Note: This article is by Nancy Lohman. Nancy, a freelancer from Ormand Beach, Florida, was a student in his online graduate travel-writing course at Gonzaga University.
By Nancy Lohman
To be an effective travel writer, one must bring to the work a keen sensitivity to the needs of the audience, along the lines of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs.”
It begins with the most basic motivational need, the human desire to explore. Travel writing lets readers go to far-away destinations that they might never see. Renowned travel writer Pico Iyer shared advice he was once given by his editor: “The reader wants to travel beside you.” Travel writing on a very basic level takes the reader with you. It can also serve to prepare the reader. It can inform and educate the reader about how to travel, when to travel and where to travel.
As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once the most basic level is fulfilled, we continue to reach for the next level up his pyramid. Travel writing inspires the reader. It uses insightful observations to lure readers to escape their own world and lose themselves in the intriguing unknown.
Travel writing’s next level of purpose enlightens the reader about different cultures and helps the reader gain an appreciation for the differences in customs around the world. It broadens awareness and introduces the reader to the diversity in people. It can transform the reader into a more empathetic and more compassionate human being. It can help remove biases, prejudices and stereotypes developed through the narrow lenses of limited experiences. It can improve the reader’s awareness, tolerance and acceptance.
Travel writing can make a reader less fearful by enabling him or her to become more engaged with the world. It can make the reader wiser. You may not read travel stories with the intent to understand others better, but you will. Travel stories broaden a reader’s perspective. Travel writing brings the reader and the world together. “The flip side of fear is understanding,” travel adviser Rick Steves writes. “Your worldviews change when you meet others who feel their worldview is different than yours. Travel changes your ethnocentrisms.”
And most important, travel writing is an adventure in self-discovery, for appreciating nature and the beauty of the world. Travel writing can also help the reader evaluate priorities in life. Finally, travel writing can create a connection to each other. Readers can vicariously feel connected to a person, a place and an experience that enriches and expands them. Ultimately, at the top of the hierarchy of human needs, travel writing creates an influence and effect on the reader, who can become a better human being for having read a travel story.
Todd Pitock is a seasoned travel writer whose stories have taken him from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from South Africa to Morocco.
In those far-flung destinations, he reports about science, sports, politics, and culture for national publications including Salon, The Atlantic, Discover, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. I had the great pleasure of meeting Pitock when I was the launch editor of a travel magazine named Afar; he wrote the cover story, about the Berber culture of Morocco, for Afar’s premiere issue.
Based in Philadelphia, Pitock has won awards from the American Society of Journalists & Authors and the American Society of Travel Writers, as well as the Simon Rockower Award for investigative reporting. His work is regularly included in anthologies and collections such as Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best American Travel Writing. Last month, Pitock was named the 2015 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year by the American Society of Travel Writers.
Because several ieiMedia programs—like those in Urbino, Italy; Croatia; Spain; and France—cover travel writing, we thought it would be helpful to hear from a pro what it’s really like to report from the road.
IeiMedia: At the University of Pennsylvania, you studied English and concentrated on novel writing. What led you to journalism and how did you prepare yourself for that field?
Todd Pitock: I didn’t think about journalism as such, and I knew very little about it. I just wanted to write, and like most people I intended to write fiction, and I was pretty naive and high-falutin’. I was, though, blessed in having limited skills and no other talents at all, so even while I was getting beaten down with a lot of rejections I just had to keep at it.
My first job was an editorial assistant at New York book publisher. But I was miserable sitting in a cubicle, where my main task was to type out rejection letters to other aspiring writers, and I really wanted to see the world. It was not, though, a vague or passive desire. It was more like a gnawing, existential need.
From the time I was very young I’d look at maps and wonder what different places might be like. I was also blessed with a horrible landlord in Brooklyn, and after a judge wrested a small monetary judgment from him, I had a wad of cash to go overseas. My plan was to be away for a year. That year became five, the first two in Israel and the last three in South Africa. The latter was during the transition from apartheid and there was a lot of interest in the place, and I started writing for publications there and in the U.S. So, in short, I kind of fell into it.
I also want to point out that that’s a biography of my first 25 years in roughly 200 words.
