An Open Letter to Travel Writers

Look through the Window, Not into the Mirror

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I take few things seriously. I can say, without false modesty, that homeboy (speaking of myself in the third person) is essentially a moron. I mean a full-on village idiot. I dress like I’ve rummaged through Goodwill’s dumpster. I’m not married and have no prospects. I drink too much (I’m an adorable drunk) and dance just freely enough to make those around me think I’m trying. I’m not.

I do take one thing seriously—and it’s a matter of self-preservation: travel writing. But the thing is (there’s always a thing), travel writers are disappearing.

When I say travel writers, I don’t mean folks squeezing in blogs when the mood strikes. I don’t mean those who post the occasional dispatch about places they’ve passed through. I don’t even mean the creators of listicles—the more than vaguely pornographic-sounding label the magazine world gives stories with headlines like “Top 10 Pieces of Lingerie You Need in Kathmandu.”

There is nothing wrong with any of the above activities; they just don’t qualify as travel writing.

Travel writers recoil at the word “wanderlust.” Damn man, these motherscratchers live for and on and with (and anything else a rabbit can do to a fence) the road. These are people who can pack a rucksack or a roller with the efficiency of a factory worker. They regularly visit and review nine restaurants in a day, but can subsist on bourbon and Saltines. These folks sleep on the floor as easily as a five-star bed. They can write a graduate thesis on the histories of a dozen countries without cracking a book. They organize and rewrite the chicken scratch from multiple notebooks at four-thirty in the morning—after chain-smoking all night with locals.

Travel writers often barely make enough to pay the bills. And they never use the words quaint, hamlet or getaway.

But these folks are dying out quickly. The reason, to a large degree, is the Internet.

The Internet itself isn’t to blame. On the surface, the World Wide Web seems as if it could be the savior of great writing. Everyone has the ability to get their words out to a larger audience. Two decades ago that idea would have been as foreign and magical as TV to the ancient Greeks.

You mean I can travel and write about my expedition and share it with millions of people? And these people can read my words and then replicate the trip? And I can do it now? I don’t need to wait for a magazine to assign me the story? Gosh I’d better write and edit and rewrite a solid, mistake-free piece then … if everyone I’ve ever known might read it.

The problem, though, is that it hasn’t worked out that way. The issues are multi-tiered and we’re all responsible.

Photo via Flickr/JD Hancock

The first problem is perhaps the worst: since everyone has a venue to write, there is more information available than places to visit. It used to be precisely the opposite. The value of true travel writers has, thus, taken a rapid nosedive.

To eliminate the elitist tilt of the above statement, let’s rephrase. It is not the number of venues that matters; it’s the “necessary” immediacy with which information is posted.

Just as everyone is now a photographer with the advent of digital cameras, everyone is a writer with a personal website and a blog. However, the difference is that while professional photogs do have it easier with digital cameras—the ability to take thousands of images, to shoot anything and then crop, and to edit saturation and color levels—photographic postproduction must happen to “wow” with images. And it certainly must happen to sell them.

Today, there is nearly no postproduction with writing. And we, the cheek-turning public, are to blame. Punctuation issues, tense changes, vague descriptions and a general nod toward superficiality have become the norm. My grandmother would have rewritten a letter a thousand times if an errant pen stroke made a word less attractive. Today, many of us will post a “travel” blog with sentence fragments and words like “gonna” and “wanna” in the lead.

“Wanna have fun this summer? You gonna need to get to ye olde London. I’ll show you what you’ll need to know to make ya trip a bloody jolly good tyme! Big bonus: Brits think Americans have sexy accents and killer senses of humor!”

Does such easy disregard for convention and a lack of attention mean the end of civilization? That seems a little dramatic … don’t act loco. But with every lazy mistake and every lapse of critical judgment, the bar drops ever so slightly. Guess who pays? Homeboy … and all the other aspiring travel writers out there.

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