Thursday, August 11, 2011

Travel Writing - Reality or Perception : Bonsai or Wilderness.

Sunrise at Kubu Island, Makgadigkadi Pans, Botswana.
 Bonsai - pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation, and grafting to produce small trees that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size trees. Some may say it's a manifestation of the need for humans to control everything in their environment.

 Recently an article I submitted for critique at MatadorU got completely rubbished. While seeking assistance in grammar, and structure I got told that could come later - after I re-write what was referred to as a first draft. It wasn't a first draft; it was my experimentation in writing styles towards the direction I wish to go.
Original story I wrote is here-
 And the critiquing comment was made in reference to the opening dream sequence - "What does it have to do with the story you're going to tell us?"

All up the critic didn't really like it, saying he was disinterested. Fair enough.  

I've been reflecting on his reaction, and with that, my involvement in MatadorU and what I am learning, and there is a conflict within me. Perhaps it's just me, or is it that my objectives aren't being met by the course?

Let's discuss what 'Morning at Kubu Island' was, and was not about.

 It was not a guide book or info article about Kubu Island as a travel destination. It was a story exploring metaphors to illustrate how I experienced the place- my perception of the place- as distinct from writing about the place as it happened.

I had a magical but imaginative time there, on my own exploring the place, watching beautiful colours changing the land around me as the sun awoke and crept over the pans then the rocks and trees. It evoked a lot of visions in my mind. So I wrote about that, starting with a clichéd dream description, necessary to set the scene for how I experienced what was to follow. My anticipation about getting up early to watch sunlight slowly moving over the land had manifested in having that dream about the sunlight creeping over the contours of a partner, which to me was the cornerstone of my perception of, and my experience that morning at Kubu Island. I did hope my story would encourage others when they get there, to get out upon those rocks and the pans at sunset and sunrise and find that same magical aura I enjoyed, by letting their imagination soar with Nature's stimuli.

So I adopted a perceptive approach rather than a reality (tell the story as it happened ) approach. Kubu Island was secondary in the story - the story was about how I experienced it- my perception of the place.
 The reality would have been a lot more boring to my disinterested critic I can assure you. It is, after all just a pile of rocks, topped by bare trees in the middle of a featureless wilderness and you drive for hours to get there, so I made the most of the time I had there.

How would an editor want the story written?

That was reinforced squarely on the forum... from reality.
"10 Things to know about Kubu Island ." may have done it for them!  Dull.

In MatadorU we are often advised to tell the story as it happens. Sure, to a point I agree. So I guess I won't be writing a story for an editor, because my story, as it happened for me, was about my perception of Kubu Island...and to me, that was my reality, even though merely my perception. You grasped that I'm sure....

So the crux of the problem is do I continue with MatadorU?

And where does my travel writing go?

It's all a load of elephant butt!
 To answer that let's consider-
 What is Travel Writing based upon? Perception or reality?

Sure the guidebook stuff, and the '10 tips...' stuff is clearly based on reality, but gee that stuff is so boring! I never read it. Come to think about it, I don't like reading online Travel Publications either. You know if we all wrote about a place from reality, or told the destination piece as it really happened, there'd be no point of us all writing about the same place, would there? It would all have been done.
So the perceptive writing style is very important to bring readers to a place looking at it from a new point of view, however imaginative that view is.

Why is Travel Publication writing boring?

 What turns me off with travel publication articles is how perfectly polished the writing is. How every word is so aimed or serves a purpose. No word can be wasted; every superfluous word is cut or pruned out - the very words that make an article more human, more conveying of soul or deeper feeling are lopped off until the article seems more of a perfectly pruned and trained Bonsai in a minimum space, rather than some wordy, woody, rampantly overgrown wilderness... where I find my best reading interest!

 I don't like precision in writing. We humans are not like that. Well, I suppose some are...the over-trained, the over-disciplined, the over-educated perhaps...the supplicants. But the bulk of us enjoy a little clutter, a little mis-direction, and want to explore a lot more of, or are yearning for less regulation and more experimentation. Oh, and some creativity enjoyed from cutting loose now and again: that must be treasured.

What is wrong with hitting your readers with the unexpected?

I have decided I do not wish to be a published travel writer.
I wish to ramble my writing style, explore any area I feel I want to, and not write within the confines of editorial expectation.

Having reached this stage of thought about my writing, I wrote an article and published it recently. Read it here- and take the time to read the third comment by John Smith and check out his website by clicking on his name.
I'll repeat his comment here-
"Jim, This is one of the best wildlife photo blog pieces I've read for a long time. Good stuff!"
 I don't know John: this is the first contact I have had with him. So, if someone of his experience in wildlife and photography can say that about my writing, I am over the moon!

