Postcards from a broader mind

August 16, 2002

Mandy Garner, in the latest of our series on tourism, is staggered to discover the hard graft involved in travel writing.

The image of the travel writer is one that appeals to many: the lone voyager adrift on an ivory beach, tequila in one hand, notepad in the other. Others less romantically inclined regard travel writing more as something they can tack on to their holiday to make a quick buck. Such images, however, disguise a harsh reality. Travel writing is hard work, poorly paid and it is not at all the same thing as writing a diary of your recent hiking holiday in Kathmandu. Lonely Planet receive - and promptly reject - about ten travel diaries a week. Other people's holidays are not that interesting, after all. But is travel writing something you can be taught? Middlesex University thinks it is and put on a four-day summer school to prove it.

As is usual with any university course, the reading list arrives weeks before the course starts and, as is also customary, students pay it no more than passing attention. It contained everyone from Herodotus to Bruce Chatwin, by way of Laurie Lee.

Ten of us wind our way down the appropriately named Snakes Lane and through the near-tropical outgrowth of Middlesex's Trent Park campus to take part in the course. We are from a wide variety of backgrounds. One woman, for example, is a Middlesex marketing postgraduate student and designer of flipper-footed Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe's bodysuit; another student is a hotel management student from Thailand; yet another a spokesperson for a facial disfigurement organisation. All bar one, however, share one thing in common: they are graduates. So if widening participation is one of the aims of Middlesex's summer schools - which attracted in all 1,300 students - the travel-writing course is not where its future non-traditional undergraduates are going to come from.

The course tutor Zoë Brân, who also teaches a ten-week foundation course at City University, is an experienced travel writer and has a PhD in sexual health and social policy to boot. In fact, she got into travel writing by way of writing an encyclopedia of sex. Books on Burma and Vietnam followed, which she roundly criticises throughout the course, even getting us to rewrite a passage from the Vietnam book in order to improve it. Her most recent books on the former Yugoslavia and Cuba are testament to her oft-repeated encouragement to students that practice makes, if not perfect, then the difference between a hack and a "writer".

"Travel writing," says Brân by way of introduction, "is about going somewhere, analysing and researching the place, regurgitating it and presenting it through your own eyes, but keeping yourself out of the picture as much as possible. The subject is the place and people, not you. There are many different ways of doing this." She adds portentously:

"Travel writing is not about going on holiday and writing about it."

She goes on to give a series of very practical tips about the job of travel writing from her own first-hand experience:

* Take extensive notes. A dictaphone can be useful for this

* Network beforehand to find the most interesting people to meet. Local friendship groups, cultural attaches, tourist offices and the internet are all good sources

* Do the historical research afterwards so that it doesn't impinge on your view of the country.

"It's really hard work," she emphasises. "You're paid a pittance and you're not paid for your journey or for writing the book. If you could make a living from it, I would not be sitting here, would I?"

It is not an encouraging beginning, even if it is realistic. Later, she describes the problems with getting work published, the September 11 downturn in the tourism market and her own experience of taking about a year to write and research a book for the princely sum of £5,000. The important thing in travel writing, Brân believes, is to have a theme and "the best travel writing comes out of conflict". An example is the conflict between a country's past history and its present or between its image and its reality. Brân's book on Cuba, for instance, looks at the difference between the image of Cuba as a heroic defender of the left versus the reality of a people exhausted by life as a political experiment.

Once equipped with a theme, the next step is style. Brân says that, in terms of style, "travel writing is anything you want it to be". She describes some of the debates in travel writing, which range from the difference between the male and female voice to where or whether there is a line between fact and fiction and what a traveller or tourist is. Developments in recent years seem to mean that travel writing is becoming more and more indistinguishable from other forms of literature. Bruce Chatwin being a case in point. "How much of his writing is fact and how much fiction and do we care?" Brân asks. The one main thing that differentiates it from other writing seems to be that it is about leaving your home territory and moving somewhere else - indeed, it has been rechristened the "literature of movement". The all-enveloping grasp of postmodernism has reached out even to this remote corner of the bookshop.

The whole issue comes to a head later in a discussion about whether it is okay to describe Trent Park's Wisteria Avenue as open even if it has been padlocked for decades. Brân argues that if it conveys your theme to have it open, then it doesn't matter how long it has been closed for. But where do you draw the line? And can't you convey your theme some other way if you are a good enough writer? And why does everyone want to write fiction anyway? Brân, who has a lot to cram into the four days, doesn't want to be waylaid by such pre-modern views.

We return to writing style, to the importance of observing details and the impossibility of teaching anyone to write like Laurie Lee and, most of all, to structure. While the content of travel writing is pretty much anything goes - one recent book was about sex in different locations (it qualifies as travel writing because the writer is not in their own country) - it is wise, Brân says, to adopt a traditional structure: beginning, middle and end. Most people get stuck in the middle, or muddle as she calls it. There should also be lots of dialogue and description and writers should endeavour to show readers what they see, not tell them - this means steering clear of overt opinion and judgemental adjectives. Travel writing is not the same thing at all as writing guidebooks. The best thing is to let the people who live in the country do the talking. "Otherwise it looks like gross arrogance on your part that you say what you think about a place after a couple of weeks or months there," Brân says. You should also bear in mind who your reader is.

With that, we are sent off to do our homework: the first night it is designing the structure of a 1,000-word piece about our hometown or a favourite place; the second writing it; the third editing another student's piece. Reading lists, homework, it all sounds a bit too much like being at university. At least there is no assessment or exam, although many of the other courses are assessed and provide credits towards undergraduate courses at Middlesex. They are more expensive, though, than the £150 this one costs.

The course is practically-based. We go out at one point and observe Trent Park and write about it, using a theme and the structure we have been taught. The pieces are read out and commented on by everyone and Brân is very encouraging. It is a small group and people come from a whole range of backgrounds, including teaching, so the teacher/student hierarchy is not obvious, although Brân is good at keeping order. Students question her about her views and about how she has decided to structure the course. One, when told that her 1,000-word opus is to be read and commented on by another student, says she would prefer Brân's view "as a professional". Brân explains that she hasn't the time to read and comment on ten 1,000-word essays, isn't paid for it and that it is important for the students to learn to be critical readers of each other's copy too.

The final session is on journalism, a profession Brân does not seem that enthused by. She has had bad experiences, like many. Editors seem to be particularly unpopular with her, no doubt with justification. She warns of them stealing ideas, only giving work to their friends and having the attention span "of a dying stoat". And she has lots of practical tips about making the most of a single day out to Blenheim Palace or the like, taking photos and using the local and specialist press as a way in to journalism. It is a warts-and-all explanation of journalism and one of the most accurate I have heard from any lecturer (or journalist).

It is an intensive course and not what several of the students expect, being much more biased towards literature than journalism, but Brân is enthusiastic about everyone's suggestions on where to go next with their writing. One woman wanted to write a book about returning to Vanuatu, where she grew up, to find her nanny, until she has discovered that her nanny had moved to London. Brân tells her that doesn't matter. She can start with searching for her nanny and use this as a device to rediscover Vanuatu and her past. Another student says she loves volcanoes. Do a tour of volcanoes, Brân says.

While the course might not encourage people to sign up for university, it is certainly inspiring, but tempered with a heavy dose of realism. Nobody who takes it will go into the travel-writing world with anything other than their eyes wide open.

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