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Writing the Journey: June 1999


Presented by:
L.Peat O'Neil
Washington Post
1150 15th St. NW
Washington, DC 20071
Tel: 202-334-7547

Adjunct Prof.:
Georgetown University
UCLA - On-line Writing Program
Northern Virginia Community College
George Washington University

Teaching Travel Writing - A Journey Through the Senses

Introducing writers to their senses is my first task as a teacher of travel writing and nature writing. Too often, writers rely on elaborate description when crafting a travel narrative. They amble through the rolling bright green fields that nestle 'neath rafts of puffy white clouds -- the land of cliché and purple prose. They write what they think they saw and what they think it means, rather than what was actually experienced, told straight up.

Teaching people how to write travel narratives and keep useful travel journals is really about teaching people how to use their senses -- to see, hear, smell, taste and touch - and to report those sensations directly. Relying on sight alone to convey a sense of place handicaps the writer. Surely, intuition also obtains when attempting to capture in words a place and its people.

Vivid travel writing propels the reader through the same sensual experience of place and people that the writer holds in memory. If the writer is lucky, these interactions and anecdotes are retained in a travel journal.

Travel writing relies on showing experiences and conveying the mood of people and a place, so simple description isn't enough. The writer has to notice fully and report that information in a way that brings the reader into the events that unfold, yet select narrative elements that convey an accurate portrait of the place and its people.


Since a writer can't absorb everything, be everywhere, talk to everyone, the only reliable truth is the minutia of what the writer's senses collect. Travel writers translate experience to words to be read by people who want the same sensations, to share the thrills of travel.

I teach writers to marshal their senses when they set pen to travel notebook. Write as if you are blind, I say. Push your other senses. For those who are creating their narrative from memory, I lead them through visualization exercises where the writer takes a specific point of view and writes from memory concrete details of what was heard, tasted, smelled, touched, felt. In the classroom and on the web, I use verb-based writing exercises, pointing out the feebleness of verbs that describe condition or attitude and the potency of verbs that show action and sound.




"Like no other kinds of writing," Paul Fussell writes in Abroad, a study of British travel writing between the world wars, "travel books exercise and exploit the fundamental intellectual and emotional figure of thought, by which the past is conceived as back and the future as forward. They manipulate the whole alliance between temporal and spatial that we use to orient ourselves in time by invoking the dimension of space."

The travel diary is the vehicle for conveying the nuances of place in time. Using the daily notebook to record sense experiences is perhaps the most reliable method of capturing the passing scene. The notebook entries later appear in the travel narrative. Photographs and sketches are useful for recording information as well.

Advice for travel and keeping a travel diary comes from no less a thinker than Frances Bacon.

In Essay XVIII. "Of travel," Bacon writes, "It is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part the omit it; as if change were fitter to be registered than observation. Let diaries therefore be brought in use."

"Let him carry with him also some card or book describing the country where he travelleth; which will be a good key to his inquiry. Let him keep also a diary." ...

Bacon continues: "Let him change is lodging from one end and part of the town to another; which is a great adamant of acquaintance. Let him sequester himself from the company of his countrymen, and diet in such places where there is good company of the nation where he travelleth." This is a tip I can attest to. In the Banda Islands of Indonesia, a couple of winters back, my companion and I sampled nearly every guesthouse in a quest to find a solid bed and generous table.

The teacher of travel writing urges student writers to look within their experience for descriptive narrative, but look outside of themselves for wider meaning. Travel narratives that rely too much on personal transformation experiences provide little in the way of advancing understanding of place. We know the writer a bit better, but we really want to learn more about the place the writer went.

Literary diarists -- because they are used to writing details --have the edge in capturing the telling incident, the fragment of conversation, the transcendent moment that brings the reader into the landscape visited. Think of travel writing by Samuel Clemens, Tobias Schneebaum, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor, D. H. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell and so many others. They report in detail the events of the journey, the people who are of the place, the effect of the place on the traveler, how the place is despite the traveler.

To infuse literary merit in travel writing, the diarist/writer needs to root the travel experiences in wider context, acknowledging history, culture and earlier narratives of place, while sustaining awareness of their own role as the traveler moving through the landscape. These narratives will weave a story line that uses the momentum of the journey in time, though rarely in chronology. The travel writer with designs on literature cultivates a stylistic voice aware of the mythic heroic role of the traveler without sinking into ego-focused memoir.

I attempt to teach writers to demonstrate intimacy with the material through the telling of anecdotes, scraps of conversation, links to personal memory that arise during the journey while maintaining a broader understanding of the place and its meaning. I suggest they must take risks and place themselves squarely in the narrative while sustaining the emotional distance that demonstrates the writer knows the place exists completely apart from the traveler's passage through the landscape and its inhabitants. Perhaps employing this broader perspective will ensure that more travel writers are aware of the impact of travel writing on a particular place.


