Don George: Travel writing and the Book Passage potion

Two weeks ago the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference – that annual four-day summer camp for travel creators – magically unfolded in Marin County’s Corte Madera once again. The conference is always one of the highlights of the year for me, and it proved so this year as well. Looking back, I’ve distilled five lessons from this year’s reeling, regaling, roller-coaster ride.

1. Travel writing makes you see the familiar anew: The conference actually kicked off for me with a pre-conference one-day in-the-field workshop. This year I took a hardy and convivial band of 11 writers to Point Reyes Station. This tiny town on winding Highway 1 seems the quintessential Northern California outpost to me. Though the population is only 350, the locally headquartered Cowgirl Creamery sells cheeses from as far away as France, England, and Italy (as well as its own signature, creamily delicious Mt Tam and tangy Red Hawk cheeses); on the one and only main street, Coyuchi sells organic textiles made in India, Cabaline offers Western and Australian saddlery next to Marin-made hats, and Zuma showcases jewelry crafted in Africa, Asia and down the street. In short, it’s a captivating mix of the local and the global, distinguished by its quality and its commitment to sustainable principles and practices.

We spent the day exploring the town as if we were travel writers on assignment, poking our noses into the pungent Creamery, eyeing the bales of hay, organic produce and handmade candles at Toby’s Feed Barn, wandering into the Giacomini Wetlands — and stopping to smell the lavender en route — and then sitting around a weatherbeaten picnic table in the town’s scrubland-cum-park right on main street, talking about the most telling details we would use to evoke this special place for someone who’d never been there.

The day was a terrific reminder for me about the value of approaching the world as a travel writer: I have been to Point Reyes Station a dozen times in the past decade, but going there with a writer’s mindset opened me up to the place, made me look, smell, taste and listen more keenly, forced me to pay attention in a way that I don’t when I’m just coming to town to buy cheese or visit beguiling Point Reyes Books. Paying attention, I learned again, is the foundation of great travel writing – and as a bonus, it deeply and resonantly enriches your everyday life as well.

2. The Editor: endangered species or evolution in action? In the ensuing four days the conference plunged headlong into its frenetic schedule of morning workshops, afternoon panels and evening events. Subjects spanned the spectrum of travel and food writing and photography (we explicitly added food to the conference curriculum this year – who doesn’t like to eat when they travel?): writing for newspapers and magazines, blogging and writing for web sites, creating the personal essay and memoir, crafting the narrative, building and refining your own website, working with an agent, producing videos, conjuring cookbooks, self publishing, social media-izing.

If everyone becomes their own publisher, will the art of editing become extinct?

The faculty consisted of distinguished editors, writers, photographers, publishers and agents, and the rich range of offerings was both exhilarating and exhausting. I realized again how many people are passionately committed to the art and craft of publishing, and how varied the opportunities are today. But weaving through these revelations was a subset of questions I had initially begun to ask after TBEX in New York, when the multi-layered landscape of contemporary publishing had become clearer to me: As the world of publishing continues to evolve, what will become of the role of the editor? To put it more finely: If everyone becomes their own publisher, will the art of editing become extinct?

Some conference participants told me that even when they publish their own work, they recognize the need for editing and so they hire editors to refine their work. Is this the way of the future, I wondered: Will the editors one day be working for the writers? Will all the independently supported filters and curators of content – from the New Yorker to my neighborhood Piedmont Post — someday simply disappear? And would the world be a lesser place if they did?

As a writer, I’ve loved and respected editors all my career; they make my work better. As a reader, I’ve relied on them to sift through the mountains of content to curate what I spend my precious time reading. And as an editor, well, I understand how an editor can make a difference in a manuscript and in a reader’s life. I honor the role of the editor, and I hope it never disappears. But as the publishing money-rivers trickle into rivulets and the self-publishing options infinitely expand, what modern Medici will fund the editors of the future?

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3. Travel writers just want to have fun:
Still, the conference experience wasn’t all troubling questions. Au contraire! Based on the prodigious quantities of good food, good drink, laughs per minute and hours of tale-swapping, one lesson came through crystal clear: The basis of lusty, zesty writing is a lusty, zesty approach to life. The deeper and fuller you immerse yourself in the world, the deeper and fuller your writing will be. In other words: If you want to be a great travel writer, work really hard on having a good time.

This was evidenced throughout the conference in an affirming generosity of spirit, from morning consultations to midnight conversations, and in an all-around insatiable appetite for language, literature and life, but it was demonstrated most convincingly on Saturday night, which in recent years has tumbled into a kind of karaoke klassico. After a throat-loosening sequence of pinot noir- and absinthe-sampling sessions earlier in the evening, the only thing any self-respecting Tim Cahill wannabe could do was take to the stage and warble “Born to Be Wild.” Therein lies greatness.

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4. When the going gets tough, the writing gets going: One corollary truth emerged time and again in panel and piazza discussion alike: As Tim Cahill and Carl Hoffmann put it, the travel writer’s worst nightmare is the trip where everything goes smoothly. So when your bus breaks down in the middle of mountainy nowhere, or you’re moored on a moth-eaten mattress waiting for stomach swells to subside, or you’re suddenly abandoned and bewildered in the heart of a sweltering souk – rejoice! And whip out your notebook, for the fun — and your story — is about to begin.

