No Place Exists That’s Not Worth Writing About

Travel Blog  •  Tom Swick  •  01.12.06 | 6:02 AM ET

I visited Key West for the first time in 1991. I had been in Florida, working as a travel editor, less than two years, and driving with the window down in January to a literary seminar on travel writing seemed a dual blessing. John Malcolm Brinnin—another unjustly forgotten writer—gave a keynote address that I still quote from in travel writing workshops (the hair on my neck never failing to rise). I interviewed Calvin Trillin, who invited me to lunch at the Pier House with Alice. And I interviewed Jan Morris, who impressed me as the most considerate famous person I had ever met. (A role Pico Iyer seems to be filling admirably.) One morning near St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I ran into Jan power walking down Duval Street. No matter; she stopped to chat. I told her that in my travels I often attended service at the local Anglican church. “You can sometimes meet interesting people there,” I said. She looked doubtful, saying she preferred the company of pagans. And with that she regained her loping stride.

I was reminded of all that Sunday morning when I again found myself in front of St. Paul’s. There were no power walkers this time, not even Dervla, but a woman stood on the sidewalk with three little girls in their Sunday dresses. When the light changed, she said, “C’mon critters.”

The day’s panels were a chance to get in the last word. Hal Crowther followed the three-day stream of sensitivity by remarking that V.S. Naipaul came to the American south and was arrogant, unfriendly, impatient, intent on merely reinforcing his misconceptions. (I found this interesting because in November I had met James Applewhite, who appears in the last chapter of “A Turn in the South” and thinks very highly of Naipaul. Of course it’s hard not to like a guy who ends his book with one of your poems.)

Peter Matthiessen said of the practice of making things up: “It’s absolutely critical we don’t do that” and added, “I know some wonderful writers who I just don’t trust.” Barry Lopez declared: “This is a country that has never come to terms with slavery, never come to terms with genocide, and we think we can go around the world and talk about democracy.” And Patrick Symmes remarked that “our Achilles heel is our disengagement from the world. We are a great and powerful nation that likes cruise ships as a form of travel.” On a more positive note, Tim Cahill opined that “we are in the midst of a golden age of travel writing.”

And as I did all weekend, I thought about what I would say if I were on stage. With Tim I would have disagreed, again, suggesting that the golden age of travel writing was, as Paul Fussell said, between the two world wars, when writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh readily added books of travel to their oeuvres. A practice that only Naipaul has really continued. (Imagine if John Updike, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith tried their hand at travel.) And non-novelists - like Gerald Brenan and Norman Douglas - rigorously and unapologetically devoted themselves to the genre. Travel had a brief moment in the sun in the 1980s, following on the success of “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975), when Granta magazine published Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban and Martha Gellhorn and publishers came out with series of travel books. The travel book was to the ‘80s what the memoir was to the ‘90s (a not very encouraging development, to take a dour Lopezian view for the moment, for the future of the country). Even back in 1991 a number of agents and editors attended the literature of travel seminar in Key West; I didn’t hear of any in attendance at this year’s meeting. What is impressive is how many good travel writers there are in this country when the travel magazines continue to obsess about resorts and spas.

Symmes’ dig at cruising got an approving sigh, but the truth is only 16 percent of American adults have ever taken a cruise. And the fact that we are “a great and powerful nation” would seem to me, if anything, to argue for larger numbers of cruisers, because the men and women who slave 50 weeks a year making the country great need and deserve a carefree vacation. And while it’s natural perhaps for a man who rode a motorcycle around South America to look down on the umbrella-drink crowd, the fact remains that some of the finest travel writing—from Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad” to Evelyn Waugh’s “Labels” to the best sections of Paul Theroux’s “The Pillars of Hercules” to Larry McMurtry’s “Paradise”—has been about cruises.

This was one of the things about the seminar that bothered me: It frequently gave the impression that the only journeys worth writing about (and by association worth taking) were those that were either exotic or internal. And that the ultimate trip would be a combination of the two. Go off to Lokwabe and find yourself. But in an age (at a seminar) when the question is asked “What’s left to discover?” shouldn’t attention be paid to all that’s waiting to be rediscovered? Everything from writers like Kate Simon and John Malcolm Brinnin to places like Iowa and the Florida Panhandle. Travel writers, if anyone, should know that no place exists that’s not worth writing about.

As for the journey into oneself, it has obvious attractions. You don’t need to speak another language. (At the panels I attended, only once was the question of language raised, by someone in the audience, and both Dervla Murphy and Kira Salak—two of the most far-flung travelers—admitted fluency only in English.) You don’t need to learn about other cultures; you just learn about yourself. But then the question becomes, as it does for the adventurer: Does your journey have relevance to anyone else?

At four I met Pico, and we walked down Duval sharing impressions. He asked if I’d seen the man selling hugs; I wondered if he’d heard the Swedish fiddler. He took out a small pad of paper and jotted something down, apologizing, probably, for what he saw as both an impropriety and a cliché.

“May I ask what you’re writing?”

“About the Swedish fiddler,” he said. 

Sitting outside the Tropical Café, I quoted his line about the Cubans who “embellish the margins because the main text has been obliterated.”   

“Did you just come up with that?” I asked.

He said he had.

We finished our tea and said goodbye. Back on Duval, Magda stood behind her eyeglass counter, ready to tell of her journey from Warsaw to Key West, and I moved happily from travel writing to writing travel.

—South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick is guest blogging all this week. Previously: Monday’s post, Tuesday’s post and Wednesday’s post.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

3 Comments for No Place Exists That’s Not Worth Writing About

Mariella N. Bonnivert 01.12.06 | 9:07 AM ET

Thanks Tom, I am learning a lot.


Nick Grimshawe 01.12.06 | 7:15 PM ET

Thanks, Thomas Swick. Your title sums up how I feel about travel itself, not just writing about travel. Every curve in the road brings new vistas, new experiences, new thoughts, new insights.  I would love to see more travel writing with the style and grace of the post war period. Our world is so much busier now, I think we miss the moment in the moment.

Nick Grimshawe

Sophia Dembling 04.19.06 | 10:35 PM ET

I wish I could sell the kind of travel writing you admire, the kind I used to love writing. But there’s no place to go with it. The more I love something I’ve written, the harder it is to sell. I have all but given up.

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