But the best travel writing I’ve read is hilarious: Bill Bryson, Hunter Thompson, J. Maarten Troost. The worst travel writing I’ve read is On the Road-esque navel-gazing. Jack Kerouac just wasn’t that great, guys. We need to stop trying to be like him and start trying to be entertaining and interesting.
4. More confusion
Larry David had a rule for writers on Seinfeld: No hugging, no learning. So many sitcoms had become trite and full of sappy emotional moments that David wanted to provide none of that with Seinfeld.
Travel writing will probably always involve hugging, but it could definitely use less ‘learning.’ One trap that travel writers fall into is thinking that there needs to be a learning moment at the end of every story they tell. And while there are plenty of learning experiences during travel, not all of them need to be explicitly relayed as such. How about the moments of miscommunication and confusion? This is what makes for the funnier stories, for sure, but the essence at the center of all travel — the thing all of that learning arises out of — is chaos.
Travel writers would do well to not force their lesson onto their readers, but instead throw their readers into the chaos with them, allowing the audience to learn their own lessons from it. Or to just emerge totally, refreshingly confused.
5. More multimedia
One of the best pieces of travel writing I’ve read in a long time is Brian Phillips’ piece on the Iditarod for Grantland. The piece featured Phillips’ beautiful writing, yes, but it also featured videos he shot, photos he took, maps of the route of the Iditarod, and sounds he recorded — including the howling of the sled dogs. The writing itself was fantastic, but all of it together was a masterpiece.
The travel community has embraced multimedia faster than anyone. Travelers are using GoPros to film their adventures like it’s nobody’s business, and YouTube has long been a part of online travel culture. I’m not saying we aren’t already doing these things — I’m saying we should be doing them all at once.
So writers: Next time you travel, bring your smartphone. Take notes, but also take pictures, take video, and take audio. And learn how to use HTML5. We’re going to do some awesome shit together.
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