The Craft of Travel Writing: Berlin and Istanbul
By Shawn Wong
In the introduction to "The Smiles of Rome," the author states, "Travel and tourism...follow different rhythms. Travel means finding yourself through a journey, and letting it change you. Tourism means making a journey with enough cushioning nd filtering and microscheduling to assure that it won't change you." In Paul a
Bowles’ novel, The Sheltering Sky, one character asks another, “Are you a tourist or a traveler?” Let’s be travelers on this trip to Berlin and Istanbul.
Facts, statistics, dates are quickly forgotten; images are not soon forgotten. Your job on this trip is to collect and record images as well as experiences.
The assignments listed below in bold should be posted on your blog.
Assignment #1: Buy a Journal in Berlin
Tell a simple story about where, how and why you chose the journal you bought.
Your journal is your workbook. Use it to record the things that your camera can’t capture.
; Overheard conversations while riding on the bus.
; What does Berlin or Istanbul sound like at different times of the day?
; What does it feel like to stand next to the Bosporus Strait for the first time
and know that it not only separates Europe from Asia, but this is also where
an empire ended?
; What is the relationship in size between you and the Reichstag building or
the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum? What does it feel like to be in The
Garden of Exile in Jewish Museum?
; Draw something in your journal instead of taking a picture.
; Write down recipes, gossip, German or Turkish words, graffiti, even useless
phrases in German or Turkish that you know you will never use.
; Glue things into your journal.
; Have other people write in your journal. For example, you hear an
interesting phrase in German or Turkish, ask the person to write it down in
; Draw a map with your own personal landmarks. Keep adding things to the
map as you discover new things.
; Visit the same site two or three times and record how each visit is different.
Leave your camera in your room on some days and just bring your journal.
; How To Write In Your Journal
Instead of making your entries oriented solely to what you did that particular day, try thinking of a particular image from that day and focus your writing on that image and work your writing around it. Work your writing backwards from that image to how you got there, what you did prior to that, etc. What images did you notice on your first day in Berlin? What did you focus on when you knew your neighborhood better? What images do you see everyday? In other words, drive your story with an image, an object, an interesting character, even a phrase.
; Try to avoid writing in the passive voice. It weakens and dulls your prose,
particularly if you use too many passive sentences. For example: "Istanbul
was visited by the UW Honors Program and a great lunch was consumed at
the Istanbul Culinary Institute by all." Passive. "The UW Honors program
visited Istanbul and ate at the Istanbul Culinary Institute." Active. The
subject of the sentence should do the acting rather than being acted upon.
; Try not to use too many adverbs in your descriptions. "The view was
amazingly and stunningly beautiful." That tells the reader nothing; be more
; Proofread, proofread, proofread. Proofread your work before turning it
in. Check spelling, especially place names. Don't guess. As an undergraduate
at Berkeley, I took 7 Chemistry classes and when I turned in the identity and
molecular weight of my unknown substance, I was given a margin of error of
only ? .00004 of a gram otherwise I would lose points. Writing is no
different. Be precise, be accurate, care about the work you turn in. (By the
way, I got a perfect score in that lab. After that detour into Chemistry, I
decided to be a writer...)
; Try to make a simple sentence a more complex one. Dress up a sentence with
dependent or independent clauses. If you dare, use a semicolon or something
outrageous like that. Write a sentence with eight words, then one with twelve
words, then eight, then some other pattern. Or, try not using any words that have
the letter “a” in it—it forces you to see something else in your writing, to discover
a trick in the language by accident. In other words, make yourself write
differently. Do something ungrammatical for effect, like a one word
sentence. Take a risk.
; When you are writing your assignments, think about how your writing "sounds."
Lots of you play a musical instrument and you know that you can play the notes
correctly, but you're not really communicating the feeling and emotional
texture of the piece you're playing. Writing is the same thing. After you
finish an assignment, "listen" to the word choices you've made. Push
yourselves to move your writing ability to another level. You are surrounded
daily by languages other than English. Try to make your writing different in
Berlin and Istanbul than it is at home. Move your pen in new directions.
; Read the drafts of your writing and ask yourself if what you wrote could be
written in Seattle just as well. If you read over a draft of a writing
assignment and it bores you, then it will bore other readers as well.
; Tell a story, rather than listing experiences in chronological order. I once
took three students to a pasta museum in Rome. I told the woman that I
needed one adult ticket (10 Euro) for me and three student tickets (1 Euro).
She told me that I needed to buy three adult tickets and one student ticket,
explaining that the one female student with me could pay 1 Euro, but the two
males had to pay the full adult rate. I asked why and all she said was the boys
were “too big” in English. I told her, in Italian, they were the same age as the
girl (who was very petite). She just repeated, “Too big.” I paid the inflated
rate and told the boys they had to stoop down next time I buy tickets or wait
around the corner. That experience says so much about Rome. Sometimes I
go to a museum and just tell them that I have a group of students and I’d like
to get in free. It actually works about 50% of the time. Or, I say that I’m the
teacher so I shouldn’t have to pay. It’s called “acting Italian.”