In Literature as a Mode of Travel, a collection of essays from the Bulletin of the New York Public Library published in 1963, W. T. Jewkes examines the "Literature of Travel and the Mode of Romance in the Renaissance." He writes, "...the best travel books have always had another characteristic which is not usually associated with the scientific description of the world and its events: an element of strong personal coloring, the stamp of subjectivity. And through what medium but the individual writer's senses can "personal coloring, the stamp of subjectivity" be better expressed.

There's an essentially heroic nature to exploration travel, though as reflected in narratives of ship's logs, commercial reports, surveys and exploration notes the exploits are sometimes downplayed. I wonder if contemporary travel accounts are returning to the era of larger than life adventuring. And though there's an essential element of truth in some of contemporary travel writing , do the requirements of compelling voice and ever increasing efforts to astound and entertain readers give implied license to exaggeration that is on the cusp of a lie.

The Story of the Voyage, an study of sea narratives in 18th century England, author Philip Edwards, recounts how "the reading public could not get enough in the way of accounts of all the maritime activity involved in extending Britain's knowledge of the globe and her control of territories old and new." Indeed, because of the public appetite, fiction writers supplied publishers with travel narratives culled from the imagination. Publishers also turned to translations of voyages written in other languages, but "translations might be larded with scornful comments about the French" (always a favorite whipping-boy of the English) or simply appropriate the diary and slap a different author's name on the book.

The journey narrative of a late 20th century backpacker rarely approaches the discovery or voyage record of a 17th or 18th century sea explorer. We are too familiar with the world, what is possible. Experiences that dance into surprise may beg credibility/smell a little suspect, as if fictionalized for effect. And indeed, there's always one student in each session who asks if they can make up incidents for their travel articles. I tell them rearranging material for storytelling tension is acceptable, such as playing with the order of events in time, but generally non-fiction mandates truth. Some are crestfallen to discover that travel writing isn't fiction -- perhaps they fear their experiences aren't bold enough -- but others in the classroom roll their eyes, wondering how their peers could have supposed travel writing might be fiction. Can we blame them, though, when we know travel writers like Bruce Chatwin include fiction in collections marketed as fact.

And I see that Blue Heron Publishing is coming out with a book called Travel Writing in Fiction and Fact which may have the intention of teaching writers how to incorporate description of place into fictional narratives, but may well be misinterpreted as a license to blur the lines between fact and fiction in creative non-fiction travel stories.

Of course, there's an honorable tradition of adventure travel fiction -- Defoe, Swift, Stevenson, Clemens, Melville, London. Yet the narratives of the pre-20th century laced with buxom savages, men with tails, cannibalism or the eating of live beasts, nakedness, fights and mutinies, exotic rituals, fatal storms, and floggings--offered as truth, more likely not--provided the reading public with an excuse to dip into the extremes of human behavior. So too, today's travel writers are sometimes driven, from a marketing standpoint, to search for the wild, the exotic and erotic. If travel writing published on the internet is any indicator of the cutting edge, the Wanderlust travel magazine which is part of Salon Magazine, often features narratives that use interpersonal sexual attraction as the narrative drive, rather than the appeal of the place itself. Indeed, I just contributed a story about harvest rituals in Far Eastern Siberia to the recently published travel collection: In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology.

In Story of the Voyage, Edwards reminds us that as to "the question of truthfulness....all voyager narratives are self-serving, and that to watch (as we so often can) the development of a narrative is to see the record being adjusted, massaged and manipulated. There are one or two desperately honest and artless narrators -- Elizabeth Justice, for example, and Roger Poole. But. " general voyagers will not...set(ing) down their recollections in simple and conscientious honesty. Voyage-literature is much more interesting than that. The writing, in all its deviousness, is a continuing involvement with and a continuing attempt to dominate the reality it is claiming to record." There's an obligation to write about shattering events during travel. "Of course, smooth agreeable voyages were not worth writing about. Stories from the sea will tend to concentrate on crisis and catastrophe."

Henry Fielding in Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, says of travel writing that he "feels only the vandals are out writing about travel and voyages." Edwards concludes that travel narratives originate in the real or evade the real in the interests of self serving captains who has something to conceal. It's the publishers and booksellers who had money to gain from exaggerated travel writing which becomes a kind of theater.

In the 18th c. travel stories were more often than not, fakes, writes Percy Adams in Travelers and Travel Liars. Even so-called documentary reports of explorations, voyages, years spent abroad might suffer imaginative padding, once the folios reached publishers hands. This created useful industry for unemployed historical, geographical and literary scholars. More recently, debunking the fantastical became an academic industry.

It's thought that letters might be more reliable portraits of place. Of the 18th c. travelers who sent back letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example mailed detailed reports of her excursions in the Ottoman Empire. But the timeliness of this correspondence is not clear. The accounts may have been written well after the events described and may have sat in her luggage for weeks, there not being postal collection boxes on every street corner back then.

