Why vs. How in Travel Writing

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The big travel blogging conference — TBEX — was taking place in Stockholm at the same time a military faction was attempting a coup in Turkey. I watched the whole thing unravel on Twitter, my source for just about everything these days. My feed was a combination of speculation and hard news about the coup, and advice on how to have a successful travel blog. And some glowing remarks about Stockholm.

My brain shorted out a little. Istanbul is a hugely popular tourist destination; I’m familiar with the bridges and plazas, lined with protestors and soldiers in my feed, primarily from travel publications. I’ve seen lots of Istanbul in magazines and newspapers, sure, but mostly my information comes from indy bloggers. During the course of the coup, many travelers in my feed were joyfully posting about the commerce of travel from TBEX while, right next to their posts, news sources posted about how the media had been ousted from Turkish television stations.

The firehose that is modern media. It’s indiscriminate and it requires Olympic athlete level facility with cognitive dissonance. As I watched these two distinctive stories roll past, I thought about where they intersect and what our responsibility is as travel writers when it comes to writing during difficult times.

A lot of travel writing is tactical, and there’s great value in that for readers who are strapped for time; they just want to have a great two week vacation and make the most out of it. Much of what you read on popular blogs nowadays is tactical for the writer; their travel was paid for, they’d like more of that, thank you, and the work is often — not always, but often — geared towards making a paying host happy. Next, please.

Another subset of travel writing is travel story: I Was On the Road to Damascus, You Won’t Believe What Happened Next. I’m a sucker for a good story, who isn’t? Many of us dream of making our living doing travel narrative, and how grand there is a place for Cheryl Strayed and Tim Cahill and the writer I love to hate, Paul Theroux, in our midst.

And there’s destination driven reporting. This stuff is rarely in the travel section; you’ll find big feature spreads National Geographic (the big book, not Traveler) or Smithsonian, or other journals. Essays and photo spreads about endangered birds or frescoes in an abandoned Himalayan monastery complex, the kind of thing where the destination matters because it’s where those birds can be found, but there’s nary a mention of a hotel or bistro serving farm to table cuisine. The writer is rarely present unless there’s a damn good reason.

(For the record, my personal aspirations sit somewhere between “You Won’t Believe What Happened to Me” and “Look at These Freaking Frescoes.” I fail at this, often.)

I’ve been in a dozen, maybe more, conference sessions on travel writing. It’s rare we discuss the need to provide the historical or political context that helps us understand a place as an outsider. We may claim to veer off the beaten path, but it’s rare that travel writing digs deep. I recently read a piece about Graz, Austria, that included no mention of the siege of 1809, though the fortress — the Schlossberg —  is one of the city’s most popular tourist sites.

I don’t know that I’m being critical of the writer’s take that you should go up to the Schlossberg for the views, never mind why it’s here, so much as I am asking if including the “why” of a place is a travel writer’s job.

Last fall I was in Hawaii chasing the tail end of a story that I let get away. The protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope had already peaked, but I was still curious and during my time on the Big Island, I talked to a few Native Hawaiians about what was happening on Mauna Kea. Every person I asked — there were half a dozen, I think — led their answer with a history lesson about the illegal occupation of Hawaii by the US and the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani.

I shy away from calling myself an expert on anything, but as a person who’s written about Hawaii for ten plus years now, I have a fair grasp on the history of the Hawaiian nation. I balked at being lectured to the first, second, time, but then I realized that there’s absolutely no reason anyone I talked to should assume I have the slightest idea about Hawaii’s history. You can visit the palace where the Queen was held if you are on Oahu, but you can also just drink smoothies and put your feet in the surf at Waikiki, and that’s a pretty awesome thing to do.

When your interest deepens in a place, that’s when travel becomes so much more than a vacation. And for writers, well, that’s when we start getting at the good stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love a rooftop bar with a view and if you can tell me which one has the best happy hour, I will be grateful. There’s absolutely a place for that in the big tent that holds travel writing.

But I am trying to understand the role that the “why” holds in travel writing. Who will write the Top 10 Things Visitors Need to Understand About Modern Turkish Politics? I don’t think I’m calling for fewer pieces on the hippest coffee houses in Istanbul; rather I want more pieces about How Coffee Shaped Istanbul Cafe Culture. Or something like that.

We’ll be awash in stories that tell us that it’s safe to travel anyway, that we should go to Istanbul and Paris and Aleppo — okay, maybe not Aleppo. But in travel, we rarely hear why things got into this fractious state. We shoehorn ourselves into coach seats and battle surly security agents and risky food and snoring bunk mates so we can experience other places. There’s loads of advice on “how.” Loads.

As writers, we are perhaps over-occupied with the “how” and maybe not occupied enough with the “why.”

Thanks Robert Reid, Matthew Teller, Nick Rowlands, and new to me Tharik Hussain. Thoughtful writers, all, thank you for your questions and ideas. 

