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Indistinguishable Places: Some Notes on Adjectives in Travel Writing

Yesterday was my weekly review of the Matador inbox.

While it wasn’t pretty (only two of 22 submissions were forwarded on to section editors, and both with a semi-apologetic caveat), it was instructive.

Of the 22 submissions, I noticed a single common problem: almost every place being described was indistinguishable from any other place. New Delhi was Pristina, Pristina was New Delhi, and both could have been almost any other city anywhere else in the world. Two excerpts:

“If you’re afflicted with a deep sense of wanderlust, [insert city] is the perfect place to cure your ailment. A veritable traveller’s paradise, the capital city of [insert country] offers a rare combination of history, culture and big city delights. It is a jamboree of sorts, where street stalls commingle with high-end luxury brands and slums and rural landscapes lie parallel to sophisticated high-street constructions.”

and

“[Insert city] is a fascinating city. It’s vibrant, young, cheap, full of hope. [Insert country] should definitely be on the radar for anyone who wants to see a slice of [continent] that’s a bit different.”

These two particular examples set me to thinking about how we talk about place. Why do we write about cities as if they are all the same when we see and experience them in different ways? What makes conveying these differences in words so challenging?

I’d like to believe that the answer is deeper, more complex, than simple laziness, but I don’t know. It seems that our descriptions of people do tend to be more nuanced than our descriptions of place. Are we more willing to see people’s individuality than is generally the case with place, and more adept at conveying it?

I find this sad, maybe because I love cities so much and believe each is its own peculiar taxonomy, but mostly, I think, because I simply get tired of reading writing that doesn’t tell me anything new, that doesn’t prove to me that the writer has really been in a place and has trained his or her eyes to zoom in on the most quotidian details there, the details that change everything.

There are a couple writers who do this well, though, and we can learn a lot from them. I’ve written about Lida before and I’ll probably write about both of them again because I just admire their writing so much. Curiously, they both write about Mexico City. Here, a few fragments:

1. From David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century:

“I stumbled upon Plaza Garibaldi, the rowdy nocturnal soul of the city. Squadrons of musicians, mostly mariachis in skintight, tin-studded black suits, trawled for customers willing to pay a few pesos for a melody….In Garibaldi’s most humble cantina, La Hermosa Hortensia–which dispenses pulque, a fermented cactus beverage created by the Aztecs–a staggeringly drunken man offered me his wife…. I refused with as much courtesy as possible, after which the man removed from his neck, and gave me, a string that held an emblem of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

Could this be anywhere other than Mexico City (or, at least, Mexico?) What strikes me about this passage is that Lida is in it. He’s not some third person omniscient narrator telling you to drop by one of Mexico City’s “many cantinas.” He’s David Lida, telling you that at the fantastically named La Hermosa Hortensia he was offered a woman by a drunk man, that that woman happened to be the drunk man’s wife, and that the man then gifted Lida with a Virgin of Guadalupe medal.

2. From John Ross’ El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City:

“Those who take rooms at the Isabel are a mixed bag: busloads of Costa Ricans on a Mexico City shopping spree and Tabasco farmers in town for an Alcoholics Anonymous jamboree and a few Mennonites in overalls from Chihuahua who have come to the big city to sell their cheese, but most are low-rent European backpackers.”

What I like about this excerpt is how it simply observes and documents who’s present in the scene. There’s no judgment, but each image has a very specific association and conveys an undeniable and unique sense of place.

Yes, I know these excerpts are from books, but that’s beside the point, really. Any portion of any of these books could be excerpted as an article. And I know this isn’t “travel writing” in the strictest sense, but maybe that is the point. Lida and aren’t trying to sell their readers on a place. They’re merely documenting it.

Maybe this, then, is what makes a place distinguishable from another, writing that doesn’t try to sell the place or an experience of it to a reader, but writing that simply observes the place and tells you about it. It doesn’t tell say something like “This is the ‘real’ Mexico City.” or “This is what you should do.” or “The city is this way or that way.” Instead, it says “This is one part of the city.” “This is what I do.” and “The city is so complex it has taken me years to even begin to understand it.”

