The first in a three-part series. After the entire series has run, Folded Word will post a travel-writing challenge in August 2016 that includes publication opportunities.
Quick quiz! What do the Eiffel Tower, Great Pyramids, Niagara Falls, The Grand Canyon and Mt. Everest all have in common to the working travel writer? I’ll give you a moment.
The answer may surprise you. All of those epic destinations, charged with mystical beauty, deep historic resonance to humanity and pretty much on every traveler’s bucket list, are entirely uninteresting to editors of magazines. Or publishers. Or newspaper travel section managers.
Done to death.
Won’t open a door, not even a crack.
These destinations may be on your bucket list, but to the editor charged with dishing out travel assignments, a standard story about Mount Rushmore is only worthy of the trash bucket.
To the fresh-faced non-fiction writer looking for their first big break, these seem the obvious choices – the monster destinations, the glittery, glorious epochs of human civilization. Everyone is interested in the Taj Mahal aren’t they?
Hang on, before you start sending hate mail to Folded Word, hear me out and consider the process of becoming a travel writer. It is a process, I might add, that will work (with some minor adjustments) for breaking into the writing field under any style or theme.
In my case, even after a twenty year career in national and community journalism, simply going to Mt. Everest Base Camp (which I did for my honeymoon) or car camping around Alaska with my wife, was not enough to lift the eyebrow of the two publishers that eventually accepted those journeys for books. There had to be more. I had to dig deeper. It had to be raw and personal.
Before the age of Wikipedia, just gazing upon Mt. Everest was enough to land you a writing gig at least at a local newspaper. Now, when five seconds on a smart phone will bring that information to anyone’s fingertips, a non-fiction writer needs more.
So, the first step toward building a travel-writing career is developing what I call the three stages of travel:
- Be fearless. I don’t mean to suggest you wander the mean streets of a foreign city alone at night, or ignore warnings, or not wear a helmet. I mean, you’re a writer looking for new experiences, new sensations and the always-elusive epiphany. So try the food. Talk to the people. Get dirty. Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself. You will, and it will be a great story. Plus, being fearless makes the next stage much easier.
- Have insatiable curiosity. If you want to know how it works, what it tastes like, what it feels like, then odds are some magazine’s readers will too. This stage should be easy. If it isn’t, if you are not flat-out astounded with the world, then why be a writer at all?
- Leave your prejudices behind. We are children of our environment, and that means our faith, culture, morals and sense of space and place are ground into our DNA. You’ve got to override all that, use your sense of wonder and awe to become an empty vessel so you can really become a child of the world.
Now, to the point above, how to use those three skills to develop stories and ideas that sell. The answer is always: people. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone, don’t let language or culture get in your way. As Studs Terkel displayed in Working, be interested in the lives and loves of others, and don’t fake it. If you fake it, editors will see right through it. The only way to successfully accomplish this stage is to keep your own cultural bias out of the equation. No one is going to talk to you if they think you disapprove of them.
Now if you still want to find yourself in Paris staring up at the Eiffel Tower, or gazing with wonder at the Pyramids, you have three tools for discovering something deep and raw to write about. Only instead of reading the historical marker, ask the cabby or the camel driver who brought you there. Talk to the guy selling hot dogs at Boston Common, or the janitor who sweeps the St. Louis Arch. Sit down and break bread with the Sherpa, or give the 13-year-old kid who’s trying to take your picture in front of the Taj a few rupees and ask him real questions about his life and family.
Make it about people, not bricks. Make it about love or loss, not marble. Make it a piece worth reading. Be a writer.
In Part 2 of this series, Dan will introduce some best-practice guidelines: how to take notes, how to blend in, the importance of expecting the unexpected, and the benefits of becoming comfortable with discomfort. Stay tuned!
Dan Szczesny has made a living from his pen and keyboard for two decades. He currently lives in New Hampshire, where he’s written three books. His fourth title, Mosquito Rain: Alaskan Travel Essays, will be published in June by Folded Word.