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17 thoughts on “Why vs. How in Travel Writing

  1. Thank you for this– as I mentioned on Twitter, I had the same weird disorientation Friday night as my feed of mostly Turkey-tweeters talking about the coup was occasionally punctuated by some inane fluff from a TBEX party. Which isn’t to say there’s anything WRONG with tweeting inane fluff from TBEX parties, because I’ve certainly done it (and probably will again). But it reminded me how easy it is for travel bloggers to still be divorced from the impactful things that are happening in the world they are traveling through.
    The longer I live in Istanbul, the more frustrated I get with the pieces written by bloggers who blow through in a day or two and want to post photo essays about cats. This is such a fascinating, complex, layered city (and country), and clearly a complicated one. There are a million interesting stories here, if one is willing to take the time to learn.
    I don’t really want to disparage bloggers, everyone should do their thing, whatever. But reading tweets about an AWESOME PARTY AT THE ABBA MUSEUM when I’m trying to figure out if the sound I just heard is a bomb or only a sonic boom was the height of surreality for me on Friday.

    • “But it reminded me how easy it is for travel bloggers to still be divorced from the impactful things that are happening in the world they are traveling through.”

      I think we want our cohort (such as it is) to be globally aware at all times, when they’re not, they’re simply not. Most of us aren’t. It seems impossible that a digitally addicted constituency that’s focused on travel would be so blissfully disconnected from things like the coup, though. I guess if you’re deep in a singalong to Dancing Queen, you can’t be. I kind of get it, and furthermore, given The State of Things, moments of ignorance about the world are too rare and so needed.

      But I do wonder what we need to learn to provide context, nuance, all the things you know about being a resident of a complicated place. I get enraged when people produce *only* shallow work about Austria because I lived there. And I think it’s the *only* that’s at issue here.

      As a writer who is terribly self-centered — I write first person a lot — it’s maybe hypocritical of me to mention narcissism, too. The instant validation and lack of second party oversight in democratized media means it’s really easy to think you’re the most important thing in your travel story. I’m not anti-selfie, I get the need to place yourself in the picture, the place, to create a souvenir for yourself in time. But that’s not, I think, a travel *writer’s* (or photographer’s) job.

      Lots of food for thought here, thanks so much for your comment and for reading.

  2. The very best of travel writers would manage to interweave the beat of the ABBA Museum in with the boom of the jets with a side order of Janissary bands mixing critical understanding, keen observation and deep research. Yet few of us are blessed with the skills and fewer still with the time and resources to produce this quality of work and many editors and readers simply don’t want it. They would much prefer something simpler, easier and jollier, preferably with eye-catching pictures – blonde blogger with kitten in front of the Aya Sofia… I love your thoughts on the role of the travel writer/blogger, on what we could and should be doing. I’m sadly not convinced the world wants to listen.

    • I think it’s up to us to give the world something worth listening *to*. There’s not a lot of incentive and/or monetary reward in that for your blonde blogger in front of the Aye Sofie with kittens, though. Back to Hawaii for a minute — when I was last there I talked to a hotel manager who wanted everyone to stop reporting on the Dengue already. Thing is, it would not have been so very hard to provide visitors with essential information — hey, here’s where NOT to go, and we’ve got bug repellent in the gift shop, it’s on special. That’s a tiny example.

      I like honest tourism information, I think it’s genuinely helpful. I think most people want helpful information. Maybe we could start there, and move on to “insightful”. I don’t know.

  3. As someone who came to travel writing with degrees in history and from a background writing about folk, classical, and world music — and of writing for PBS and NPR stations, where at the time I did that first person was not a perspective often used — I agree with your points, Pam, and your questions.

    I wonder if widespread lack of context comes from writers not having experience in thinking that way or from editor/audience perception that ‘people aren’t interested/don’t have time for all that stuff.’ A confluence of the two I suppose.

    • It used to be that guidebooks provided this — the front matter dished up a fast forward course in history and culture. Guidebooks aren’t dead, but I suspect the ability to search for exactly what we want to know at the time (Best rooftop bars in Paris) allows us to bypass wading through the chapters on French colonialism and resultant French/Arab culture clashes in modern France, right? I wonder if it’s less lack of interest/don’t have time and more a byproduct of the way we access information. Search technology determines so much of what gets published — perhaps the byproduct is that we’re not eating our backstory vegetables. We don’t *have* to.

  4. Really thoughtful. I think longer think pieces about the historeography of a place are harder to write. I tend to read a lot about the history of places before I go (or listen to podcasts and books on Audible). That research definitely informs my choices of where to go in a place, but I don’t necessarily explain any of it. You’ve given me a lot to chew over!

    • Yeah, they’re LOADS harder. I have repeatedly made the effort to weave history into my narrative. There’s not really a place for it in, I dunno, Four Pastries You Have to Eat in Vienna, or wait, maybe there is, now that I think about it. I like straight up experiential stuff if it’s really well done and fully expresses a place — and that can lead to my being more curious about what ELSE that place has going on, so maybe it’s a, um, gateway drug to educating myself further? That seems like a good role for writing to play, too — a catalyst for further research.

