Writer’s Eye: Travel, Writing, & Technology

In a digital age, where technology (specifically the internet) has made it possible to interact with people across the globe, the phrase “it’s a small world” has never been more accurate.

This change, however, has caused some interesting conundrums for writers. To preface this post, I should describe the link between an author and travel:

To begin, there has always been something to be said for a writer who can express and explain the far away places of the world. Writing has, by its very nature, always provided a visceral stimulation to readers. Indeed, the original success of written language and stories (told through poetry) were to recount the tales of a past era. Writers like Herodotus and Homer found their success in bringing something unfamiliar back to life with their words (whether they be factual, or embellished – rhythmic or systematic).

Until as recently as a century ago, this ability was still incredibly valuable – authors that had seen far away places could describe foreign nouns with a wealth of detail and experience that helped directly in the success of their writing. However, after the commercialization and popularity of air flight, readers and writers began expanding their geographical reaches. This, of course, led to a wonderful cross-exposure- American writers exposed to Asia provided one sort of experience, just as British writers who experienced America contributed to the entirely different perspective that British writers saw as the United States.

These experiences culminated in an exciting and powerful age for writing: viewers could now match moments to the images they saw on television, or relive the romance of a quiet street in Paris they themselves had travelled upon. Of course, though, there was another risk.

Writers who wanted to set a story somewhere had to take great risks if they did not possess intimate knowledge of their setting. An improper or innaccurate description of a place was now entirely subject to scruntiny by the reader. This is the danger that writers face more than ever in 2012. We have a job to deliver a compelling and fresh story, often set in “the real world”; but we had better know our landscape, or risk fraudulence.

To combat these disadvantages, writers are turning to the very tool that has made their errors so obvious: technology. Writers are travelling more than ever in the 21st century – travelling abroad, travelling to small country sides, and travelling to experience not just places- but emotions that are entirely unique to their surrounding. Writers are actively experiencing the subjects of their work, as they should. It is reminiscent of a scornful quote from Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting,

“…if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo. You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

That is the danger that writers are avoiding. And travel has gotten easier than ever, despite the prohibitive costs of travel to aspiring writers. What am I talking about? Well, chiefly- the internet. Search engines and wiki sites have made conducting tedious research relatively simple and possible at proportionally tremendous speed (versus what research consisted of as little as thirty years ago). Also, though, I’m talking about one particular portion of the internet: Google Earth.

For the two people left in this world who are not familiar with Google Earth, it is a tool that can freely grant anyone with a computer visual access to anywhere on Earth. Moreover, it allows access to historical images of some sites, as well as three dimensional and 360 degree viewing of famous landmarks and even just “normal” places.

What this means is that writers can literally travel the world- jumping from places like Dubai to Sidney to Taiwan to Brazil to Nebraska in a span of less than five minutes. A writer can soak in details, explore, “walk” down streets, and learn and research  like never before. And while a writer may not be able to simulate the smell of a place (this must still rely on his or her imagination), they can accurately describe places- at least well enough to pass in their works.

This methodolgy will undoubtedly add an air of legitmacy to writers working in the “real world” (at least partially), but it has also done something interesting to writers, and created an interesting divide in readers.

Writers who have acknowledged the struggles that are presented by the ease and accesibility of the internet and the ability to virtually travel to well known places have stopped looking outward at the world. Instead, they focus on their homes, or other less identifiable places. With that done, a writer can use his or her familiarity, expertise, or other skill to present a unique place that has not yet been explored in novels. And they have met success. (Indeed Jonathan Franzen has met incredible success with this strategy- even in so much as earning the title “Great American Novelist” by TIME Magazine in 2010) Again, this success is important because it is not the product of a rich or exotic setting, but instead because of a rich and authentic plot.

Readers, on the other hand, are veering off in two seemingly separate directions. One half of today’s readership has decided to abandon reality and all of its real-worldishness in favor of fantasy that either does not exist on Earth, or turns Earth into someplace magical, unexplored, or unknown. The other half of readership instead prefers to stay rooted in this world, but prefers the allure of (what equates to) geographical minimalism. People don’t seem to care much about where a story takes place (take Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for instance,) so long as they feel attracted to the story being told.

Ultimately though, that is also what binds both groups of readerships together. They are linked by their desire for good stories; no longer do readers digest anything put before them- Amazon, e-readers, and mass book stores (and our love affair with wikipedia) have made that nearly ordinary. Instead, readers are attracted to identifiable authenticity. This shift (from grand scenery to authentic interaction) is also leading towards a change in the way authors consider the stories they write.

I keep talking about the past as if it was so long ago. But in actuality, the divide between “then” and “now” is not so long ago. But from then to now, the definition of “escapsim” (which is widely cited as the number one reason that readers read) has changed. And to understand why, one must consider what sort of stories readers are escaping to. History has, until recently, reassured us of the allure in far away places. But now that there is no place too far away, writers are retreating inwards, and inventing worlds as well as experiences that will resonate with and provide escape for readers, who are anxiously waiting to be impressed by the next great parlor trick as they consume twitter fodder and travel the world from their iPads.