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Don George relaxing in Bali (Photograph courtesy Don George)

Why (and How) Travel Writing Moves Us

I sat down with Don George, editor at large at National Geographic Traveler and author of Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing, and asked him to wax philosophical about how and why travel writing gets under our skin, who inspired him to become a travel writer in the first place, and what he thinks about the explosion of travel blogging and the future of the craft itself.

Here’s what he had to say:

Leslie Trew Magraw: Why do you think travel writing has such a wide appeal?

Don George: Really great travel writing is ultimately about connection.

As human beings, connection is incredibly incredibly important to all of us; it’s the thing we need to keep going. And, so, when we vicariously are connected to a place and an experience that has very much gotten inside of a writer and moved him in some way, it enriches us and expands us–which, I think, is why great travel writing has this allure, this influence, this effect. You feel like a bigger richer better human being for having read it, whether it’s an article in a magazine, a blog post, or a book.

On another level I think there is a popular sense that what travel writers do is kind of go “la la la” around the planet and have wonderful experiences and write about them and, somehow, someone magically pays for them, and what could be better than the life of the travel writer? Those of us who actually make a living in the field know that while there are moments of that, there are lots and lots of moments when we are somewhere thinking, “Why in the world did I become a travel writer?”

For me, I have to say I feel incredibly lucky to have made my living as a travel writer and editor. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling thing. Part of that fulfillment is getting to connect with readers, which enriches my life in ways I can’t express. I feel like a bigger, fuller, richer human being because of the way readers have reacted to my pieces.

LTM: Is there someone you can point to that you can learn about the craft from?

DG: The person I consider to be my personal mentor in this regard is John McPhee. He’s been a staff writer at The New Yorker forever.

[At Princeton] he taught me that non-fiction writing is every bit as worthy as fiction writing, that a great non-fiction writer should be revered in the same way a novelist is, that writing really is a craft–something you can work at and improve, that every single word counts, and that reading is just as important of an act for a writer as writing. He made me respect the very act of non-fiction writing–both the responsibility that you have as a non-fiction writer and the opportunity that you have.

I hold him up hugely as an example of a great writer who gets research right, his sentences are meticulous. He is just an amazing case study for what great writing is.

LTM: What’s your favorite piece of travel writing?

DG: For me the best travel book ever written is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. It’s an amazing textbook on some level about how incredibly rich and engaging a work of non-fiction can be.  It also literally changed my life because it inspired me to make a decision that I had been afraid to make: to take the leap and become a travel writer myself.

Pico Iyer is another writer that I just revere because his sentences are just so incredibly polished and honed and lyrical, and the rhythms of his writing are so beautifully modulated.

LTM: How do you feel about the explosion of travel blogging, and what do you feel are a writer’s responsibilities to his or her readers, regardless of the platform he or she is using?

DG: I have deeply ambivalent feelings about the explosion of blogging. On the one hand, I think it’s very liberating for writers to realize that they can just publish their own work–that they don’t have to deal with the whole traditional process of submitting their work to an editor who may not read it, like it, or publish it.

While that’s great, it means that, as a reader, you have to wade through this forest of uncurated content to find the good stuff. That’s hugely daunting for readers and, in a way, it’s kind of daunting for writers, too. Even though it might be easy to publish yourself, there is a certain lack of incentive to make yourself better or to hold yourself to a higher standard.

In this vein, I think that it’s important for bloggers to keep in mind that they are serving a reader, and that the reader deserves the most accurate content, the most honest content, and the highest quality content possible. It’s really all about engagement. I think it’s crucial for bloggers to keep certain standards in mind and to think about the writer/reader relationship. In my mind it’s a sacred relationship that needs to be nurtured and respected.

Leslie Trew Magraw is the editor and producer of the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter @leslietrew.