IM: What led you to travel writing?
TP: I had two completely contradictory views of what it meant to be a writer. One was working in isolation; the other, I don’t know why, was roaming or roving all over the place. The writers I read complained about sitting still but always seemed to be doing it in a new place.
As a child, I had this picture of myself writing in northern India. I don’t know why northern India, just that it was the other side of the world I guess, and I often had the feeling that I wanted to be half a world away from wherever I was. Then, a few years ago I was in northern India, writing in my hotel room, and I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m here!” And I would have felt really content that I’d arrived except that I was in a miserable hotel with a horrible rancid smell that made it hard to concentrate.
Anyway, I got to “travel writing” because I was traveling and wanted to travel more, and writing became a kind of a magic carpet. Moreover, in its best moments it was fulfilling in a way that nothing else is, enough to endure its frustrations.
For me, an experience only really matters if I’ve written it down and made some sense of it. To write is to notice, and I was never a traveler who just wanted to tick off places I’ve been. I wanted to really know them, and writing—meaning the process of gathering the information, the interviews, the experience of a place in order to write it down—was a way to do that, to really get inside a place. In fact, that’s how I often feel as a traveler, as if I’m moving inside of a story, ready to find out what happens next.
Along the way, I read some books that helped me see the possibilities of “travel writing.” Paul Fussell’s book Abroad, about British travel writers between the World Wars, gave me a long reading list to get through, and some of those models—Graham Greene, Robert Byron, Sybil Bedford, Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipaul; many whose names and work I can’t even recall right now—gave me a new framework to think about what it is I envisioned myself doing.
Students who aspire to be travel writers or who simply want to share their study-abroad experiences now have several opportunities to do so—including a chance to win $1,000 in a contest whose deadline is October 31.
Abroad Scout, a portal website for study-abroad programs, wants students to write posts for their blog. According to the site: “You can write about a country or city, a project you worked on while abroad, a particular observation you had, a story regarding your experience, or anything else that has to do with you and your international education. Some topics to consider are food, places, culture, customs, faux paus, activities, events, classes, professors, processes, visas, program types, and learning.” Recent student posts include a guide to Italian bureaucracy; a fiction writer’s story about Santiago, Chile; and an account of how one student learned the difference between Spain and Basque country. For more details, visit this page.
Life After Study Abroad magazine, a new publication, is looking for writers for its website and print magazine. For the website, say editors Noah Peden and Tonya Tooley, “We’re constantly looking for students to write about their study abroad experience in our Life After Abroad section. This section is filled with amazing articles on how to deal with reverse culture shock and stories of study abroad experiences from other students.” The editors are also gearing up for Issue 2 of their print publication, which will appear in April 2014. Stories in the first issue include “Why an Internship Abroad is the Missing Piece on Your Resume” and “How to Get the Most Out of Your Volunteer Abroad Experience.” See the writers’ guidelines for more details.
GoAbroad.com, an online directory of study-abroad programs, is hosting the Next Great Travel Writers Contest. Students can win up to $1,000 to put toward another adventure abroad. “We are looking for interesting, colorful, and precise details that show a knowledge or experience of the place or activity featured in the article,” say the contest rules. Stories can fall into one of three categories, according to the site:
1. “Guidebook With A Twist.” This is a unique and interesting “how-to” or informational travel guide about features or characteristics in a specific city or country — with info not easily found in the usual tourist guidebooks.
2. “Travel Feature.” This is a colorful and informational feature article about some sort of activity, event, social custom, or unique tradition that travelers might want to try and experience while abroad.
3. “Top Five/ Top Ten.” This is a “roundup” article where writers can get creative with their Top Fill-in-the-Blanks — places to see, things to do, items to bring, etc. — in various countries or parts of the world.
See the Contest Entry Guidelines for more details. And hurry—the deadline is October 31, 2013.
