Rolf Potts On Travel Writing

Adventure Travel, Blogging Your Trip, Travel Books & Movies, Websites and Blogs — By on September 19, 2008 at 12:07 am

Marco Polo Didn't Go ThereOur previous entry highlighted Rolf Potts’ sophomore book that weaves his personal tales of adventures on the road with commentary on the art of storytelling. In travel, we seek to discover our humanity, our connection to other people, and our place in relation to it all. And the act of writing is a way of experiencing it all over again, and trying to make sense of the journey. We challenge you to read Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade As a Travel Writer and not want to grab a notebook or laptop and start recording the world around you-wherever you may be on your own journey. Today, we’re honored to have Mr. Potts visit our site as part of his virtual book tour (he may even be coming to a town near you). Here, he shares lessons learned from a decade of interviewing top travel writers at RolfPotts.com.

Rolf PottsFrom the author:
“Way back in 1999, when I was first cutting my teeth as a travel columnist for Salon.com, lots of readers wrote in to ask me how they, too, could get jobs as travel writers. This question kind of caught me off guard, since I didn’t know much about the travel-writing trade; I only knew my own experiences with it.

Thus, in order to better assist people (and myself) in understanding what it’s like to be a travel writer, I began posing a list of 10 basic questions to various travel-writing colleagues. I started with Lonely Planet writer Joe Cummings in November of 2000, and I’ve since gone on to interview nearly 100 folks from all corners of the travel-writing milieu, including Tony Wheeler, Holly Morris, Rick Steves, Simon Winchester, Tony Horwitz, Sarah Erdman, and Arthur Frommer.

Having culled some choice quotes from those interviews over the years, here are seven key lessons my colleagues have shared:

1) START IN YOUR BACK YARD

“Why wait? If you don’t have the funds to take off for, say, Chiang Mai, why not write about a neighborhood in your own town or city? Or a creek? Or the people who fish in that creek? Or are trying to save that creek? Subjects are nearby, and infinite.”
C.M. Mayo, Author of Miraculous Air and other books

“Anybody who is a talented travel writer will be discovered, and has more than adequate outlets for his writing. If a person wants to write about travel, they should immediately sit down and write about aspects of their own community. They can do a story on Cincinnati or Milwaukee – or wherever they live. If it is good, it will be published. It will be seen, and you will build up enough of a dossier of published articles to obtain a job as a travel writer for magazines or for book publishers.”
Arthur Frommer, travel guidebook pioneer

“The craft of writing is similar to dancing. If you want to get good fast, learn slowly. And practice. If you don’t master the basics of storytelling and writing in the beginning you will suffer by making the same mistakes over and over again.”
Eric Hansen, author of Stranger in the Forest and other books

2) WRITE ABOUT THE THINGS YOU CARE ABOUT

“Travel writers should find the places and stories they have a real emotional connection with; otherwise, the journey will flag, and readers won’t care. You have to find the stories that only you can tell, or that no one else has thought to tell.”
Tom Bissell, author of Chasing the Sea and other books

“If I have any advice at all, it is to only write what you are deeply interested in, and to enjoy everything you do. Strive to have an interesting life. I have so many friends whose agents from time to time get them big solid book deals for projects they are less than enthusiastic about, and most of them are resounding flops.”
Tahir Shah, author of The Caliph’s House and other books

“Try to think what you in particular have to add or contribute. A million people go every month, no doubt, to the Taj Mahal, and many of them write eloquently about it. What is it that is particular to your interests and experiences that can allow you to say something new? Find a particular angle that arises out of one of your strengths and advantages, and try to make the focus of your piece as narrow and specific as possible. Don’t try to summarize all of Japan after a two-week trip; pick one small corner of it, or one theme.”
Pico Iyer, author of Video Night in Kathmandu and other books

3) RESEARCH, BUT DON’T OVER-RESEARCH

“Before going [to a place], learn a lot, but not too much. Have ideas, but not a plan. Essentially, aim for an informed ignorance, so that you can know the contexts beforehand, then let the place define itself.”
Tom Haines, Boston Globe travel writer

