The Road More or Less Traveled

Does a writer traveling equal a travel writer?
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I'VE SPENT THE PAST three months of my life living and traveling around Western and Eastern Europe. This is surprising, somewhat because I'm not usually one to "do" things, especially when they involve leaving my apartment. But due to a variety of factors in my life, combined with the coincidental wanderlust of my longtime friend Casey, the Big Cat, we set off for the Old World on a quest for adventure, self-discovery and cheap novelty T-shirts.

As I explained to the Big Cat in our preliminary itinerary meetings, I envisioned the trip as a string of nonstop outlandish travel adventures.

"I'm basically going to be a bearded Bill Bryson," I told him, "but more extreme. And American."

"Dude, Bill Bryson is American. And he has a beard."

"Yeah," I said. "A totally extreme bearded Bill Bryson."

There was talk of dogsledding in Finland, hunting something "dangerous or extinct" in Romania and eating in Slovakia. ("Can't you rent and ride bears in Transylvania?" the Big Cat asked at one point. "I'm pretty sure I read that in The Times Travel section.") We'd see exotic lake bats in Hungary, bog wolves in Latvia and British stag parties in Prague. I'd even see Beaker from the "Muppet Babies" while hallucinating on absinthe. And through all of it, I'd accumulate amazing clips because I'd be constantly pitching travel stories and no doubt eventually end up in The Best American Travel Writing 2008 alongside Bryson, who would've shaved his beard and confirmed that he actually considers himself British.

But then, as it's occasionally wont to do, reality stopped by to check in. By the end of the first month, I'd done only one story. Through a travel-writing friend, I got a gig reviewing a restaurant in Zurich for a travel website. This restaurant is unique because it employs blind waiters and serves food in the pitch black to try and replicate the experience of going out to eat as a blind person. The dinner was fantastic and made a quick and easy review, partially because I didn't have to spend any time talking about what the food looked like. But other than that, I wasn't exactly being proactive on the travel-writing front. And about the most extreme thing I'd done was accidentally order a sandwich with both mayo and butter on it.

"Aren't you going to, you know, interview someone or maybe do some sort of journalism?" the Big Cat would ask when I'd leave my reporter's notebook and digital recorder in the hostel.

"Um, yeah, totally," I'd say, fumbling, rationalizing. "It's just, I like for things to happen more organically. I don't want to force it."

"Oh right, `organically,' " he'd say, rolling his eyes. "Because that's been so successful for you so far."

Although I didn't want to admit it, he was right. I'd been purposefully ignoring my reporting, probably because I'd realized that—if I were honest with myself—the only way for a relatively unexperienced travel writer like myself to amass solid clips in the magazines I wanted to write for was to either go to very obscure places or do very extreme things. And both of those would take large logistical and monetary commitments upfront, and, above all, the urgency to want to do things like kayak waterfalls or rent bears. And that just wasn't me.

The kind of stories I usually write, the kind I enjoy, are oriented around going to a place, seeing a scene and observing people—listening to them speak and coming to some sort of opinion about it through those observations. This, of course, was going to be more of an issue, especially because my French—the only other language I sort of know—was described by the woman at our hotel in Geneva as "nearly indecipherable."

But this isn't to say that I wasn't writing. In fact, my writing output was considerable. I was able to spend a lot of time working on my novel, writing 50 new pages and filling up notebooks with more fleshed-out character bios and detailed backstories. And also, from spending so much quiet time in cafes watching people, another story grew (almost organically!), starting as a series of observations of social interactions in different cafes all over Zurich and ending up as a short story about a fake travel writer who ends up going on a date with a reality TV star in, surprise, Zurich.

"But you didn't go on a date," the Big Cat said, reading over my shoulder. "You haven't even talked to anyone since the French `incident.' "

"It's fiction, man," I said, turning around. "I made it up."

"Damn right you did."

The point is, though, in writing, everyone has his own particular talent, niche and interests. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't try new genres or styles or explore forms other than the ones you're most comfortable with. But you should be willing to recognize that when writers try to make themselves into something they aren't or, more important, don't want to be—just because maybe it's a hot new genre, or it might be easier to sell, or for whatever reason—they aren't going to be doing their best work.

Luckily, we all have our own internal editor who decides what we can and can't write about: our muse. And take it from me, if your muse doesn't feel like letting you write travel stories or poetry or a romance novel based on the reality show "Survivor," you're going to have some serious trouble moving forward on the project. Even if you do write a lot of love scenes.

But now that I've accepted my fate as more of a pants-less Tom Wolfe than a base-jumping Bill Bryson, I've been able to enjoy my adventure and revel in the fact that I'm content doing just what I'm doing. And by the way, if you ever find yourself in a Mexican restaurant in Bratislava, Slovakia, stay away from the guacamole. It's a little too extreme.

More Kevin Alexander: Keep up with the weekly musings of your favorite young writer at his Writer's Digest blog: www.writersdigest.com/writerslife.

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