We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live* – TBEX’10 Wrap Up

This past Saturday, I participated in a TBEX panel about travel writing with a group of guys that are among my personal writing heroes. Jim Benning, David Farley, Don George, Mike Yessis — thank you.

There were a few things that I spoke about during my portion of the panel that require more detailed attribution than I could give at the time.

  • The Situation and the Story

Great travel writing, I opined, goes beyond the situation and tells a story.  The situation is the circumstances, the what-happened. The story  is the larger sense of what the writer can make of what happened. I first encountered this analysis of Vivian Gornick’s book The Situation and the Story, which I’ve read so many times now that the pages are wavy. (I tend to spill things on books I read often.) In fact, I’d stashed the book in my purse just in case I’d have an opportunity to whip it out during the panel and read one part that directly applies to travel writing:

I remember once my then husband and I, and a friend of ours, when on a rafting trip down the Rio Grande. The river was hot and wild; sad, brilliant, remote; closed in by canyon walls, desert banks, snakes, and flash floods; on one side Texas, the other Mexico: a week after we’d been there, snipers on the Mexico side killed two people also floating on a raft. Later, we each wrote about the trip. My husband focused brightly on the “river rats” who were our guides, our friend soberly on the misery of illegal immigration, I morbidly on what strangers my husband and I had become.

Shared situation, totally different stories. We travel writers are absolutely rich with situations, it’s stories that are the challenge.

  • All Great Stories are  Mysteries

A story, defined: a character experiences change through conflict. We often think that these complications have to be physical: i.e. outsmarting a murderer! Outrunning the bear! Sometimes both at the same time!  And the truth is, those are easier stories to identify and to tell.  But the complication can also be an important question, or something more subtle. Also, because we’re writing nonfiction, the resolution doesn’t have to be satisfying, and the change doesn’t have to necessarily be profound. But you must have complication/conflict and you’ve got to have a change or a shift.

For all of this, I am indebted to Robert McKee’s Story workshop — which was a fairly unpleasant, but incredibly useful weekend. And his book Story.

And as for the element of mystery: “All good writing is mystery writing,” writes Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting. “We may begin reading out of mild curiosity, to pass the time, but we keep reading to unravel the mystery. If there is no tension, we stop caring.”

  • Take Your Experiences Seriously, But Not Personally

Travel writing that I find not-so-enjoyable tends to lack self-awareness, self-implication, or both.

By self-awareness, I mean, having a sense of where you are in relationship to what you’re writing about.  Your story is only a small part of the overall story of the place you’re visiting.

By self-implication, I mean that it’s important to turn your scrutiny on yourself. (David Farley does this very well in his PT story My Special Education: The Semi-Retard’s Guide to Learning Italian.)

In other words, take your experiences seriously, but not personally. I read it in a book having nothing to do with writing or traveling, called Coming to Our Senses, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I like the full quote even better, although it’s long and convoluted. It’s important to:

“take one’s experience seriously but not personally, and with a healthy dose of lightheartedness and humor, especially in the face of the colossal suffering we are immersed in by virtue of being human, and in light of the ultimate evanescence of those distorting lenses called our opinions and our views that we so often cling to in trying desperately to make sense of the world and of ourselves.”

  • “Panic has its narrative uses”

That was an oft-Tweeted quote from my remarks. It was entirely off the cuff, and mine, all mine. I am a panic artiste.

  • Finally: TBEX Community Keynote and Introducing #travelstory

On the second and final day of TBEX,  Mike Barish and Pam Mandel selected and read a few great travel narratives.  I was not at all involved in this effort, but it struck me as the perfect bookend to the panel on travel writing: examples of great stories in action. And I want more more more!

So I’ve started a Twitter hashtag #travelstory — if you’ll tack that on to a tweet when you’re sharing a great travel story I’ll be grateful–  or let me know about your great stories via a DM or an @ on Twitter or by email at alisonstein at gmail dot com.  I’ll curate the results here on Perceptive Travel blog each month.

I’ve started with the stories that were read during the keynote, among them: Cuba’s Secret Weapon: Little Old Ladies, A Windswept Night in Orkney; and The Making of a Flyover American.

As a community, let’s support the kind of travel writing that we want to read!

*PS: The title of this post is the first line of The White Album, by Joan Didion.  She was not on the TBEX travel writing panel. If she had been, my panic would have been of no use to anyone at all.


  1. Authentic Seacoast Resorts June 29, 2010
  2. Karim, Good Travel Writing June 30, 2010
  3. Alison Wellner June 30, 2010
  4. Steven Roll June 30, 2010
  5. pam July 10, 2010

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.