Does all this imply the end of literary travel writing?Hopefully not, but in the age of globalization, the world has be-come more accessible and undeniably more “connected,” at least in technological terms.
In the 21st century, the well-crafted travel essay has begun to look as nostalgic as a dusty khaki safari jacket sans logo.
(Leave that task to the travel guides.) And while there is no foolproof formula, there are a few “rules of the road.” Your travel essay will be a success when it leaves readers with a fresh, vivid memory of a place they’ve never seen.
Because a good travel essay should be readable in one sitting, it takes an artful approach to focus your lens, calibrate your timing, build your structure, and discover colorful threads to weave through the fabric of your essay.
As Patrick Lo Brutto said in these pages (April 2008) with reference to fiction, “The trick is to rub the information into the grain” and avoid an “information dump.” In my essay “Alone in Amsterdam,” in the literary journal Fourth Genre, I set out to write a “cityscape” anchored by famous works of art, but it was reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo and the poignant Diary of Anne Frank that helped me catch the thread of meaning I was after. If you’ve just arrived in unknown territory, walk around, talk to the locals, smell the coffee, and get a feel for what this place is about. In a similar fashion, I tracked 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of an untainted paradise.
In the end, my essay turned out to be about the many dimensions of aloneness, including my own, that had been lived on those streets. As I began to realize that Gauguin never found what he was looking for, I played all of my images and experiences in Tahiti against my core metaphor of an elusive quest.