October 1, 2020 § 13 Comments
I had a dream I lived in a flat in Copenhagen, and outside my apartment, I kept my bicycle. Young women in flowery dresses constantly came up to my house to take pictures of themselves in front of my cute house, pretending to ride my cute bicycle. They wanted to post themselves on Instagram. In my dream, I was upset by all of these young women who were pretending to live my life.
When I woke up, I was back to being alone in my Dublin hotel room. I guessed that the dream was the intersection between the waking hours I had spent looking at hotels in Copenhagen and the streets of the Temple Bar below my window, filled with people, trying to get the perfect shot, proving to all their Instagram followers that they were, indeed, living their best lives. I wanted to live my best life, too, which was why I was researching a quick weekend trip to Copenhagen after teaching in Ireland, but I had too much work to do, so I ended up staying put in Dublin until my flight home. I had also gone to bed thinking about an email an editor sent me, asking me who the reader for my next book is.
I realized the women snapping selfies with my Danish dream bicycle are my readers. Women who are trying to be more adventurous, but sometimes doing inappropriate things in the process, are the audience for my forthcoming book of travel essays, not ironically called Bad Tourist.
I know saying “my audience is a girl in a flowered dress with a selfie stick” might sound ludicrous to book-marketing professionals. But we all know this girl, don’t we? She has been to college, and she posts pictures of smart books (she swears she means to read) on her Instagram feed. She isn’t entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, but she dreams of traveling the world. Mostly, she feels like the awkward teenager she once was, craving the attention of the wrong boys and then men; she wants to feel less alone. When people like and leave heart emojis on the pictures she posts of herself, it makes her feel good. She wants people to like her. Her name might be Lauren or Becca or Hannah. Or Suzanne—the younger version of myself, the me who dreamed of someday becoming older me, a travel writer with a passport full of stamps.
Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel is about how I try not to be a bad tourist but so often fail. Would my younger self be okay that my older self is telling all of her secrets? She felt so much shame over those transgressions. I want to reach back and tell her it’s all going to be okay, and maybe that’s why I’m writing memoir to begin with—it’s a letter to my younger self.
When I was working on my last memoir, a critic said how much he hated my narrator (me). He also said her humor was unseemly, which sounded so archaic it made me laugh between the tears. But then I realized that I hated my narrator, too, so Dr. Meanie Critic and I had this in common. My younger self complained too much. She was self-centered. I thought about giving up altogether, but something in me knew the even older self I would later become would not want the now-me to give up—sometimes the act of writing is a conversation with both the past and the future.
I called the mentor I’d had when I was the age of my young narrator. Al Landwehr had been my creative writing professor when I was 22, the age of the girl I was trying to write about. I asked him what to do. Al said, “You have to think of that younger self as a sort of daughter, someone who drives you crazy, but you still love her. You must remember to love her.”
And I do love her because even if no one else cares about my story, she would. She feels the same way I do; she would just look better in selfies, if there had been such a thing back then. She wants to travel the world and live her best life. She has no idea that there will be something called social media in the future, but she still spends too much time worrying about what others think of her. She wonders about the big questions, too. Is she making the world a better place or are her travels negatively impacting the world? Will anyone care what she has to say? Are her stories worth telling?
Al Landwehr always gave me sound advice, so I trusted him and held my younger self in my mind’s eye during revision, and I remembered to love her (even if she drove me crazy). It is in this way that I have written books for her (and for the young women of today who are like her: Lauren and Becca and Hannah). I hope they like my books, and they don’t mind that it’s late in the afternoon, and I’m still wearing my pajamas, revising a book rather than out exploring the rain-slicked streets, drinking a Smithwick’s, and listening to Irish music in a dark, crowded pub.
And even if sitting on my hotel bed with my laptop sounds boring to Lauren and Becca and Hannah, I know I am here, living my best life.
Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel is available now, from University of Nebraska Press.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award). Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low-residency MFA at Sierra Nevada University. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
March 9, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Elizabeth Frank
I met Joan Frank (no relation) in person just once. We were in a café in Florence, eating bean soup, sharing insights about the publishing industry and our impressions of Florence: the ubiquitous selfie-taking college students on their junior year abroad (whom her husband, the playwright Bob Duxbury, was there to teach), the dense herds of tourists (not, of course, us), the necessity of purchasing things which came free at home, like potable water and disposable shopping bags, the fact that vital stores were closed all afternoon, and that the homeless wore flowing hoods and velvet skirts, like extras in an opera.
