Sharing the Wonder of Place
Great reflection. This paragraph really gets to the heart of place writing and is why it so compelling : "I think it’s about potential; it’s about possibilities and the obscure mystery and magic of place. It is probably the way creative non-fiction place writers use imagination to evoke the hazy space between truth and fiction, and how fiction writers develop place as a character. Place writers can take the reader on a journey of suspended reality and intentionally lead them to experience place in more than one dimension."
Cal Flyn's Islands of Abandonment sits somewhere between place and travel writing. She is really creative with the way she absorbs the spirit and history of a place and creates additional levels of meaning. Her chapter on the Salton Sea invokes Babylon and the biblical idea of redemption.
Horatio Clare's travel writing is also similar - in his case he is generous with himself and his own inner journey along with the outward journey, and draws this extra level of truth and meaning to the places he visits.
Thank you for this lovely post.
Your post has really opened my eyes as to the differences. TBH, I'd not really thought about it. For me, place writing is about the impact of places on the felt sense, and travel writing about the external, factual elements. Thanks for another fab post, Yasmin.
Lovely read, thank you! I am a fellow Place Writer on substack, and it’s so nice to find another one!
I found this distinction between Travel and Place Writing very interesting as it’s something I’ve grappled with myself. Have had several edits and re-edits of my About Page to try and explain what I write about. I think the main issue is we use the term ‘Travel Writing’ for a few different genres.
There’s ‘Guidebook Writing’ which is really just an information repository for transport/accommodation/sightseeing/food/drink options. Helpful tips, but doesn’t evoke the wonder of ‘Place’.
There’s ‘Journey Writing’ which is where I’d put Travels with Charley. Sometimes only non-fiction recounts, sometimes a blend of fiction and non-fiction, these tell the story of a journey through physical space, yes, but also a mental odyssey too. The best ‘Journey Writing’ always describes a change in the author by the end of their odyssey. Some of the greats in this genre might be ‘Songlines’ by Chatwin, ‘The Road to Oxiana’ by Byron, or for a more modern one, I loved ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ by Sophy Roberts.
Place Writing differs from the other two again. It’s certainly not a guidebook, though of course it will evoke the desire to go to the place and see it for yourself. It’s not necessarily describing a journey either. If the author is going deep into one place then we can’t be moving too much. So Place Writing is more static but approaches place from a few different angles - history, individual’s lives, art, architecture, that kind of thing. On my substack I try to blend a few of these together to build a bit of a profile or tell the story of a place.
It’s a fun challenge and now I’ve found yours I look forward to reading about how you take it on!
That is such an interesting distinction. And now I need to add Travels With Charley (which I've heard mentioned many times over the years) to my "to-read" list.
I write about our travels and try to do so shortly after we have completed them. But I'm also in the process of writing a camping memoir about our lives camping starting with our marriage 21 years ago. There has to be some liberty there, as I try to remember our early years from photographs before social media and before I started writing detailed accounts of what we were doing along the way.
Thank you for the thought-provoking piece (and I'm now following you on IG).
Really enjoyed this piece. Thank you.
Interesting post here, Yasmin. I wouldn't disagree with you that travel writing is evolving. Some say it has evolved into nature writing or, as you suggest, place writing. For many, it is a welcome change. I, for one, am growing weary of strict travelogues; and so are other people, if the market can be seen as any indicator. Though, I suspect this larger debate is just an idola fori or, at best, an academic quibble (of which I am guilty as charged of committing). Merenia's point about Flyn's book, to which we can also add "nature writing" as a place between which the book sits, is sound and it deftly illustrates either literature's wonderful ambiguity, appeal, and power or the naked truth that we simply have no idea what we are talking about. I do hope it is the former and not the latter... :D Keep up the thoughtful posts. I enjoy reading them.
I have been meaning to write about my travels to Morocco for some years now - once as young backpackers on our honeymoon in 1987 and then again, twice, with children and teenagers in tow. Always travelling independently and with many scrapes and adventures. I kept journals up to a point, and have my memories, but creative non fiction it will be....the memory is not what it was. I must add it to my list of projects to write.
Hi Yasmin. Loved reading this reflective piece, it really speaks to me, thank you. I've been asked what place writing, still being a fairly new genre, if you like, on our bookshelves and devices, is. Is it nature writing? is it travel writing? and so on. Your piece, in fact your Substack which, being a new follower I've yet to explore properly, provides much food for thought. I think that place writing is firmly in the creative non fiction category. I like what Merenia Vince in the comments has to say and we were thinking of the same writers, Cal Fly, Horatio Clare... I'm going to add Rob McFarlane, his books Underland, and The Wild Places come to mind. Thanks for the follow too, I've been away from Substack for a time due to illness, lots of catching up to do! X
Hello jasmine - I love this post; you've really hit things on target when you said, "...the obscure mystery and magic of place...evoke the hazy space between truth and fiction...", and "...develop place as a character". Plugging in to the liminal space of a place and feeling its spirit is intoxicating as is sharing that experience on paper. And unfortunately, yes, it does feel indulgent to do so (as you say in the comments) in an era when productivity and technology take precedent over almost everything, including the simple act of conversation.
But it does take time, quiet time usually spent by oneself, in a place to listen, breathe and feel it touch your heart or at least begin to. It also takes effort and intention to do so and since people give place much of its spirit (I think so anyway) through imprinting, it takes time to get to know its people. Some travel writers (I'm thinking Rick Steves, an American travel writer for PBS who's superb at this) engage with place this way, but the reflection on self in place and our two-way relationship with it, takes more time than the short visit usually allows. But the surface can at least be scratched which is certainly a start and a single visit can begin an intense romance with a place that deepens as we learn its true nature.