Seeing the trees through the forest

Social media continues to be the underlying theme of conversation with visiting writers. I hope that this fear-driven uncertainty about the future of publishing doesn’t ultimately distract us from the simple truth that we are trying to bring our stories to readers around the world.

Social media continues to be the underlying theme of conversation with visiting writers. I hope that this fear-driven uncertainty about the future of publishing doesn’t ultimately distract us from the simple truth that we are trying to bring our stories to readers around the world.

In candid conversation a travel writer friend of mine – a travel writer of considerable talent and experience – sometimes muses that he may opt out of this brave new world of travel writing in a digital age.

Perhaps he was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I can hear in his tone that it is something he’s seriously considered. The battle for initial publishing success takes a lot out of a writer. For the novice writer, 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 finite 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 the 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 is 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 observational talent of the seasoned storyteller remains the same. In this type of 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 first 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. And what is good for the storyteller is good for the destination.