The Gypsy in Us All

Posted in Advice from the Pros on November 11, 2009 by Lizzie

Only those closest to me know what makes me quake in my boots.  Spiders are merely an annoyance and are easily dealt with under the heel of my shoe.  Skydiving is on the top of my to-do list.  A solitary stroll down a dark alley sounds like great material for a murder mystery.  Not too many things in life scare me, but my palms sweat and my throat constricts at the thought of staying in one place for too long.  Irrational but true.  Blame it on my personality, my age, or my love affair with atlases, a life of travel writing sounds like paradise.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that dreaming is easier than putting dreams in action.  Small steps are small, but at least they get you somewhere.  Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, understands this fact, and he’s distilled travel writing advice into ten practical tips for those starry-eyed individuals just waiting for the opportunity to hop a plane to the Amazon (read: me).

1. Travel a lot. There’s simply no way to write about travel with any kind of authority unless you get a basic sense for what life on the road is like. Also, it will help if you travel in a dynamic way—opening yourself up to the unknown and interacting with the local cultures. I also advise—for anyone who is really serious about travel writing or even just experiencing the world in a more vivid way—to work a few years in a foreign country (keep reading Transitions Abroad for information on how to do this). This kind of expatriate experience immerses you in a culture in a way that mere travel cannot. Plus, it conditions you to interact with folks, even if you don’t fully understand their language or customs.

2. Write a lot. The best way to get published is to write well. The best way to write well is to write often. And, even if you don’t get published, you’ll have the satisfaction of capturing your experience on paper and intriguing your friends.

3. Read a lot. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and you can’t write good travel stuff unless you read good travel stuff. Definitely study your history books and your guidebooks—but don’t overlook literary travel narratives, be they in books or magazines. Pay attention to technique as much as content, even when reading novels or general nonfiction.

4. Don’t quit your day job. Very few travel writers support themselves entirely on their writing—and those that can support themselves rarely get rich in the process. Find (or keep) a “real world” job to keep yourself in the black. The secret, of course, is to find work that allows you the freedom or option to travel. My own travel-writing budget was initially augmented by funds saved from two years of teaching English in Korea.

5. Read up on the trade. For the basic nuts and bolts of travel writing, go to your local library or bookstore and check out titles such as The Travel Writer’s Handbook by Louise Purwin Zobel or Travel Writing by Louisa Peat O’Neil.

6. Surf up on the trade. Good practical information on travel writing is only a click away. Be sure to check several search engines for a breadth of travel writing information. A good starting-point for beginning travel writers is Jen Leo’s Written Road blog (

7. Research your destination. Travel writing always benefits from a good knowledge of the region or culture. Even if you don’t use specific information in your article, research can help you write about a place or culture with confidence. Once you’ve arrived in the country, read the local English-language newspaper for details, quirks, and tidbits.

8. Research your markets. If you are writing for friends or a weblog, you probably know your audience already. But if you’re writing for magazines, newspapers, or web sites, make sure you’re familiar with the publication and its needs. Never approach an editor with an unclear or inappropriate story. Target small, non-paying markets first to build up a body of work. Publishing stories at online travel communities like BootsnAll ( can be a good way to get started and find an audience.

9. Be patient. A travel writing career is something that develops over many years. Grow a thick skin and get used to having your stories rejected or ignored. Remember that editors are extremely busy people, and don’t take their indifference as a personal insult. Once you establish a relationship with an editor, don’t let it slide. Be friendly, show your competence, work hard, and don’t take things for granted.

10. Nurture your passion. Whatever you do, remember that travel—not travel writing—should be your priority. Always keep traveling and experiencing new parts of the planet. Even if you never get a single story published, you’ll most likely discover that you have fallen in love with the world and made your life richer in a way you never could have imagined.

Read Rolf Potts’ full article, “Advice to Travel Writers.”


Writing Humbert Humberts

Posted in Crafting on November 5, 2009 by Lizzie

This is something I’ve struggled with for years: is a character always reflected in the author?  And even more precisely, is a morally starved character always a mirroring of the author’s own subconscious?  In the past, I’ve written characters who have startled those closest to me.  Those same nasty fictional beings put to page caused a widespread probing into my morals, my inner life.  But was that fair?  Is it common knowledge that a character will be a direct reflection of the author?

Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  In “Lolita at 50,” Stephen Metcalf poses the poignant question, “Why did Nabokov choose to inhabit Humbert Humbert, a pitiable half-mad émigré suffering from acute nympholepsy, in the first place?”  Here is a character tormented by his consuming lust for a twelve-year-old girl.  Did Nabokov himself harbor pedophilic tendencies because he was able to so completely inhabit the mind of a sexually perverse man?  Metcalf argues for the writing genius:

To inhabit a pedophile—and not just a pedophile, but a European pedophile, on an American soil Nabokov had himself grown to love!—was to torture in extremis his faith in the sanctity of the exquisite inner life.

Nabokov was nothing more than an accurate recorder of life’s dirty realism, and Humbert Humbert was a creature independent of his creator.

Not everyone feels the same with this topic.  What do you think?  Can authors separate themselves from their characters?

