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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Travel writers are your best friends

If you travel for any reason—business or pleasure—a great travel writer will be your best friend. You will probably consult a book or article or web site for some useful information like hotel bargains, best roads or public transportation, places to go with children. But travel writing is so much more than that. Peeking into how travel writers work can help you find the best of what they have to offer.

I did that and more when I joined about 70 other writers for the 21st annual Travel Writers and Photographers Conference that Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA sponsored.

I went to the four-day conference in early August, because my next project will require me to show readers a region and its people, and I thought that the travel writer’s skills would be important. I learned that travel writing requires more than descriptions of places, routes and hotel bargains. Travel writing should transport the reader to feelings, ideas and characters as much as, if not more than, any piece of fiction.

Organizers reserved the conference’s three mornings for long-form discussions in each of four tracks: personal essays and memoirs, newspaper and magazine articles, advanced travel writing, and “service” pieces that deliver practical information. I had chosen the advanced class, and for three hours each morning, we bored into each other’s pieces, not only offering specific critiques but also using our samples to arrive at some general comments on writing. Our leader was David Farley, who writes extensively for leading outlets such as New York Magazineand gadling.com. Because he kept the group limited to ten writers, the work was up-close, intense and exhausting.

“Lust in Translation” was the title of one of the panels that met during the afternoons. Some were strictly utilitarian—for instance, blogging, social media, making a living as a travel writer, and enhancing web sites. The faculty for the panels came from the top of the industry. For instance, the one on writing guidebooks included Robert Reid (Lonely Planet), Pauline Frommer (Travel Guide Series) and Grace Fujimoto (Moon Travel Guides).

Others, however, explored other topics, like turning your travel writing into fiction, the art of setting the scene, and developing story blocks. For instance, the speakers for one panel urged us to consider new ways of seeing. Don George, the senior editor of National Geographic Traveler, said that he despaired when he received an assignment to write about Muir Woods. So many writers had written about the subject, he wondered what he could. His solution: he put on a blindfold when he went into the woods and experienced them through his other senses—a new way of “seeing.”

Georgia Hesse was the founding editor of the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle’s travel section and is still going strong! She suggested that we pay attention various ways of seeing. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming has a geological explanation, but some say the devil built it. Indians believe that bears tried to grab some sisters playing on top of a rock, but the Great Spirit transformed the rock into a tower. As the tower rose, the bears unsuccessfully tried to claw their way onto it, leaving behind the distinctive marks we see on its sides. With the tower’s ascent, the girls reached the heavens and became the Pleiades.

Finally, in the evenings, we listened in as a star-studded lineup of writers conducted conversations with each other. Don George talked with New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, whose book Rin Tin Tin reached the New York Times Best Seller list as soon as it hit stores in November. George stepped back and allowed Orlean to spin a tale of how she wrote about Midland in Texas’ Permian Basin and other out-of-the-way places that challenged her assumptions. (The Midland story had special relevance for me, because I had written about another Permian Basin town across the state line in New Mexico, a similarly remote and agonizingly hard place.) Actor/Writer Andrew McCarthy interviewed Don who told the story of how he moved serendipitously from minor writing tasks to travel writer and editor, allowing the “flow” to carry him along.

Among the editors and agents who also appeared on panels were Loren Mooney, the travel editor of Sunset. Tip: the magazine’s staff is currently making over all the sections. Julia Cosgrove, of the successful new travel magazine Afar, said she hasn’t noticed a fall-off in travel habits in hard times; about 90% of Afar’s readership have passports, in contrast to about 30% of Americans generally. Agents Amy Rennert and Kimberley Cameron reminded us that a good agent is important to selling work, but the quality of the material that appears on the page is the first consideration.

As you would expect in California, the conference covered food and wine writing and blogging which have become part of the travel literature world. On a related note, participants raved about the wonderful meals and snacks served out of Book Passage’s café. Throughout the conference, faculty members like San Francisco Chronicle travel editor Spud Hilton, writer Phil Cousineau (The Art of Pilgrimage), and former USA Today travel editor Chris Gray Faust also conducted 30-minute one-on-one sessions, stayed around for chatting, and joined in the late-night socials and karaoke on the patio. The conference ended with awards for the annual contest’s photography and writing entries and a champagne and chocolate feast.

Elaine Petrocelli, the president of Book Passage, and her staff were welcoming presences throughout the conference; her daughter Kathryn Petrocelli kept it running smoothly. Don George was the conference chair and Bob Holmes, voted Travel Photographer of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers, was the coordinator on the photography side.

Of course, just meeting and talking shop with the participants—some of whom came from as far away as Ireland and Italy—was exhilirating.If you're a writer, next year’s conference will be on Aug. 8 through 11. With early discounts through Aug. 31, the cost is $535 and through Dec. 31, $585. After Jan. 1, 2013, the full cost will be $635.

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