I first picked up Lavinia’s beautiful book, Writing Away, a few years ago after I returned with a suitcase of journals from my travels in Colombia. Five years later, I finally got the chance to sit down with her last month at the Tucson Festival of Books and talk about writing–something I’d been wanting to do for ages! Lavinia, who is also the editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011 (a Book of the Year finalist!), has a lot to say about keeping a journal, about making it in the digital world, and about what it’s been like to edit such a fantastic collection of women writers. Enjoy!
How did you get started as a travel writer? What was it about the act of travel that inspired your work as a writer?
I fell into travel writing by being a writer who traveled. Fresh out of college with a degree in creative writing, I moved to Busan, South Korea to teach ESL. I lived there for six years, traveling at least three or four months of each year. I’d never been exposed to such a bounty of writing material, and I kept journals and wrote constantly—but I was mostly focused on using my experiences as fodder for fiction – short stories, poems, and a novel I plugged away at for about ten years. It finally became clear sometime in my early thirties that even though my education was in fiction and poetry, it was much easier to become a working writer by pitching and submitting nonfiction.
In terms of travel as a source of inspiration, there’s really nothing like it to crack open the creative mind. When we leave home, all the conditions necessary to write hand themselves over in one perfect package: foreign scents and sounds and tastes, mysterious customs and concepts, oddball characters, surprises and disasters, the endless curiosities of a new place. Add long stretches of free time and a change of location (invaluable writing tools, both) and lastly, throw yourself in the mix — the attentive traveler with fresh eyes. When you put it all together you’ve got the perfect recipe for storytelling.
Let’s say you’ve got a dear friend who is interested in becoming a travel writer. What advice would you give to this person?
Keep a journal.
And start small—write very short pieces about the town in which you currently live and about past travel experiences. Meanwhile, read travel stories of all kinds – pick up all the Travelers’ Tales anthologies and Lonely Planet collections, subscribe to AFAR, and peruse the travel sections of the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times. Subscribe to online sites that specialize in travel essays, such as World Hum, Gadling, Perceptive Travel, and Recce. Take writing classes to work on your craft. Study accomplished travel writers and develop the habit of rewriting, setting aside your story and returning to it later, revising till it’s something you’re confident will still make you proud ten years from now. And attend a writing conference, such as the annual Book Passage Travel Writing, Food, and Photography Conference. It’s worth every penny because not only will you learn more than you can hope to remember, you’ll also connect with others in the industry—and personal relationships are just as important in this business as they are in any other. Finally—it should go without saying— travel, meet locals, take risks, get in trouble, and turn your journal notes into stories. Be brave and send out those submissions.
You have a degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona (like me!). I’m curious to hear your thoughts on whether or not you believe writers should look into creative writing programs to work on their craft. What are the benefits / drawbacks of pursuing such a degree?
Absolutely they should! I think it’s always worthwhile to further the study of your chosen path, whatever that path happens to be. Even the most experienced writers can benefit from more training, and it’s also tremendously important to build a community of writing peers and trusted mentors. If a degree sounds like too much to bite off initially, consider at least enrolling in an intensive travel writing course to get a taste of what it’s like – and if that works for you, pursue it further.
That said, one of the most accomplished travel writers I know once told me, “A month in Indonesia is worth two years in school.” And I think there’s truth to that, too. The road can be a phenomenal teacher. In the end, you just have to decide what’s best for you and go for it and persevere, even when things start looking dicey and you realize you’d make much, much more money waiting tables.
You’ve written a beautiful book on keeping a journal, Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler. In it, you make the case for the handwritten travel journal. What advice would you give to budding travel writers about the importance of old-fashioned journaling (i.e., not blogging)? (Editor’s note: See Tim’s review of Writing Away here)
Thank you! I actually have nothing against blogging—I have a blog, sort of, and I wish I were better at keeping it up. But I think there’s an enormous difference between blogging and keeping a handwritten journal, so I like to encourage both.
To my mind, there’s something extraordinary that occurs when we put pen to paper. It activates a kinesthetic relationship with the words and connects us to a time-honored tradition. But more than that, it forces a slowing down. Writing by hand can become a meditation of sorts, a ceremony—a practice that brings more measured, focused attention to the moment and the language.
I also believe that in order to write authentically for others, we first have to get intensely honest with ourselves — and a blog is, generally speaking, not where that kind of writing happens; a blog is intended for others’ eyes, so it can almost never match the candor or vulnerability of a private diary. And I believe that vulnerability—that surrendering and telling ourselves the truth—is the gateway to great writing.
Still, every writer is different, and we all recognize what works for us as individuals and what doesn’t. Some travel writers may feel it’s not important nowadays, in our digital world, to keep a handwritten journal. But Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux still do, and that’s good enough for me.
Lastly, I’d love to ask you about the anthology you’ve guest-edited for the past two years: the Travelers’ Tales Best Women’s Travel Writing. Since we’ve already had Larry Habegger (Travelers’ Tales executive editor) give his perspective on great travel narratives, I’d love to hear your perspective on what makes a great woman’s travel narrative. Is there something particular to women’s narratives that make them unique as a genre? How do you decide, ultimately, what goes in the anthology, and what doesn’t?
It was a huge honor to be asked to edit the Best Women’s Travel Writing, and over the last two years, I read more than 600 stories to choose the 65 that would make it into the 2011 and 2012 editions. Narrowing down the submissions was one of the most challenging jobs of my life so far. But it was also one of the most rewarding. One reason is because I do believe there’s something unique and special about women’s narratives (and this is not to say that many men’s stories don’t accomplish the same): the stories I read almost always involved an awakening of sorts; they tended toward not what the author did or saw but what she learned, felt, experienced; the people she met and what she took away from her encounters with them. Even stories involving high adventure also emphasized the inner journey, a relationship to the place and its people that often felt sacred and sensual.
As for how I decided on which pieces to include, at the most basic level, my decisions hinged on two essential elements: great writing and a great story. After that, it became more nuanced. But in the end, it usually came down to one question: did the author make me care? Because ultimately, I think that’s what we’re all trying to do as travel writers. Make readers care about a place they’ve never been and people they’ve never met. If we can do that, it’s a good day’s work.
Lavinia Spalding is author of Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler (chosen one of the best travel books of 2009 by the L.A. Times), co-author of With a Measure of Grace, the Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011 (a Book of the Year finalist) and the upcoming The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 8. A regular contributor to Yoga Journal, her work has been featured in a wide variety of print and online publications, including Sunset, Gadling, World Hum, Inkwell, and Post Road. She teaches workshops in travel writing and journaling and currently lives in San Francisco. She can always be found at www.laviniaspalding.com.
Editor’s Note: Lavinia Spalding is hosting a food, wine, and travel writer’s trip in Spain this October. If you’re interested, check out the link with her contact information here!
Interview conducted in May, 2012 by Kristin Mock.