All Writing is Travel Writing

As I’ve been rambling about on my book tour for The Moon, Come to Earth, I’ve been interviewed here and there, and it does the mind good to be sharpened by questions coming at you from unexpected angles. After a good conversation, I can find myself mulling over the exchange for days afterward.

After all this chat about travel writing, I’ve been thinking about its dual nature, how the external journey is strengthened by an accompanying, echoing inner journey. Travel can be both an exhausting and exhilarating experience, one that can push us past borders of comfort we had perhaps never before recognized. The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered, the moment comes when plodding thought sprouts wings. Also, because our past travels travel with us, those overlapping inner maps can add complexity to our expectations of what we will experience.

I’ve come to the conclusion that all writing, whether non-fiction, fiction or poetry, is a type of travel writing, and that a reader experiences an imaginative or literary work as a form of travel. That experience, of course, is often interior: a journey through a narrator’s thoughts, the discovery of empathy for an initially unsympathetic character, or tracking the unfolding flight of a poem’s central metaphor. From this perspective, one could say that house-bound Emily Dickinson is one of our greatest travel writers. The best writing takes us to a place we’ve never been to before so that, on return, even if only in a small way, we return changed.

Travel isn’t simply a geographical exercise. A journey into the land of adolescence, for example, is perhaps the loneliest type of travel there is. The acceptance of one’s suppressed sexual orientation is another form of travel, from one state of personal understanding to another. The list could go on and on. And so every work of literature should offer a journey, the challenge of an interior excursion, a secret mapping that leads a reader to him or herself.

While you can’t say that all writing is actuarial table writing, or all writing is cookbook writing (well, maybe), I think it’s safe to say that all writing is travel writing.

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  • 5 Comments

    1. Kate says:

      No one has commented yet and so I will! I love this idea. I think it’s so freeing. We may be at work, sipping coffee, but just remember– our minds can take us anywhere. The places we’ve been are still with us. At least, that is what I try tell myself at the Monday morning meeting….

    2. Vitor Magueijo says:

      Hi Philip,

      In the last few days I had the good fortune of stumbling across some reference to your latest book (The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon). You see, I am a Portuguese citizen living in the UK for some time and when the saudade afflicts me I have to spend some time in the Web looking for new music, news and photos of my beloved Portugal. After living in Lisboa for 13 years (I am originally from a tiny mountain village in the Serra da Gardunha) it is difficult to let go that city. As someone says on a YouTube LonelyPlanet travel video entitled ‘What is saudade?’, “you don’t find (real) saudade in Lisboa, you find it when you leave Lisboa” (the parenthesis is mine).

      I devoured your dispatches posted on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency website and felt like travelling with you and your family through the streets of Lisboa. I just let myself go with you through familiar places, pastelarias, corners…and I enjoyed every single moment. In the end I spoke inward and said “This in an unfair, unbalanced situation. I now know so many things about this lovely family, I walked with them to various physical spaces and inner thoughts and this man knows nothing about me. I have to send a feedback, this position as a ‘voyeur’ is becoming unbearable”. That is why I had to write this post.

      I am a fraction of the generational chunk born after the post-25 April democratic revolution and I felt immensely grateful to you when you described so accurately our dreams and frustrations as a generation in your last dispatch (Dispatch 20: Fairly Medieval). I have used the verb “feel” several times in this small text (er…not that small really), perhaps too many times, but that just a reflexion of what your book is capable of doing so well: transmitting feelings.

      Muito obrigado.

      Vitor

    3. Great post. I love the thought that whether we live abroad or never leave home that we are all travel writers in our own life’s journey.

    4. Yeah, I love the idea about Travel isn’t simply a geographical exercise.

    5. I really agree with you that Travel is not simply a geographical exercise but a journey into the land of adolescence……!!
      i am very much impressed at your writing..

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