Tuesday, March 17, 2009

From the Writer's Carousel: Literary Travel Writing

Apropos of my one day only workshop on Literary Travel Writing April 18th at the Writer's Center in Bethesda MD:

Literary Travel Writing

by C.M. Mayo

"[Y]ou have to go out. You have to open space, and deepen place. Fill your eyes with the changing light."

— Kenneth White

"In the artist’s recreation of the world we are enabled to see the world."

— John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Literary travel writing is about first perceiving in wider and sharper focus than normal; then, in the act of composition, shaping and exploring these perceptions so that, as with fiction, it may evoke in a reader’s mind emotions, thoughts, and pictures. It’s not meant to be practical, to serve up, say, the top ten deals on rental cars, or a low-down on the newest "hot spas." Literary travel writing, at its best, provides the reader the sense of actually traveling with the writer, so that she smells the tortillas heating on the comal, tastes the almond-laced hot chocolate, sees the lights in the distant houses brightening yellow in the twilight, and, after the put-put of a motorcycle, that sudden swirl of dust over the road.


Most beginning writers overemphasize the visual; because of our brains’ wiring, it’s a natural tendency. So we have to make a practiced effort to bring in the other senses— to note the slithery feel of the satin curtains, the round hum of a temple bell. Why is this so important? Think of a book you have already read that pulled you in so that nothing else mattered, not the laundry, not walking the dog, you only wanted to keep turning the pages. And it wasn’t just the cheap trick of suspense that enthralled you; it was the full-ness of a whole world and the humanity, glorious and flawed, of the people in it. I promise you, if you were to pluck that book off your shelf and open it to any page, you would find that the writer makes ample use of specific sensory detail.

How to come up with that detail or, to put it another way, perceive with wider and sharper focus? In my one day workshop, we start with "right here, right now." Yes, the classroom. (Last I checked, there is no White-Bearded Committee in the Sky that prescribes the distance one must travel for "travel" writing.) Indeed, as you’re reading this, mundane as your surroundings may seem to you, someone out there would consider them extraordinary. A kitchen counter in Rockville! A café off Dupont Circle! How to render them vividly? Well, what do you hear, right now? What do you smell? Where is the light coming from, and how would you characterize it? What’s on the floor by your left shoe? What is on the wall— or whatever— directly behind you? Look straight up, what do you see? Jot it all down. This exercise might seem trivial, even silly. But for literary writing— whether travel, fiction, or poetry— identifying specific detail that appeals to the senses is the first and most crucial skill to nurture.

We then delve deeper into detail, into the use of imagery, synesthesia, and a series of techniques for heightening vividness and showing movement through time and space. Then we consider the shaping and exploring— the act of composition. Is this bit about the visit to souk best dispatched in a few words or, slowed down, fleshed out into a full scene, with dialogue and lush description? How to identify clutter? How best to handle dialogue?

As for narrative structure, we begin with the beginning. What is the difference between an effective opening and a garden-variety dud? We look at pacing, turning points, climax and denouements, and explore different paradigms for thinking about structure. Finally, there are several crucial lessons from poetry. How to put energy and rhythm into the prose, so that the music reenforces meaning? How to slow it down, speed it up, make it jagged or slide-and-glide?

This is a lot to cover in a single afternoon, but we manage. Always with reference to examples from notable works of literary travel writing (as well as some fiction and poetry), there are several cycles of "mini-lecture" / questions and answers / and a brief writing exercise. In this way, these many techniques are illustrated and explored, and everyone has a chance to try them out in their own writing.

Whether your goal is write a memoir of your childhood in Pakistan or to keep a journal on your upcoming month on a trawler off Alaska, whether to write only for your grandchildren or to bring out a book with a major publisher, this workshop will not only give you an array of tools and an immediate improvement in the quality of your writing, but help you experience the world as more vivid and rich with complexity.

For more information about this workshop, click here.