  5. On a side note, why hasn’t someone invented the “Shut up!” app? An app that sets off 15 different alarms on your phone when tragedy strikes so you know to shut up? And I’m not just talking about scheduled tweets. This would alert travelers who are on the road, tweeting away, enjoying the moment as they should, and are therefore unaware, sometimes for hours, they are tweeting along side something awful.

    I’m usually in the habit now of scrolling through about 30 minutes of Twitter before posting just in case something has occurred that would make my tweet inappropriate. But I don’t/can’t always do that. Real life is happening.

    In Stockholm, I was doing 16-hour days of work and then enjoying the company of friends. (Even longer if I was in the enabling company of Spud Hilton.) Apart from replies, I wasn’t reading Twitter at all. I’d collapse into bed the instant I got back to my room and I didn’t learn about Istanbul or Nice until the next morning when I looked at the BBC during breakfast. Baton Rouge happened while I was in the air yesterday and I started tweeting the moment we landed, completely unaware for 20 minutes.

    Anyway, when people are gaily tweeting away while something terrible is happening, I think we could give them a bit of latitude knowing that are likely unaware of the news, not intentionally ignoring it.

    • The “shut up” app would be a huge win. It could send a notification to your phone when you should STFU, or just look up. I’ve had friends do that for me, it was helpful when I was on my last Hawaii vacation (sidebar: actual vacation!) to have a friend say, “Um, yo. Terrible world mess. You might take a peek and moderate.”

      I hope it’s clear that I’m not pouncing on anyone in particular or any specific actions. I’m commenting on how weird it is to be an observer. The confluence of events were a catalyst (along with a thoughtful remark from Robert Reid) to think about what role we play as (supposedly) globally aware citizens who are defacto media with a focus in travel. I think the comment from Katrinka, above, expresses this weird experience in an even more personal way, given that she was there.

  6. As with many, I’m a big traveller and an avid travel reader. My current favorites are William Dalrymple (From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians Of the Middle East) and Philip Marsden (The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians). After returning from a trip to the South Caucasus and Turkey last month, I enjoyed and found helpful these history-focused travel reads. But, when I got there, I really wanted to know about the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey and the gradual removal of the Christian presence in the region. Travel guides barely mention the 40,000 Kurds killed and 20,00 Kurdish villages destroyed since the 1970’s and, none speak about the disappearance of Christians and their monuments in the lands of the origin of their faith and early places of adoption of it… particularly, in Israel and Turkey (Dalrymple the exception). Guide books without some explanation of current events are just superficial.

    • Without doing a survey of existing guidebooks, I can’t confirm or deny your statement about the Kurds or any other minority populations, either — though to overlook the diversity that once co-existed under the Ottoman Empire seems a hefty omission indeed, if that is indeed the case. And I agree with your assessment of superficiality, though I’d apply it not only to guidebooks, but to any block of travel writing that leaves out an introduction to current events.

  7. Great piece. Like you, I fall somewhere between Cahill and “freakin’ frescoes” in my literary aspirations, though I struggle to swat away the occasional tendency to lapse into late-period Dave Barry. Also, agree on Theroux. One of the many things that fascinate me about Hawaii in general and Honolulu in particular is the fact that the man who hates everything chose to settle there.

    • I got pointed to some seriously local stuff about Theroux and Hawaii that I’ll simplistically boil down to him complaining about “Why don’t Hawaiians LIKE me?” It kind of cracked me up, I gotta say. Dude, you trash everyone and everything, and then, you’re all, “Gimme special access.” You’d think he’d know by now that you need to earn that stuff.

  8. Interesting and thought provoking. We should dig out the matters how a certain culture shape the identity of a place. The example you have given of a coffee shop in Istanbul, absolutely right that how it was some hundred years ago and how it is in shaping not only the culture but how it effects the political status of any country, and how does it effect the traveler. Good post.

  9. A lot of interesting points made both in your post but also in comments after… I think this is a combination of SEO-driven articles plus the fact that it’s much harder to write a well-informed and engaging travel article that can weave in history and context. This is something I’m glad you’ve brought up as I am thinking about how to present my own travels both in the blogosphere and in-person conversations.

    • I get that it’s harder — and I think that’s also not a get out of making the effort free card. Not that you’re saying you’re doing that. You make a point about SEO, and I guess if you are writing for SEO FIRST, well, you’re going to make compromises to the machine that are going to cause your writing to suffer. I have a good friend (@sheilas) who’s constantly battering me about my crappy SEO work, and I have learned to concede that she has a point — there are concessions it won’t kill me to make. That said, I think those concessions apply primarily to service work, and if we want to write narrative/experiential stories, I don’t think we can serve two — maybe it’s three, even — masters. We need to serve the story — and by association, the reader — first.

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