The weekly good today is authenticity, especially as it applies to the travel writing genre, although I think what I'm about to say could apply to anything, really.
The word "authenticity" is thrown about wildly these days. Everyone talks about being more authentic: we can buy books on it, watch television talk shows devoted to it, pay for weekend seminars to find it. We can travel to the other side of the world to explore it, as some locales are sold to us under the guise of being a hidden secret envelope of authentic experiences, a culture and society with practices far different than our own which have the key to ending our selfish stagnation. If we are truly devoted to it, we can seek out a belief system, giving us the basic precepts which will lead us to it, guaranteed, if we follow the rules and act with discretion. Or we can go the another route, and reject everything known and come up with our own set of reasonings and rules which lead down the road to authenticity.
I'm sure some of these things work, in great measure or small. But I think authenticity begins and ends with what is inside of us, what our desires are and how that fits with our purpose.
I speak as someone with experience. I've done some of those things I listed off above. I've always strived to be authentic, not because of any particular inner drive, but because my early life showed me that there was a significant difference in the ways and outcomes of how one choses to experience the world. Authenticity itself, as a way of living, seems like it will take a lifetime, as for me it's part of the larger process of self actualization. It is only in writing, in words, in stories, that I have met authenticity head on with some success. In trying to learn how to be authentic I have given up a great deal, but what I have gained is a real voice, solid, comfortable. That voice is something that I get to keep, but I also have to continue working for it. It is a constant stretch of my mind and a letting go of what is easy, popular, or convenient.
Writing, and travel writing in particular, is well acquainted with writers and bloggers which dazzle the reader and audience with claims of authenticity. On one hand, I don't want to add to that, which is one reason why I've never written this kind of thing on my website before. On the other hand, we are in a state of chaos as a genre: the genre itself is in need of an overhaul, as the things that bind us together, the love of place and cultures, is being torn apart by a lack of authenticity.
What I notice happens when people reach a moment's respite from the pressures of selling oneself and products (including places) and they stand momentarily on that plateau of authenticity... is that sometimes they promptly fall off. Money is the grand divider, generally speaking. As is fame, importance, accolades. People moved by these things remind me of puffer fish, puffing up over nothing, the temporary taking center stage when it is the journey itself that is our master. An example of the temporary taking our attention away from being authentic is when people pay more attention to marketing than to words. A perfect example of the creative death of the writer within.
Now, marketers might argue with me about this, but then that is to be expected: that is their job to convince me that I cannot get followers or readers based on talent and hard work, but must jump through artificial hoops. Now, that's not saying some of those hoops aren't useful--they are. But the center of the stage is for the stars: the words themselves.
I've been writing and participating fully in the genre of travel writing for about a year, and what I see are two very distinct camps. The first camp is made up of editors; fine literary travel writers in the traditional sense; wonderful writers from other genres who are entering the travel writing scene and changing it for the better; and some incredibly talented heady and far reaching websites and blogs that cover travel and place in a quality way, sometimes mixing promotional/service pieces with words well crafted.
And then there is the second camp. The second camp is not discussed often, as whenever it is, bruising occurs, for it is a bit like a soft ripe fruit from an overwatered tree that rapidly grows fruits that look delicious but are lacking in flavor, fragile and mushy.
The second camp has tiers with in it, but basically, these are writers who are blogging and writing various kinds of travel writing, which is not authentic and not well thought out. Sadly, (unbelievably!) many people enter the world of travel writing to make money as their first priority, and writing and love of place through an authentic voice is never considered to be a possibility that could work in tandem with their platform. So it comes off like paid marketing, rather than writing. But it doesn't have to...
It's time for these two worlds to not be in separate camps, but collide.
We are at moment in history that has never happened before: people no longer need to read travel writers to discover a place. In the past, people relied on travel writers to show them the world, and while it's true that there are still "undiscovered" places, most places and peoples that want to be found have been. And while this state of affairs has been in progress for some time, at this precise moment, right now, people are looking for something new.
It's not just as simple as that, that people are looking for something new. People have lost hope, and are depressed, lonely, isolated, oftentimes working jobs or living lives which don't fulfill them. And one thing we know, from being travel writers, is that we understand that, because we too, were unfulfilled until we got off the couch ourselves. And it's not just our personal lives that need good travel stories to take us places: our world, in many ways, is falling apart. It is in a state of environmental emergency paired with the disappearance of entire peoples, languages, animals, plants, and histories. In this rapidly changing landscape, the travel writer has a new role, the one of activism. A travel writer can be an activist for truth, telling what they see, sharing it wisely, and showing--not telling--what is happening in the places they visit. This can be done in any context, whether writing a personal essay or writing about a tour; whether writing for a literary anthology or writing for a cruise line. This is truly the birthing-time of the ethical travel writer.
What people need travel writers to do, is to be authentic. People need talented wordsmiths, who craft gorgeous stories about places, and who put themselves inside the story. People need authenticity, truthfulness, and connection to the writers they read.
