The heart and soul of travel writing


A Facebook message from a dear friend and mentor reminded me this morning (technically, yesterday) of Pico Iyer, one of the world’s foremost “travel writers” (although he disclaims such a title), whose book Video Night in Kathmandu (1988) has placed him in the world’s Who’s Who of travel chroniclers and storytellers. Iyer sees travel writing as traversing the very thin line between fiction and non-fiction, with “the distinctions [being] arbitrary”, and with writers in the field being “someone who would never think of himself as or call herself a travel writer, partly because he or she doesn’t want to live in boxes and partly because what is bringing the energy and life to the work is what each of them is bringing from other fields.”

Pico Iyer (photo from World Hum)
Pico Iyer (photo from World Hum)

In this blog post, I’ll be picking up some interesting bits from a couple of Iyer interviews with Matthew Davis and with Rolf Potts, in hopes of inspiring not only other budding writers out there, but also the ardent storyteller in me who still needs to be let out of her cage. 🙂

From an interview with Matthew Davis, in World Hum

… If [Video Night in Kathmandu] has virtues it is powered by both the excitement of my discovery of the world and of my discovery of a form at the same time. [Boldface mine] And by the excitement of my taking a holiday from my day job, because I was stuck in a cubicle in New York City when I was writing that book, and I managed to get a six-month leave of absence from my company in order to spend three months traveling and three months writing. And so having to write a book in six months and seeing that book as a way out of the office towards a life of freedom and wandering might have lent the project a certain energy. And really just the sense of being in love with the processes and with the strangeness and excitement everywhere I was going. So I think it crackles with a kind of youthful energy that maybe I would be the better for to have more of now.

Q: … One of the challenges of any writer, but especially someone who writes and travels, is the process. You’re going to Tibet, for example. What do you do before you go? What do you do while you’re there? When are you writing? When are you fitting this together? What is the process?

A: … I think I usually pose a question to myself, of myself and of the place before I go. And I choose a very, very specific focus. Because anyway, it is an act of presumption to go to Tibet and Nepal for two weeks and write a whole chapter about it. So, as you remember in that book, in Japan, I chose baseball, in Manila, music, in India, movies, in Thailand, sex. Each focused theme gave me a keyhole through which to focus the material and to see a culture that I couldn’t pretend to say anything definitive about. Each theme gave me a microcosm to work within. And beyond that, I pose a question as a starting point, to frame an argument, and, of course, as soon as I get to one of those places, that question flies out the window and is replaced by another question. And then—the hope is—a deeper question and a still deeper one, and finally one that can’t be answered at all. [Boldface mine]

Photo from Longitude Books
Photo from Longitude Books

… But in that book, because I was doing it very quickly, I relied on notes. Though the notes, as I say, were really fully formed rough drafts of essays, taken then and there, while I could still feel and hear and smell what was around me. And I suppose each chapter, which was a kind of argument, was about the explosion of my simple assumptions. I would go in and I would see a 250-pound German man with a tiny 16-year-old Thai girl, and I would think, “There’s the exploitation of the East by the West,” and then I would begin to think more about it and see that it, like everything, was much more ambiguous. I suppose each chapter was a journey into ambiguity and away from the abstractions I had when I set out. [Boldface mine]

Q: One of the reasons why people squirm a little bit when they hear travel writing is the sense of a foreigner going in and recording and reporting about a culture that is not his or her own. What are your thoughts on that and how do you see that pull, that dynamic about a foreigner going in and writing about a culture that is not their own?

A: … I never really worry about the issue, because every writer is an outsider on the subject he is writing about. Even if he is writing about his mother or his hometown, he has to be, to some degree, a foreigner to speak to the reader, who is, almost by definition, a foreigner, too. The larger problem I see with travel writing is—and you must have found this when you came back from Mongolia—that you have had these life-changing experiences and have entered a whole different way of seeing the universe but it’s not apprehensible to your friends in Iowa or in Evanston. And when you start talking about it, it is very hard for you to make your conversion experience as powerful to them as it was to you.  And I am the same way. If either of you in this room had been to Uganda, to which I have never been, it would be hard for me to attend to your stories, whereas if you were talking to me about Japan, which I know well, I would be on the edge of my seat.

Q: How do you think travel writing has evolved over the past 20 or 30 years?

A: … I think travel writing is also having to confront a challenge, which is a good challenge, namely the fact that it is not a remarkable thing now to describe Mongolia or Tibet because anyone sitting in Iowa City can access them on the Internet or their TV screens. And so the person who goes there has to do something more and other than just bringing back the sights and sounds. When I made that Asian trip in 1985, I thought it was enough to just bring back from Tibet, say, the sights and sounds because almost nobody I knew had been to Tibet or would have access to it otherwise. But now that Tibet is available to most Americans in their living rooms, through the Discovery Channel or Google Earth, the travel writer has to extend the form and refresh it, to write a more inward kind of travel, to write about a neighborhood in Chicago, say, and how the whole world has come and transformed his neighborhood, or to write about an inner and invisible Tibet. You don’t need to go to Timbuktu or Kathmandu to write a book.

