Phone Books

There’s been a lot of chatter recently among wandering writer-types about an insufferable someone who just published a memoir about his misadventures as a travel writer. Basically, this person says, in between having sex on tables and drinking to feel good about himself, he wrote entire books by plagiarizing travel mags and cribbing addresses off the internet. While I’m sure much of the memoir is packed with lies (as memoirs tend to be), his book sheds light on one truth: Travel writing is easy to fake but very hard to do well.

Some say he actually was pretty good at pounding out glorified phone books jazzed up with snappy one-liners. But really, his writing was hollow. It brought nothing new to people’s understanding of the places they were visiting. It relied on generalities and perpetuated misconceptions. In the end, his writing made the world a worse place.

Good travel writing is this: You write everything down. You don’t print all of it. You test the seats on trains, humor slimy restaurateurs and poke under crusty bedspreads. You read the awful, local paper and the hokey pamphlets. You strike up conversations with every stranger who slows down. You always note the color of the carpet. You confirm cross streets. You run through worst case scenarios when you go to the bank, market or post office. You determine where every embassy of every country is located. You are annoying. You look for dishes on the menu that boring people won’t be scared of. You save little slips of paper. You draw many circles on many maps. You go.

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