Travel Writing & Trust

Since I’m currently vacationing in Thailand (hip, hip, hooray!), I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

Recently, I lucked into the opportunity to attend a writing class, my first in years. The course, led by British journalist and author Edward Platt, centered on travel writing. An interesting class, it’s core concept was the idea of writing about place as an emotional, personalitied essence. It was about tapping into a location’s emotional resonance.

Platt offered a variety of ways one might enter into this kind of writing. But of all the advice he offered, it was a concept he briefly addressed in his introduction that most resonated with me:

Trust.

His point was this: A writer’s voice (discussed in my post on Wolf Hall) is his/her most important commodity. This voice must be strong, confident, distinct. If voice is effective,

“By the end of the first page, [the reader should] feel [they’ve] met someone.”

-Edward Platt

Yet this voice must also be one the reader feels s/he can trust.

This trust is the readers’ faith that time spent with an author, following him/her through the pages (sometimes hundreds of them), will be a worthwhile investment. That the narrative as the author unwinds it will remain consistent, believable, fulfilling, enlightening. The reader must be confident that the author’s skills are strong and dextrous enough to manage the tale undertaken. Such trust is essential in all writing, but especially so in the long-form medium of a novel.

It is the writer’s voice, authority (pun!), and ability to intrigue which earns this faith. This is what compels readers to slug through thousands of words and (occasionally-challenging) material to reach that final page. Without such trust, a reader will fail to feel that drive to reach the story’s end. They may never read that final page. And they’ll be highly unlikely to gamble again in taking up a second piece by that author.

This relationship of trust is one easily forgotten. Writing is an innately selfish profession in many ways. By nature of their work, writers require a certain amount of solitary time; it’s natural, letting it slip from our minds that all writing is a two-way conversation. You find yourself asking questions like, What do have to say? What is my angle on this research? What story do I want to tell?

Such questions are worth asking. A professional writer can pen anything well, whether interested in the topic or not; I know of an author whose bread and butter is writing content for periodicals like Concrete Monthly (no joke–that’s a real publication). But projects writers are passionate about almost invariably end up being the best of their work. That passion gives it a little bit of magic.

Yet it’s critical to remember that whatever we write and publish, we’re signing a contract with another party: our readership. We are demanding a lot, asking someone to read 300, 500, 700 pages of our thoughts. In return, we promise to deliver something deserving of those lost hours. Before we loose our fingertips on our keyboards, or give ourselves a high five over our latest brilliant sentence, it’s worth taking the time to ask ourselves about our readers. Have we given them our best? Our most carefully cultivated diction and syntax? Our most complexly developed characters? Our most relentlessly thorough research? Our cleverest world-building?

Because if we don’t fulfill our end of the bargain, our readers certainly aren’t obligated to fulfill theirs. And that final page may forever go unread.

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