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How to Become a Travel Writer

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Each person in the audience fights the bull along with the torero, not by following the flight of the cape, but by using another imaginary one that moves differently than the one in the ring.

—Federico García Lorca, Poem of the Bull

Nearly everyone loves to travel, and many of us wrote a really great story in Junior High, so often people feel it would be easy  to become a travel writer.  But to me, it is like entering the ring in Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas to face a raging bull, waving, instead of a cape, Hemingway’s “truest sentence you know”.

All good travel writing moves the reader twice: it transports him to a place, and moves him emotionally.

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Erin-small urlGuest column by Erin Byrne, whose writing has been published in literary journals, magazines, anthologies, and online publications, including Everywhere Magazine, World Hum, Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing anthologies, Crab Creek Review, and The Journal of Sartorial Matters. She has won 26 awards to date, including the 2013 Bronze Solas Award for Travel Story of the Year. Her anthology Vignettes & Postcards: Writings From the Evening Writing Workshop At Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris has garnered the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Anthology, was a Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year Finalist, an International Book Award Finalist, and a San Francisco Book Festival and Paris Book Festival Award Winner. She hosts literary salons and Deep Travel workshops in the Bay Area and around the world. For more information on Erin, please visit www.e-byrne.com.

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This is not restricted to any one genre:  In his book  Neither Here nor There – Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson describes foreign travel, and we feel five years old, full of questions.  In his novel, The Spider’s House, Paul Bowles places us in the labyrinthine medinas of Morocco and dashes our assumptions again and again.  Seamus Heaney surely showed us the emerald hills of Ireland; we read his poetry and feel its joys and sorrows.  Chris Terrio’s screenplay takes us into that house in Tehran and panic rises in our throats.  All transport us twice.

There are six turns of the cape I execute each time I write.   These I teach, along with travel journalist Christina Ammon, in our Deep Travel writing workshops, which are based on this quote by Joseph Campbell:

The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward—into the depths where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost powers revivified.

1.  Travel Deeply

You might travel widely, all the way from China to Madagascar, but do you travel deeply?  Open all your receptors—sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and your sixth sense of intuition.  Go deep into the culture of the place by connecting with people on more than just a surface level.  Learn the history, view a variety of art, examine different styles of architecture, listen to all kinds of music, taste varieties of food and drink, and become politically informed.

Be aware of your prior expectations and automatic assumptions.  Note your reactions of admiration, delight, puzzlement, loathing, or disgust.  TAKE NOTES in a real notebook; you will never remember details or feelings precisely enough if you do not.

Pay attention to what remains with you after you  return home, listen to yourself talking about your experience.  What surprised you?  What delayed reactions did you have?  What remained with you?  Probe your reverse culture-shock.  Plumb your own depths.

2.  Write

Put on some music of the place, surround yourself with images, taste a bit of the flavors you found there.  Pour it all out in torrents of words.  More, more, more, keep writing.   Don’t hold anything back; be unwaveringly honest.   This sounds so simple, but often it proves too much for even the sturdiest souls.

3.  Tame your story

You are the matador.  The sun sparkles on your traje de luces (suit of lights) as you clutch your magenta and yellow capote.  Trumpets  blast as the bull that is your story enters the ring.  It is at this point that many people drop their true sentences and flee, because as soon as we attempt to pinpoint a focus or impose structure upon the beast, it lowers its head and charges.  Truth is powerful, but its brightness brings on the beast.

For example, I wrote a story about the bullfight in Madrid.  After I agreed to go, I learned that they kill six bulls!  Once there, I ignored the rumbling anticipation of the crowd, took out my notebook and began sketching the arches at the top of the arena, determined not to watch the barbaric ritual.  My son Kellan whispered what was happening to me anyway—the bull, darts dangling from his side, staggered, fell, died.  One bull down,  two, three, four—but I continued sketching, until . . . out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the black bulk of the bull and looked up.  I spent the next hour riveted, tears running down my cheeks.

A few weeks later, at home, I sat down to write, Paco de Lucia plucking in the background, images of Madrid tacked upon the wall.  Why had this scene touched me so deeply?  How had I neglected to see the Spanish sense of pageantry, of respect for death, of the duende, the painful cry of longing poet Federico García Lorca described as being most impressive in the bullfight?   I knew why I had cried, but resisted writing it.  I wrote instead of Hemingway, of bright colors, of the sand, the crowds, the history of Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas.  Everything but the true reason I’d been touched.

The story, at this stage, was a mess.  Nicked by fear of failure, I tried to edit and it seemed I’d removed the point of the piece.  I added some dialogue; it fell flat.  I removed the first paragraph and the whole thing collapsed.  I put the lede paragraph back in, and read it aloud, bored to tears.

It is at this point we are all tempted to ask for feedback, to hand the cape to someone else, to see what creative flourish they would use with our beast of a story.  But I have learned that if I keep digging inside my own truths, avoid the temptation to “prettify”, and use all my wits writing draft after draft, it happens:  The focus becomes clear and the piece jells into something solid.  I understand why I wanted to write the story.

The stance of the bull had felt like a lance in my heart because it reminded me of the way my sister had faced death when she’d died of cancer three years previously.  The bull displayed the same dignity Allison had, and the beauty of it still takes my breath away.

As a writer and instructor I have seen this happen each time a writer persists.  The focus of the piece emerges, and powerful  emotions are reached.

4. Burnish

Now that the structure is set, refine your prose.  Reduce the word count even if you aren’t required to, read it aloud again and again.  Make it perfect like a diamond.   Consult your thesaurus, your Chicago Manual of Style.  Ask for feedback if you must.

Then, when you feel it is perfect, continue tweaking.  This is burnishing, and it makes your story glow.  It has been said that if you dig deep enough, you reach the universal.  You will know when you have done this.

5.  Find your niche.

This has been a journey in itself for me.  When I first began, I wrote political travel pieces,  which morphed into in-depth literary essays focused on history, culture and art.  Soon my essays brushed the boundaries of fiction and were written in the style I consider my “voice”, which is surrealistic, in a way.   It is great fun to find your voice but sometimes challenging to find places it fits.

Persistence pays off, as does knowing other writers with whom to share markets and commiserate with about rejection.   Have patience and give yourself room to grow into your niche, even if it means shifting your search for markets.

6.  Submit for publication

You have flourished your true sentences.  The black beast, colorful darts dangling from its flesh,  is weakened.  Now is the moment to remove your sword from its hiding place underneath the cape, hold it at eye level and look along its edge.  You must gather your courage, for this is it.  Slowly lower your fear of failure and submit your story for publication.

When you see your writing in print, you may feel a rush of victory and hear the roar of a crowd.  Olé!

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Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Check out my humor book, Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl.
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2 Responses to How to Become a Travel Writer

  1. vickielb says:

    I hung on each word. Living and traveling around the world, I, too, have written about a bullfight, as well as other stories centered in Germany, Japan and other countries. Comparing my experience in Costa Brava to yours in Madrid brought back a mass of feelings, as I read your unfolding dialogue.

    Unfortunately, an English Professor doubted my true life tale, and marked it all up – so my story sounded vaguely flat after his edits. You have me fired up again to make a go of it, and pass on my experiences. Thanks!

  2. bendwriter says:

    I ate up each piece of advice. Thank you!

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