; Use your roommate and other students as your peer reviewers. Read the blog and
see what other students in prior classes have written. You can even quote from
each other's writing.
; You can ask either Sally or Robert to help you with writing ideas. They spent
all of A-term in my creative writing class and are familiar with some of these
writing tips or have lots of other ideas for writing exercises.
; What To Write In Your Journal
You have a journal. You have blank pages in it. Scary proposition, man. What to do?
Your journal is your workbook for drafts, observations, incomplete thoughts, etc. and the writing in your blog is your where you put your final, polished versions of your writing you want others to read. Journal is inward looking and your blog is outward looking.
I encourage you to plan your own field trips in your spare time or figure out where our organized field trips end and what you can see near there. You can explore on your own or in small groups. Believe me, you will get tired of walking in a group of 21 or more. I know I will get tired of having 21 people following me around (not that I won't love every minute I will spend with you...),
but sometimes you just need get off by yourself or with just a few others. Or, go back and look at something by yourself that we visited as a group. Write about getting yourself to a site as well as writing about the site itself. Show somebody something you’ve discovered on your own. Write about something you haven’t seen or experienced and then write about it after you’ve visited that site. What you write about doesn’t even have to be important. For example, what do you see on Berlin
TV? Tell a story about buying something.
When you were children, you learned new words everyday. Be a child again. Learn five new German or Turkish words a day.
Write sensory images. One evening in Florence, Italy I ate "filetto di aceto balsamico"--steak filet drowned in a balsamic vinegar reduction so thick, it made the steak black. It was so delicious, I didn't want to eat anything the next day for fear that I would lose the taste bud memory on my tongue. Write that.
Make your writing have that quality about it that required you to be in Berlin and
Istanbul. We’ve all studied World War II and the Berlin Wall in the classroom. What does it feel like to be in a city where the ghost of that history is embedded in the soul of the city?
Think about the contrasts of old and new, sound and silence, light and dark. Is the quality of the light different in Istanbul from Berlin? Does it smell differently? Is the light in Berlin different from Seattle? Is the sky a different shade of blue?
Assignment #2: The Ubiquitous Postcard
This assignment is very, very simple. When you’re out and about on the streets of Berlin and Istanbul either on a class field trip or out on your own, buy a postcard of something that you’re actually looking at or standing in front
of. Try to position yourself in the same place as the photographer of the postcard. On the back of the postcard, write down the things that aren’t in the picture—sounds, smells, things outside the border of the picture you’re
holding—anything that strikes you as interesting to note. What this exercise does is capture a precise experience at a precise moment. Call it “writing of the moment.” Number the postcard or date it so that you know the order of the postcards. Do this postcard assignment everyday. At the end of the class
you will have about 30 postcards. Place them in order and you have an interesting diary. Do not buy a postcard and then write on the back later when you’re not standing in position—that defeats the purpose. Later, when
you get home, you can scan the front and backs of the postcards onto your blog, if you like.
Assignment #3: Writing Berlin and Istanbul
thBerlin’s story is all about the 20 century and Istanbul’s story is all about
antiquity. In Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk writes about the melancholy of Istanbul, the ruin of an empire and W.G. Sebald, in The Emigrants, writes about the
thhaunting presence and memory of Germany’s tragic place in the 20 century.
Both books are clearly about memory and both use visual images to help tell the story, provoke a memory, freeze time.
Describe being in Istanbul and what you brought with you from Berlin. Did some part of living in Berlin create a cultural lens through which you view Istanbul? You traveled from Seattle to Berlin to Istanbul and some of you traveled to other cities in between. What does it feel like to have these other “borders” between you and home? How much of who you are in Istanbul is part Berlin or part Kreuzberg?
Try to write like Sebald or Pamuk. Write about memory, reality, and even hallucination. Pamuk writes about seeing Istanbul in black and white. In the 14th century people trusted their memories more than reality. To them wearing eyeglasses actually distorted their view of the world—they trusted
the memory of something more than the thing itself. A frescoed wall was meant to inform you what the world or after life was really like. People lived inside walled cities. Owning books was for rich people. Writing was art. Making paper and ink and writing was a labor intensive craft. And after you wrote something, it had to be protected. Both Sebald and Pamuk write as if they’re protecting memory.
Flaubert wrote, "The melancholy of the antique world seems to me more profound than that of the moderns, all of whom more or less imply that beyond the dark void lies immortality. But for the ancients that 'black hole' is infinity itself; their dreams loom and vanish against a background of immutable ebony. No crying out, no convulsions--nothing by the fixity of the pensive gaze." He was writing about Rome, but his statement applies so
perfectly to our situation. What are the places or sites in Istanbul that make Flaubert’s statement ring true?
When you come back to Berlin from Istanbul, does it feel like you’re coming “home”? Why? Is there an exact moment in your time in Berlin where you feel that you belong there and the summer tourists taking pictures of everything and carrying fanny packs look horribly out of place?
Assignment #4: To Be Announced
I’m going to e-mail this assignment to you in the third week after I’ve left Berlin. Oh, how mysterious…