Friday, 23 May 2014

Travel writing workshop

Peter Carty - Travel writing workshops

Never been to a writing workshop so I had no idea what it was going to be like. Arrived 5 minutes early but still too late to hide in the back row. It was like being at school again - posturing to find out where we were in the group and trying not to catch the eye of the teacher. There were lots of middle class white young women and then some older people.

We had to do that classic icebreaker where you chat to your neighbour with a view to introducing them to the group. This was where the contest for most-exotic-country-visited was played out. Living in Hong Kong, recently been to Borneo and flew in from Sydney came top. I felt like a fraud - more interested in the writing part of the workshop in an attempt to expand what i write (a blog post is never going to be a short story in my current style) than in the specifics of travel writing. My partner and i both decided we were a little intimidated by the rest of the group - we both were bloggers but by no means felt like professional writers, although she was a copywriter so she kind of beat me.

The first part of the course was about writing itself - making it interesting, balance between fact and experience, the atmosphere of a place. Lots of discussion about the use of cliche, hackneyed phrases of the genre, very interesting thing about beginnings (many of which were actually more like the start of novels - better at drawing me in personally than some of the gushy, over-enthusiastic travel writing we find in brochures - this was a bit of a revelation to be honest, started to feel like there was a path to be followed potentially), lots of discussion about the pieces of writing we had been asked to read before we came - some liked them, others didn't for a vareity of reasons. Then we had to write 100 words on one of three themes:
  • view from a high place
  • beach scene
  • sunrise or sunset

A slow ascent looking out over the green fields of Hyde Park intersected by white paths and milling people shrinking into the distance. Up over the tree tops until we could see Marble Arch and the buildings at the top end of Oxford Street. Grey London rooftops, traffic in Park Lane. Suddenly whipped face down back to earth with the g-force of the Tornado we were riding on.

Some were enthusiastic reader-outers, others of us hid in our seats and tried not to attract any attention! It all seemed a bit too soon for public consumption of my lowly blogger efforts in my own quaky voice. Later we had to do 100 words that would be an introduction to somewhere we had been recently (not having been terribly far recently I thought back).

"Barrier, barrier, barrier" the man hanging out of the window shouts. We pile into the vehicle, people, shopping and live chickens, me the only abronyi on the bus. The conductor slides the door shut and we take off into the traffic on the dusty pot-holed road, quietly crossing our fingers that the string holding the door shut is strong.

Not being called on to read out again, left me with a false sense of security in my own blogging-bubble (nobody needs to hear it, therefore I can avoid being ashamed of the drivel I may be writing - perhaps thats what is comforting about blogging - not that much critical feedback comes in, and you can bathe in the stats of readership that at least someone out there likes to read the drivel, perhaps over and over!).

Final part of the morning looked at structure and how to make sense of a place, quotes and interviews from local people, local knowledge gleaned from 'interviewing' people, some facts, some sense of how the writing experienced the place and neatly rounding up a piece at the end (perhaps returning to the beginning, or a recurring theme) to make it seem whole. And then we were thrown out to get some lunch and write a postcard on one of a number of local places.

Icons of London [I'm thinking of this always in the tune of Werewolfs of London by Warren Zevon - for some unknown reason]
Fitzrovia is a slightly shabby back street neighbourhood in the heart of London overseen by the British Telecom Tower. Once the tallest building in London at 627ft, it was the iconic skyscraper of my childhood - cylindrical, glass and covered in satelite dishes - a prominent pointer to a digital future. It remains one of the better London tall buildings even now with the city's burgeoning high-rising skyscape. In my early childhood I was promised a visit to the famous revolving restaurant on the 34th floor but sadly the IRA bombing of it meant it was shut before I was taken. Opened in 1965 when Fitzrovia was probably a more industrious neighbourhood it is now planted in an area surrounded by student accomodation, neighbourhood restaurants and independent art galleries. Slightly grubby and vacant the Telecom Tower is a much-loved icon still.

Afternoon sessions were about pitching, selling yourself as a writing, writing your first piece, how to get published (market, which publications, type of travel those publications would be interested in, difference between writing for web and writing for print, cold calling). Extremely valuable advice for people getting starting as travel writers. Making it not seem exactly easy - but certainly achievable if you follow the guidelines. We worked in groups pitching ideas of destinations to one another, feeding back as a group. Each individual's idea was given feedback - very useful to get you thinking about how to write travel pieces (what to write about if you are going to a common destination - how to think about what is interesting about your trip, never start with the journey for instance, remember you may be on holiday with your family but you are also working - set the boundaries before you go). Useful not only for budding travel writers, but also potentially for student potters who may want to sell their work.... but I digress.

And then fatefully we had to read out our lunchtime tasks, and I didn't manage to escape this time. Feedback was: more local interest needed - interview people, more of me, fewer facts. Its an issue of a. speed writing and b. not quite knowing what I'm trying to do. Blogging is a short thing, usually for me. And I manage to do it in my head as I go about. This is a proper task. And perhaps I shouldn't have been writing about the tower as much as the neighbourhood, and getting a sense of its atmosphere more than just this is what it is. I don't have to consider any of this kind of thing with the writing I generally do. So its a very useful exercise - think about the purpose of the writing, and who the audience is - write to that criteria, don't pander to your own eccentricities. And with that we were turfed out onto the street again. An extremely thought-provoking workshop.


MEISTER-Blog said...

You can do this right in your own backyard--because people like me would LOVE love love to be inside your head as you take us on trips around the UK, and you wouldn't have to go that far. I just finished reading Lost On Planet China, which is a travel writer's version of China, which I think you will enjoy reading, if you have not. Funny author. Insightful mind. I can totally see a book by you on anywhere in England. You could go further once the publisher starts paying you to travel. You're a natural. I say DO IT!

Harriet (the fshlady) said...

That's fantastic encouragement! It's making me laugh out loud in the tube. Thank you. Brightened my day.