Tag: Travel Writing

How Bruce Chatwin ‘Saved Travel Writing’

I was catching up on some back issues of Harper’s a few weeks back, and this quotation about the author of “In Patagonia” and “The Songlines” caught my eye:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

(It’s from “Voyagers: The restless genius of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin,” by Robert Macfarlane, in the November 2011 issue. It’s available online to subscribers only.)

Solas Awards Winners Named

Travelers’ Tales’ editors announced the winners of the sixth annual Solas Awards for travel writing this morning.

The grand prize winner was Peter Wortsman, for his story Protected. Erin Byrne won the silver for Spirals: Memoirs of a Celtic Soul. The bronze went to Bruce Berger for Mysterious Fast Mumble.

The complete list of winners can be found here. Congrats to everyone.

A Travel Blog From the Netscape Era

Travel writer Jason Cochran looks back on his first travel blog:

It was 1998. People were still paying for Netscape. Few of us used the Web regularly, and all of us had dialup, but I was determined to try it: I documented my journey online as I went. I’m ashamed to admit I began by using Courier.

Everyone logs their trips online now, but no one was doing it then. I was a pioneer. It took real effort. Flashpacking didn’t exist. I had to seek out Internet cafés and without WordPress or Blogspot to rely upon, I had to hand-code everything in basic HTML, and I was forced to seek out crude FTP programs (Fetch!) to get my writing online.

I didn’t put my travels online for Web fame or to garner a following, the way so many backpackers do now. There were no affiliates or appeals for free lodging, and I was years away from collecting my first paycheck for travel writing. Then, it was simply so my family and friends could follow along and know I wasn’t lying dead in some South African ditch.

It’s amazing to think about how much has changed in the years since. Cochran’s blog is still live, in all its retro glory.

Video: Interview with Author Elizabeth Gilbert

A thoughtful 20-minute interview with the “Eat, Pray, Love” author covering MFA programs and her novel-in-progress, which she refers to at one point as “another travel book.”

Travel Story Hall of Fame: ‘The Lonely Planet Guide to My Apartment’

Today we introduce the Travel Story Hall of Fame, an occasional series in which we honor the best in travel writing new and old.

Title: The Lonely Planet Guide to My Apartment

Author: Jonathan Stern

Publication: The New Yorker

Date: April 24, 2006

Nomination Speech: I first read Jonathan Stern’s Shouts and Murmurs piece in “The Best American Travel Writing 2007,” but its tone, its language and sub-heads were all weirdly familiar, as though I’d read the story before. That eerie sense of recognition is a sure sign of a well-executed satire.

Meet the strange land of My Apartment, whose “vast expanse of unfurnished space can be daunting at first, and its population of one difficult to communicate with.” Under “Places to Eat,” Stern notes that “tourists often flock to the salvaged wooden telephone-cable spool in front of the TV as a convenient dining spot. More adventurous eaters might try standing over the sink, as the locals do. If you’re willing to venture off the beaten track, there’s balancing your plate on the arm of the couch or using the toilet lid as a makeshift table.”

Years later, “The Lonely Planet Guide to My Apartment” remains one of the funniest pieces of travel writing I’ve ever read.



My Apartment’s vast expanse of unfurnished space can be daunting at first, and its population of one difficult to communicate with. After going through customs, you’ll see a large area with a couch to the left. Much of My Apartment’s “television viewing” occurs here, as does the very occasional making out with a girl (see “Festivals”). To the north is the food district, with its colorful cereal boxes and antojitos, or “little whims.”

Read the rest here.

NATJA Announces 2011 Winners

The complete roster of North American Travel Journalists Association award winners was announced this week. National Geographic Traveler took the grand prize for top travel publication, while Andrew McCarthy and Jill Schensul were named the travel journalists of the year.

Several World Hum contributors were also among the winners. Larry Bleiberg took Gold in the Historical or Hobby Travel category, while Daisann McLane received a Gold award for Cultural, Educational or Self-Improvement Travel. Lola Akinmade Akerstrom received two Gold awards—one for Personality and Profiles and one for Culinary Travel—and Wayne Curtis also received a Silver award for Culinary Travel.

