On the parallels between travel and writing, and the problems of travel writing

Travel writing would benefit from greater awareness of the similarity between the processes of traveling and writing – it shouldn’t be understood as writing about traveling, but more as writing through traveling and – even more importantly – as traveling through writing. What do I mean by that? Since writing and traveling are similar processes, writing can be thought of as a journey through the landscape of language. During traveling, our environments are new and unfamiliar, we pay more attention to observation, which prompts our mind to travel as well, looking for new conceptual constructions, comparisons, metaphors, and adjectives to make sense of what we are experiencing. If a message is our final destination, words are the roads which take us there.

Writing and traveling are both kinds of movement. Words and roads are similar in that they are finite but their combinations are infinite and can never be exhausted. Traveling makes us choose the most scenic roads that offer most thrilling and interesting experiences, while in writing we try to choose the most rich vocabulary that can best convey our emotions and reflections. In travels we seek purity, in writing we strive towards clarity. In both we are after elusive ‘authenticity’.

For me traveling has always been more about meeting than seeing, about people more than places. There are no places without people; people make places out of empty spaces. In my experience, the most engaging travels were the ones in which I traveled in a mixed company of locals and foreigners. It was in this context that I was able to get the most out of places, because different people would notice different aspects and I would get both the local and the foreign perspective.

One of the most important parts of traveling is observation, which acts as the bridge between external travel in the world and internal travel in our minds. Attractive and exotic places are not the key to good travel writing (or for that matter to good photography, painting or film-making).  The best travel writers are able to find interesting details in bland surroundings and write exciting prose about the most ordinary places. In 1794 Xavier de Maistre, the brother of the well-known political theorist, published Voyage Around My Room, a title that is self-explanatory. He published another volume, this time entitled Night Voyage Around My Room. In both volumes he writes about the objects, their shapes and colors, how they make him feel and what they remind him of, he moves from the bed to the sofa and discusses the parallax in the process of observation etc. De Maistre’s radical example teaches us that in travel writing it’s more important to be a good observer and word-painter than to have the resources to afford travels to exotic places. The good news is that anyone can be a travel writer. The bad news is that anyone can be a travel writer.

Choose an angle, tell a story

Traveling, like philosophy, is not about finding answers, but about asking questions. Why do these trees grow here but not there, why does this people do this but their neighbors do that? Asking seemingly naïve questions can be very rewarding; not in terms of giving us definite answers, but in the sense that the answers we get prompt us to ask questions about our home environment, our culture’s values and practices.

Although one should keep an open mind while traveling and writing, it is also important to have a focus. You can’t travel everywhere and pay attention to everything. I find it useful to have a thread. It’s not necessary to focus narrowly and on things you want to see, like visiting galleries or archaeological remains. Rather than what, choose how to look at them; choose a lens, define an angle. This gives you direction and allows you flexibility in terms of your choice of destinations. In my travels in Central Asia I focused on understanding the interaction between the settled and semi-nomadic populations, in my upcoming trip to Israel and Palestine I will focus on how power shapes space and regulates movement through settlements, walls, checkpoints, fences, and bypass roads. Having a focus helps me to have a more coherent narrative of my experience – it also lets me tell a better story to myself and others.

It is easy to be cynical about the postmodern obsession with story-telling. Today everything needs to tell a story: our lunch, our clothes, our travels. It is not enough for the food to taste good; we want to know if the eggs came from free range chickens with a balanced diet, if the endive is from a local organic farmer, if that chardonnay was aged in oak casks, and if the coffee we had this morning was harvested and roasted by workers who received fair compensation for their work. Once, while I was lingering outside a bar in Atlanta, a homeless person came to ask for money. The reaction of the man standing next to me was not to give him a few quarters or shoo him away, instead he took out his wallet and leaving it closed, asked what his story was, waiting for the answer to decide how much it is worth. It is deplorable that not even the jobless are exempt from this practice of selling themselves and their story, and are given money not according to their need, but according to their ability to market themselves.

I recognize the role of storytelling as a contemporary capitalist marketing strategy, however traveling that attempts to tell a story is better than travelers obsessed not with experiences, but with checking places off their bucket lists. Recently, I read an interview with Don Parrish, who has visited not just all UN-recognized countries, but also all US states and every major region in the world. Expecting to read fascinating accounts of travel adventures, to find a wealth of comparative knowledge about different cultures, or at least to get experience-backed practical tips on travel, I was disappointed to find little of it. Then I realized there are many more people like this, and some far worse. People who have visited every country in the world just for the sake of visiting them all, stopping only for a few hours or days in each, barely having the time to stop and take a selfie, post it on social media and indulge in their World Traveler persona. Today anyone with a Visa and enough on the account can take a year off and check all the countries off the map. In as same way, everyone can write, but not everyone makes sense.

Obstacles

Just as there are obstacles on the road, from high passes to broken down buses, there are obstacles we face in writing, often lumped together and labelled as “writer’s block” – a phenomenon faced especially by people who write regularly. Routine is the enemy of both writing and travel. In particular, the challenge is to establish a traveling and writing routine, but to not travel and write routinely. This demands constant reflexivity; a re-examination of one’s perceptions in order to maintain an open, child-like attitude towards the world. This in turn is not in tune with today’s fast-paced world in which – so it seems – we don’t have much time to stop, observe, and note things down. I will write more about multitasking, hyper-scheduling, permanent connectivity, information overload, and the slow movement that is trying to challenge this in one of my next posts.

Another common obstacle of writing and traveling is changing plans. If we miss a train connection, we have to prepare an alternative plan, if we encounter a broken bridge, we have to find a new crossing or retrace our steps. In writing we are constantly re-writing and editing our initial drafts. The key is to find a balance between beforehand planning and openness to surprises, random encounters, and inspirations of the moment.

While there are many parallels and similarities between writing and traveling, these two differ in several significant ways and – what is most troubling – often clash. It seems that while traveling is a journey outward in physical space, writing is a journey inward. Traveling requires a great deal of movement, flexibility, and sociability. Writing is best done alone in a calm, tranquil environment with minimal distractions. How are we then to unite the both? While no one recipe exists, I like the quote often (wrongly) attributed to Hemingway: “write drunk, edit sober” – that way you capture the subjective experience, impressions, emotions, but also give yourself time to reflect on them. Perhaps it would be worth paraphrasing this motto for the purpose of travel writing as: write while on the road, edit at home.

Traveling for me is a search for meaning, but – before you accuse me of being an individualistic post-modern soul-seeker – I understand meaning as something inherently social and collective. Meaning that I search for is not so much my own, but the meaning in other people’s eyes – the meanings that different cultures ascribe to. Not something therapeutic that makes me feel good and sure of myself, but something that makes me question reality. Travel writing is the maieutic method of writing down these questions and trying to answer them.

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