Many of these annoyances Frank includes in her essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place, which was the recent winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and published by the University of New Mexico Press. The essay “In Case of Firenze,” originally published by the TriQuarterly Review is the one which provides the title “try to get lost.”
Frank does get lost, and so will you. The foreign and the familiar are met with the same level of attention and insight. To Frank, “place becomes, finally, the only subject . . . obsession, raison d’etre, riddle.”
More than once, she refers to Shirley Hazzard and I felt, reading Frank, what I feel reading Hazzard, an inclination not to turn the pages to see what happens next but to dwell on the page, to linger in the evocation of scents, vistas, and emotions. Her observations are precise, witty, charming even at their crankiest. Always, she situates you in a specific world (place becomes riddle). In enumerating what France does poorly and what it does well, wine is obviously in the “well” column. Any traveler will tell you that in France, wine is inexpensive and everywhere. Frank tells you that wine is “delicious, kindly priced, wholesome and fundamental as milk.” With “kindly priced,” we are in Frank’s France, under the guardianship of benevolent caretakers. “To travel is to be a fool for awhile,” she declares, to give up control, to give up preoccupied oblivion to one’s surroundings. Travel demands that we pay attention, makes the obvious remarkable.
“North and south yield logical products of their geographical données,” she writes of France. “Butter above, olive oil below; white wines and champagne above, Bordeaux and varietal reds below (berries which have to work to exist) – for all of which we are, without question, better.”
Not everything is benevolent or makes us better. Luggage, that necessary evil, is both heavy and flimsy. Air travel, while admittedly a luxury, is a taxing ordeal. The sun, the entire point of traveling for some, can burn down without pity or relent. Her husband’s penchant for teaching semesters abroad and his visits to his native England, coupled with Frank’s own wanderlust (place becomes obsession), provides Frank with many landscapes to detail in her luminous prose, but she doesn’t require “exotic” inspiration to paint a compelling scene.
Her account of a visit to her childhood home in suburban Phoenix, the “dry, supine, block-on-blockness” of the squat houses of the old neighborhood, is the collection’s most heartbreaking essay, as popsicle-and-lawn-sprinkler, sun-drenched childhood bliss darkens into the interior of a shattering lifelong trauma.
The collection’s merriest piece concerns Frank’s ritual, with her husband, of setting up cocktails and snacks in their motel rooms on the road in order to watch HGTV, although they don’t fit the channel’s demographic of trendy young consumer in pursuit of gleaming surfaces. Their own home (the word “home” contains, she notes, “the meditative OM sound, a sustained vibration that seems to inject our bones with an irresistible promise—sanctuary, safety, peace, freedom”) is a “paid-off 1930s bungalow bought thirty years ago . . . shabby and worn.” (They prefer to spend their money on travel.) HGTV shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper follow a three-act narrative structure: the find, the renovation, the reveal of the new, the sparkling, the shiplap. Traveling, Frank studies homes she passes, wondering about the lives of those inside. In her rented room, she is absorbed by the redemption drama of HGTV, which “suggests it’s showing us exactly that: who lives there, and what kind of lives they—we—are having.”
Place becomes raison d’etre. Place is, in the end, the only subject. Joan Frank is a vastly compelling and lyrical guide.
Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes will be published by Stonehouse Publishing in November 2020.
February 25, 2020 § 18 Comments
I get asked that a lot. Last year I spent time in the Netherlands, Italy, Vietnam (twice), China, Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, France and Canada, plus Utah, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan, Louisiana, New York (city and state), Florida and Pennsylvania; and I am a writer.
Why am I not a travel writer?
I’ve thought about it—in 2015-2016, I explored writing travel full-time, or even part-time, thinking it might help finance some of my trips. I paid a successful travel writer to coach me on pitching articles to newspapers and magazines. I made lists of places to pitch and what story and angle for each. I read airplane magazines and scoured travel websites. I attended the annual New York Times Travel Show on a media badge and collected business cards from every tourism board, tour agency, and PR team representing countries I’d like to visit. (The first day I woke up with total laryngitis and carried an index card reading HELLO I AM ALLISON FROM DUBAI PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY/REGION/ORGANIZATION.)
