As part of our series on travel writing tips, Intrepid Times contributing editor Jennifer Roberts takes on the first person pronoun.
“There are a couple of other hotels around here too, but there seems to be no one around. It feels as though it’s just me, the locals and their livestock. Getting lost when coming in, the roads turned to bumpy grayscale patchwork before disappearing into undulating sand and clay. Livestock took over the road, and the speed of my tuktuk dropped from 40km per hour to a pace closer to their plod.”Thomas Heaton in “Shanta the Rasta”
What is your first reaction to the paragraph above? What images come to mind? Does something seem to be missing? If the writer did his job, it shouldn’t. Go back to the paragraph. Count how many times the words “I” or “me” appear. I’ll give you a moment…
Only once. Heaton only references himself one time in the paragraph; yet, if he did his job well, you should be able to imagine him in a rural town, riding over a dirt road, weaving slowly through a group of cows while looking out of his tuktuk. If he did his job, you’ll know the state of his mind without him stating directly, “I felt…”. If he did his job, he is part of the story without forcing himself into it.
Travel writing lends itself to the first-person form. During our travels, we often tell of our own experiences, our own impressions, the people we meet, our opinions of what we see, how we feel, etc. However, with travel narratives, the fact is that you’re already in the story. You get a free pass since someone has to be telling the story, and, of course, it has to be you. From the first sentence, you are the protagonist, and the readers know it. Using “I” is just a reminder that it is, in fact, a personal narrative, your story. For this reason, the overuse of “I” tends to create a tone of insecurity or egotism on the part of the narrator.
Travel has, in recent years, become more and more of a personal journey as opposed to a vehicle for experiencing other places and cultures. With the publication of Eat Pray Love, Wild, and other now-famous travel memoirs, people are being motivated to seek out travel as a form of self-discovery. This, likely, has led to (or exacerbated) the escalating “I” problem.
This doesn’t mean that travel can’t be a path to discovering something new about ourselves, but travel is not the only means to that end and shouldn’t always be treated as such in travel writing. Travel narratives need a strong sense of place, and that is often shadowed if an author litters their sentences with “I,” “me,” and “my.” To help you get a sense of this, I’ll do a great disservice to Mr. Heaton and rewrite the above paragraph, now using “I” as often as a beginner writer would.
I notice a couple of other hotels around here too, but there seems to be no one around. It feels as though it’s just me, the locals and their livestock. I got lost when coming in, when the roads turned to bumpy grayscale patchwork before disappearing into undulating sand and clay beneath me. Livestock took over the road, and the speed of my tuktuk dropped from 40km per hour to a pace closer to their plod.
It feels different, doesn’t it? The city and the road has now faded in importance behind the constant distraction of the “I,” which has perhaps become more visible but less present.
In his book, The Art of Travel, philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that “we may be best able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.” He reflects on how we often get in our own way while traveling, that the trip we imagine before leaving is often quite different from the actual experience as we forget that we actually have to bring ourselves along for the ride. With travel writing, we can escape this trap to a certain extent, pull ourselves out of the place in order to better consider it, but many writers seem unwilling to cut through this particular net. They continue to bring themselves along, even when engaging with the place may best be done without their notorious “I” getting in the way.
A travel narrative is yours, and it will unavoidably include you, as well it should. The trick is finding balance. As a general rule, a normal-sized paragraph should have no more than one or two “I” references. This rule may be broken, of course, if you’re working with dialogue using “I said,” for example. Some stories demand more “I,” some less, and a good writer will know which is which. As you practice this, work with your rough draft. Go through it line by line, finding all of the uses of “I.” Can you rewrite that sentence without the “I” and still have it make sense? Can you focus more on imagery and the environment, the feel of the place, instead of your feelings about it? If you can, change it. If not, keep it. With time, you’ll learn how present you need to be. In the meantime, use your travel stories as an opportunity to get away from yourself for a bit. The “I” could use a vacation.