Congratulations to all the winners.

Looking for the Old Hippie Trail

At Old World Wandering, Iain Manley has a long, worthwhile post on the classic overlander, mixing his personal experiences as a “novice traveller” on the route with a history of the trail’s literature, from “Across Asia on the Cheap” all the way back to the Romantics of the 1700. Here’s a taste:

I knew something of the old Hippie Trail by the time we arrived in Goa, but only as much as I had read in Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux had encountered the freaks making their way out east - “like small clans of tribesmen setting out for a baraza or new pastures” - on a train from Istanbul to Tehran. He thought “the majority of them, going for the first time, had that look of frozen apprehension that is the mask on the face of an escapee,” and had “no doubt that the teenaged girls who made up the bulk of these loose tribal groups would eventually appear on the notice boards of American consulates in Asia, in blurred snapshots or retouched high-school graduation pictures: missing person and have you seen this girl?” Theroux, propped up on his first-class berth “like a pasha,” consulting Nagel’s Encyclopaedia-Guide, or lying down in the heat, “like a Hindu widow on a pyre, resigned to suttee,” was too much of a prig to characterise the hippies as anything but wastrels and strays, and it seemed a pity that the Hippie Trail had never had a Kerouac to document it, to tell us as he did that “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

The Rumpus Talks Truth in Memoir

This is a favorite, much-kicked-around topic of mine, as relevant to travel writers as to more stationary memoirists. Earlier this week the folks at The Rumpus added a fresh contribution to the debate.

Messing With Memoir is an essay about the author’s efforts to revise her out-of-print memoir, years after she’d written it, and the ethical issues she grappled with in doing so. Here’s a taste:

I was a much better writer now. Why let that raw, earnest, adverb-friendly, long-sentenced version of myself linger? With e-books and Print on Demand (POD) as a garrote, I could quietly, efficiently off her. In her place I would seat that wiser, more skilled self.

But was it ethical? I had never heard of anyone tampering with their memoir. A memoir is not only an account of your life, it is specifically an account of your remembrances of your life. So now I would be telling that same story fifteen years later. I was re-remembering a memory.

Even more important, a memoir is a reflection of who you are at the time of writing. But now I would be peering backwards at myself from a new vantage point. Isn’t there a different author (older, wiser me) now? And haven’t I now changed my main character by writing her with this new hand? Did this matter?

Touching on the same theme in one of his “Daily Rumpus” emails a few days back, editor Stephen Elliott wrote about “the only true rule of memoir”:

You cannot knowingly tell a lie. In other words, you can be wrong, you can write things you consider to be true that other people consider to be untrue. In fact, it’s impossible to do otherwise. Most truth is not factual; most truth is subjective. But to state a something as fact when you know it is not, ie. I spent this much time in jail, is to break the cardinal rule.

I think that gets it about right. For more, check out Tom Bissell’s essay on truth and travel literature, Truth in Oxiana.

What’s in a Long Sentence?

Apparently some copy editors have taken issue with Pico Iyer’s use of long sentences. In the Los Angeles Times recently, the World Hum contributor makes an eloquent case for them (while employing them often), explaining that he uses them “as a small protest against—and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from—the bombardment of the moment.”

We live in a world of sound bites and bumper stickers, he writes.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions—or that at least is the hope—and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

In excerpting this, I suppose I’m perpetuating the same sound-bite world that Iyer is protesting against. McLuhan was right. The medium is the message. But nothing is stopping you from reading the piece in its entirety, right?

