Tuesday, September 15, 2009


As much as I like to write, I don't think I've ever been a very good travel writer.

I spent six weeks in Italy a few years back. Every night I'd come back to my guesthouse in the suburbs of Rome after a long, hot day of exploring; my brain swollen with ideas... and nothing would make it onto the page. "The Vatican, a sovereign state in the heart of Italy, is the center of Catholocism..." I'd trail off. Will the people who read this not know that already? Wikipedia -> 'Vatican'. I wasn't saying anything new. "Seeing this ancient city gives me new perspective into the grandness and scope of human artistic achievement..." and trail off again. Who cares?

The travel writing that I read always has some form of novelty involved: War/political correspondence, epic road trips, exploring something obscure or inaccessible. Failing that, I want the philosophy of it. I want the ideas and understanding that seem to ferment so naturally during protracted travel to be articulated concisely. Ryan Holiday, one of a few dozen bloggers worth following on the internet, wrote this recently:

Another way to get your narrative fix: Riding in the back of a cab or a towncar on the way into Manhattan. You come over the Williamsburg or the Brooklyn Bridge and you see the whole island laid on your right. If you lay back in the seat just perfect and stare out the window, the city, it seems, awaits your arrival.

A few hours earlier you were somewhere else - in another state, on a plane, over the middle of the ocean - but now you're here and the timing, well, it couldn't have been any better. You could broke or paid on business and the feeling is the same. That the epicenter of the world is open to you, that you matter there.

What's important to remember is this sensation is meaningless. Or rather, it projects no new meaning onto you as a person. You should enjoy it. It is, no doubt, a rare and special feeling. Yet it is one of these agnostic narrative events into which you personally figure at such a minuscule percentage that is essentially exactly the same for everyone else.

So take it for what it is but don't take it to heart.

He's talking about a sensation that people feel all the time, but one that takes a writer of a higher caliber than my own to articulate. That's travel writing worth reading; the sort I aspire to.

Here's something else I stumbled onto today. This is one of the best monologues I've heard all year. Not to mention one of the best explanations for why you should travel that you can fit into 120 seconds.

There are anchors of stasis that people chain to their lives. Accoutrements of the status quo. The point of good travel writing is to show people every other way they could be living. That's what I hope to get better at.


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