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Writing about places we’ve just passed through: Perils, problems, power, & privilege.

The thing about being a (travel) writer is that we’re often writing about places we’ve only really just passed through.

I thought about this a couple weeks ago as I sat at The Barnard Inn in Vermont, eating so-tender-I-could-cry pot roast and talking with Francisco and our new friend, Sara, about our 36 hours in Pittsfield.

We were working on this article about what makes hotels “green,” and we’d spent two nights at Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield, New Hampshire, and two nights at Amee Farm in Pittsfield, Vermont, both of which promote themselves as environmentally conscious beyond the norm.

I’m the first to admit that 48 hours anywhere doesn’t make anyone an expert, and I was saying as much to Francisco and Sara. “I have a lot of questions,” I said to Sara. I talked for a bit about what we’d seen and heard in New Hampshire and Vermont, and the ideas I was beginning to formulate as a result. It seemed that there was an active, passionate “back to the land” movement. A divisiveness about alternative energy: the acknowledgment that it’s needed, but the worries that the most promising options–wind turbines–will also mar the landscape. There was a just barely noticeable tension among locals toward and about “outsiders.” “I don’t exactly know what I’m going to write,” I concluded.

*

After coming home and mapping out some story ideas, I’m only slightly more clear about what I intend to write, and I’m acutely aware of how much I don’t know. Yes, I could (and should and have and will) do more desk research, but I’ve been left with a slightly uneasy feeling regarding writing about places we’ve just passed through.

*

My traveling style is to go long and to dive deep.

If you wanted to get into a pissing contest with me about how many countries or places we’ve visited, you’d probably win, and that’s just fine by me. For the most part, I’m not a whirlwind kind of traveler. I need to know what the name of the local newspaper is. What sounds characterize a place. How people live and what they think about, what they care about. I want to know what moves people in a place to action or holds them in inertia. I want to know how history influences the present, how people view their future. What subjects are kept secret, what stories don’t yet have voice.

It’s hard to get more than the most superficial handle on any of that in 48 hours and even the most thorough desk research will fail to convey all these things. There’s something about becoming a part of a community for a while that gives you a greater stake, that gives you access and understanding.

*

I’m aware of this in my own work, and I’m attuned to it now in other writers as well. Yes, there are different types–many different types–of travel writing, and not all of them require deep knowledge of a place. But there are, I think, very particular perils and problems when we write about places we’re only passing through, problems of power and privilege that must be examined.

As writers, our particular power is our audience– the readers who believe what we write and consider it to be the truth… not a version of the truth (or, in some egregious but not, sadly, uncommon cases, inaccurate or flat out wrong), but The Truth. We take them to places they can’t or won’t go, where they haven’t been, that they didn’t even know about. If there is an onus on the reader to be critical (and I believe there is), there is also an onus on the writer to be critical, too. That critical ability is conveyed, at least in part, by the acknowledgment that we are writing about a place that we were only passing through.

Such an acknowledgment does not take the form, necessarily, of an asterisk followed by the disclaimer: “I only spent 48 hours in this place,” though it might. But there are other subtle and important ways that we can convey that the conclusions to which we have come reflect our opinions, our impressions, our view as outsiders.

There is a certain privilege in writing, and in travel writing, I think that privilege is still more powerful and more profound. Just as we are taking readers where they haven’t been, we are telling stories of people who, in many cases, cannot do so themselves–maybe because they don’t have the platform, perhaps because they don’t have the interest, who knows? But there is a responsibility in carrying others’ stories, and even in a basic service or destination article, I don’t think we should ever overlook that responsibility.

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4 responses »

  1. I enjoy travel writing in which the writer immerses herself in a particular community and comes to understand and communicate its issues.

    But I also think there’s a place for writing about how a destination might be enjoyed for those seeking an escape. An example of this approach is the New York Times “36 Hours” travel stories. It gives a short overview of how to enjoy a particular destination.

    It might make sense for these types of stories to be written by someone who is a relative newcomer.

    Even during short stays, though, it can be pretty easy to spot cracks in the tourist happy talk. On a camping trip in rural West Virginia a few years ago, my wife and I noticed that many locals had bumper stickers supporting the expansion of a major highway. When we asked a few locals about it they told us they wanted their town to be just like where we lived outside of Washington, D.C.

    A quick way of getting past the “no shoes, no shirt, no worries” propaganda in Mexico is to ask your cab driver if he has any family members in the U.S.

    I’m interested in these things. But it seems like a large segment of people who travel do so to as a way to leave their cares behind.

    Reply
    • Steve-

      I agree with you. There are the kinds of travelers who really don’t give two hangs about the context or history of a place. That saddens me, but it’s true so I’ve got to deal with it and move on.

      And I agree that there’s a place for writing destination stories that don’t delve into any of these issues–and that’s fine, too. But even in these types of stories, two days just isn’t a whole lot of time to get a feel for the place–even if you’re just writing about nightlife or an art show.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: A Photographer Visits Iran in 1956 - Review of Inge Morath's Iran | Perceptive Travel Blog

  3. Pingback: Understanding Iran: the Photos of Inge Morath | Travel and Tourism

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