Posted by: justnaturallyme | September 2, 2008

The Heart and Soul of Travel Writing

Today, I am headed for the airport and Travel Media Showcase. I thought this might be a good point to discuss what makes travel writing different from any other kind of writing.

Now matter how far you roam; successful travel writing is governed by what you carry within your soul not what you see with your eyes when you visit a place. If you are not searching for your own past, you cannot translate the beauty of white soaring columns of a Greek Revival mansion in the South to mere words on paper. You cannot capture the spirit of elation embodied in the Liberty Bell.  You cannot “see” what you do not have within you.

When I consider many of the places I have written about, I realize it takes more than what exist in the here and now to make a good story. You need something else In order to transport your readers to a night of harmony at Georgia’s Springer Opera House; you must have music in your soul.

When you visit the Space Museum in Cape Kennedy you need to see more than metal monsters that can face the unknowns of space and the massive VAB. You need to see the men and women who have given their life for this project. You need to remember the  Apollo, the Challenger and the Columbia missions that succeeded as well as the ones that ended in terrible tragedy.

Apollo Launch Pad

Apollo Launch Pad

The travel writer who seeks to tell of the Appalachian weaver of carver must value the beauty of handmade, one of a kind objects. When you listen to a mountain musician play at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, you must show your readers much more than one man with a fiddle. You need to go the roots of his music. See the lonely mountain settlers a century or more ago. Watch them gather on the isolated cabin porches for a sorghum harvest.  Listen as those illiterate but talented word weavers transposed the plaintive ballads of Ireland or Scotland to fit their new Appalachian home.

This spills over into the local color you put into fiction sometimes. My travel writing helped shape my novel, Kudzu, and bring the Appalachian culture to life so much more than if I had never written about these things for travel articles.

Spinner at an Appalachian Festival

Spinner at an Appalachian Festival

When you walk through The Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon, you cannot just see group of beautifully arranged exhibits. You must instead see the Black craftsman or artisan learning to create blending the processes learned in his native land with those of a culture that was alien to him. With this piece of pottery, he brought back a part of his village. With that painting, she showed others the rich life she had before

When I was working on my travel books, Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms Host With Ghosts and Wild About Florida more than ever before, I realized the importance of all that went before in shaping the scene the present day visitor sees. Many of the old homes, like Hay House in Macon would be interesting in a way to a certain group of people. An architect would be amazed at the construction. An artist would marvel at the wonderful works of art like the white marble stature of Ruth, So special it had its own room built just to showcase it. But add to that the story of William Johnson and his young wife Annie, who called the house her fairy palace. All of Johnson’s money could not bring back their children who died or restore Annie’s health. These are the things that make it a story. Not the fact that it is a magnificent American Castle that surpassed the White House in “Modern” conveniences in the 1800’s.

Hay House

Hay House

The Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville, GA is just an interesting old burial ground until you consider the occupants. Dixie Haygood who could lift a table with five men seated on it is was reputed to be a witch. Dixie preformed before the royalty of Europe’s and the rich and powerful of this country. In spite of her “gift”, she spent much of her later years in the state mental hospital and died at fifty-four. She is buried there in an unmarked grave.

Thomas Fish His wife and child died shortly after he returned home from the Civil War. It was his final defeat. He walled himself up alive inside the tomb of his dead wife.

With these stories, the old cemetery comes alive.

The Old Cherokee Capital of New Echota is just a historical re-creation until you think of the American tragedy of the Trail of Tears that wiped out one fourth of a proud culture.

When you look upon the printing press used to create The Phoenix, the only bilingual Native American newspaper ever, when you visualize Elias Boudinot, a Harvard educated Cherokee and its first editor, toiling late into the night to tell his people’s side of the story. When you sit in their council house and realize how similar to out own government theirs was, only then do you begin to feel the true meaning of this site.

And this is so with all of the places a travel writer visits. Until the writer recognizes the creativity of those who left their mark on this particular area, it’s just another place. It may have fancy lodgings, world class restaurants and tons of attractions but when you put it in the prospective of its history, its culture, the talents of the people who made this place different from any other spot on earth, it’s something else entirely.

That is what makes good travel writing. The creativity of those who lived and died in this place blended with the writer’s creativity into a story that comes to life. That’s what breathes a heart and soul into your travel articles.

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