The forest and the trees

I hope that fear-driven uncertainty about the future of publishing doesn’t distract us from the simple truth that we are trying to bring our stories to readers.

In a candid conversation last week, a travel writer of considerable talent and experience told me that he may opt out of travel writing in a digital age.

Perhaps this was tongue-in-cheek, but I could hear in his tone that it was something he’d seriously considered. The battle for publication takes a lot out of a writer. For the novice, publication is the finish line in a grueling marathon. The prospect of having to fight the battle again and again, the rules changing with each contest, is disheartening to say the least. A fickle readership with limited leisure time faces an escalating amount of information. Where will we even find a loyal readership? How can the writer make a living in a world where consumers are conditioned to enjoying an unlimited wealth of free content?

It’s not that my friend didn’t understand new media, or that he wasn’t active in it. Yet he was questioning whether or not he still had the ambition to start over in a new and sometimes bewildering world.

I hope that he comes to his senses. Because what’s lost in all of this discussion of e-business and online editorial content and social media is that at the heart of it the reader’s hunger for the storyteller remains the same. In this type of writing, travel writing, as in many others, there are up-and-comers showing spectacular results. But in their fascination with the new and shiny I fear that some may be missing the point.

We’ve all heard the stories of the driver who plowed into an eight-foot bridge with a ten-foot truck, or tried to drive over a washed out bridge, because he couldn’t take his eyes off the miraculous technology of his new GPS. We hear this and shake our heads – could he not lift his eyes long enough to see the red warning sign? But I think that this approach to the allure of technology might be more common than we imagine. Technology helps, but it can’t replace vision and common sense.

I know a travel writer who has mastered blogging and social media. Thousands follow his whirlwind assault upon the world. They live vicariously through his endless adventures. It seems that he tweets from Indonesia today and Scotland tomorrow. Yet his success relies on a cult of personality. What does he actually see? When he visits my city, what impression might he leave with the potential visitor? I suspect that the answer to that question is very little. He’s mastered the romantic allure of the journey, but offers nothing more substantial than that.

I would say the same of traveler’s blogs. These are diaries, home movies. Here we have detail – too much, in fact – but not the kernel of truth provided with seeming ease by the veteran observer and storyteller.

The experienced travel writer can visit the most mundane destination, truly see it, and describe it in a fashion that makes me want to go. Online glitter can’t replace that.

To Marco Polo, painstakingly scratching out his observations with quill on vellum, even the earliest printing press might have seemed to be an abomination of the devil. But the medium is not always relevant. The medium here is not the message. The message remains firmly in the control of the storyteller. The veteran storyteller, who studies trees without being distracted by the immensity of the forest, can master this beast.

(First published in THE NORTHERN VIEW, April 21, 2010)

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  1. Posted July 26, 2010 at 9:15 PM | Permalink

    Yes, Bruce, and beautifully said: but the storyteller still needs to eat. Or more precisely, pay the mortgage…

  2. Bruce
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 9:33 PM | Permalink

    No kidding. I’m saying that the reader will ultimately demand the quality that comes only from paid content, but I have no idea if any of us will survive long enough for that to happen!

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.