Most travel accounts were cobbled together with memory as the glue. In an age when story telling around the tavern bench or drawing room card table nearly demanded the teller take liberty and live large with the truth, it is easy to see how embellishments crept into the written account, Of course there was plenty of out and out fabrication. Sometimes travel tales were dictated and fabrications crept into the transcription by over-eager stenographers.


"The tradition of simple prose extends right down through the period of travel writing that affords the chief concern of this study," writes Ray William Frantz in The English Traveler and the Movement of Ideas. "On the head of simplicity and directness all that has been said of travel book style during the age of discovery applies with equal appropriateness in that of the later period. The mariner's journal methodical and bare, on occasion comes to light; and though variously disguised, it lends to the majority of travel accounts terseness and form. The practical voyager with his stock in trade of simple, homely words continues to give delight by the fresh incisiveness of his descriptions. There is, however, one difference, and it is fundamental: namely, a conscious striving, even beyond that of predecessors, for clear, exact statement and a superabundance of specialized, detailed fact."

Today's travel writing students , I'm sorry to say, have the idea that published travel narratives have been pumped up with exaggeration or lies, otherwise known as fiction. I tell them travel writing is non-fiction, and they are surprised that they aren't supposed to invent details to make the story more interesting. No, I say, you have to have more intriguing experiences. That is the art of travel writing, experiencing unusual events in the first place. As Harvard ethnobiologist Wade Davis said at a recent speech at the Press Club in Washington, "You have to put your self out there, say yes to everything and get your head up so the winds of serendipity can push you further."

Contemporary travel narratives are mostly written in the first person. In The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400 to 1600 , Mary B. Campbell comments on aspects of "I" in travel narrative. Medieval representatives of the first person voice are stylistic and didactic. The personal, modern narrow "I '' comes later. Fueled by the innovative success of the New Journalism writers of the 1960's and 1970's (Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer) whose book length news reporting assumed the literary devices of a novel, contemporary non-fiction writers step into the narrative without looking back. Travel writers nearly always feature themselves as a character in the story. Yet, too much of the writer's "I" can become overwhelming.


Coordinating all the elements of non-fiction writing -- structure, style, content -- dialogue, fact, and reflection, voice, moment-- may be beyond most novice or even moderately experienced writers. Sometimes, they might have one or two elements under control -- structure or content, say, but have only the most rudimentary elements of voice. Sometimes, the voice is compelling, but the story doesn't say anything new. Classroom discussion consciously led by the teacher helps evaluate whether the student understands what has been said on earlier papers. If technical problems endure, remedial help may sometimes be necessary.


Specific description can sand off the nuance of a sentence. Sometimes you need to look at the whole story rather than individual sentences. Though, in travel writing, we strive for concrete images, a graceful writer may create a mood that communicates more about a place than unambiguous description. So in the end, we can show students how to form critical opinions and ways to express those criticisms, we can urge them to break out of habits and complacency in writing. We can use the classroom as a place to reinforce experimentation

These techniques and others may improve travel journalism, but will literature emerge? Perhaps in due time, if writers are diligent in pursuing individual perspective -- their unique narratives -- and write in sense-based verb-driven prose while feeding their minds superior writing, (which might not be other travel narratives), more of what is called travel writing will be known as travel literature.


Works Cited in Presentation by L. Peat O'Neil


Adams, Percey, Travelers and Travel Liars, Dover, 1980.

Bacon, Francis. Essays. XVIII On Travel

Campbell, Mary B. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400 to 1600, Cornell U. Pr., 1988


Edwards, Jane. Travel Writing in Fiction and Fact, Blue Heron Publishing, 1999.

Edwards, Philip, The Story of the Voyage, Cambridge U. Press, 1994.

Fielding, Henry, Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, Dent, 1932.

Frantz, Ray William, The English Traveler and the Movement of Ideas, Univ. of Nebraska, 1967.

Fussell, Paul, Abroad, Oxford Univ. Press, 1980

Jewkes, W. T. "The Literature of Travel and the Mode of Romance in the Renaissance" in

Literature as a Mode of Travel, five essays and a postscript from the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 1963.


Olsen, Brad and Northam, Bruce, eds. In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology

CCC Publishing, 1999

O'Neil, L. Peat, Travel Writing: A Guide to Research Writing and Selling, Writer's

Digest Books, 1996.

Tate, Gary and Corbett, Edward, Writing Teacher's Sourcebook, Oxford U. Press, 1988.

Wanderlust, (online travel magazine)

Warkentin, Germaine, Ed. Critical Issues in Editing Exploration Texts. Papers given at the 28th Annual Conference on Editorial Problems. Univeristy of Toronto, 6-7 Nov. 1992. U. Toronto Press.