From Our Authors | April 26, 2016
Contributors on Craft: Thomas Swick on Travel Writing
Today, the Missouri Review presents the fourth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Thomas Swick, whose essay “My Days with the Antimafia” appeared in our Winter 2011 issue. We celebrate with him the publication of his new book The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them.
Travel Writing Before the Writing
I started out as a feature writer at the Trenton Times in my home state of New Jersey. Every week or so I would head out of the newsroom and spend time with someone engaged in work far removed from my own: a woodcutter, a tobacconist, a harness racing driver. I gained entry into specialized worlds and became a short-term expert (and no doubt bore) on a growing number of subjects.
My dream was to become a travel writer, and feature writing seemed the next best thing, providing me with new experiences and insider knowledge, all within a day’s drive of home.
Twelve years later I became a newspaper travel editor and even people who didn’t know me told me I had landed a dream job. But travel writers understand that there is a catch. The nature of our work necessitates that we disobey one of the oldest rules of the game: write what you know. Journalists (with the exception of feature writers) have beats – cops, schools, food, movies – that they develop a deep understanding of over time. The beat of a travel writer is the world, and even cosmopolitan expats who speak a few languages have to start from scratch whenever their passports receive a new stamp.
Thanks to my time as a feature writer, I was already familiar with the repeated cluelessness and inescapable presumptuousness that came with my new profession. But it was the process of feature writing that helped me the most.
The inherent handicap in travel writing – that you’re frequently writing about what you don’t know – is offset by a great advantage, which is that the experience that is to be your subject has yet to take place. When novelists, memoirists, essayists, or poets sit down to write, almost all of the material they will call upon – the vast trove of life experiences – has already been amassed. There is not much they can do at this point – outside of using their imaginations – to make their personal histories more interesting. (Which might explain the number of fictionalized memoirs.) The works of travel writers are also colored by the great grab bag of the past (it’s the fate of anyone with a keyboard), but most of our stories are lived and shaped with the knowledge that they’re going to be put into words. This adds to our feeling of doubt a paradoxical sense of control.
It’s why, when I teach travel writing, it takes me a while to get to the writing. I start by talking about the importance of preparation, which primarily consists of reading: guidebooks, of course, and travel books (though nothing too recent; I don’t want somebody else’s aperçus preempting my own), but also novels, biographies of famous sons and daughters, poems, essays, and maps. Reading about a place, especially reading its literature, gives you atmosphere and insight as well as things to talk about when you get there. I also recommend watching relevant movies, listening to music, studying the language, eating the foods–immersing yourself in the culture as best you can before you leave. Who knows? Your waiter may have an uncle back home who’d like to meet you.
Good preparation is essential to good travel writing. A magazine once sent me to Venice on 24 hours’ notice, thinking, apparently, that an uninformed writer would produce an interesting story. I did get a decent story, but only because I’d purchased a guidebook hours before departure that told of an organization whose meeting I crashed.
It was a four-day visit, so everything was accelerated. A more deliberate approach produces better results: wandering – especially in the first few hours, when everything appears fresh and new – and then sitting, which allows you to observe the people – how they walk, how they dress, how they greet one another – in a way that’s not possible when you’re part of their parade. You can order something if you’re at a café – eating is the easiest and one of the most enjoyable ways to absorb a culture – or take out your notebook, which sometimes has the unintended benefit of improving the service.
After a day or two of observation, you try to participate in the life of the place. This is the most difficult part of a travel writer’s research – people are busy, you may be shy – but the most gratifying when it happens. To that end, you extricate yourself from the tourists’ world – hotels, museums, Lonely-Planet-approved restaurants – and enter that of the locals: concerts, readings, sporting events, church. You hang out in dives. You call up the uncle.
There are writers like Annie Dillard who can arrive in a place and simply by sniffing the air divine its truths. But most of us – even brilliant interpreters of landscape like Jonathan Raban and Colin Thubron – need the help of the people who live there. The more folks you talk to, the more you learn, obviously, yet there are places where meaningful communion with a single inhabitant is all you can get. It’s still better than none at all. That person becomes another character in your story, sometimes the character, taking the spotlight away from you. This need to find a character is a leftover, a gift, from my days as a feature writer; it relieves my stories of the monotony of my voice and peppers them with the words of people who know infinitely more on the subject than I do. I don’t feel it’s sufficient to show readers a place through my eyes only; I need to reveal it through the eyes of its residents, or at the very least one of them.
One of the beauties of travel writing is that the people you meet in the course of your work sometimes become friends. This can happen with subjects of feature stories, but it’s rarer because the dynamic is different, the situation more structured. A feature writer conducts interviews; a travel writer has conversations. Some of them, if you’re lucky, take place in a kitchen where dinner is cooking. A bottle may be open on the table. You are a writer (at least in your mind) in search of a story, but to your new companions you’re a guest, the chosen recipient of their hospitality and warmth. The emotion you feel will inform every word you eventually write.
Thomas Swick was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 1989 to 2008. He has worked in a food hall in London, on a farm in Alsace, and at an English language school in Warsaw, an experience that served as the basis for his first book, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland. His new book, The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them, explores, through personal essays and nonfiction narratives, what he considers the seven fundamental pleasures of travel.
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