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Travel writing as a skill

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While everybody fixates on SEO, keywords, tags, social media marketing, Instagram, brand sponsorship, video and awesomeness, the art of storytelling has suffered. It's time for a rethink... I presented this at Traverse 19 in Trento, Italy on June 8

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Travel writing as a skill

  1. 1. Writing as a skill Steve Keenan
  2. 2. An internet age of travel writing Via Just Globetrotting
  3. 3. 28 classic travel writers 1870- 2000 1872: Thomas Cook writes a blog for The Times on his first Round-the- World trip, posted to the paper and published on six consecutive days. 1870s: Late Victorian Travellers: Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels with a Donkey in Cevannes, 1879); Mark Twain (A Tramp Abroad, 1880); Henry James (A Little Tour in France, 1884); Mary Kingsley (Travels in West Africa, 1897)1930s: The Classic Romantics: Karen Blixen (Out of Africa, 1938); Freya Stark; Evelyn Waugh; Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana, 1937). 1950s: Post War Grand Tours: John Steinbeck (A Russian Journal, 1948); Jack Kerouac (On The Road, 1957); Eric Newby (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, 1958); Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands, 1959), Dervla Murphy, Norman Lewis. 1970s: The Classic Decade: Laurie Lee (As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning, 1969); Gavin Young; Paul Theroux; Hunter S Thompson; Colin Thubron: Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia, 1977); Martha Gellhorn.1980s-2000: Jan Morris; Michael Palin; Bill Bryson; William Dalrymple; Tim Moore; Sara Wheeler.
  4. 4. A Short Walk begins with an intro by Evelyn Waugh, who identifies “the essential amateurism of the English” as the bedrock of all native travel writing. And it ends with an encounter that signals the changing of the guard, when Newby’s party bumps into the doyen of old-school gentleman explorers in a remote gorge. Wilfred Thesiger was midway through another of the fearsomely hardcore five-year expeditions that his dry and patrician travel literature described. After the two parties agree to pitch camp together, Thesiger watches Newby and his colleague inflate their air-beds with utter contempt: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.” Tim Moore, FT, Nov 2018
  5. 5. Random travel narrative
  6. 6. Random travel narratives
  7. 7. The Sand Dollar Orchestra
  8. 8. Random narrative travel
  9. 9. Hell and Firewater
  10. 10. The Blood of Kashmir, Part 1 Matthew Clayfield, The Daily Beast, Dec 2018
  11. 11. In 2007, around the time I started getting interested in food and wine and began writing the occasional restaurant review, I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I don’t remember much about the book, aside from its whirling-dervish energy. But I do know that it made me want to become a cook. For several months,  I seriously considered in enrolling in culinary school. This was the kind of effect Bourdain had: he could make even twelve hours cutting onions sound sexy.
  12. 12. “We forget, because of the colour and movement of the shows, that he lived an existence not entirely dissimilar to that of George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air.”
  13. 13. But the similarities were so much greater: the desire to keep moving, to hear people’s stories, to get beyond the spin and the stereotypes and see for oneself what was going on in the world. All this was hugely inspiring to me — it proved, at a time when I was back in a dead-end job, that such work could be done — and, as the reaction to his death online attests, to countless others as well. It also became, despite Bourdain’s tendency to play down the social or political value of his work, something of a mission, even an agenda.
  14. 14. Writing in the 1st person It only works when: It’s personal – and it works, such as a climb of Everest, a tough walk through Italy or a search for your granny’s birth place (“Otherwise, it’s boring” – The Times) It’s a rant. Or it’s a funny or humorous account of an incident or a place Or you are an expert in a particular field: gluten- free food, climbing freestyle, sheep shearing…
  15. 15. Writing in the 1st person “Steve recommends writing in the third person not just the first person. Most bloggers write in the first person and while many readers are interested in your personal journey, most are interested in the story rather than the fact that you’re in it. “Sophie Collard added that while interning as a teenager, she was given the harsh but true advice that ‘no one actually gives a shit about you.’” – Monica, The Travel Hack,
  16. 16. Writing in the 1st person It only works when: It’s personal – and it works, such as a climb of Everest, a tough walk through Italy or a search for your granny’s birth place (“Otherwise, it’s boring” – The Times) It’s a rant. Or it’s a funny or humorous account of an incident or a place Or you are an expert in a particular field: gluten- free food, climbing freestyle, sheep shearing… In this piece, Anthony Bourdain qualifies on all three counts
  17. 17. Killing a pig in Portugal “I was already unhappy. I'm causing this to happen, I kept thinking. This pig has been hand-fed for six months, fattened up - for me. Perhaps, had I said when this blood feast was first suggested, "Uh no . . . I don't think so", maybe the outcome for Porky would have been different. Or would it? “This pig's number was up the second he was born. You can't milk a pig! Nobody's gonna keep him as a pet! This porker was bacon from birth. “Still, he was my pig, I was responsible. For a guy who'd spent 28 years serving dead animals and sneering at vegetarians, I was having an unseemly amount of trouble. I had to suck it up. I could do this.”
  18. 18. Kevin Rushby, The Guardian Keep the story bouncing along in the right direction. No diversions for irrelevancies. No boring sentences allowed. Someone once said about self-editing: ‘Slaughter your darlings.’ There are always lines in a story that you love too much. If they don't carry the narrative forward, get rid of them.
  19. 19. Great 20th century travel writersNorman Lewis: I look for the people who have always been there, and belong to the places they live. The others I do not wish to see: I prefer to produce revealing little descriptions. I think of myself as the semi-invisible man.” Travels in Indo-China (1951)