In 2009, Leah Bigelow, who had graduated the year before from San Jose State University, served as the student editor for the first issue of Urbino View (now called Urbino Now), the annual travel magazine put out by ieiMedia about Urbino and the Marche region of Central Italy. It was a tough job, wrangling 24 other student journalists, editing their copy, checking Italian phrases with interpreters, working with InDesign, and putting out a professional-quality magazine — all in one month — but Leah thrived under pressure. (An occasional glass of vino rosso frizzante, a 24-hour getaway to Venice and a day at the beach helped.)
And the work prepared her well for her new job as managing editor of Jetset Extra, an online travel resource.
What is Jetset Extra?
Jetset Extra is an online travel resource for anyone who is interested in exploring the world. We have writers worldwide who submit articles about the cities they live in and the trips they’ve taken. We also create and post videos, hold a weekly Twitter chat about all things travel, and host an annual event called the Jetset Social to discuss the latest trends in the travel industry.
What do you do in your new job?
As managing editor, I oversee the production schedule and determine what articles will post and when. I also copyedit the articles, put together a weekly e-newsletter, and write my own pieces based on press releases or industry events that I attend.
Will you be working with freelancers? Any opportunities for ieiMedia alumni?
I hope so! Unfortunately, we cannot pay our writers at this time, but we do offer a great outlet for journalists who love to travel and want to build a portfolio. If any ieiMedia alumni would like to be featured writers for our site, they can send clips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What have you been doing since you left Urbino in 2009 and you graduated college?
I was lucky enough to have a job waiting for me when I came home from Urbino, as circulation and special events manager for Where Orange County magazine. I spent two and a half years with Where before taking a job as associate editor for a business-to-business magazine for physical therapists. While the year I spent there was a great learning experience, I am so happy to be back working with the travel industry.
How do you think your Urbino experience shaped your career path?
The time I spent in Urbino really solidified the fact that journalism was the right career choice for me. Putting together a magazine/visitor’s guide for the city in a short amount of time was crazy and stressful … and I loved every minute of it. I learned that this was the type of job I was truly passionate about and that I was ready and willing to work hard and put my all into more projects like this one. My experience in Urbino also gave me an introduction to travel writing and taught me how to see the unique and wonderful aspects of the places I visit and the place where I live.
Fondest memory of Urbino?
Dining al fresco in the Piazza della Repubblica, touring the ducal palace, seeing the rolling green hills outside my bedroom window every morning, wandering through the city’s cobblestone streets, using my own special form of English/Italian/sign language to meet and talk to the locals, having an amazing wine-tasting dinner hosted by a top sommelier (even though I had a horrible head cold and couldn’t actually taste anything), dancing to ’80s classic rock at the beer festival, drinking vino rosso frizzante, going to the Bosom Pub, eating gelato at least once a day (and telling myself it was OK because I walked to and from the gelateria), getting lost in Venice with Alyson and Alyssa, taking a quick trip to Lucca just to see James Morrison play live, researching the history of Urbino for my article, taking hundreds of photos….. Traveling to Urbino was the experience of a lifetime. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could and absolutely plan on returning to visit someday.
In developing a study abroad program, one of the most challenging aspects can be providing students with appropriate context in which to begin exploring the culture they are about to participate in. One of the most effective ways to share cultural context is through art. The art produced by a culture is a direct reflection of what that culture values, what it thinks is important. The art may reinforce or reject those values, but it reflects them and allows the audience to make decisions for themselves.
When ieiMedia went to Northern Ireland last summer, we relied on theatre to help us understand the complex societal relationships the students encountered. Even for a journalist, theatre is enlightening because it lets us see the culture enacted, spoken aloud.
In the Armagh Program, we examined the history of Irish Theatre as a distinct cultural voice in literary history. Students began their studies by reading plays by Sean O’Casey, who represents the voice of early 20th struggles for Irish independence from Britain through the point of view of the impoverished working class in Dublin, and, then, Brian Friel, who gives us the characters and stories away from war.
Armagh is in Northern Ireland, which is known to the world because of “The Troubles,” the conflict between Catholics and Protestants which raged for 30 years beginning in the late 1960s and ending with the Good Friday peace accord in 1998. This conflict affected everyone in Northern Ireland as more than 3,500 people were killed by Republican (Catholic) and Loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary or the British security forces. Fifty -one percent of the casualties were civilian. Nearly everyone we met had been affected by The Troubles in some way.
