I am going on holiday to St Petersburg and Moscow in a few days so I thought it would be appropriate to dig out some notes I made on travel writing at the 2008 Geneva Writers’ Conference. I love travelling and I love writing so learning how to combine the two in the workshop led by Philip Graham was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. You can get a taste of Philip Graham’s travel writing here, where he describes the time he spent living in Lisbon.
Graham’s philosophy of writing is that “writers need to be humble, not pretentious. They have to recognise their own failings and empathise with the failings of others.” I thought this was a very important point, especially in travel writing where you have to be sensitive to the beliefs and the culture of the country you are describing. As Graham pointed out, “you have to be humble ten times a day when you travel.”
He advised us to “capture the country and your feelings about it while you are there by making notes, writing letters to friends and taking photographs.” If you want to write about a country that you visited a long time ago, Graham suggested writing down your dreams as an exercise to help you recall details from past travels and write about them. (I have tried this exercise but it has resulted in some pretty gruesome reading. Last night, for example, I dreamed that I took out my own eyeball and ate it. I remember being surprised by the texture and also wondering idly if my eyeball would grow back. Just out of curiosity, I consulted an online dream dictionary and apparently, dreaming that you have only one eye symbolises your refusal to accept another viewpoint. This is obviously rubbish. I am very open to other viewpoints and anyone who believes this dream symbolism crap is an idiot.)
Once you have gathered together all your notes and materials, you need to be selective about what makes it into the final article. “Keep in the stuff that is important to you, that helped you on your inward journey. Good travel writing is about where you’ve been on the outside and where that takes you inside.” A reader who has not been to the country you are writing about will still be able to identify with what you have written if you make the piece personal and talk about how your experience affected you. A lot of factual information makes for dry reading and will become dated but “people’s deep and profound reactions to the world will always be topical.”
Before I attended this workshop, I had been planning on writing a travel article for Hello Zurich magazine about a trip I had made to Liechtenstein. I was going to write a ‘straight’ article (take bus number 37 to the main square, climb the 42 stairs to your left to reach the castle…) but after attending the workshop, I took on board Graham’s advice and wrote a completely different piece interwoven with anecdotes about a friend who once plotted (not seriously, it was just a joke) to take over the tiny country. The article was much more interesting as a result and got published.
I’m preparing everything I need to pack for going to Russia now. I’m going to take two writing books with me so that I can make loads of notes while I’m there. I guess you may not hear from me for a couple of weeks but when I come back I will post a fantastic article about my travels so that you know what I have been up to!