Ian McMillan: Travel writing and adventures close to home

Ian McMillan.
Ian McMillan.
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One kind of writing I always fancied turning my hand to was Travel Writing; not just the kind where you go a hotel for free and write about it for a magazine in such glowing terms that when you go back years later, your yellowing article is still framed behind the reception desk.

No, the kind of travel writing I hankered after was of the more adventurous kind. Through Siberia on a Tandem, or By Air Balloon over Turkmenistan, that kind of thing. I always hoped that an enterprising publisher would ring me up and ask me to canoe through New Zealand, but they never have. As I get older, though, I realise that the kind of travel writing I like best is a kind of interior journey, where you learn as much about the writer as the place they’re writing about. I’m thinking about scribes like Bruce Chatwin, whose wonderful book Songlines was as much about his personal quest to find a purpose to his life and art as it was about the native people of Australia; all Jonathan Raban’s books, whether they’re about sailing to Alaska or making a new life in small town America, are always about how he thinks. This isn’t to say that the writing bubbles and fizzes with the writer’s ego, but just that the writing serves as a vehicle for wider and deeper thoughts about self and society and isn’t the kind of thing you could frame in a hotel.

So the contention is that a travel writer could write about anywhere and (maybe this is the most important thing) you don’t have to write about a place you’ve ever been to before. I always thought that novelty was the essence of travel writing and that if you were trying to describe something you’ve not seen before then that would lend the writing a kind of authenticity but now I realise that mining linguistic gold from familiar streets is the more satisfying thing.

Readers who follow me on Twitter will know that every morning at about 5.50am I go for a walk around my village and I tweet about it when I get back. I always follow the same route: down the street, across the road, past the building site to the paper shop. Down the hill, up the next hill and back down to the house and the kettle that’s about to go on. And each day I make myself write a brand new tweet about the familiar place and by doing so make the place unfamiliar and strange. I know a tweet is very tiny, but compression is the art of good writing too.

And maybe that, as much as writing about yourself in the cityscape or the country lanes, is the essence of travel writing: to make the familiar unfamiliar, to find new ways of looking at and describing the things you see every day.

So that’s your task for today, aspiring travel writers: Go to somewhere you know very well and describe it anew.

Through Kippax on Donkeyback? Perhaps.