Art has a delayed reaction to history, so we found that “The Troubles” is the focus of a lot of plays being written and performed in Northern Ireland today. The Armagh students began this exploration with Belfast playwright Martin Lynch, who recommended that we read “The History of the Troubles, According to my Da,” a comedic but poignant look at life in a barricaded Belfast neighborhood. The highlight for many of the students (and faculty) was meeting Martin Lynch for lunch in Belfast and discussing the play with him. He told us that the characters were all based on real people from his childhood. His storytelling nature came to life as he told us stories from this time. He taught us that life, and laughter, continued behind the barriers that still mark Belfast neighborhoods. The original barriers built by the neighborhoods out of furniture and burned out cars have been replaced by concrete and steel permanent “Peace Walls” that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods to this day.
During another trip to Belfast, the students met at the new Metropolitan Arts Center with the literary manager of Tinderbox Theatre, a play development company whose mission is to develop Northern Irish playwrights. We borrowed a DVD of plays that were harsher looks at the lingering effects of the Troubles on Belfast life; they represented the voice of the next generation of artists too young or not yet born during the times of highest violence, but who feel the effects. Towards the end of the John Hewitt International Festival of Literary Arts, the students performed the plays and poems they had written during their time in Northern Ireland. The audience responded enthusiastically to the student work, which represented the students’ growing understanding of the complex, fascinating, peculiar, warm and funny culture of Northern Ireland.
There are several factors that often drive the way travel writing is normally taught.
- Are the students writing for a web, a newspaper or a magazine audience?
- Is the course offered online or on campus?
- Is it normal semester length or a compressed semester?
- Is the course rooted in literary tradition or feature journalism?
- Will you be leading a writing workshop or moderating a lecture/discussion?
I taught travel writing for more than 20 years as a tenured professor at Loyola (Md.), both classroom-based and distance via email. I had a rather pat approach until I reassessed my strategies while designing a graduate online travel writing course for Gonzaga University. It’s an experiential approach that walks a student through the various layers of the travel article.
Students weaned away from the third person, observe-from-a distance approach, may resort to “opinion” or contrast-and-compare “cultural chauvinism.” Such venting is rarely informative or enlightening.
If you are teaching from a literary perspective, then the personal essay or memoir can be a workable format. But those of us who come out of a journalism tradition, equally concerned about good writing, might find a better vehicle in the specialized magazine article – which is where I am coming from.
I expect students to write two articles in the course – one guided by me and peer reaction, and the final one completely on their own.
In the first article, I take students through a six-step process that enables them to craft nearly professional-style long form pieces, well beyond the superficial short forms of daily journalism and the limitations of the academic report:
- Define the audience (market) and develop an appropriate idea.
- Write a basic informational first draft with the emphasis on place or destination.
- Transformation #1: Personalize the second draft by adding elements of memoir.
- Transformation #2: Populate the third draft with uniquely interesting people (human interest).
- Transformation #3: Put it all in a context (research) that imparts deeper meaning to the article (i.e, social, political, economic, religious, etc.)
- Just when students think the drafting process is over, immerse them in rigorous creative writing exercises, and then ask them to polish the article in a final rewrite.
This process engages the student at a cognitive level as impactful as experiential learning.
For anyone interested in learning or perfecting the craft of travel writing, I highly recommend a recent blog post by Don George, one of the deans of the genre. It summarizes his advice on how to put together a good travel article.
Don defines a travel narrative as “the crafted evocation of a journey, usually written in the first person, that is structured as a sequence of anecdotes/scenes, and that presents a quest that illuminates a place and culture.” And he stresses the critical need for a “a theme – lesson, message, point, illumination – that you as the writer are trying to convey to the reader.”
Here’s how he boils down the essential steps:
- Figure out the lesson of your travel experience or story.
- Figure out what steps led you to learn that lesson.
- Recreate those steps in your mind.
- Recreate those steps in words so the reader can live them with you.
- Craft your tale with a beginning, middle, and end that shape and convey your lesson.
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by Kat Russell, California State University, Northridge, The Istanbul Project 2011