If that seems self-absorbed, maybe it is, but their writing–and my reading experience– is better for it.  Their writing isn’t the “This is what I did on my summer vacation” type of writing (one reason being that they both have lived in Mexico City for many years); it’s supported by research and acute, astute observations that just can’t be confused with any other place.

And it makes me want to go there.

Do I want to visit New Delhi or Pristina? Not based on the articles I read this weekend. I’m waiting for someone to convince me.

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20 responses »

  1. +1 for everything you said.

    I think that there is so much of the same thing written for various locations because, in general, when most people travel (me included) we’re insistent on doing the tourist activities of those places, as pointed out by our guidebooks. So, after a while, yes, many places do seem similar if you only see a certain side of it.

    Reply
  2. There really is so much of the same stuff out there that sometimes we can start sounding a bit guide-bookish in our own speech and that’s reflected in our writing.

    The other day my friend and I were talking about the volcano and I used the word “exploded” and then she corrected me, saying “erupted” and we went on to have this ridiculous discussion about why I couldn’t use exploded.. bit of a tangent but sort of shows how there becomes commonly accepted ways of describing places and things… hidden laneways, majestic cities, turquoise waters, tropical oasis..

    I like that you and the Matador editors are always challenging writers to think about this – thanks!

    Reply
  3. Great post. Kudos to you for taking the time to go through all those submissions! This type of travel writing, writing about place, is NOT easy. I know it’s not my strength, which is why I don’t bother much with it in my projects. I’m better at bringing a place to life through an anecdote or a person who lives there. Anyone whose descriptions are strong enough to do that is one fabulous writer!

    I think I’ve actually blogged about this before… Yup, here it is: http://alexisgrant.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/whats-travel-writing-to-you/

    Reply
  4. You DO want to visit New Delhi though. It’s a city that has been built, broken down, and rebuilt time and again. And each time the newcomers have been assimilated into the fabric of the city making it a little bit of everything. Mumbai is the more famous Indian city, being the financial capital, but it is Delhi that is the truly cosmopolitan one; and has been that way even before it was introduced to the word. Here, you will find a little sample of all the little paradoxes and all the variety that comprises India, and then some.

    Reply
  5. Great post Julie. Thinking about what makes the second two work and the first two flop is a useful exercise.

    I think because so much of ‘travel writing’ is written with advertising language that writers often feel as if they need to sell the destination. Certain editors and publications actually encourage this type of writing. I’ve seen some submission guidelines that only want “positive” writing. Now certain types of negative writing, like when the writer generalized a culture or people group in a negative, ethnocentric way, are things that are better left unpublished, but to leave out everything negative (or personal) about a place just leaves you with gloss.

    Some publications forbid first person insight. Even though it’s not necessarily the type of writing I enjoy, I end up doing this second person style writing (which could never produce passages like Lida’s or Ross’s) in order to pay the bills.

    Reply
    • Heather-

      Absolutely. And Demand’s articles are the perfect example (and where I struggle mightily with my own writing). But again, I think there’s still the choice to choose to write about places you really know fairly well. I won’t write about Mongolia, for example, because I just don’t know it. Even if I’m not allowed to be in the piece, there’s a huge difference between the pieces I write about places I know and the ones I don’t.

      Reply
  6. Such an insightful post, Julie. I’ve often wondered why I feel so much travel writing feels pedestrian to me, despite exotic histories and colorful scenes–and you nailed it. (Also, I couldn’t believe that a recent NYT travel piece actually used the phrase “sleepy town” in the FIRST PARAGRAPH. And we’re supposed to be learning from them?)

    Reply
  7. Great article!!

    To me, the greatest difference in the two styles of writing is the depth of experience conveyed…the second set of writers obviously know the place they are trying to convey and have experienced it deeply, and therefore, they can transfer this sense of “experience” to the reader.

    This knowledge, in my opinion, requires a certain profundity of experience. Such profundity requires the writer to go beyond typical experiences or to live those same tourist destinations with a critical eye.

    Perhaps the fact that we revert to these languange patterns for descriping places is because sometimes, as travellers, we travel without really engaging a place.

    The opposite may also be true…when a place is indescrible, we revert back to inadquate phrases or catch phrases to describe it. We reach back to rhetoric in our collective imagination….an imagination formed through reading travel magazines and articles that utilize these same phrases.