There’s a larger truth here: The world around us is full of stories. Be alive to the possibilities – approach the world with an open heart and a curious mind – and you’ll always find something to write about. Where the outer map intersects the inner map, that’s where you should begin.

5. Great travel writing = timeless transportation: For me, the highest highlight of the conference occurred on the very last day, when I asked Tim Cahill to read what I consider one of the greatest examples of travel writing ever. It’s the end of his incomparable story “Among the Karowai: A Stone Age Idyll,” which appears in the collection “Pass the Butterworms.”

It goes like this:

It rained three times that afternoon, and each downpour lasted about half an hour. In the forest there was usually a large-leafed banana tree with sheltering leaves where everyone could sit out the rain in bitter communion with the local mosquitoes.

Just at twilight, back in Samu’s house, where everyone was sitting around eating what everyone always ate, a strong breeze began to rattle the leaves of the larger trees. The wind came whistling through the house, and it brought more rain, cooling rain, so that, for the first time that day, I stopped sweating. My fingers looked pruney, as if I had been in the bath too long.

Samu squatted on his haunches, his testicles inches off the floor. The other man, Gehi, sat with his back to the wall, his gnarled callused feet almost in the fire. It was very pleasant, and no one had anything to say.

After the rain, as the setting sun colored the sky, I heard a gentle cooing from the forest: mambruk. The sky was still light, but the forest was already dark. Hundreds of fireflies were moving rapidly through the trees.

William rigged up a plastic tarp so the Karowai could have some privacy. Chris and I could hear him chatting with Samu and Gehi. They were talking about tobacco and salt, about steel axes and visitors.

Chris said, “I don’t want them to change.”

We watched the fireflies below. They were blinking in unison now, dozens of them on a single tree.

“Do you think that’s paternalistic?” he asked. “Some new politically correct form of imperialism?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

But I thought about it. I thought about it all night long. When you suspect that your hosts have eaten human flesh in the very recent past, sleep does not come easily. It seemed to me that I was out of the loop here, not a part of the cycle of war and revenge, which was all just as well. I had expected to meet self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, and the Karowai were all of that, but they wanted more. They wanted steel axes, for instance, and did not equate drudgery with any kind of nobility.

I tried to imagine myself in an analogous situation. What would I want?

What if some alien life force materialized on earth with superior medical technology, for instance? They have the cure for AIDS, for cancer, but they feel it is best we go on as we have. They admire the spiritual values we derive from our suffering; they are inspired by our courage, our primitive dignity. In such a case, I think I’d do everything in my power to obtain that technology — and to hell with my primitive dignity.

I thought about Asmat art and what is left in the world that is worth dying for. I thought about Agus, who wept over his first bowl of rice and whose first contact with the world set him up in the business of cutting down the forest that had fed him all his life.

I thought about the butterfly I had caught when I was a child. My grandmother told me never to do it again. She said that butterflies have a kind of powder on their wings and that when you touch them, the powder comes off in your hand and the butterfly can’t fly anymore. She said that when you touch a butterfly, you kill it.

Butterfly; Karowai.

Sometime just before dawn, I heard a stirring from the Karowai side of the house. Samu moved out from behind the plastic tarp and blew on the embers of the fire. Gehi joined him. The two naked men squatted on their haunches, silent, warming themselves against the coolest part of the forest day. Presently, the stars faded and the eastern sky brightened with the ghostly light of false dawn.

A mist rose up off the forest floor, a riotous floral scent rising with it, so I had a sense that it was the fragrance itself that tinged this mist with the faint colors of forest flowers. The mist seemed the stuff of time itself, and time smelled of orchids.

As the first hints of yellow and pink touched the sky, I saw Samu and Gehi in silhouette: two men, squatting by their fire, waiting for the dawn.

After Tim finished reading this, for a couple of heartbeats an awed and reverent silence filled the room. Then we burst into applause.

The observations, reflections and illuminations, the precision and the pacing, in this passage soul-sing the transporting power of great travel writing. It’s why we do what we do.


Why we do what we do: So Book Passage poured its rejuvenating potion again this year, and I drank and drank. (Drink enough of that stuff and you’ll do karaoke too.) It made me appreciate anew the heart and craft of writers like Tim Cahill and Carl Hoffman, the indispensable role of publications like WorldHum, National Geographic Traveler, the LA Times and SF Chronicle, Sunset, and Afar, the world-reveling and -revealing richness of great photography, and the passion that we who labor in the field of travel content creation share: the wanderlust that propels us, the wonderlust that fills us, and the poignant potion we concoct when we mix and share the two.

Here’s a toast to all the good people who attended this year’s Book Passage – and to all the travel and food writers and photographers who aspire and abide in the Book Passage of the mind. Keep doing what you do: The world needs you.

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[Photos: Flickr user Jen SFO - BCN; SmugMug user Spud Hilton; Spud Hilton; Flickr user ExperienceLA; Spud Hilton]