When is a “crystalline description” actually a cliché?
Every travel writer fantasizes about the beautifully written narrative that he or she will craft after a meaningful journey. I’m no exception. Endlessly fascinated by the landscapes, culture, and history of my native Hawai‘i, I have written many travel pieces about my home, as well as about other places—France and Fiji, Rome and Delhi, San Francisco and Carmel Valley.
But as newspapers shrink their travel sections, and travel magazines slip away, and as editors imagine “packages” rather than “narratives” (or “charticles” and “chunklets” rather than “articles”), the chances to write long and languid grow few. It’s more typical to get an assignment of 400 words than 4,000, no matter what you propose.
It’s especially hard to write a sparkling piece when editors ask you to cover a lot of ground in such a cramped space. What is jettisoned first? Local characters and their distinctive way of talking. What goes next? Metaphors that take space to develop. Or descriptions that veteran travel editor Thomas Swick calls “atmospheric,” because they put the reader into a place.
In such a pinch, we all reach for generic nouns and easy adjectives. Even if we know that the path to the universal lies in the particular, sometimes, it seems, we just don’t have space for the particular.
I’ve often sweated over how to compress all my complex ideas about one Hawaiian place into a few terse lines. I started by considering synonyms for town. Village was nice, because it offered the possibility of alliteration (“Seaside village below volcanic mountains”), but I ended up going with hamlet (“a tiny hamlet tucked between volcanic mountains and crystalline seas”). It was all I could do, in grasping for a shorthand description, to avoid picturesque, charming, and quaint. Clichés! I managed to slip in details: “a missionary church, white-and-green shacks, narrow streets” as well as “a chaos of art galleries, colorful boutiques, and tourists in Hawaiian shirts or skimpy sarongs.”
Swick, who was the legendary travel editor at the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, says this about the clichés of travel writing: “Most are adjectives: magical, mystical, charming, exotic,” he noted. “But there is at least one verb: nestled.”
Uh-oh. That’s dangerously close to my “tucked”!
And the nouns? Swick notes that people rarely write about trips anymore; everything is an “adventure, or a “wonder,” or a “paradise.” The latter, he adds, is the most irresistible of all. “I thought its days were numbered after National Geographic Traveler used it on its cover story about Bali the same month as the Kuta Beach bombings,” Swick wrote. “But ‘paradise’ made a speedy recovery and now appears in almost any story about a place where palm trees grow.”
Swick generously let me quote from his post, “In Tireless Pursuit of Paradise,” and you can find more of his ideas on writing at thomasswick.com. Many travel writers I know reread his 2001 essay “Roads Not Taken” every couple of years to make sure they keep taking the right road in their prose. Another provocative essay on travel writing is one Paul Theroux published in 2003 for the Washington Post’s Book World.