    Reply
  8. I agree – this is a great post, and I love the examples that perfectly illustrate your point. I cringe when I read cliche-laden stories consisting of a lot of words that tell me very little.

    But Heather makes a valid point too – there are different styles of travel writing – travel literature (your second two examples) and service pieces which, sadly, a number of paying publications seem to prefer…..they don’t want a story in which the author and his/her experience can be found, they want an impersonal ‘positive’ review that is nothing more than glossy fluff. I can only guess that it’s because that’s what they believe their readers want.

    And in part, it’s true – it sells because when people are researching destinations, they don’t want a story of one person’s sensory experience, however beautifully written, they want a description and facts so that they can decide if that’s where they want to go. The Travel industry fosters a paying environment for service pieces, and travel literature has no such deep-pocketed patron. So as Heather points out, it pays the bills, even if it’s not writing one can be truly proud of producing.

    I love that Matador provides a counter-balance by teaching and publishing the travel literature-style of writing.

    Reply
    • Trisha (and everyone!) 🙂

      Thanks for your comments. I decided to end this piece as I did because Mariel started crying and Francisco was ready to pull his hair out because I’d been online for hours, but here’s how I might have continued:

      Absolutely– most travel magazines do want lots of service information. But two notes:

      1) Even when doing straight-up service writing, I still think it’s possible to give a much more acute (and accurate?) and distinctive sense of place. Let’s rework Lida’s excerpt for example, borrowing some of his images for a service entry about Mexico City:

      Plaza Garibaldi is the rowdy nocturnal soul of the city. Squadrons of musicians, mostly mariachis in skintight, tin-studded black suits, trawl for customers willing to pay a few pesos for a melody. Sentimental love songs rule their repertoire.

      Looking for a drink? Garibaldi’s most humble cantina, La Hermosa Hortensia, dispenses pulque, a fermented cactus beverage created by the Aztecs.”

      Lida’s no longer here as a “narrator,” but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was actually there (as opposed to just desk researching a place).

      2) I’ve actually begun noticing some really interesting and exciting examples of service writing in glossies that do retain the first person AND provide excellent service information at the same time. Two of the best examples are “Tweet Me in Miami” by Andrew Nelson, which was published recently in National Geographic Traveler, and “The New Taste of Baja” in a recent Travel + Leisure. (Both are online in full-text versions). In both of these articles, the author is fully present as narrator, has an original, fresh view of the places he’s visiting, and provides loads of actionable service information.

      These are great examples, I think!

      Reply
      • Lovely examples! And that is what – in my opinion – separates truly great writers (those with either natural talent or good training) from so many that are struggling to make a niche for themselves in this business.

      • Agreed. I don’t think informative articles / service articles need to ‘blah,’ even if the writer is limited to second person. It depends on the style of the publication, what the editor is looking for and how the writer is able to infuse the article with that insider knowledge.

  9. Great post! I will definitely check out John Ross. Also, I will try to implement your advice when I blog about Guatemala.

    Reply
    • papertrail23

      Steve- The John Ross book is massive- good thing to have for a longish plane ride! Looking forward to your writing from Guatemala.

      Reply
  10. I love this post and the comment thread. I definately struggle with the service piece writing/make money and travel literature/make less money thing. I wrote so long for a woman’s magazine that discouraged first person and encouraged omniscient, positive language that the writing style became almost second nature to me. I feel like I can write narrative stories fairly well. But combining the two…learning to craft service pieces from an authentic angle that shows depth is something I’m working on. Thank you for the examples. I loved “Tweet Me in Miami.” I’ve never read an article that so accurately depicted Miami!

    Reply
    • Gabi-

      Don’t get me started on women’s magazines! I was reading one the other day (because, for some unknown reason, I receive Woman’s Day), and I couldn’t even finish one article. The writing is just so forcedly happy that I wondered whether it’s really in touch with its readers.

      Glad you liked that NGT piece about Miami- I thought it was so solid. I really love his descriptions of the buildings as he drove over the Biscayne Bay Bridge.

      Reply
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  12. darn this was a good post. When I read travel descriptives that sound like bad in flight magazines i think;

    a – the writer has never been there

    or

    b – they have never moved beyond creative writing 101

    and

    c – they need to sign up for MatadorU

    Reply
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