Is there anything more cliche than a traveling writer? (There might be, but I may just explode if I try to write it down.) Yet, long after it has ceased to be original, the trope of the traveling writer remains. Why?
Well, the trope likely began when writing was a rich man’s game. (Yes, I used “man” deliberately. Most early writers were men, and our literary history is poorer for it.) This is largely due to only the wealthy had the education and the leisure to put pen to paper for the entertainment of others. (Their readers were likely to be mostly the wealthy elite as well.) After all, for most of human history, the majority of the population has been occupied with getting enough food while not shitting oneself to death.
As history marched forward, we saw great social and technological improvements that made food- and poop-related deaths less likely, at least in certain parts of the world. (For many, however, such things remain issues that even I won’t joke about. Instead, go here to help.) For those of us fortunate to be in one of these nations benefitting from progress, we suddenly had leisure time. That time could be spent reading, or conversely writing what others could read, and otherwise engage in all manners of enjoyable experiences.
Of course, the pedestrian accomplishment of staying alive was no longer enough. Re-hashing of the same old humdrum existence of not dying quickly lost its luster, and people started searching out new and exotic thrills. Some found those thrills in the pages of a book, others sought them in person.
In short, people travel. I’ve done as much as I can, though I must admit I may have reached my peak early, as they say. I don’t just travel, but I live abroad in a culture (and language) that is not my own: Taiwan. But it’s pretty awesome. It’s greatly improved my writing living here, and the additional travel I’ve done since – the exotic, the banal, and the exotic-turned-banal – has greatly improved my writing in every way that writing can be improved.
But you’ve probably read me jabber for long enough, reader. You’re here to see how travel can help you personally become a better writer. Well, there are lots of things that travel does for you as a writer, but here’s a quick highlight.
You’ve probably heard this old chestnut at some point: write what you know. So if you subscribe to this particular line of thought, wouldn’t it be better to know more, so that you could write more? Would it be better to have a greater pool of experience from which to draw? (This is also the reason why I believe there are so few good young novelists.)
Only writing what you know total bullshit, of course. Imagination counts for something. I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t know any dwarves or elves. At best, he had second-hand knowledge of magical creatures through myths and legends. Likewise, nothing that has happened to James of Darkwood has ever happened to me (for which I am grateful). However, it doesn’t mean that travel hasn’t expanded my experience.
I’ve met new people, seen new things, and have learned how to navigate strange and unusual places. All of this is immeasurably helpful in constructing believable characters, building a world that draws you in, and helping my readers explore that world.
And some of my travels have directly influenced my work. The Endless Road series is all about the wandering guardians that make up the Order of the Endless Road. Their home culture is one heavily influenced by South and South-East Asian cultures (though not based on any one). There’s no way I’d be able to do it without the incredible travel experiences I’ve had so far, and the ones I want to have in the future.
There is nothing as devastating to a good story as shitty characters. One of my biggest issues with The DaVinci Code was its characters that were cardboard cutouts of themselves. (I also hated the reliance on glib cliche and the clunkily expository dialogue, but I digress.) Real people are complex beasts, and the characters in a story should also have a rich interior life.
You are but one person. You’re a remarkable, intelligent, creative person, but still just one person. There are lots of perspectives that you could gain from media – reading, watching, listening to whatever art form gets you hot and bothered – but there is no substitute for the contradictory wonder that is another person. When you travel – and especially when you travel right – you will meet a whole slew of new people with their own thoughts and feelings on things. And here’s the real shocker: their thoughts and feelings may be different from yours! I know, right?
And from personal experience, I can tell you that the types of people who travel often have a very different way of looking at the world. These are people who have seen things, things that you can only imagine. [find video of tourists for here]
The new perspectives also offer new ways of looking at, dealing with, and talking about situations that you may not have considered. A book populated by different versions of the author is (bluntly) shit. The same would be the case if you stayed at a hostel full of only slightly different iterations of yourself. So get out there, meet some new people, and look at the world afresh.
So what if I’m a cold-hearted asshole fully convinced of my own righteousness, but at the same time unwilling? First of all, I hear you, reader. You are pretty awesome. There’s a very practical reason, however: a larger network.
A larger social network translates directly into more opportunities. Writers are actually a fairly small demographic unless you live in a hotspot like New York or LA. A larger network, you’re more likely to know other writers, which means more people who fully understand just how easy and relaxed it is being a full-time writer.
Ha! Just kidding. Mostly, meeting more writers is a chance to argue semantics, discuss how to perform triage on your current work-in-progress, and weep into a caffeinated beverage. That means. Travel is one of the best ways to meet a lot of people very quickly, especially people that you wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity to meet. (True story: One of my 5-star reviews on Amazon comes from a guy I met at a blackjack table in Vegas on my honeymoon.)
So get out there! Meet new people! See the world! Or… don’t.
Can’t Travel? Try These Instead
OK, so it’s terribly unfair to expect everyone to be able to travel. My first international travel was on the coattails of my significant privilege: I’m a white, male, upper-middle class English speaker. Besides that, I’m reasonably healthy and fairly adapable. The world was my oyster coming out of university. Over the last decade, I’ve spent just over a month in the country of my birth.
So what can you do if you’re unable to travel for financial, health, or even legal reasons? Well, that really should be its own blog post, but here are a few ideas:
- Go places in your own region that are fresh and new. You’ll be surprised how foreign even the next town or city over can feel.
- Try something that scares you once a month. It doesn’t matter if it’s skydiving, escargot, or saying hello to a stranger at the bus stop. To get the thrill of newness travelers enjoy, step outside your comfort zone regularly.
- Join a writers’ group. Nothing is better for a writer than a bunch more writers who collect to talk about writing. Or to bitch and moan. I’ll have a post on writers’ groups later on, as it’s about as pretentious as it comes. It’s also invaluable.
Beware the Dangers of Cultural Appropriation!
Now before we wrap things up, we should take a look at a hot-button issue: cultural appropriation.
You may have heard about this in the news, and there’s a real issue. What cultural appropriation means – or at least what it is supposed to mean – is that a culture with an imbalance of power over another adopts portions of that culture because it’s “hip.” (And you can tell how “hip” I am based on the fact I put quotation marks around “hip.”)
Now, I see much of the better-publicized examples of cultural appropriation utter horseshit. Yoga is no more cultural appropriation than pizza. Does the fact that I cook Italian, regularly do yoga and qigong, or study Thai and Japanese martial arts make me a bad person? No. Nor do they make you a bad person for enjoying those things and adopting them. (But don’t misunderstand me: a Native American headdress on a blonde lady or blackface on anyone is still a dick move.)
How does this relate to travel? Well, it’s important to remember that just because you’ve visited a place doesn’t mean that you’re qualified to write about it. I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur. Does this mean that I can realistically write about the plight of a rural Malay youth’s coming of age? If you said, “Fuck no!” (or something to that effect), then we’re on the same page.
I’m sure that I’ll be writing a lengthier piece on cultural appropriation somewhere else. Just remember: a visit does not an expert make. Unless you’re writing about what it’s like to visit that place, you’d better do some serious research and dig way deeper. And even then, it’s probably not a good idea for you to write from another culture’s perspective.