The What-ness, part 2: Choose what to lose

When you’re trying to write about your experience of a place, whether for yourself or an audience, it’s tempting to adopt the narrative form we were taught in school. After all, it was drilled into us for years, over and over again. Therefore it’s no surprise that when you open many a travel journal or travelogue you’ll often see rote accounts of trips. Many of them read like a bureaucrat’s report to the head office. It’s death by a thousand details.

The point is, rote accounts won’t achieve what you want to achieve: capturing the fundamental “what-ness” of a place. As in, the “what-ness” of a place or feeling; the core essence of it. Readers from last week will recognize the term from my old philosophy professor (actually, I don’t think it’s a term).

If you want to transcend this and capture the “what-ness” of a place or experience, ditch the narrative and narrow your focus. In other words, choose what to lose. This is really a matter of self-restraint and decisiveness.

For example, lose the superfluous stuff like the plane’s arrival, the ride from the airport, and the reviews of the food you ate. Lose the comments on prices. Lose the talk of “quaintness” and “idyllic”. We already know certain places are idyllic and quaint. Other places are dreary or foggy or crowded. These words give us nothing.

Focus instead on the conversation you had with a lifelong local. He likely imbued the place a more human dimension or gave you a clearer historical perspective. Pick out a few key moments that really crystallized the personality of the place. Record the thoughts and impressions with words that pop; use words that render the place or experience in clear tones.

It’s challenging; I face this problem in writing my new novel. It’s easy to cram in mundane and blandly written details or clichés as I describe the book’s foreign settings. Instead, I strive to pinpoint something that gives meaning and emotional heft, and then try to render it in a multidimensional way that reaches through the page and pulls the reader in.

So, if you’re struggling to capture something special for your journal or for an audience, forget what you’ve learned. Choose what to lose. Figure out what’s meaningful and breathe life into it using words that sing.

Posted by | Comments (4)  | July 13, 2012
Category: On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life

4 Responses to “The What-ness, part 2: Choose what to lose”

  1. Margie Says:

    This is really very helpful to me. I have never been able to journal my travels because I am too wordy and give up. My notes seem like a chore because I don’t get it down in few enough words. Thank you so much!

  2. James Ullrich Says:

    My pleasure. Glad you found it useful.

  3. Sharon Says:

    Well said Jim .. very inspiring.

  4. Comments and conversations | Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    […] amount these posts receive. (“The What-ness, part 2: Choose what to lose”, can be read at The post was about avoiding easy clichés and sterile recounting in your travel writing, and […]