Activism might seem like a strong word, but if all travel writers worked hard to craft beautiful stories, essays, and features about places and the people they find there, imagine what it would do the genre. It would lift it to its proper place, a place of illumination and education, a place of soul searching and identity. Travel writers have the potential to do something no other writers can: they can go places no one is going, and they can write in such a way that they bring people there alongside them. They can show the world as they see it, not from some lofty place, but moving about it intimately.
This call to authenticity could be applied to anyone writing for the public, whether they are writing about childcare and being a mother, or politics and gender, or exploration and environment. Each genre crosses over into the next, and each genre has a special way of looking at the world at large that can be expanded to include more of what is real.
It is, however, the travel genre that needs immediate attention tonight. A call to action. I hope you consider these suggestions as they are given: subtle for some, wild and expansive for others, but hopefully enriching either way.
Some Ideas For Writing Travel Authentically:
1.) Don't write what you don't love.
If you are writing stuff that is not good, admit it, and stop doing it. If you don't have the time to write something well, write less, and write better.
2.) Words are gifts.
If your response to that is that content is the paycheck, then think about this: why does content have to exclude being in love with the writing you create? Shouldn't you be crafting the most amazing informational piece of your life? Words are gifts.
3.) Write more. Brand less.
When I see someone talking more about brand than writing, the first thing I do read is their work, and I can always tell that it would be to their advantage to write more and brand less. If your website talks about brand more than writing--and frankly if it is more than a mere mention--you aren't writing. You're selling. Who are you selling yourself to? Your readers? Other bloggers? Possible editors? Well, if you're any good, you won't have to even mention it. Just produce good writing on your topic or place every single time. Talking about how great you are just says, "I'm not that great." Writing well says you are extraordinary.
If you write for paid trips and promote places in exchange for writing about them, provide full disclosure. Personally, I've stopped reading any travel blogs that don't disclose at least the basics. I don't like being sold something; I want to read about the inner journey or at the very least, the truth. This may not be possible all of time, for example, on paid pieces. But on your website, it is entirely possible.(This is supposedly a controversial topic, but I'm not sure why it would be. Seems both practical and logical to me.)
5.) Work on the core. Writing well.
Things like SEO and so forth are important, but what is more important is that you write well. Work on your writing every single day. Crossing over into other genres helps a lot, because it gets you in touch with your voice and makes your narrative stronger. Personally I pay no attention to SEO or followers. I have them, but that's not why I get writing jobs. I'd also add this bit of advice: take anything a marketing person says with a great deal of salt. It's their business to sell their ideas to you, use discernment. Don't lose your authentic voice to gain readers, you'll be unhappy if you do. Maybe not right away, but eventually you'll be leading a life guided not by who you are, but who you purport to be. If you're really set on getting your site marketed, then consider this: get a writing teacher or mentor to balance that out--preferably someone who writes incredibly well in the literary tradition. You have to work on the core, too, not just the Emperor's clothes.
6.) Create writing that lets readers linger.
Just because writing in a particular fashion or format is popular, doesn't mean you need to do it too. Most of the time, things are popular because they are easy, not because they are worthwhile. Let's use the example of lists, as I'm using one as a tool here rather than the centerpiece. If you use these kinds of tools on their own, it is not writing. It is a tool. Figure out how to connect popular ways of doing things with a richer narrative that shows your talents. Believe that people want worthwhile content and craft your work so that you raise the bar not just for yourself, but your readers. They will come to see your writing as a destination, a respite where they can take hold, rather than a five minute escape.
There is no golden rule that says you have to stay in your category, and yes! you really can be authentic and write beautifully on any platform. Try writing for a literary travel anthology. Try writing for a content marketing firm. Try writing for a cruise line. Try writing for a travel website. Try travel poetry. Try travel sketching alongside essays. Try a magazine about a topic you've never written about, like sailing or history. Try all these platforms on, and pay attention to the quality you contribute, as well as the quality of the writing alongside you. You may find yourself a trailblazer of sorts. Travel writers, to be authentic, need to be renaissance writers, able to dabble and sometimes delve deeply into everything.
8.) Move outside of the travel genre.
Maybe your work gets followed by people writing exactly what you write, but that is no huge coup. What would be more impressive if you got writers outside of your genre to read your travel writing and like it. If you can do that, you're writing well. If you can do that and still meet your obligations as a travel writer, you've achieved authenticity. Now repeat that, over and over, forever.
9.) Push out, not in.
Follow and read travel websites which push your limits about what travel writing is. Move out of your comfort zone and your network of people who write about the same things you do. For example, if you write family travel, try reading the websites of Artic explorers for awhile. Or if you write literary travel, try on luxury travel blogs for awhile. (I'm always fascinated by what I learn about what I like, love, or need to improve about my own work when I leave my comfort zone.)
10.) No is a beautiful word!
Say no to promoting things you don't like, or that don't fit your platform. My own choice is to keep my website and travels promotion free, but if the time comes that I decide to incorporate that, it will be because it fits with I'm trying to create. If you have any doubt, say no. No is a beautiful word!
This is our moment, as travel writers. We hold a lot of power and influence in creating ways for people to see the world, but only if we are authentic. Authenticity attracts because it is needed. Give yourself the gift of making authentic choices in your writing this year and in your life.
The weekly good is authenticity. It's time.
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