I published "Elephant Ambush" in the style and manner I want to write. The first few drafts were tighter, less wordy, even publishable perhaps, but while it told the reality of the event it seemed to me to lack the ability to convey my actual perception of what was going on. So I went back in and expanded it.
Sure it can be pruned, rearranged, sentences combined, stuff cut out...but Bonsais I do not write! I like rampantly overgrown and natural. With a touch of dreaming, or imagination thrown in.

That's my objective in writing, to explore the 'wilderness'.  Bonsai writing can be done by others.
However, I need to improve and fully understand grammar, punctuation, tense and structure.

Can that fit with MatadorU and their editors' critique?
How do you feel about travel writing?

Feel welcome to add comments or discuss the above. I have an elephant's thick hide!

Jim's note: After dwelling on the above and discussions with readers in the comments I have a new perspective. The course offers great benefits and I just have to get my head round it. That is not easy for me- I have been my own man for so long. But as I said in the comments below, when I chuck my toys out of the cot I have enough presence of mind to make sure I only throw the unbreakables, or the bouncy stuff.
 So full credit to the editors. My boundary bouncing may still continue but I am there to make the most of it.
 Kubu Island has been re-written, and I've taken Barbara Weibel's suggestion and here it is -
kuKubu Island: Into The Dreamtime.
The dream stays.

SHOUT OUT! Well what do you know-
Guess who is in the nominated list of best travel writing?
Thanks to whoever nominated me!!!!!

 Talking about using imagination to write-

Check these guys out-
When I started reading there I thought I had found kindred spirits. Dalene and Pete are very imaginative travellers writing about places but using very creative ways of dragging readers in. I love them!

Another great travel writer is Babara Weibel of Cultural Travels Hole in the Donut
To me a writer who has progressed beyond travel writing into cultural and spiritual writing, bringing readers to place from her perspective.

Caz over at is being very creative by writing about issues that concern us all. Courageous woman! Show respect by discussing the issues.
There are many others. If you are reading this and consider yourself a creative travel writer, leave a link in a comment, please.
I would like to build a list of Creative Travel Writers.



BlogNostics said...

I think Jim you are confusing a guidebook with a travel novel. I can see the editors point as people on vacation, especially the lazy ones want to know where to go what to do and where to stay! Boring as all ....
Your travel stories are better placed in a book or a site that appreciates writing that ignites the imagination, rather than the boring straight forward facts anybody can get from Lonely Planet.
cheers A

Bec Owen said...

You're absolutely right, Jim...we (most of us) as humans do want to explore and expand our experience and enjoy everything that that entails! I really enjoy reading the personal perceptions of writers when they share their builds a bridge, makes a connection on an emotional level...this is what makes it 'real' for me.

Like A said, travel guides are as boring as all use them if you want facts and that's all. Your book (when you write it) will be something to savor and will take your readers on the journey with you!

Do continue to explore the wilderness and share your perceptions with all of bonsai, please :)

Dalene said...

Hey Jim - thanks so much for the shout out!

And I just wanted to say that I'm with you on how you feel about being a travel writer. I'm halfway through MatadorU and there is one thing so far that this course has taught me - I don't want to be a travel writer. Well, I guess I AM a travel writer in the sense that I have a travel blog - but if what Matador is teaching is truly what it is about on how to write for other people, then count me out. I'll just keep doing my own thing and I'll be much happier for it!

Jim said...

Thanks A. No confusion here mate. Been figuring it out. Just punching out against the confining expectations. May get it out of my system and relax within yet! Ya never know.

Jim said...

Hi Bec, thanks for the thoughts. You're my kind of writer also. I once read someone saying in the forum that..'' he has to write it so every word counts''...and thought to myself that I won't be reading his work!
Bonsai can be very beautiful and a lot of people thoroughly enjoy them.
But I love a jungle ...with an elephant hiding within!

Hi Dalene. Wow I am not alone! Yeah I understand where the eds are coming from, and they do a grand job and it's a fantastic learning venue for myself and others.
But there's something missing.

Barbara Weibel said...

Hi Jim:
First of all, don't be discouraged by what one editor says. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes and just because he was disinterested in your piece doesn't mean it's not good.

I read it and liked it, and I fancy myself a pretty good travel writer. However, I do have one thought to pass along. I understood immediately your metaphor of light dawning over the rocks at Kubu Island being like the first rays of morning sun sensually illuminating the body of a naked woman at dawn. However, in my opinion (and it's only an opinion), your piece would have been much stronger if you had wound the imagery of the woman throughout the piece, or at least brought it full circle with the closing somehow.

The comparison of the old man to the gnarled tree, while visually effective, took my focus off the original metaphor. The piece wandered a bit after that and never come to a solid close.

I know how hard it is to stick to one central thought. So much of what we see is stunning and we want to share it all with our readers, but I have found that my writing has grown stronger when I focus on one detail. Sometimes, I even write two articles instead of one, just so I can stay focused on one thought.

As I said, I love your writing. Very evocative, very sensual. And that's what's it's all about. Canned, magazine travel writing, lists, and travel tips are a bore. Our kind of narrative writing, combined with a blog that has a well developed persona, is what people crave.

