An Open Letter to Travel Writers

Look through the Window, Not into the Mirror

Travel Features
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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.

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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.

The second problem was birthed from the first. The immediacy of the medium has allowed “me” to become the main character in many postings and take precedence over place. But everyone wants to express their thoughts! Then keep a journal. If a person wants to be a travel writer, they think about place first. Second, they think about the readers, who may want to replicate the story. “Me” is somewhere at the bottom of the totem pole. For a story to focus on “me,” there needs to be a concentrated reason. The fact of the matter is this: today, everyone travels. A writer better have one hell of a singular experience for the action to revolve around them.

But, writing in first-person isn’t necessarily the issue with “me” writing. The issue is that while a person—who wants to be a travel writer—is busy focusing on how great his or her experience is, he or she isn’t thinking about the things that constitute real travel writing. Those things are, in one word: details.

Being a travel writer can be fun, sure. Homeboy won’t deny that. But, the purpose isn’t to have fun first. Homeboy’s working. You have fun because you love what you do. And what you do is think about details.

What are the floors made of in this theater? Are they weathered planks? I wonder where the wood came from? I need to remember to ask the owner. I’d better write that question down so I don’t forget. >> Is that ceiling pressed tin? >> I wonder what this restaurant’s signature dish is? Where do they get the ingredients? >> How come there are only women working in this fish market? I love the way that monger squints and smiles with her eyes when she cleans the fish. And how does she keep that cigarette hanging just perfectly from the corner of her mouth? >> Is that Art Deco? Art Nouveau? >> The walls of this disco are made from the stone that once surrounded the city. The strobe lights make the smooth, pocked surface look like you’re watching footage from an old war movie. >> Two lovers are in the corner dancing alone. She’s in stilettos and his hair is full of grease. >> What the fuck is that smell?

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Photo via Flickr/Mike Tungate

Without answering these questions—without the details—a person is not a travel writer. Getting the answers is what travel writers do. It is what sets them apart. The details are the dues one pays to earn the title. Using details as the medium, the travel writer recreates the smells, sculpts the sights, and smears grit and grime across the page. They serve us a place’s heart, still hot and pumping atop a wine-stained notepad. In doing so, they help us decide if this is where we want to spend our annual vacation money before we trudge through another year at work. They are our eyes. They earn that right through the details they provide.

Heaven knows there is nothing inherently hard about being a travel writer. Again, homeboy = idiot. In nearly every way—by Western standards—I’m a failure. Over nearly two decades as a travel writer, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve ended the year in the black.

Why, then, do I do it? I do it because it is who I am. I have no choice but to notice what costumes the folk dancers are twirling in. I love pulling my notebook out of my back pocket to describe the wrinkled look of contentment on an old man’s face as he starts his morning on a café terrace with a thick cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey. The spring dew is still fresh on the grass and on the red poppies as a blue tram rumbles by and young professionals click-clack across the main square.

I am a travel writer because, frankly, I can’t imagine not being one. I am always impressed when I meet others with the same mindset. Such a sensibility, a travel writer’s sensibility, demands that we look through the window, not into the mirror. Paste is looking for those kinds of writers. Hell, these days, every real publication is. If you are one, and I see you at the bar, the drinks are on me.

Alex Crevar (a.k.a. homeboy) is Paste’s travel editor. He splits time between Europe and the United States.