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Travel Writing 101: What Exactly is Travel?

Anyone can be a travel writer. But what makes a travel writer different from, say, a mystery writer, or one who crafts sentences about romance, children's stories or even humor?

Anyone can be a travel writer. You can write your blog, your memoir, your diary of a trip, and the only difference between you and, say, Pico Iyer, is that he writes more beautifully than almost anyone, and he may publish in Harper's and The New York Times while you are just broadcasting your thoughts on your own website, perhaps.

A famous old sports writer, Red Smith, said famously, "Writing is easy. You just sit down at a typewriter and slit your wrists." Well, now, it doesn't have to be that bad. Maybe if you are paid to write about something you don't like to talk about, or you get bored with after a while, but travel? If life is a trip, then I would paraphrase Dr. Johnson, and say that he/she who tires of travel is tired of life. (He was talking of London, of course.)

What makes a travel writer different from, say, a mystery writer, or one who crafts sentences about romance, or the Old West, science/fiction futures, children's stories or even humor? I would say that while the specialist in other genres is concerned with a specific slice of life, the good travel writer is interested in everything. Not a specific crime or the mind of the criminal, as a mystery writer must. Not the relationship between lovers, as you might grind out for Harlequin books. As a traveler who writes, you can cover everything you see, or even that which you only think you see.

Who are Writers?

Alice W. Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, decided a while ago to find out what compels people to sit down and write, so she sat down and wrote a book about the subject. Using her Ph. D. as well as her M. D., she came out in 2004 with The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain. Briefly, I think she wrote that there are actual differences in the physical brains of writers and nonwriters. Extra activity in some of the temporal lobes may compel us to write. These changes produce hypergraphia, the medical term for an overpowering desire to write. That area is also important for metaphor and the sense of inspiration, she says. This is rare, she says, but its opposite, writer's block, is common. The bad news is, she says, is that writers are ten times more likely than the general population to be manic-depressive, and many great writers in the past have had epilepsy. Now the good, sort of, news: "If we are all a little bit sick, it is not all that sick to be sick," she writes.

Well then, what of great travel writers, Herodotus, one of the first? He wasn't perfect, as an early excerpt about a fifth-century BCE trip to Gaza shows:

"There is an inscription in Egyptian on the pyramid telling how much was disbursed on radishes, onions, and garlic for the workmen. I remember very well what the guide said as he translated it for me, it cost [about one hundred million dollars]. If this is so, what did the other expenses run to, the cost of the stones, the iron, everything else?" The truth is, no guide in the fifth century BCE could read Old Kingdom hieroglyphics any more than those who take you around the pyramids today. It wasn't until Napoleon's invasion of Egypt that French scholars found the Rosetta Stone (1799), by which modern man was able to translate those symbols for the first time. Moral of this story: don't trust anybody, even guides, as people love to tell stories and make things up. Check any facts you provide, preferably from more than just one source.

"Travel" Defined

Earlier in this series, I mentioned the etymology of the word, "travel," implying it was closely related to travail and torture, but in any sense, hard work.

But here's how others have defined the word. The philosophers: Francis Bacon said "travel for the young is a part of education, for the old, a part of experience." But America's greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote: "Travel is a fool's paradise."

Psychologists chime in, Sigmund Freud saying that travel is "a childish delight in being somewhere else."

Literary and poetic figures have their say, too: "Not to go anywhere, but to goÂ?I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." That was Robert Louis Stevenson, who famously led his donkey across southern France and wrote about it.

The famous 20th-century rabbi, Julius Gordon, said of travel: "It's an experience we shall always remember, or an experience which, alas, we shall never forget." This is from the same man who wrote: "Love is not blind -- it sees more, not less. But because it sees more, it is willing to see less."

Getting down to the practicalities, New Yorker author Elizabeth Drew said "Too often, instead of broadening the mind, travel merely lengthens the conversation." And that was before anyone thought of inventing blogs.

But novelists and essayists disagree. "Travel is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases," said William Hazlitt c. 1800 in England. But "travel is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends." So replied Cesare Pavese, a brilliant Italian writer of the early 1900s.

My final thought on the word: there are as many definitions of travel as there are people who try to pin one definition down.

This is the third in a series of "How to be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor at and former editor-in-chief at the Fodor guidebook series, teaches at the Key West Travel Writing Workshop, which he founded in 1991, every January and February. Details at

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