After all that research, I didn’t sell any travel articles. I didn’t even pitch any travel articles. I’d arrive in a new location, realize I was there to work another job, and spend my day off resting, rather than hitting up Six Michigan Wineries You Must Visit or Exploring Tuscany In October. On vacation trips I dutifully photographed dinner plates and took notes at key sites, then got home and realized 1) I didn’t have time to individually pitch 20 publications to hopefully sell two articles, and 2) I needed $1500 in camera equipment, time and photography training.
Travel writing looks easy and glamorous, but competition is vigorous, and the prevalence of influencers sharing pretty pictures in exchange for free trips has further devalued the professional travel writer. It takes talent, skill and hard work to build an Insta-career, but social media further dilutes the market for magazine/newspaper travel readers.
Travel writers mostly fall in three categories:
- Staff writers are on salary at single media outlets and their destinations are often assigned to them. They write big, splashy pieces, often over 2000 words. Staff photographers take the pictures, or the magazine purchases stock photos or is provided with photos from tourism boards, etc. Staff writers build their resumes with freelance clips and often work in entry-level positions before being assigned the travel beat.
- Freelancers write for multiple outlets, and are paid per word. Thirty years ago, this was about $1/word. Now, many outlets pay 1-50 cents/word, or $50-200 per article, or even clicks-per-reader (usually a worse deal than upfront pay). Freelancers pitch story ideas and are commissioned to write specific articles. They often take their own photos.
- Bloggers/influencers are not technically “travel writers.” They market themselves and their lifestyle as it takes place in exotic locations. They are physically attractive or can work their look, and take terrific photos or have an InstaHusband to snap them. Influencers spend as much time understanding algorithms and hashtags, editing photos and learning what their readers click on as they do actually traveling.
All three types go on press trips for new travel locations or experiences, or “fam” trips to familiarize with specific destinations. However, the biggest and most prestigious venues often require that writers pay for everything they get. In fact, the New York Times requires writers to have not received any travel freebies for several years, even if unrelated to the current story. Staff writers get reimbursed. Bloggers take freebies. Freelancers pay travel expenses upfront, then hope to sell enough stories to pay for the trip. At $150 each, that’s a lot of articles to get to Fiji and back. Sure, that travel is a tax deduction…but only if you show profit at the end of the year. The IRS doesn’t allow expenses for “hobbies.”*
Still want to write travel?
- Read this Curiosity Magazine article, a comprehensive look at travel writing as a profession.
- Learn to pitch. Read about it, or pay someone to teach you. Non-travel outlets like Narratively, most Op-Ed sections, and Gay Mag also commission essays from pitches. Pitching teaches you how to talk about everything else you write, too.
- Pick and research one kind of travel. If you’re financially comfortable, go for the luxury spa beat and read a year’s worth of Condé Nast Traveler. If you’re a cheap traveler, read Lonely Planet. If you like quirky-but-sophisticated, read Afar.
- Take better photos. Learn about angles, lighting, and framing. Get a real camera. Learn Lightroom or Photoshop.
- Start with FOB. Front-Of-Book are short blurbs about hot new experiences and destinations, found in the first pages of magazines. FOB is easier to write and for newbies to break into.
Like romance novels, self-publishing, and writing an entire book, travel writing is much harder than it looks. But it’s absolutely possible to build a successful travel-writing career, and those skills will serve the rest of your writing, too. Writing travel means looking for the story every day, asking more questions, interacting with more people and trying new experiences—all of which make a better trip, whether or not your vacation becomes a story to sell.
*Hobby vs business on Schedule C filings is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. Lmk in comments if you really want to know more about deducting writing expenses and I’ll write another blog about that.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Travel with her to Tuscany in October, and finish your book along the way! Or follow her on Instagram for vicarious travel delights and writing adventures.
September 14, 2015 § 3 Comments
Kevin Oderman’s book of literary travel essays, Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel, is a lyrical and meditative examination of place, culture, individuality, and community. Brevity Managing Editor Kelly Sundberg sat down with Oderman to talk about his travel essays, life abroad, and how travel both expands and contains his world.
Kelly Sundberg: You’re an essayist, but you’ve also published novels, as well as literary criticism. I’m always curious about people who switch back and forth between genres. I wonder if your writing in other genres informs or influences your literary essays?