Pico Iyer Can’t Get Graham Greene Out of his Head

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, World Hum contributor Pico Iyer writes about a string of odd coincidences, eerie overlaps and echoes between Graham Greene’s writing and traveling life and his own. Iyer writes:

Not long thereafter, I began working on a book on the 14th Dalai Lama, and as I was sitting in Hiroshima one fall afternoon, listening to one of his general addresses, I realized that the perfect way of summarizing his teachings—for non-Buddhists at least—was by quoting Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” A little later, I was staying in a convent on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem and, needing something to read, picked up a book from the library shelves. It was Greene’s late novel Monsignor Quixote, and when I turned to the title page, there was an epigraph, from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

On and on this went… Perhaps—a skeptic might have said—these were no more than surface coincidences; but when there are so many correspondences, across such a wide canvas, you start to imagine that they might speak for connections of a deeper kind.

So often these days we read of travelers taking off “in the footsteps” of Marco Polo or Genghis Khan or many another distinguished forebear, even Graham Greene. But in this case, I didn’t feel I had to pursue Greene, because he was so busy pursuing me.

Iyer’s latest book, The Man Within My Head, was released last week. It explores his strange relationship with Graham Greene in depth, and The Globe and Mail’s Ronald Wright describes it, in a thoughtful review, as “biography, memoir, travelogue, literary criticism and personal meditation.” I can’t wait to check it out.

(Via @iainmanley)

Rejection Notes for Famous Authors: ‘I Don’t Dig This One at All’

The Atlantic has a fun round-up of rejection notes received by some now-famous authors, before they made it big. Among them: Peter Matthiessen and Jack Kerouac, whose “On the Road” is dismissed by a Knopf editor as “huge sprawling and inconclusive.” Said another editor: “I don’t dig this one at all.”

2011 Lowell Thomas Award Winners Announced

This year’s Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winners were announced this week. Rick Steves was named Travel Journalist of the Year; he also received awards for his video and audio work, as well as his blog. Budget Travel took the gold award for travel magazines. The Los Angeles Times won gold for best travel section in a newspaper with a circulation of 350,000 or more, and the San Francisco Chronicle was named the best newspaper travel section with a circulation under 350,000.

A number of other World Hum contributors were among the writers honored at the awards: Daisann McLane and Nathan Myers received gold awards for individual stories, while Wayne Curtis and Andrew Evans landed bronze awards. Congratulations to all.

Interview with Henry Rollins: Punk Rock World Traveler

Jim Benning asks the musician about his new book of photographs and how travel has humbled him

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How Does Travel Blogging Fit Into the Travelogue Tradition?

Iain Manley offers his perspective:

Travelogues progressed along a more or less linear path in the twentieth century. Although aeroplanes brought a new kind of fragmentation and the size of the travel industry ballooned, great writers continued travelling and, in magazines, a new, glossy format for descriptions and photographs from a journey was found. The twenty first century has been far more disruptive. The first blogs led quickly to the first travel blogs, instead of the first online travelogues. It was a new medium and perhaps it made sense to use a new name, but instead of marking an upward progression, the phrase travel blog is associated with a feeble form of one of the world’s oldest narrative traditions.

This prejudice is, in the majority of cases, completely justified. Too many travel blogs are facile when they are not fatuous. Blogs that function like letters to friends and family should, perhaps, be excused - even if some of the most readable travelogues of the past two centuries started life as a series of letters - but there are now well over a thousand travel blogs that actively seek an audience, and most of them are depressingly poor. They describe interactions with the travel industry instead of the larger world and are, as a result, like reading badly edited, first person Lonely Planet guides. They are self-reductive, confining their narratives to keywords popular on Google, like solo, solo female, family travel, eco-travel and round the world, which is aptly abbreviated to RTW, because most of these whistle stop gallivants are themselves extremely abbreviated. They are light on history, politics and context in general, but heavy on technically proficient but clichéd photography and vacuous best-of lists. The worst are self-congratulatory and patronising, written with enough gall to inform readers that they too can travel, usually along the same dismal beaten track as the blogger. Most of all - and most of the time - travel blogs are badly written. To capture an audience that browses instead of reading, blog posts must be short, easy to consume and frequent. As a result, there are both good and bad writers with insipid and tedious travel blogs.

Are Travel Writers the New Poets (Though Not in a Good, Lyrical Way)?

