The art of the travel essay

Here are some tips on writing the voyage of personal discovery
By Patti M. Marxsen | Published: March 8, 2012


Planning a trip to an exotic destination that has yet to be tainted by tourism? Good luck in finding one. The widespread use of blogs, social-networking sites, webcams and cell phones places just about every corner of the planet at our fingertips. Suddenly, anyone with a computer can be a travel writer and any day spent far from home can be instantly shared with “friends” you’ll never see.

Does all this imply the end of literary travel writing? Hopefully not, but in the age of globalization, the world has be-come more accessible and undeniably more “connected,” at least in technological terms. Travel has shifted in style and scope while tourism—that market-driven substitute for a voyage of discovery—runs the gamut from “packaged” to pretentious. In the 21st century, the well-crafted travel essay has begun to look as nostalgic as a dusty khaki safari jacket sans logo.

But what is more satisfying than a literate ramble around a beautiful city or a seemingly empty beach with a lively, articulate mind? The hook need not be as dramatic as a great escape from warring tribes or some life-threatening meteorological event. Travel is internal as well as external, and so the “story” is free to focus on subtle shifts of inner awareness. In the words of Norman Douglas, writing in the 1920s, good travel writing “invites the reader to undertake three tours simultaneously: abroad, into the author’s brain, and into his own.”

As long as wanderlust exists, an engaging travel essay will appeal to readers who expect more than mere information. (Leave that task to the travel guides.) And while there is no foolproof formula, there are a few “rules of the road.” Your travel essay will be a success when it leaves readers with a fresh, vivid memory of a place they’ve never seen.

Because a good travel essay should be readable in one sitting, it takes an artful approach to focus your lens, calibrate your timing, build your structure, and discover colorful threads to weave through the fabric of your essay. As the writer, your task is to use your imagination to “omit and compress,” as Alain de Botton describes it, in order to steer your reader to “critical moments” and, I would add, unforgettable images.

Here are some steps to get you there; the first two deal mostly with prewriting preparation.

1. Learn the backstory in order to take your reader behind the scenes. Your essay should give your reader an inside perspective that is real, reflective and accurate. This will probably require some good, old-fashioned research. Reading before and after a trip—history, biography, anthropology, literature, newspapers, magazines and/or other travel writing—will help shake off false assumptions and open windows in your creative mind. But do be careful about how you work facts into your essay. As Patrick LoBrutto said in these pages (April 2008) with reference to fiction, “The trick is to rub the information into the grain” and avoid an “information dump.”

In my essay “Alone in Amsterdam,” in the literary journal Fourth Genre, I set out to write a “cityscape” anchored by famous works of art, but it was reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo and the poignant Diary of Anne Frank that helped me catch the thread of meaning I was after. In the end, my essay turned out to be about the many dimensions of aloneness, including my own, that had been lived on those streets. Planning a trip? Start reading now.

2. As you travel, be alert to details that will allow you to establish the essential identity of the place on the opening page. If you’ve just arrived in unknown territory, walk around, talk to the locals, smell the coffee, and get a feel for what this place is about. A.A. Gill refers to this as seeking “the key, an image that unlocks everything else.” In my essay about Tahiti, “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” I opened with the late-18th-century voyage of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. In a similar fashion, I tracked 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of an untainted paradise. As I began to realize that Gauguin never found what he was looking for, I played all of my images and experiences in Tahiti against my core metaphor of an elusive quest.

To test the waters, try describing the essence of the street you live on in one vivid paragraph, and remain open to where your own description leads.

3. Begin with two levels of information. The “collage effect” appropriate to travel writing requires artful transitions from one theme or scene to another in order to create a sense of wholeness. It also calls for two distinct levels of information that might be summed up as background and foreground. Remember, your readers need a sense of place and a sense of who is taking them on this journey. Descriptive prose provides the larger context while you, the writer, bring a strong sense of your personal motives, state of mind, and situation as we embark on the trip together.

The “hinge” of these two levels allows you to pivot and shift your point of view as you move through the pages. Remember, your goal is to come full circle, so always take time to check and see if your last few paragraphs relate to the beginning. You can get a sense of this full circle by “checking the echo” of beginnings and endings in the travel essays you’re reading now.

Think of your essay as a flight into the unknown, which it should be for the reader (even if you know the place inside out). There are many techniques for starting, ranging from a short, punchy statement to a patch of dialogue with locals. In “Alone in Amsterdam,” I began with an imaginary dialogue between myself and the “Dutch Masters” in Rembrandt’s iconic painting “The Draper’s Guild.”

Other writers, like Jan Morris in her introductory chapter to Venice or Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City, plunge in with sensuous word paintings of cityscapes. Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World begins by explaining the circumstances that motivated his 4,000-mile exploration of China’s Yangtze River, then he is free to take the reader along with him on his tour.

Remember, at the start readers need a “big picture” sense of location, preferably visual, combined with a sense of who is telling this story. Their two key questions might be reduced to: Where am I going, and who am I going with? Let’s put you to work.

First paragraph: As an exercise in answering the first question, create a “landscape in words” of the place that is going to be the focus of your essay. This may only be the point of departure, but that’s OK. The important thing, as a writer, is that you bring this to life with descriptive detail that sets the mood and weaves imagery, color, texture, sound, light, architecture and nature into a believable background. Resist the urge to overwrite this paragraph, but build it out to paint a picture that will serve as a point of reference for all that follows. Limit yourself to six to eight sentences.

Second paragraph: Now, practice the art of shifting focus to the travel guide and companion—you—with a much shorter paragraph of three or four sentences. In this paragraph, your reader should feel jolted out of a dream as the focus shifts to a particular human dilemma, goal, conscious sensation, or problem that co-exists with the lyrical quality of your opening paragraph.  You might, for example, shift from the description of a winter landscape to a wounded bird on your windowsill and the dilemma of how to help this tiny animal, or from a “perfect” day in a lively city to the realization that your wallet has been stolen.

