In her essay about life on tour with a rock band, Claire L. Evans says that travel teaches her more about time than it does about place. I agree.
My favorite kind of “travel writing” — or I suppose writing about place — embarks on an inner journey, and uses a physical location as a diving board into one’s depths, into their mind. On a recent plane ride, I read a lovely piece called “Seeds” by Thao Thai about her grandfather and his garden, growing up, and Vietnam.
The post isn’t about “travel,” and yet the journey the writer takes me on is expansive and revealing: about more than just place, and about something within me, my own childhood, and those who are close to me. A number of the writers at Vela take me on these journeys: traveling into those hidden, secret parts we have, deep down, that we also share.
This is not a travel blog.
Or is it?
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I set up Writing Through the Fog in 2008 to focus on my freelance work at the time, and my older informational posts on Ibiza, Berlin, Austin, and other places continue to be wildly popular. But this blog has transformed into a personal space for musings on everything and nothing in particular: thoughts on the internet and technology, and how my life and relationships have evolved. Sprinkle in a dose of the writing life, a bit of street art, and ideas on consumption and culture. Voila! Welcome to my (unfocused) blog.
Indeed, I write about places I explore and share photographs from my trips — like my recent post on Vietnam. But I don’t think travel is my niche. So I wonder what others think about my writing, and how they view this blog, seeing that I’m included in travel bloggerly lists, added to travel lists on Twitter, and referred to here and there as a travel blogger/writer.
What does it mean, then, to write about travel?
And ultimately, does it matter?
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One of the founders at Maptia, a platform for travel narrative and storytelling, invited me to publish on the site. I created a few stories: A Brush with Time in Granada, on revisiting Granada and the conjuring of memories and confronting a past self; and Roots Versus Wanderlust, on the struggle between exploring the world and wanting to build a permanent home.
On Maptia, you can tag text and images in your stories with a geographic location. So, let’s say you create a story about Spain. You can add locations to various parts of your story — Granada, Madrid, Barcelona; or even locations within a location, so when writing about Granada, you can tag locations like the Alhambra, or the Albayzin, or the jamón shop on the corner.
I noticed in both of my stories, my locations were sometimes off — it’s not that they were geographically inaccurate, but there was a disconnect between what I wrote and where I physically was.
I’d written, for example, about sitting on a bench at Mirador de San Nicolas, the viewpoint atop Granada’s Albayzin neighborhood overlooking the Alhambra palace. I was there, but my mind was elsewhere, as it usually is: Off in the past. Recalling failed relationships. Thinking about what I was doing when I’d last visited — in 2010 — and who I used to be.
We are wanderers in body and mind. In these moments, how do we pinpoint a location?
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Stay in the moment. Get to the point. Describe what’s in front of you. I once read a comment from a professional travel editor about a post I wrote for a press trip on a cruise to the Caribbean that said if I’m writing about X, write about X. Don’t write about Y or Z.
That’s when I realized I wasn’t that kind of travel writer.
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The intangible locations in my Roots Versus Wanderlust story on Maptia are even more apparent. I wander the IKEA store in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, freaked out about accumulating stuff, and I don’t really go anywhere at all. As I wander the labyrinth of furniture, I daydream about a picnic under the trees at St. James’s Park in London. I imagine lying in a hammock with my beloved, along an unnamed sea. It could be the Mediterranean, or the Caribbean, or the Pacific. Or even the Red Sea, on which he and I eventually created memories.
How would you trace this narrative on a map of the world?
Can we treat physical places — cities, countries — as blank canvases for the mind?
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I guess I understand being labeled a travel writer of sorts. To some, traveling simply means exploring, whatever your world. Whatever your reality. In that sense, I’m flattered people come here to read what I write and consider my journeys — even the ones in mundane places like an IKEA — to take them somewhere.