Yesterday I had the pleasure of going up to the Banff Centre to speak at the annual Creative Non-Fiction Collective Conference. Now, if you don’t know anything about the Banff Centre, you should know that it’s one of the premiere hubs for creativity in Canada. The campus reminds me of a summer camp for adults — except more polished and sleek than the basic wood cabins of my youth — where creative people can come stay for a one-month (or more) residency to work on whatever project they’ve got going. You have to apply, and it’s very competitive, but poets, musicians, journalists, writers, actors and other creative people live and work in this amazing space. They have a literary journalism residency that I would love to do one day. Unfortunately I need an idea first.
This was my first time speaking at a conference as an “expert.” Fortunately I’ve seen a few presentations on digital media and I’ve worked in magazines long enough that I had a sense of what I could talk about, but I was pretty nervous. I was scheduled to speak on the plenary panel about “What the heck is going on” in digital media. I focused on magazine publishing and spoke about digital editions and websites. I was pleased with how it went.
After my panel I joined the conference attendees for lunch and then took in an afternoon session on travel writing. Now, when I think of travel writing I think of the service-oriented pieces that tell you where to go and what to see when you’re there. I actually have a food-oriented travel piece on Mexico coming up in the May issue of Avenue. Holler! However I quickly learned that there’s a lot more to travel writing, and it seems like the kind of writing I’d like to try.
Our panellists were Glenn Dixon and Marcello di Cintio, both travel writers who have written several books. They spoke a lot about writing about your travels with a moral perspective and focusing on the people. They believe that travel writing that tells the reader “this is where I went and this is what I saw, let me describe it you” is over. People are more interested in reading a book that takes them to a place and tells them something meaningful about the culture and the people. Of course, this requires a lot of research. If you’re going to make judgments on a place, you better know what the hell you’re talking about.
It’s a risky proposition to me — it could be very easy to accuse someone of ethnocentrism if they’re a Canadian white dude writing about Africa — but I think there’s some merit to it. If you position yourself, as Dixon and di Centio suggested, as an honest and well-researched narrator, you are entitled to your opinion. It’s just one opinion. Assuming that you’re not a racist, it could actually be a very interesting reflection of how outsiders see a culture. di Cintio was quick to say that he’s tired of the trope that we’re all the same, because we are not, and that’s the beauty of travel.
I took a trip to Berlin last fall and I’m writing it up for a service-oriented travel story. Maybe I’ll try to squeeze in a few observations about the people and the places that go beyond the general, “If you go to Berlin you absolutely can’t miss the Bundestag.” (Which is true. You really should check it out.)