Use this technique of shifting from descriptive prose to the here and now to drive your narrative forward. These two paragraphs—taken together—will create a sense of anticipation about the story and the place we barely know. What we must know early on is that a voyage of discovery awaits, as soon as we turn the page.

4. Use the toolbox of fiction to bring it all to life. “Travel writers actually face the same problem of plausibility that confronts so-called novelists; the actual must be made to appear believable.” Paul Fussell hits the nail on the head with this observation. The arts of fiction—color, rhythm, imagery, narrative tension, dialogue, scenes—all belong to travel essays and books, which are often collections of related essays.

In her masterful, genre-defying book The Emperor’s Last Island , Julia Blackburn deploys a variety of techniques to create a stirring portrait of Napoleon’s remote island exile on St. Helena (1815 to 1821), where howling winds, a damp climate, isolation and astonishing dullness become the strangest “house arrest” of all time. During Blackburn’s time at sea, she observes rainstorms in the distance as she catches “the scent of hot earth” rising off the coast of Africa:

As we watched and the sun began to set, the clouds became saturated with wild luminous colors; purple, yellow, grey and red, boiling in the distance.

Similarly, Rolf Potts’ essays gathered throughout a decade of travels in Asia often startle the reader with a well-placed image, like the “rocky yawn of cool air, clean water, and darkness” that describes his first experience of the Heup cave in Laos. Potts is also adept at dialogue that “places” the action, as in this passage from “My Beirut Hostage Crisis,” which refers to Fijian soldiers stationed in Lebanon as part of the United Nations Interim Force.

After I chatted with the blue-bereted soldiers for a couple of minutes, a loud explosion rang out, and a plume of smoke rose up from a hill on the horizon.

“Israelis?” I asked the Fijians nervously. “No,” Vasco laughed. “Arock quarry.” “How can you tell the difference?”

“Well, the Israelis usually call on the radio before they start shelling us.”

Inspired by Blackburn’s quality of visual reflection and Potts’ gift for mingling down-to-earth dialogue with strong imagery, why not challenge yourself to work the arts of fiction into your prose? Listen for the sound of a tale unfolding by reading your work aloud, to yourself.

5. Don’t intrude in your own essay. Your voice, thoughts, predicaments and discoveries are what will make your reader eager to follow you. But don’t turn your travel essay into a diary. It is your mind, not your personal life and quirky tastes, that serves as the filter for the essay. As one editor once bluntly asked of an essay of mine: “Who cares what she ate for dinner?” Well, I cared. I even thought that my luxurious, herb-encrusted salmon with creamed asparagus served in a clam-shaped “pastry shell” worked beautifully as a contrast to the theme of Irish-famine immigrants arriving in Canada. But in the end, that digression into a gourmet restaurant came off as smug, self-referential and off-point. I had intruded in my own essay. Next time you think you have achieved a final draft, go back and interrogate the relevance of every “I” in your essay.

 

Before and After

How much of your personal experience belongs in your essay?

Problem
Travel writing inevitably includes the author’s presence. But when is personal experience irrelevant or intrusive? Here is an early draft of a passage from my essay “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” which is about elusive quests and the 19th-century Impressionist painter’s pursuit of an untainted Eden.

I feel a sharp pain in my head. Slowly, as the sky turns black, I begin to believe that I have been stung by a tropical insect and injected with some sort of toxic substance. Maybe a spider bite has caused the mottled rash on my hands and feet and then crawled into my ear. I move awkwardly, hanging my head off the mattress, thinking maybe this bizarre posture will rearrange something deep inside my head. Yawning is painful; not yawning is impossible. I soak a towel in cool water and wrap it around my neck, letting the water trickle down my arms. I lay awake for a long time, growing anxious, wondering if I will lose consciousness and die here. I take a pain reliever to numb my senses, or quell my imagination, before I return my damp head to the foam pillow, bent now at a 45 degree angle. Anight-light glows from the bathroom, casting a spray of gold dust on the floor of the bungalow.

Solution
In the final draft, I’ve related my feelings of anxiety and fear to the larger themes of the essay.

Slowly, as the sky turns black, I begin to believe that I have been stung by a tropical insect and injected with some sort of toxic substance. Aspider, perhaps, rather than the relentless sun, has caused the mottled rash on my hands and feet and crawled into my ear. Outside, the night is black and silent, except for a streak of moonlight cutting across the lagoon. I move around awkwardly, hanging my head off the mattress, thinking maybe this bizarre posture will rearrange something deep inside my head. Yawning is painful; not yawning is impossible. I soak a towel in cool water and wrap it around my neck, letting the water trickle down my arms. I lay awake for a long time, wondering if others who’ve come to the South Seas have had similar moments of disorientation: Herman Melville lived among cannibals in the Marquesas in 1841; Robert Louis Stevenson settled in Samoa at the end of his life; Thor Heyerdahl spent a year and a half on the most remote island of the Marquesas, Fatu Hiva. What were their first days and nights like out here, far away from “civilization”?

And then, of course, there was Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin would have attributed these strange sensations to the tupapu, the spirits inhabiting every part of this place, spirits resistant to the intrusion of a new and foreign presence.

Patti M. Marxsen is an American writer based in Switzerland. She is the author of Island Journeys, Exploring the Legacy of France, Beyond the Village: Essays Out of Switzerland and a short-story collection, Tales From the Heart of Haiti. Her travel essay “Alone in Amsterdam” earned a special mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prizes. Web: pattimarxsen.net.