Kevin Oderman: I don’t think so, not much, anyway. If anything, the influence has been in the other direction. I haven’t written literary criticism recently, but the criticism I wrote back then was already leaning towards the essay. I gave up on criticism not from lack of interest but because I found the language of criticism literally nauseating. I couldn’t read it, I didn’t want to write it. I began to grind my teeth. One day I realized I was done.
That said, most of my criticism addressed modern and objectivist poetry, and my interest in poetry profoundly influenced my practice in the essay. It trained my ear. It schooled me in structural strategies. And, in Cannot Stay, you’ll notice modern poets get a few quotations and allusions.
KS: What about your novels White Vespa and Going, which, like Cannot Stay, are about life abroad?
KO: Living abroad, traveling, both experiences simplify our lives. At home, the web of our social life, work life, of our responsibilities, even our amusements and pleasures, all conspire to complicate our experience. However good the life, it distracts us. Traveling we (can) leave much of that distraction behind. In the simpler world of traveling, experiences come to us one at a time. So they register more clearly. And there is more time to mull, to consider the kind of surprising connections that, for me at least, often lead to an essay or a story. Occasionally even to a poem. I get back to first questions, questions about how meaning is made and sustained.
Oddly enough, perhaps, something similar happens in writing about travel or the expat life. Much of the clutter of living disappears; it’s easier for me to arrive at clarity and, I probably shouldn’t say, to approach mystery.
KS: Many of these essays take place in non-Western countries. I’m always nervous to represent countries outside of my own experience. As an American writer, I worry about perceiving other cultures through an Imperialist lens, but you skillfully avoid that pitfall. How do you manage the balance between observer and participant?
KO: Well, not going to be possible for me, or you, to avoid being an American traveler, and traveling I’m reminded that I am American far more than at home, when it often slips my mind. But I don’t travel to judge other cultures; I’m there to learn, always to learn. And, frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine feeling superior about being American. Our culture, our popular culture at least, seems to have just floated away from the actual experience of living. I often think of what James Agee called, in his “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” “the mean goodness” of our living, as an expression of the very things we’re in danger of forgetting. It’s easier for me to recall such things traveling in cultures richer in “mean goodness” than our own.
KS: How would you define the word travel? What do you want your readers to take away from this book in regards to how they view travel?
KO: Travel can mean many things, many of them good, admirable. I hope in writing about how I travel I haven’t denigrated any of those good ways, anyone else’s good reason for going. Which acknowledges, I guess, that not everyone travels for an admirable reason, as anyone knows who has seen a Western man, often an old man like me, with a local girl on his arm.
That said, I don’t think of travel as vacation. I feel vacant enough without taking a vacation. I travel hoping to get further in, to find in the world and myself a common humanity. I travel to awaken from the trance of our culture, the trance that leads us to assume that our ways are the ways. To travel is to know, to feel, that our ways are our ways and that’s all. I consider it a good trip if I suffer as much “culture shock” coming home as going.
And I travel for beauty, to be undone by beauty. Just for the oh of it. To be always alert would be to see beauty everywhere, I suppose, but, fallen as we are, the beauty that is always there is just more available traveling. And I want it.
What do I hope readers will take away from Cannot Stay? Encouragement.
KS: As much as Cannot Stay is a book about travel, it is also a book about home, and even on a more micro level, about the body as a kind of home that we carry with us at all times. I love the lines,
“And I like to think that it’s as a metaphor for our life together that a field of fireflies appeals to us, a starry night, the twinkling of city lights out the window on a long flight home. What we feel then, I think, is nostalgia, not for a home lost, but for a living world.”
You’re also a solo traveler in many of these essays, yet there is always a sense of community, and of a search for community. I’m having a difficult time formulating an actual question here, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on these subjects.
KO: Often, most often, my wife declines to travel. We have had good trips together but she generally prefers home to what for her is the anxiety of traveling, and if she’s not going, I prefer to travel alone. Traveling with a partner or a friend, though it’s counterintuitive, is often isolating. To attend to your companion you attend less to the world you’re traveling through, to the people you meet, and, just by being there, your companion fulfills social needs that would otherwise push you to make contact in what is to you a strange world, to find if not community what you have in common with people who might seem, at first, very different from the people you left behind at home. We all thrive and suffer. Easy to know this intellectually, but good to feel it down to the bone.
KS: What’s next? Writing project? Life? Travel?
