Anthology texts to read:
- Bruce Chatwin: from In Patagonia (1977)
- Peter Wells: 'Grin like a Dog,' from A Passion for Travel (1998)
Travellers and Travel-Liars
coelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt
– Horace, Epistles 1: 11, l.27
["those who cross the sea change skies, but not their souls"]
Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov:
Horace reading to Maecenas
Travel broadens the mind. Or does it? Some would say that travel can have the opposite effect: narrowing the mind, confirming one's prejudices and presuppositions about other places and people.
What matters most, perhaps, is how you travel.
If you don't know who you are already, the mere fact of going elsewhere is unlikely to tell you. And there are some exceptionally crass – air-conditioned and hermetically-sealed – ways to travel.
The purpose of this course is to suggest some of the things you might like to look for when you next go travelling – and I would contend that that can take place as effectively within your own city or suburb as to some more exotic destination.
The trick is to work out what you in particular have to offer as a travel writer. What are your talents, your fields of expertise? The course readings will present you with a variety of successful (and less successful) approaches you can take inspiration from.
We'll therefore be beginning with some close analyses of other people's writing, but we'll then move on rapidly to invite you to apply the pointers you pick up from them.
Travel is fun, but it's also arduous – even dangerous sometimes. Sitting in a sunlit tropical bar sampling daiquiris may seem like the acme of happiness on a grim midwinter day at home with the rain pelting down, but it palls very quickly. Nor is it particularly interesting to read about.
So travel writing may seem like a pretty amorphous, come-one, come-all genre, but you still have to face that basic task of conveying something fascinating about where you happen to be sitting to readers who may not ever be there themselves.
I should emphasise, though, before we go any further, that this is not a course in travel journalism. Journalism is certainly an important part of travel writing, but it’s by no means the whole story.
So if you’re here solely to get tips on how to write articles for AA Directions or Kia Ora (the Air New Zealand in-flight magazine), I have to tell you that you’ll have to put up with hearing about a great many other approaches to the creative non-fiction genre we call “travel writing” along the way.
We will get there, but we’ll be taking the long way round – and isn’t that the nature of an interesting and worthwhile journey?
I should also state that my definition of the term “travel” is pretty liberal. It doesn’t have to be overseas, out of town, or even – in extreme cases – outside the house to be a successful travel piece, in my opinion. The French writer Xavier de Maistre even wrote a very successful book called Voyage autour de ma chambre [A Voyage Around My Room] in 1794, while under house-arrest in Italy for duelling.
Travel writing (for me, at any rate), is writing which is directed outwards: outside the self. Writing, in other words, which is interested in a larger world than the essentially interior and personal approach of Life Writing (biography or autobiography).
That’s not to say that a clear view (and studied projection) of the self is not important in Travel Writing. It is. It’s just that the persona of the travel writer is a means to an end, not the end in itself. We may like or dislike our guides through the regions we visit: what’s important is that they engage us, that we end up listening to what they have to say.
And, like any good guide, sometimes what they say to us is not so much the strict truth as it is the kind of thing that should be true, or is almost true but not quite. A certain amount of creative licence – extending at the very least to rearranging events to fit into a more compelling pattern, at worst to complete fiction – is also in the nature of the genre as it’s evolved over the past couple of centuries.
I’ve therefore divided the course materials according to that old journalistic formula: “Who? Where? How? What? Why? – & When?” These are all legitimate questions to ask about travel writing and travel writers, and I’ve tried to approach them in order of importance.
- Who is the travel writer? Or – who might he or she be?
- Where should one travel? Or – which types of places have particular writers visited and reported from?
- How is travel writing written? Or – what are the particular genres or approaches which have been most popular and successful to date?
- What should one write about? People, Events, Landscapes? What ought one’s writing to focus on?
- Why do it at all? For money? Free accommodation? Or – because it’s important to you (and by extension your target audience) somehow?
- When should you do it? To which the answer should be, invariably: right now.
Clearly most of these are rhetorical questions, with as many answers as there are practitioners of travel writing. I have, however, tried – in the two chapters devoted to each of these themes – to cover as many of the important approaches as possible.
That’s not to say that I don’t have my own views on just how and why a writer should travel, but I’ve tried very hard not to impose my own views on you. It is, after all, a genre which encourages diversity and individuality of form.
Percy G. Adams: Travelers & Travel Liars (1962)
Where have you been?
“One of the minimum requirements of the travel writer
is that he or she be a good listener.”
– Holland & Huggan, Tourists with Typewriters (1998): 13.
Discussion of the course structure, assessment & nature of the assignments.
How we’ll be conducting the workshops – discussion of the prescribed texts and (in some cases) doing in-class writing exercises as a preparation for the assignments.
- What places have you visited – or lived in?
- What records do you keep of your trip(s) / residence(s)?
- What would you, personally, be interested in writing about?
Peter Wells: Long Loop Home (2006)