“The biggest challenge in the research process is to let go, to stop, to say enough, and then to reduce all of that beloved labor down to a few succinct paragraphs that shape the background to your narrative. I love research – that’s all the fun, especially in the field. To write, however, is to suffer, and my pieces usually come in thousands of words over the assigned length. That’s a serious flaw in my writing process – shaping and disciplining the footlockers of material one has so happily gathered.”
Bob Shacochis, author of Swimming in the Volcano and other books

4) THIS LIFESTYLE WILL REQUIRE SACRIFICES

“Learn to love living in basements and eating ramen noodles. You must be utterly obsessed with it – more than you want a new car, a house, a family, a dog, houseplants – because you are competing with those of us who are willing to give up all those things in order to write.”
Karin Muller, author of Japanland and other books

“The reason this works for me is that I don’t want anything. I don’t want much stuff. So far it’s been easy to get up and leave and go someplace else because I don’t own anything that I have to haul behind me. Nothing that I’m physically or emotionally attached to. So my advice is to learn how to make do on as little money as possible, because sometimes there’s just not a lot of money coming. …If you really want to write, and write only, as opposed to writing while you’re waiting tables or writing while you’re teaching somewhere, just have to cut your expenses and cut your needs and wants.”
Eddy L. Harris, author of Mississippi Solo and other books

5) IT’S ABOUT HOW YOU TRAVEL

“Go into travel before you go into travel writing. You should know how to cross a land border, book plane tickets in a language you don’t speak and befriend the old lady who squints evilly from the second-story window at everyone who passes by. In other words, if you’re just after paid vacations, then you’re going to have a tough time. But if you’re willing to put aside your ego, embrace the unknown and endure crushing poverty, then you might have a shot.”
Matt Gross, New York Times travel writer

“Don’t just travel; live in another country for awhile — preferably a non-English speaking one.”
Thomas Swick, author of A Way to See the World and other books

6) IT’S ABOUT SITTING DOWN AND DOING THE WORK

“Avoid being swept up into the romance of the idea; just because travel is exotic doesn’t mean the writing profession is any less routine than a 9 to 5 desk job. Tenacity counts for more than any single personal attribute. If you are going to make it, it will only be via your unflagging, inexhaustible, indestructible ability to persevere.”
Jennifer Eaton Gokmen, co-editor of Tales from the Expat Harem

“You either write or you don’t. My advice to people who aspire to be me is to stop whining and just do it. Everything falls into place once you begin the process. If it doesn’t, there is always Wal Mart. Just write and use it as your passport to learning about the world.”
Robert Young Pelton, author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places and other books

7) IN THE END, IT’S ABOUT THE WRITING

“The beauty of this business is there is no barrier to entry. You can have a degree in journalism from Columbia and editors won’t give a damn. You can be fresh out of the local community college and if you can write well, you’ll get your stories published. This is the ultimate meritocracy: If you’re good, you get work.”
Amanda Jones, freelance travel writer and photographer

“Editors, for the most part, don’t care “what” you’ve done, or how astounding the physical event may have been. You need to write well. Many others are capable of doing what you have done, so you must write better than they.”
Tim Cahill, author of Road Fever and other books

“Editors are looking for writers who dabble in travel rather than travelers who dabble in writing. Plop Pico Iyer down at a Stuckey’s on the Jersey Turnpike and I guarantee he’ll come back with a great story. On the other hand, a dozen men have walked on the moon and not one has written anything worth reading about it. Strive to be a writer, not a travel writer.”
John Flinn, San Francisco Chronicle travel editor

You can follow the rest of Rolf Potts’ virtual book tour online, or see him in person at one of 20 cities nationwide as he celebrates the release of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There (Travelers’ Tales, 2008). We encourage you to ask for the book at your favorite local bookstore or Amazon.com, and follow Rolf’s tour diary at Gadling starting Sept 29th. Monday’s virtual book tour stop will be at Matador Pulse. To read yesterday’s tour stop, go to Vagabondish.

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