KO: Although I’m still traveling, I don’t seem to be writing about it. Perhaps I’m only on hiatus and will one day return to travel writing, but recently, and slowly, I’ve been finding my way into what for me is a new kind of essay, meditative, quietly lyric, incorporating images (for instance, “Not Sleeping, Yet” in Green Mountains Review. And for years I’ve felt a swelling in my imagination that I hope will prove to be a novel and not an aneurysm. Do we ever really know where life is taking us?
Kevin Oderman‘s first literary book was a collection of essays, How Things Fit Together (winner of a Bakeless Prize in nonfiction). Subsequently, he published an expatriate novel, Going, set in Granada, and a second expatriate novel, White Vespa, set on the Greek island of Symi. Twice he has lived abroad as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught Modern American Poetry as a Senior Lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and then American literature to M.A. students at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a Professor of English at West Virginia University. Cannot Stay collects essays on travel written over the last fifteen years.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.
August 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore is spending the summer setting up our Paris office, but he took a break yesterday to answer questions at the Matador travel writing site. Here he is discussing what he looks for in a Brevity essay:
The short answer is that I want a piece of writing to make me look at the subject in a different way or think about an experience in a way that I hadn’t previously considered. In a very short piece — we limit our writers to 750 words — that means a sharp focus and immediate movement from the first line of the essay. Whatever the writer is tackling, ultimately the work is about the self. So in travel writing, for instance, it is not enough to say “I went there, and it was exotic.” I want to see a personal connection, feel why a place got under a certain writer’s skin. If the piece is about a childhood incident, I want to be inside of that memory, not outside watching the writer remember it.
February 25, 2011 § 2 Comments
Rolf Potts is one wonderful travel writer, and author of the brilliant Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, which includes the satirical and clever ‘how to be a travel writer’ essay titled “The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra.” Just great stuff, trust us.
So this week, over at gadling.com, Potts is conducting a gonzo-esque experiment, locking himself into a hotel room in Las Vegas and watching nothing but the Travel Channel for 80 waking hours. Not just funny; his chronicle reveals a good deal about our media diet and cultural obsessions. But it is also funny.
Here’s his take on the perky, enthusiastic Samantha Brown, for instance:
Just one day after having declared my infatuation with Samantha Brown, I’m beginning to feel like the love has faded. As with many relationships, our falling out has been a slow accumulation of irritants. Since noon, Samantha has been riding hot air balloons, kayaking, and attending drag-queen brunches in Washington, DC and New Mexico. She’s been her usual gregarious self, but I’ve begun to bristle at her compulsion to laugh at things that aren’t all that funny, her tendency to affect a faint accent when chatting with people who aren’t fluent in English, and her habit of talking over her interview subjects when she gets excited. Sometimes she seems downright ditzy, like the time she sizes up a lunch-counter chilidog in DC and asks her server if she’s supposed to pick it up and eat it. (As opposed to what, Samantha? Hanging it over your fireplace?)
The true deal-breaker comes when Passport to Great Weekends drops in on a Santa Fe shamanic healer who appears to have been dreamed into existence by the makers of This is Spinal Tap. All of the hackneyed Aquarian stereotypes make an appearance during the three- minute segment — the quivering maracas, the middle-aged Caucasian shaman-lady invoking the name of “mother earth,” the ridiculously vague messages from the spirit world — but Samantha just blushes and grins at mystical revelations that would probably apply to 80 percent of the U.S. population. …
Looking back on what I’ve experienced of Samantha Brown in the past three days, I’m pretty sure her most genuine and effective scenes have come when she’s been drinking. Next season on Passport to Great Weekends, I’d love to see Samantha go back to Santa Fe with five shots of tequila under her belt and tell that New Age dingbat to stop blowing sunshine up her ass.
Bon Voyage, Rolf!
April 13, 2008 § 1 Comment
(CNN) — A Lonely Planet author says he plagiarized or made up portions of the popular travel guidebooks and dealt drugs to supplement poor pay, an Australian newspaper reported Sunday.
“I wrote the book in San Francisco [California],” he is quoted as saying in the Telegraph. “I got the information from a chick I was dating — an intern in the Colombian Consulate.” The 32-year-old Seattle, Washington, native also claims he accepted free travel, which is a violation of the company’s policy. Kohnstamm has worked on more than a dozen books for Lonely Planet, including its titles on Brazil, Colombia, the Caribbean, Venezuela, Chile and South America.