  20. 20. Norman Lewis (1908-2003) The writer Norman Lewis, who has died aged 95, once claimed to be the only person he knew who could walk into a room full of people, and leave it some time afterwards without anyone else realising that he had been there. That there was only limited truth in the assertion was unimportant; it says far more about his modesty that failing to attract attention was the only claim he pretended to. “His prose was like eating cherries” – author Luiga Barzini. “One of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our (20th) century” – Graham
  21. 21. Great 20th century travel writersNorman Lewis: I look for the people who have always been there, and belong to the places they live. The others I do not wish to see: I prefer to produce revealing little descriptions. I think of myself as the semi-invisible man.” Travels in Indo-China (1951) Dervla Murphy: Most of my books are what I call ‘mongrels,’ mixing travel with considerations of social, political and ethical problems. Ireland to India with a bicycle (1965)
  22. 22. Dervla Murphy (1913 - The key to travel, she believes, is to embrace the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unforeseen, “but I feel sad that these sort of experiences are no longer possible – mostly because, and I know I’m just an old fogey, of the mobile phone. The Guardian, Jan 2018
  23. 23. Interview with Paul Theroux Author of The Great Railway Bazaar (1975)
  24. 24. Great 20th century travel writersNorman Lewis: I look for the people who have always been there, and belong to the places they live. The others I do not wish to see: I prefer to produce revealing little descriptions. I think of myself as the semi-invisible man.” Travels in Indo-China (1951) Dervla Murphy: Most of my books are what I call ‘mongrels,’ mixing travel with considerations of social, political and ethical problems. Ireland to India with a bicycle (1965) Freya Stark: To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. The Lycian Shore (1956)
  25. 25. Freya Stark (1893 -1993) ‘One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one’s own - and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism’.
  26. 26. The Danakil Diary – Journeys through Abyssinia 1930-34 (1996). “Djibouti is a jostle of black volcanic rock, flat plains haunted by dust devils and a brilliant-blue coastline bulging out into the
  27. 27. Great 20th century travel writersNorman Lewis: I look for the people who have always been there, and belong to the places they live. The others I do not wish to see: I prefer to produce revealing little descriptions. I think of myself as the semi-invisible man.” Travels in Indo-China (1951) Dervla Murphy: Most of my books are what I call ‘mongrels,’ mixing travel with considerations of social, political and ethical problems. Ireland to India with a bicycle (1965) Freya Stark: To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. The Lycian Shore (1956) Ernest Hemingway: My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way. A
  28. 28. MUSE Science Museum, Trento
  29. 29. Keep it simple: nice and slow Random travel narrative Switch from linear Write with passion Avoid 1st person Slaughter your babies Stay in the shadows Wake up in strange town Leave the phone behind Go to Sweden when 80 Let yourself go Keep it simple
  30. 30. Keep your ears open! Dialogue brings a scene to life, gives personality to the people in your story, and allows you to convey important information in a punchy way. Make a note of what people say and how they say it. Steve Keenan @stevenkeenan
  31. 31. Keep your ears open Mary T opened a bottle of blueberry wine from a winery in Harpersville: we stood and clinked schooners and toasted our meeting. Something about the wood paneling, the quality of the curtains, the closeness of the room, the sense of being in the deep countryside holding a glass of wine on a hot day — it was like being in old Russia. I said so. “That’s why I love Chekhov,” Mary T said. “He writes about places like this, people like the ones who live here — the same situations.” The sunny day, the bleakness of the countryside, the old bungalow on the narrow road, no other house nearby; the smell of the muddy fields penetrating the room — and that other thing, a great and overwhelming sadness that I felt but couldn’t fathom. “Have a slice of poundcake,” Randall said, opening the foil on a heavy yellow loaf. “My mother made it yesterday.” Paul Theroux
  32. 32. Learn to listen: don’t wait to speak “Spend a day on a bus or a train with a notebook and practice getting down as much detail, and using as many of your senses as possible. Get used to making conversation with other travellers, finding out their life stories and writing down the conversation as they speak. Fight your own shyness: it’s only by engaging with strangers that you will find out their stories: the heart of modern travel writing.” William Dalrymple
  33. 33. Don’t rush that ending Many travel articles finish like a high-speed train hitting the buffers, leaving readers dazed and confused. Show your readers that the end is nigh. Think about where you started, and reflect on the journey. Try to sum up the experience, the circular narrative. And never finish with: ‘I would just have to come back another time.’ Walk away from the feature. Come back the next day. Then re-read, polish and check. Only send when you’re really happy with it.
  34. 34. Land of the Giants: Wildlife in Guyana FIRST PAR: “It looked like the birth-cradle of a predator from Alien. At least ten metres high, a diaphanous web of silken threads was suspended between a towering mora tree and a mass of vines and creepers. At first it seemed devoid of life, but watchful and waiting. Then we saw them – hundreds of spiders, busily extending their skyscraper realm and feeding on fresh prey…. LAST PAR: It’s the sheer scale on which Guyana does everything that can inspire humility in even the most experienced traveller. Epic waterfalls, giant trees and enormous spiders’ webs – this is truly a supersized land, largely untouched by tiny travellers like me.” Gavin Bell, Wanderlust Magazine
  35. 35. Andy Pietrasik, The Guardian In the writing, vary the focus, rather like storyboarding You need wide angle (descriptions of landscapes, social/cultural history) for context; close-ups (characterisations, conversations) for colour and detail Steve Keenan @stevenkeenan
  36. 36. Wide angle for context, close-up for detail
  37. 37. A beginning, a middle and an end
  38. 38. Writing as a skill Steve Keenan

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