Six things I’ve learned about travel writing after submitting 1000 posts for Gadling

My blogger dashboard tells me, “you have written 465,451 words in 1,000 posts since you started publishing 1,048 days ago.” Wow! I’ve been working for this wonderful blog for that long? It’s been fun and I’ve learned some important things about travel writing.

The subjects are endless
I got into travel writing years before Gadling hired me, but working for a daily blog made me worried that I wouldn’t have enough material. Boy was I wrong! There’s always a new place to explore or a new exhibition opening or a new archaeological discovery. Instead of having too little to write about I’ve discovered that there’s too much to cover.

For some people, your work is a blank slate
A playwright I know complained to me that, “Some people will use your work as a blank slate on which to project whatever they see in the world.” While the vast majority a Gadling readers understand what they read, there’s a vocal minority who see whatever they want.
A couple of years ago I reported on a smoking ban in Egypt. The comments section erupted with dozens of tirades against the U.S. government restricting our right to smoke. Only a couple commenters acknowledged, “I know this article is about Egypt, but. . .”

It got so bad that one reader exploded:

“THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!! EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT THE USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ALL YOU SMOKERS STILL HAVE YOUR RIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SO SHUT UP AND TALK ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Nice try, buddy. Nobody listened to you.I also did an article about the Loch Ness Monster going extinct. With tongue firmly in cheek, I wrote, “In the United States, liberals are saying Nessie died of shame from being called a ‘monster’ instead of the more politically correct term ‘evidence-challenged endangered species.’ Conservatives claim Nessie was the first victim of the death panels set up by Obama’s America-hating, terrorist-loving national health care.” Everyone got the joke except for some Obama supporters who piled on me, assuming I was some Bush-era devil. I even got messages in my public email account screaming at me about that one.

My public email address is easy to find if you Google me. I’m always happy to hear from readers. I had an interesting conversation about the Kensington Runestone just last week. The reader disagreed with my debunking it, but he was civil and cited sources. If only all such emails were so polite. I’ve been called a patriarchal Christian, a godless atheist, a fascist, a communist, a stupid American and an America-hating foreigner. Send me a nice email and we’ll chat. If you email saying you want me to be eaten by cannibals then the next time I go to Africa I’ll mock you and block you.

Want to cause controversy? Challenge basic assumptions
Sometimes I like poking the public with a stick by challenging long-cherished beliefs that have never really been thought through. I’m ornery that way and I like watching my editor’s hair turn gray. Saying stuff like “God should be referred to as and ‘it’ and not a ‘he,‘” or “you don’t have to bring your camera when you travel” challenges so-called truths that most people have never questioned. The knee-jerk reactions are predictable and fill up the comments section and my inbox.

I’m doing this less and less, because it has the opposite effect from what I intended. Instead of getting people to question their assumptions, most simply react angrily and strengthen their preconceptions rather than think about them.
I still might do a post on “Top ten reasons not to travel.” :-)

The more obscure the destination, the more they pay attention
When I wrote my series on Ethiopia and Somaliland I received a wonderful surprise — the wave of positive feedback from those countries. I got lots of happy comments and emails from Ethiopians and Somalis, and several local websites and even a Somali newspaper picked up my posts. These two nations unjustly suffer from negative stereotypes and so the locals were glad to see someone writing about all of the good things they had to offer.

An even more amazing response came when I wrote about the Athens War Museum as part of a series of how the Greek tourism industry is dealing with the economic crisis. I mentioned how I was disappointed because I couldn’t buy a copy of “A Concise History of the Balkan Wars 1912-1913” displayed at the counter. They didn’t have enough money to reprint it and so the last few copies were reserved for veterans. Only a few days later I got an email from a major in the Greek army offering me a copy! I have it on my desk now and it’s an excellent read.

Locals are your best coauthors
Before I go somewhere, I usually ask for tips from the Gadling team, other travel writers, and friends. Posting questions at the end of my articles always gets some great feedback from well-traveled Gadling readers. While this is all useful, the best help always comes from the strangers I meet while traveling. This works best when I stay put for a while, like when I lived in Harar, Ethiopia, for two months. Everyone was eager to tell me about their culture and show me the sights. People love it when you write about their hometown! They make my job easy.

Travel writing is important
Despite the many frustrations of travel writing and the (ahem) low pay, I think it’s more important than my history and fiction writing. This is such a divided world, filled with hatred, ignorance and fear. Chipping away at that negativity by showing people all the wonderful things other cultures have to offer is a noble profession, and I’m grateful to Gadling for giving me the chance to do it, and I’m grateful to all of you for the support I’ve received for my last 1,000 posts.

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]