The Nature of Travel Writing: Guest Contribution by Maria Rainer

How does one define travel? There are many different definitions to choose from, but ultimately, the decision is personal. Objectively, travel is almost analogous to making a journey, or changing one’s physical surroundings by moving outside of them. Another definition calls travel a way to proceed or advance. This second conceptualization of travel implies some sort of mental progress or learning, and the first idea of moving outside of one’s surroundings can also be subjectively applied to the human mind.

Why We Travel and Write

For many travel writers, the act of traveling can be both a physical journey and mental progress at once, and sometimes one or the other separately. Additionally, there is the possibility of mental travel, practicing out-of-body experiences in the literal sense. But no matter how I define travel for myself, I use it to make inquiries into my own human nature and individuality. These two entities are at opposite ends of the spectrum – human nature is ubiquitous, and individuality is very private – but what I learn about them can often be transferred between them. In my culture, it’s easy to feel that I’m losing a little bit of my humanity every day, but by traveling and interacting with others, I’m able to realize that there are more dimensions to me as an individual.

Defining Travel

If I were to define travel for myself, I would call it expansion. It is possible to literally expand my horizons by physically traveling, and it is also possible to expand the “contact zone” (a term used by Mary Louise Pratt in her celebrated book Imperial Eyes) in my mind, where new ideas meet long-held ones and provoke growth. Traveling in either sense often means dealing with conflicting information and resolving that conflict personally. By doing so, and defining the “other” (to use Pratt’s term), I expand my understanding in three different dimensions: the physical world, human nature, and my individual self. It’s a natural response, wanting to identify the “other” – but in many cases, the “other” is all too familiar once I make the effort to truly understand it.

Why We Read Travelogues

However, I am also of the opinion that traveling and travel writing aren’t about throwing terms around, taking without giving. I have the travel bug, but I’m also conscientious about my impact on the people and places I visit and I try to maintain an awareness of their impact on me. In order for travel to be successful, there has to be an exchange – of ideas, of resources, of ourselves – and this makes travel worth writing about. Many readers are interested in our travel writings as opportunities to vicariously visit the places we’ve seen. But many others are hooked on travelogues because they highlight a human element that’s familiar rather than exotic.

The Future of Travel Writing

In Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan’s book, Tourists with Typewriters, they mention Evelyn Waugh’s statement that “the end of travel writing, and of real travel itself, [is] drawing nigh”. Waugh believed that “a certain approach to travel and the travel book [was] no longer possible.” It is obvious that Waugh was considering travel in the literal sense: the ability to grab one’s passport and travel to a foreign place. Waugh’s postwar prediction is now outdated and debunked, but it still raises an interesting question about the nature of travel: will there ever be one ubiquitously accepted definition of travel, or will the number of definitions continue to grow? With so many definitions of travel, it seems virtually impossible to state that the end of travel writing is approaching. There will always be someone publishing a travelogue or other nonfictional travel work because there will always be authors redefining travel itself.

Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education and performs research surrounding online schools. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.


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