I’ve been thinking a lot about travel writing lately. Part of it is figuring out what kind of stuff to write about on this blog, part of it is that I have some travel coming up soon, and most of it is that I just love travel writing. My travel reading falls into four major categories: guide books for trips I’m going to take (mostly skimmed), books by Bill Bryson, books by Frances Mayes, and books about American women (usually in their twenties or thirties) moving to Paris.
NB: I’ve never even been to Paris, and I’d probably go back to London again before going there, and yet I’ve read four books that fit that category. Oops? (For the record, these are the four.)
Thinking about my love of Bill Bryson and my emerging fondness for Frances Mayes really clarified for me what I’m looking for in travel writing. I’ve read four Bill Bryson titles (Notes from a Small Island was my first, and is my favorite) and two Frances Mayes (I’m about to finally read Under the Tuscan Sun), and they are two distinctly different experiences.
I’ve read Mayes’s A Year in the World twice, but I can only remember a handful of moments from it. Her writing is beautifully descriptive; last year at one point I was desperately craving a trip and had nothing planned, so I reread A Year in the World and felt like I was there, for each adventure she described. I got lost in the details, totally immersed, and that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s like taking a trip, except cheaper and not really. But I’m looking forward to reading Under the Tuscan Sun and getting a glimpse of Tuscany.
I’ve just reread Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and am halfway through a reread of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, his book about living in the US after twenty years in the UK. If you haven’t read anything by him, go do it, but the main thing to know is that Bill Bryson is funny, and his stories are a mix of anecdotes given a comedic slant and strange and interesting facts about the places he describes. I might not always remember all the ins and outs of his travels, but usually a few stick in my mind. When I read Bill Bryson’s books, it’s like hearing a good story a second time from a friend: you remember most of the twists but that just makes it better. In these books, some of his references are dated now – and not always PC – but a lot of what he talks about holds up.
I’m a unfortunately little too wedded to factual (sometimes overly factual) reporting in my writing to imitate Bill Bryson. He has a way of telling you something that you’re pretty sure did not happen quite the way he tells it but instead is a perfect send up of how that situation might go down. In I’m a Stranger Here Myself, he talks about calling a government hotline to try to get his wife’s social security number and how the official on the other end wouldn’t give it to him, but did, when asked, tell him that baking soda would get that strawberry pop stain right out of his t-shirt. I’m reasonably sure this did not actually happen, but the way he describes it is hilarious. Then again, maybe it did happen and Bill Bryson has more interesting interactions with strangers than the rest of us do.
He’s also just funnier than I’ll ever be, and I can accept that.
I also may never be able to travel the world quite like Frances Mayes does, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never own a house in Tuscany, but I can sit somewhere beautiful and describe the sights and sounds and smells. Her writing builds a scene for us to step into, and I can aspire to that. It’s easier to do when I’m writing in the moment, though; if I try to recreate it afterwards, the details have already faded, or I never noticed them to begin with. The only drawback to that kind of writing is that it tends to bring out my earnest side. It’s hard to be snarky about a beautiful day in the park, but I’ll try!
Here and there I’ve picked up travel story collections, from The Best American Travel Writing 2000 (edited by Bill Bryson) to Female Nomad and Friends (edited by Rita Golden Gelman), and I’m always looking for recommendations for writers to check out – especially if they fit one of the categories I’ve described, or if they’re totally different. I’d love to hear about books by American women in their twenties or thirties who go anywhere besides Paris, because I’ve only found a handful of those. What should I check out? And what do you look for in your travel writing?
PS My first piece for the Toast goes live on Wednesday, May 14. I’ll link to it in Thursday’s post, but in the meantime if any Toasties find their way here, welcome!