I recently led an all-day in-the-field writing workshop in one of my favorite places on the planet, the hamlet of Point Reyes Station, population about 900, located an hour west of San Francisco, on the edge of the continent.
The purpose of the workshop was to replicate a day in the life of a travel writer—or more specifically to illustrate how I go about trying to “get” a place and a story when I’m out in the world.
The first part of the day involved walking around the town as a group, and our focus was, well, the fine art of focus.
Every truth blossoms from the seed of specific details. And a fundamental part of the job of the travel writer is to notice the details that underlie the truths.
In Point Reyes, for example, we gathered for an initial conversation in the tiny town commons at the corner of Shoreline Highway and 4th Street. In one corner I noticed a new addition to the commons since my last visit, two years before.
We investigated more closely and saw a beautiful wooden farm stand that went by the “honor system.” The exterior of the stand had been lovingly hand-carved with exquisite renderings of strawberries, raspberries, arugula, artichokes, snow peas, onions, and other locally grown produce. There was a blackboard with a scrawled message welcoming buyers, a clipboard with payment instructions and a locked box for inserting money.
For me, this stand spoke volumes about the character of Point Reyes. It showed both the locals’ concern for fresh food and their aesthetic appreciation of artful presentation. It also showed the atmosphere of trust that interwove the town and the sense of community that must prevail there.
As we continued to explore, we passed a town bulletin board where many of the notices advertised meetings focused on sustainability concerns. Then we passed a bookstore, part of which was devoted to shelves featuring local writers. The dry goods store, which sold both high-end bee balm and bales of hay, featured a back room that had been converted into a gallery showcasing stunning wildlife photographs by a local photographer.
As we wandered, these details composed a picture-puzzle of the town. Our job was to figure out what that puzzle looked like, and what the pieces revealed.
This is essentially what I do every time I write a travel story. I arrive in a place, and I begin to try to figure out what that place’s essence is, what I’m going to write about. Essentially, I’m looking for clues, telling details, and that quest entails an intense and precise focus.
I’m writing these words in a hotel room in Japan, at the start of a National Geographic Expeditions tour that was inspired by an article I wrote for Traveler magazine about the island of Shikoku.
In writing about Shikoku, I enacted a big-picture version of the same exercise that my workshop practiced in Point Reyes.
In a week of traveling around the island, I looked for the details that seemed to define it, and came up with three that I noticed repeatedly: the pristine beauty of the landscape, the kindness of the people, and the way old traditions still vibrantly endure.
To evoke these characteristics in my article for a reader who wasn’t familiar with Shikoku, I asked myself how I had experienced them myself, and then I tried to recreate those specific instances: my first view of verdant rice fields flowing to a green mountain against a deep blue sky, a group of women treating me to dinner just because I was a visitor to their island, the image of white-clothed pilgrims walking steadfastly from temple to temple along a venerable island-circling path.
On Shikoku as in Point Reyes, this focus was a two-layered process: First I had to apprehend the revealing details—the carvings of vegetables, the pristine rice paddies—as completely as possible, and then I had to re-create them as vividly as possible.
And that’s ultimately the challenge and the potential of the fine art of focus in travel writing: You have to live something deeply before you can write it deeply.
But if you can do both of these well, your life will be infinitely richer—as will the lives of all the readers you touch with your words.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of The Way of Wanderlust and Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.