Travel writing tips: Four seeds from the garden of Susan Orlean

Earlier this month I had the exhilarating opportunity to interview Susan Orlean on stage as part of the National Geographic Traveler Conversations series. I’ve been a fan of her work in The New Yorker and elsewhere for many years, but had never met her until early this year when we were on a panel together, so I was thrilled by this chance for a prolonged conversation.

Orlean enlivened the night with numerous anecdotes and tips, but four in particular took root in my mind. Here they are:

Resourcefulness and perseverance are all: Well, not really all, but Orlean’s tales demonstrated in two ways just how important these qualities are. The first is how she advanced in her career as a journalist: She was working on a small newspaper in Oregon when a religious cult began to build a commune in a rural part of the state. She recognized that this had the makings of a big piece, called the Village Voice in faraway New York, and convinced the editor that this was a story the Voice would want to publish. This kind of pluck, vision and determination propelled her from Oregon to Boston, where she wrote for the Phoenix and the Globe, and then to New York, where she landed her dream job writing for The New Yorker – about which she said, “I had been writing stories for The New Yorker for a long time; they just didn’t realize it.”
Resourcefulness and perseverance are key to her stories as well: When she went to Spain to interview the first female matador, Orlean recalled, everything fell apart: The man who had represented himself as the matador’s agent turned out to be a fraud; the interview she thought she had arduously set up had evaporated. This matador was such a hot property that no media person could get close to her. So what did Orlean do? She tracked down the matador’s mother and spilled out her woeful tale. Eventually she got her interview – and her story, “The Bullfighter Checks Her Make-Up.”

I’ve heard this kind of story over and over from successful journalists. Talent is part of the equation, but finding a way to get your story – whatever obstacles the world throws in your path – is an equally important part. It’s happened time and again in my own life, too. When I arrived in Siena late at night and every hotel and hostel was “completo,” I ended up sleeping on the third-storey stoop of a stony apartment building – and wrote a piece about the unexpected revelations that adventure conferred. When my evening flight from Dulles to San Francisco got canceled and I was suddenly spending the night in Leesburg, Va., I wrote a piece about that. When you know where you want to go, find a way to get there. And when your bus breaks down, look around: Stories abound.

Look for your connection to a place and follow that thread: Orlean talked about how she approaches a place by looking for something quirky or idiosyncratic that connects her to that place and becomes her point of entry. When she wrote about Morocco, for example, she approached it through the unlikely portal of donkeys. She began by analyzing the essential role donkeys play in the daily life of the medina of Fez, whose ancient alleys are too narrow to accommodate motor vehicles. That focus led her to an extraordinary institution called the American Fondouk, a free veterinary clinic in Fez that was founded and funded in 1927 by a wealthy American woman who had been distressed by the condition of the donkeys. Orlean met the Canadian currently in charge of the Fondouk and through that connection, found a guide to take her to “the epicenter of the donkey universe in Morocco,” the grand donkey market at Khemis-des Zemamra. When she wrote her article, “Where Donkeys Deliver,” these connection-stones paved a poignant pathway into the heart of Morocco that I had never read before.

Orlean’s words reminded me of the advice I pass on in my Travel Writing book: Look for your passion point. It may be puppets in Paris, potatoes in Peru, or hula in Hawaii – whatever connects your passion to the local culture, that’s your entryway. Pursue it and see where it takes you. A great example of this notion is the article “Mexico: Guitar Central,” by Los Angeles Times writer Chris Reynolds. In this wonderful piece, the quest to track down and buy the perfect handmade guitar reveals the quintessential qualities of a Mexican mountain town and its high, homespun art. Pursue your passion point, and my bet is it will open up a place and its culture to you in a way that they’ve never been seen — and written about — before.

Be in the moment: One of the most piquant points Orlean made is that she doesn’t really like taking notes on the spot. “I like to spend a fair amount of time not worrying about note-taking,” she said. “I like to have time to get the feel of a place before I’m scribbling.” Later, she elaborated, “I don’t take exhaustive, extensive notes, but I do indeed take notes on the spot — I have my notebook with me always, and jot when I need to — and I definitely use notes when it comes to quotes. But I care more about paying attention and absorbing where I am. I count on my memory as much as I count on my notes.”

I absolutely agree about wanting to be in the moment, and this has been an ongoing frustration in my career as a travel writer. The moment you take out pen and notebook, you detach yourself from the scene you’re seeking to describe. Over the years I’ve tried to modulate this detachment so that I’m constantly plugging and unplugging into the experience I’m describing – hopefully so fast that I don’t lose the electrical connection to the flow of the experience itself. On the other hand, I’ve always found that the notes I take on the spot are my best, most vivid portals right back into that experience, so that I can recall it, surround myself in it, three weeks or three months after the trip ends. I expressed this to Orlean and she agreed, “Notes taken on the spot are sharp and instant, and are very important; memory is not sufficient.”

So: Immerse yourself as much as you can in the moment – but take enough notes so that memory can find its way back long after that moment has passed.

Surprise me: One last delightful point Orlean made was the value of surprise. Almost invariably her stories begin, she said, with something that surprises her. The Taxidermy World Championships, for example: “What’s that all about?” she thought when she first heard about the competition, and the quest to understand that obsession led to her acclaimed 2003 piece “Lifelike.”

The same process applied to “The Orchid Thief.” The genesis of the book was a short newspaper story about a convoluted case of orchid theft in Florida. At first Orlean just didn’t understand all the fuss: How could people be so passionate about a flower? As she tried to answer this question, the journey took her deeper and deeper into the orchid’s musky, mysterious, maddening swamp.

Every one of her pieces, Orlean intimated, unfolds as a journey for her to explore and understand something that has surprised her and kept her attention. Happily for us, Orlean’s extraordinary skills as a reporter and writer transform those journeys into odysseys of enlightenment for her readers as well.

[Photo credit/Flickr user Jonrawlinson]