Are Travel Writers the New Poets (Though Not in a Good, Lyrical Way)? iStockPhoto

Tom Swick on writers and readers in an increasingly fragmented world

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R.I.P. Lynn Ferrin

The travel writer and long-time editor of the AAA magazine for Northern California died recently at 73. Over at Gadling, Don George has a lovely tribute to his friend and colleague, and to the power of great travel writing:

[Lynn] infused her pieces with the wonder that was at the core of her life’s journey, with the big-heartedness, big-mindedness and sense of limitlessness that graced her days—and that graced all of us who knew her. She brought these gifts to her writing, she dared to reach far and dream big in her stories—she dared to write about the meaning of life. And because she did so, she touched all of us in big, and deep, ways.

This is what we all need to do as travel writers, I think now. We need to dream big, think big, fling out filaments that tie our travels to a wider perspective. Our work matters only as much as we make it matter, and we need to write pieces that matter. We need to honor ourselves and our readers in this way. We need to honor the act of writing and the act of connecting—connecting with the world when we travel, and connecting with our readers when we write. In the same way that we look for the interlocking pieces of the whole, we also need to be those pieces—we need to interlock, article to article, reader to reader, becoming a part of the vast puzzle we seek to understand and replicate.

It’s a high and daunting calling—and thank god for that. Why waste our days aiming low and taking no chances?

World Hum Writers Honored in ‘The Best American Travel Writing 2011’

I picked up my copy of the latest in the “Best American Travel Writing” anthology series this week and was thrilled to see some familiar names listed. Four World Hum stories were included in this year’s notable selections: The Roads Between Us: A Journey Across Africa, by Frank Bures; A Pilgrimage to SkyMall, by Bill Donahue; Lover’s Moon, by Pico Iyer; and The Sexual Lives of Sri Lankans, by Hannah Tennant-Moore.

World Hum contributors Peter Hessler and Tom Swick were also included for stories published elsewhere. Congratulations to all.

‘I Was Writing a Guidebook to a Country That No Longer Exists’

Kate Grace Thomas updated the Lonely Planet guidebook to Libya just before the Arab Spring. As the country turned violent, the book was quickly put on hold. Yet Thomas found herself itching to return to Libya. She writes about her experiences in Guernica:

War is not my beat. I knew that. But Libya, somehow, was. I went in December to tell its stories—stories of nascent tourism and marvelous ruins, stories of deserted beaches and drinking sugary tea in the winter wind. And now, there were more stories to tell.

(Via @writinginpublic)

World Hum Contribs Launch VelaMag

World Hum senior editor Eva Holland has teamed up with several other writers to launch VelaMag.

The site, whose masthead includes World Hum contributors Sarah Menkedick and Lauren Quinn, will feature writing “by six emerging writers who also happen to be women, and who frequently write about travel or use travel as a lens, frame or motif in their work.”

It launched with a story by Menkedick about Oaxaca called The Revolution.

It looks promising. We’ll be reading.

Fear and Loathing in a Chevy Aveo

On the 40th anniversary of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” The Daily’s Zach Baron climbs into a modest rental car and hits the Hunter S. Thompson trail. Here’s the introduction to his sharp and funny story:

Writers only go to Las Vegas for one reason, really. It is our World Series of Poker, except more pretentious. But the process is not dissimilar. You train, get your weight up. A semi-competent feature here, a not-totally-botched essay there, and then, one day, when your editor is particularly distracted, downtrodden or simply in need of something to believe in, you push your meager pile of chips to the center of the table. You look your mark in the eye and bluff. “It is the 40th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’” you say, your face calm, confident, “and I want to go there, to write a piece on the book, and the American Dream.”

You don’t expect him to say yes. Pitching stories on the American Dream is what writers do when their hearts are empty, their minds blank. It is the equivalent of stalling for more time, throwing a Hail Mary down eight with time expiring, a way to mark your commitment and plucky optimism before admitting defeat and moving on to something with an actual chance of success.

This is part one of a series. I’ll be following along. (Via @alexanderbasek)