A travel writer has to rethink what discovery means, and exoticism and movement. That’s why, having done a lot of descriptions of other countries, I went and spent two weeks in the Los Angeles airport as a way to claim it as a different kind of destination. Of course, you could do the same with a shopping mall or a hotel or a hospital. And all that I regard as travel writing.

It’s important to push the material inwards, because that is the unclaimed, unchartered territory, more and more…


From an interview with Rolf Potts, in Vagabonding

Q: How did you get started writing?

A: I think being an outsider, as I always was, proved to be a perfect background, and launching pad, for writing (and for traveling). Wherever I was, I was on the outside, taking notes, as it were — even when I was just walking down the street where I was born to the candy store. And I quickly found, too, that traveling quickened my longing to write; usually I never keep a diary, but as soon as I’m on the road, I find that all that I want to do is scribble and scribble and scribble in a somewhat quixotic attempt to catch all the experiences and impressions and feelings that are flooding through me. At some point I thought, “If I’m doing all this writing for myself, I might as well inflict it on some friends.”

Q: As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?

A: First, to get things down accurately, the first time round, since one seldom has the luxury of being able to return to a place to double-check the names and details and colors.

And second, to try to catch the feelings — the sound, the smell, the tang, of a place — immediately, before it goes. A place is like a dream, and unless you record it instantly, however tired you feel at the time, it will fade and fade, and you will never be able to recapture it.

Q: What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?

A: My own personal Waterloo is always the leaving out of things (which I find impossible). Having taken seventy pages of notes on my two-week vacation, annotating every shop and street and sky I’ve seen, I often feel compelled, after I’ve returned home, to include them all. Having gone to all the trouble of recording this piquant or unforgettable moment or detail, I tell myself, how can I possibly leave it out?

… For me the real challenge of writing about anything — especially something that’s moved you — is clarity. Most people, when traveling, have remarkable and life-changing experiences; and most of us record them in some way, in our diaries or our letters, with our cameras. But the particular challenge for a travel-writer is reproducing the excitements and movements of a trip in a way that isn’t boring or remote for the reader; his constant fear is that he will be the neighbor “sharing” with friends his ten-hour slide show of seeing pots in the Dordogne. So the most important thing for me is clarity — in the outline, and in the telling. And the hardest thing at that stage becomes leaving immortal and indelible details and perceptions out. [boldface mine]

Photo from Galle Literary Festival 2010 (Sri Lanka)
Photo from Galle Literary Festival 2010 (Sri Lanka)

Q: What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?

A: … I seldom think about the business standpoint of travel; travel for me liberates partly because it takes one away from having to think of taxes and bank balances and the stock exchange. Writing for magazines, the only challenge I have is that most travel-related magazines are picture-driven, and so if I want to write about Manila, say, or Addis Ababa — not obviously beautiful places — I have to think of ways to make them visually exciting and even alluring for a photographer. [Note: We will need to write to Mr. Iyer to try to change his mind about Manila!]

Q: What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

A: Do it for the love. Not for the money (of which there’s very little), not for the travel (which can suffer if what was once a pastime becomes a business), not for the adventure (which sometimes has to go out the window if you’re taking tens of pages of notes on every snack-bar and street- name). And try to think what you in particular have to add or contribute. A million people go every month, no doubt, to the Taj Mahal, and many of them write eloquently about it. What is it that is particular to your interests and experiences that can allow you to say something new? Find a particular angle that arises out of one of your strengths and advantages, and try to make the focus of your piece as narrow and specific as possible. Don’t try to summarize all of Japan after a two-week trip; pick one small corner of it, or one theme (I, for example, took baseball as a theme, a way into Japan, when I first visited, because I knew it would be one world I could understand even without a word of Japanese).

Anyone who goes into travel writing in order to become rich or famous or feted is courting disappointment; anyone in search of huge inner wealth (and challenge and stimulation) should be richly rewarded.

Matthew Davis is an Iowa Arts Tuition Fellow and a Stanley Fellow, and is a third-year MFA student at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. He won the 2005 Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Competition in Nonfiction. Another essay of his was a notable selection in the 2006 edition of the Best American Travel Writing anthology.

Rolf Potts has reported from more than sixty countries for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, The New Yorker,, Outside, the New York Times Magazine, The Believer,The Guardian (U.K.), National Public Radio, and the Travel Channel. A veteran travel columnist for the likes of and World Hum, his adventures have taken him across six continents, and include piloting a fishing boat 900 miles down the Laotian Mekong, hitchhiking across Eastern Europe, traversing Israel on foot, bicycling across Burma, driving a Land Rover across South America, and traveling around the world for six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind.


One Comment Add yours

  1. HARVEEN Kaur says:

    I needed to hear just this. Exactly this! Thanks for your blog.

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