by Roy Hoffman
Spalding MFA faculty, fiction & creative nonfiction
When you pack your bags for your next trip, whether a few hours from home or as far away, to an American traveler, as Buenos Aires, Rome, or Edinburgh, take along your travel writer’s sensibility. You’ll already have the tools in place—pen and paper, laptop and camera—so making a record of where you go, what you see, eat, and learn, is not a practical but perceptual challenge. Our senses become heightened by the excitement of travel, the allure of different landscapes, languages and foods. As writers we note it all in colorful detail in our journals and e-mails home. But how can we shape this material into articles or personal essays for a larger audience? Here are some tips—and questions—to keep in mind.
- Travel writing ranges from the service end—how to get there, where to find it, how to buy it—to lyrical musings about place. Travel writing also incorporates stories about interesting individuals in far-off locales. If you’ve got a publication in mind for your travel story, figure out what it’s about, who its audience is. Write for that reader alongside you, shepherding him or her along.
- If you want to send out your travel story to be considered for publication, do an Internet search to see how much has been written about a subject. See if you can come up with a different angle, or focus on a topic that’s not covered as often. The castles of Scotland, for example, might be chronicled a lot. But what about hiking or biking to castles? Thus, in addition to a travel magazine or newspaper travel sections your piece might also be right for a publication that focuses on the outdoors. Or tell a story about a place through someone who lives there—rather than the bakeries of Paris, for example, a specific baker you meet there. On my last trip to Paris I wrote about the city through the experiences of an American couple who are authorities on French food, the man being from my hometown, Mobile, Ala., and for a publication in Mobile (“From Mobile to Paris“). I had a very particular audience in mind, hometown readers as well as lovers of French food and the City of Lights. I took my own photos, too, which you can do—straightforward, up close, in natural light.
- Whether you’re writing a travel feature, a practical, hands-on piece or personal essay, it’s a good idea to collect material during your journey. Enjoy a great restaurant? Ask for a copy of the menu, or snap it on your camera phone. Discover an out-of-the-way museum? Hold on to its brochure. Hear a memorable concert, like the Argentine group I came across in Buenos Aires? Pick up their CD and get on their mailing list. You might want to add them to the color of a travel story one day. Take pictures that will prod your memory when you sit down to write, or that you can turn to in filling out the details of a travel story. And use the recording function of your smart phone to remember the clamor of a locale, or to capture the voices of great storytellers along the way, letting them know what you’re up to. Sometimes the humblest person has a great story to tell, welcoming you to their local cafe in Barcelona or Vienna. When I listen to the Irish music I recorded in Dublin pubs, it puts me right back into the locale.
- In many cases you are not only writing about place but also about self in relation to place. Decide what the narrative stance is in terms of the destination being explored in language. Is it the curious seeker? The hapless tourist? The open-eyes-open-hearts pilgrim? The visitor with a very specific point of view? The journeyer who is about to be transformed? The detached reporter?
- If your travel writing is not meant to inform, then what is the story? If it’s about a personal experience in light of a foreign place—how our home selves are thrown into relief in a faraway environment—then how does that narrative unfold? What are the connections between the journey of self and the actual movements of the traveler? On a trip to India my wife and I took a dawn boat ride on the Ganges (see photo below). The experience was so moving to me that I wrote a personal essay about it as we traveled home—composing within days of the experience, while the feel of it was fresh. I found the narrative line as I wrote, not unusual for any genre. I worked on it when we arrived home, but I’d gotten the essence of it, the visceral feel of it, while in transit. I found an outlet to publish it that had a column on personal journeys (“Captured by the Ganges, a River of Souls“). You can find those markets, too, in print or on-line.
- Give succinct descriptions of places you want the reader to see—don’t take anyplace for granted. And let us hear the voices of the people in the travel destination. If they’re speaking a foreign language then perhaps you can offer a phrase or two that evokes a sense of that language.
- As with any good storytelling don’t let the narrative become static. Keep the story moving. Travel writing is ultimately about place. Rather than about a wholly familiar place, though, like home, it’s about a new place, landscapes seen afresh. Imbue your travel writing with a sense of discovery. It’s ok to be amazed.
- Before you set off on your next journey—Scotland this summer? Or another destination?—ask yourself what you’d like to write about, and how you’d like to use your travel to nurture your creative writing. It might be as a setting for a play, story, essay, poem, or screenplay you’re composing. Or it might be the story itself, front and center, travel writing that invites the rest of us, from our armchairs, to come along.
Roy Hoffman, who lives in Fairhope, Ala., and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Spalding Low Residency MFA in Writing Program, is the author of five books, including the novels Come Landfall and Chicken Dreaming Corn, and an essay collection, Alabama Afternoons. On the web: www.royhoffmanwriter.com