Writing in Time

Posted in Inspiration on November 2, 2009 by Lizzie

I love words.  Period.  I love novels and poems and magazine articles.  I love the way newspaper print comes off on your fingers.  I love pulling out the old dictionary to sort out a definition and getting lost somewhere between recherché and sauvignon blanc just because the words roll off the tongue in such an interesting way.  In much the same way, I love listening to the lyrics of songs on and off the radio.  In my opinion, it’s where the best poetry can be found, and today my pick comes from U2’s 1984 album, The Unforgettable Fire.  There’s a reason why U2 is my favorite band.


If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would let it go
Surrender, dislocate

If I could throw this lifeless
Lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

If I could, through myself
Set your spirit free
I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day

To let it go
And so to find a way
To let it go
And so find a way

I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no

If you should ask, then maybe
They’d tell you what I would say
True colours fly in blue and black
Blue silken sky and burning flag
Colours crash, collide in blood shot eyes

If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would let it go

This desparation
In temptation

Let it go
And so to find a way
To let it go
And so find a way

Oh, no
I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no no

Edge, Bono, Adam, and Larry

“A New Frame, A New Perspective”

Posted in Crafting with tags on October 25, 2009 by Lizzie


Markus Zusak’s idea for his novel, The Book Thief, intrigues me.  I haven’t read the book (although now there’s a post-it note by my desk reminding me to pick it up the next time I swing by a bookstore), and I really just tripped across the interview accidently.  The story is about young Liesel Meminger, a foster child growing up in Nazi Germany, a landscape most of us are all well familiar with thanks to Night and other gripping Holocaust accounts.  But this one is different: Zusak elicits Death to tell the story.

Zusak’s Death doesn’t wear a hood or carry a blade but gets a kick out of the idea.  And while humans pale at the slightest mention of him, he is just as afraid of them.  What an unusual voice.

In my writing, I often start out with one voice and continue with it until I get tired of the story and trash it.  But what if I skewed the narrative’s perspective just like Zusak did with The Book Thief?  A room often looks so different when you get down on your hands and knees or hang upside down off the bed, so why not do the same thing with writing?  Play with the perspective of a story, and it just may lead to something greater.  And if it doesn’t, no one is the wiser.

Check out the Markus Zusak clip for the story behind his curious choice of narrator.

A Writer’s Adventures in Wonderland

Posted in The Science of It All on October 16, 2009 by Lizzie

While reading Roger Rosenblatt’s essay on the tragic William Manchester, I found a curious description of the writer’s mind:

The writer’s mind, when it works, is like Alice’s rabbit, leading quickly, almost recklessly, to mysterious, yet attractive, places. The animal is fretful because it has to find and display something at the same time. A writer writes to discover what he or she thinks. Take a single sentence. Take a sentence of William Manchester’s — this sentence about Churchill’s funeral: “When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again.” Most likely, Manchester had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence.

Is this how it works?  Do all writers have furry woodland animals running down nerves and neurons in their brains?

What an image.  A thought in disguise of Lewis Carroll’s caffeinated creature.  But this is what it feels like.  One word on a billboard can erupt into a billion stinging ideas for a novel, and before you know it, you’re careening off into a ditch while trying to write down all the possible plots and characters and scenes  into a worn notebook.  And, of course, the white rabbit of thought can disappear just as suddenly as it popped up from its hole.  One minute your mind is on fire, and the next, the bunny decides to stop for tea, affectionately known as writer’s block. 

This description seems an accurate portrayal of my scattered mind.  I sit down at the computer to write, not to plan.  An outline of my story, my article, my essay is sure to be the kiss of death.  You cannot plan for what you don’t yet know. 

This concept is exactly what makes writing so intoxicating.  Writers love to read, and writing is just another form of turning pages in anticipation of what’s to come.  The mind is the storyteller, and the writer is left under the covers with the flashlight.   I write to discover more about my characters.  I write to glimpse what will happen to each of them in the end.  It’s detective work of the most thrilling kind.

Get acquainted with your own white rabbit.  After all, he’ll be around for quite a while.

Environmental Motivation

Posted in The Writing Climate on October 14, 2009 by Lizzie

Like it or not, serious writing involves some amount of routine (a taboo word in my vocabulary, too).  If you write only when you feel like writing or only when you have the time to dedicate to it, you’ll never get closer to that best-selling novel you’ve been dreaming about since the third grade.  You know you have to buckle down every day, give yourself a goal word count, and actually stick to it, but it’s difficult to do, right?

Not with the right environment.  If I settled down to write the next great American novel in my room with fluorescent lighting, piles of unfolded laundry, and a radio screaming U2’s Joshua Tree, I wouldn’t last a minute (c’mon, who can write when belting out lyrics with Bono?).  And I’d never get anything written.

I need a quiet place.  A room with soft lighting.  Candles.  My favorite books at hand.  The largest mug of coffee known to humanity.  CHOCOLATE.  This sounds like an oasis to me.  It will undoubtedly be cluttered and messy, but it will be my space.  If you can’t bring yourself to write everyday, make your writing environment an oasis where you’ll want to escape.  Whatever that looks like to you.  Wherever you find inspiration.  Although the image of the poet scratching away with quill and ink in a dusty attic or dank dungeon sounds romantic, I’d probably spend more time shivering than writing.  Find that atmosphere that works for you, and write.

Check out The Guardian‘s series: Writer’s Rooms.