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...

Wow, that is solid, encouraging and informative critiquing Barabara. They should hire you at MatadorU!
You are right.
I had been thinking along the same lines of separating the two metaphors, but hadn't because of the disparagement of the dream/sensual partner theme, and so that didn't seem a goer.
But yes, taking that theme further through the story would work.
I may redo the item in such a manner.
Thanks Barbara!

JIM said...

Jim I agree with you . The only reason I read travel pieces are for hotel and restaurant recommendations and most time find those are not really good lol. I do not want a laundry list , I would prefer learning what the writer felt & saw. I want to feel something when I read an article, of course I hope to learn but not in a clinical soulless manner!! I do not think of myself as a travel writer ( or a writer at all lol) but when I do write my blog I try and put a little bit of my feelings into it, I want to touch the readers brain & heart!!!
Really Great article and right on!!!


Jim said...

On my Creative Travel Writer list, you will be near the top!
You are a real artist with your photography, your writing (I admire), and your creativity of collaboration with other bloggers- the poets and essayists- is new territory that can be developed who knows where.
Love it.

Mari Sterling Wilbur said...

Don't change a thing. I love your writing style. It is informative but never boring. Your writing creates a feeling for the place and makes me want to go there. Your photos definitely are the winning plus!

Nomadic Samuel said...

Hey Jim,

I can identify with what you are saying in this article. I'm a student at MatadorU and even though I'm taking a break from it for the time being to fully pursue my blog, I've posted an article or two on the weekly critique forum. Let's just say that one of my articles I posted was absolutely crucified by not just one but two of the editors critiquing for that given week. I was pissed about it at first but later on I realized that if I want to succeed as a writer and blogger I really need to have thick skin. Those who have become very successful have faced a lot of rejection along the way.

Jim said...

Yep agree with you Samuel. However, the eds must realise that writers in the forum do take these things to heart, therefore they need to be careful how to pitch that critique. It's in the how they say it, rather than what they are saying.
As for myself, sure I'm developing and come a long way, with a long way to go.
With different objectives than most there, I just have to balance up what I want against the tone of the critique and decide my way forward.
I like what you're writing Samuel, and your photos and tips are excellent.

Natalie said...

I hear you Jim. I am still trying to find a sense of writing that I am comfortable with and that will also fit into the designated style of travel writing. I am on the verge of just saying enough is enough, I want to write in a way that I feel comfortable with.

Theodora said...

I'm probably one of those, Natalie -- do check me out at

There's a difference, however, between writing for publication and writing for oneself. I can hop between the two styles quite easily. Which may have been what your editor was trying to get at.

But blogging's a great medium for finding your own voice. Keep it up.

And, for the record, I've always thought Matador U sounds like a total crock of shit... This confirms that gut instinct.

Jim said...

Hi Natalie. I think that's the crux of it - finding the style one is comfortable with. I had occasion to re-visit the first ever post I made here, and apart from tidying up punctuation, the 'voice' I fell into immediately like old socks or comfy undies. So that's me. I won't try and write for others.

Jim said...

Hi Theodora, great to see you here.
To be fair, the MatadorU course offers a terrific amount, and is a way for many to learn much to base future writing careers on. I'm learning a lot. So I'm prepared to admit the problem is more with myself and my attitude. I actually made that clear when I intro'd myself on the forum- that I'd find it hard to change my attitude.
I've been responsible for my own life in every way since 1969 Well as much as responsibilities to a wife allows :-)- but walked out of being employed to starting my own business, being the employer and making my own decisions (which worked out well.
So to place myself in a position where others critique me is difficult.
But I have enough nouse to know that when I throw my toys out of the cot, to choose those that bounce or are unbreakable.
So upshot is I have re-written Kubu Island a la Barbara's suggestion and it is a better piece.

I guess the editor is correct in chucking the first back back.

Maria Alexandra said...

I think travel writing *must* be a mix of perception and reality. It is is just reality, I agree with you: It is simply dull. What I don't understand is why MatadorU seems to be "sponsoring" this kind of dull writing? For what? So the web is full of dry "to do" lists and whatnot? Sounds like Travel Armageddon to me! =/

Needless to say, great post!

Jools said...

Hi Jim

I'm afraid I'm going to be boring and chime in with my agreement here too. If making money from travel writing is not your goal - and I think I remember that's def the case with your good self - then there's no need to trouble yourself with writing for a particular format's received wisdom. I'm not sure of the context but I'd guess that matador is trying to deliver on its promise (not literal!) to turn its students into writers getting commissions from websites/magazines etc. But the longer form, more personal work is always a more int read and you seem to have that down, so all power to yer elbow I say!

Jim said...

Thanks Jools. You're right. The discussion has helped re-focus my attitude.
So I better just concentrate on doing what I want to do but better!