The definition of "writer" is muddy and idiosyncratic. Is someone who writes software manuals for a living a writer? By definition, yes. But to those of us for whom writing continues to have romance and mystique, the club of writers is much smaller.
Journalists can be good writers, but most are not. Often their main skill is research, which they then write up in an organized way. Covering outdoor sporting events, I've bumped into this group. They're good at networking sources, but their resulting stories suck.
Others are intelligent people using words in the service of well-researched ideas. A book concept, a magazine story angle. The concept is fine, the angle imaginative; but their rendition in words is rather...flat.
So what constitutes a writer from this elitist point of view? I'd have to say: richness of language. By this, I don't mean using a twenty-five dollar word when a two-dollar one will do. It is combining words alchemically into something more than a sentence. In all good writing, meaning is highly compressed. Just add thought, and the flower unfolds.
There are many good writers whose language does not sizzle but whose quiet prose runs deep. But some of us readers prefer the sizzlers, whose odd juxtapositions and vocabulary can make even prosaic objects unforgettable. Consider some examples from Blaise Cendrars, a French writer and traveler from the early twentieth century: "the elongated hull of a steamer of average tonnage"; "Neither counterbraces nor T-irons reinforce these daring constructions"; "A bird of supreme elegance with wings at variable angles streamlined like a glider"; "A sou's worth of chips in a paper cone or a saucerful of winkles"; "retorts in which the weirdest broth was macerating".
You get the picture. Through his simple but slightly askew choice of words, he's turned descriptions of matter-of-fact items into poetry. I first read these phrases thirty years ago, but have never forgotten them, the language is so vivid. Sometimes, while sledding across an arctic snowscape, I find myself repeating like a mantra, "the elongated hull of a steamer of average tonnage."
Current events don't usually intrude on this website but one recent Canadian story has a relevant aside. This week, CBC radio star Jian Ghomeshi was fired, presumably because he enjoyed kinky sex and some of his ex-partners were claiming that the bedroom abuse wasn't consensual. Shortly after the firing, Ghomeshi posted a long Facebook mea culpa, reproduced here, to get ahead of the expose that would appear in a major newspaper a few hours later.
The raunchy subject matter gave this small Canadian scandal international play. Setting aside the core question -- consensual or no? -- some legal observers pointed out that you can't consent to assault, any more than you can waive your right not to be murdered. Incidentally, you also can't waive your right to search and rescue -- something I investigated years ago. A populist criticism of expeditions is that when they get into trouble, they put rescuers' lives at risk. So perhaps the responsible approach is to decline the search and rescue service during certain extreme endeavours. However, you can't. Apart from doing your adventure secretly, you don't have the choice to decline.
What intrigued me about the Ghomeshi story was a single sentence in his Facebook posting: "I've been fired from the CBC because of...false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer."
Before the scandal broke, Ghomeshi hired a crisis management firm to help spin his side of the story. The word "freelance" here smells of spin. Virtually every writer is a freelance writer, but to the public, "freelance" often suggests "would-be". Over the years, I've had this conversation often:
"What do you do?"
"I'm a writer."
"Who do you work for?"
"A variety of publications."
"So you're freelance?"
"You don't really have a job."
Sometimes this last line is actually spoken, sometimes it's understood from the expression on the interlocutor's face. So in the Ghomeshi sentence above, "freelance", like "jilted", is there to diminish credibility.
I've taken the summer off from this blog while I work on other things -- sorry to regular readers -- but now it's back to normal. Yesterday a writer friend sent me the following link about travel writing as it pertains to the controversial issue of the freebie, also called the familiarization tour or press junket. I've been on quite a few of these, although more frequently I try to convince government tourism departments to support my own trips to their region on the premise that I'll be writing about them. It usually works with magazine stories, as long as you can show an assignment letter from the editor, but these departments typically do not support book projects.
The sort of press junket that Frank Bures, the author of this piece, refers to is a different beast. Here, writers from various publications are herded together on a brief tasting menu of a place. The writers on these fam tours are a mixed bag. You might get a staffer from a major daily newspaper who is doing a bit for the paper's travel section. These sections are usually dogs -- terribly written booster pieces -- and the reporter probably works for another department and got this perk because he/she is friends with the editor of the travel section, who fields these invitations all the time.
Many of the junket writers come from small or regional publications. When I was starting in the magazine biz, many of them were retired ladies writing for god-awful sources in exchange for free trips. Their actual payment for the article was zero or minimal, they were just doing it for the vacation. These retirees weren't actually writers, they were a weird half-breed called travel writers whose copy was equally god-awful and so up to the standards of the publications they had managed to connect with. Frank Bures suggests that this is often still the case, which surprised me. He calls this sort of work not travel writing but tourism writing, because the writer is in an unspoken collaboration with the tourism officials to boost a place.
Wealthier magazines, such as Islands or Conde Nast Traveler, pay their writers' expenses themselves to ensure editorial neutrality. For the same reason, many daily newspapers used to accept proposals from freelancers only if the trips being pitched were not tainted by tourism support. Over the years, these standards have been relaxed. Canada's The Globe and Mail now accepts stories where tourism marketing departments have funded a writer's trip. One thing that hasn't changed is the payment for these travel stories: A writer might get $200 for a 1,500-word piece.
Smaller publications, both good ones and not-so-good ones, cannot afford to cover a writer's airfare and hotel, so they have always relied on support from local tourism.
Do any of these writers bite the hand that feeds them? ie, do they trash or poke fun at a place in print if they don't like it? Not often, although I've done so on rare occasions. Usually though, because I don't work the junket circuit, I only approach a tourism department if I actively want to go somewhere; in other words, when the story will likely be positive.
A couple of years ago, in Canadian Geographic magazine, I reviewed a book of essays from various writers. The book had come from a fam tour to Labrador's Torngat Mountains. The writers were good, but their book was not; fam tours are by their very nature superficial, and this book had pretensions of non-superficiality. Review below:
A piece I wrote last year for Explore magazine about a cruise along the south coast of Newfoundland has been nominated for a National Magazine Award.
A recent interview with ExplorersWeb about the cost of High Arctic travel.
More to do with photography than writing, but since Ukraine is so prominently in the news, here are some images from a month-long exploratory trip there a few years ago, including shots of the Crimea.
The Swallow's Nest, Yalta, Crimea: the world's most beautiful third-rate Italian restaurant.
Yalta, on the Black Sea, was a popular summer resort during Soviet times and still draws thousands every August.
Sevastopol, home of Russia's Black Sea fleet. When I was growing up, Canadian geography textbooks called it Sebastopol, a common mistransliteration, since the Cyrillic "v" looks like an English "b". This same mistransliteration happened somewhere in the hoary past with my own name, which should actually be Kovalenko, but which has been Kobalenko for three generations. Likely, some Canadian customs official goofed filling out a form when my father's ancestors first immigrated here.
Lviv, in western Ukraine. It was hard to find an overview of this dead-flat city. Luckily, I got permission to climb a radio tower for this outlook. "Be careful," the official warned me, "because the radiation near the top of the tower can screw up your body's electrical signals." Life is hard and frustrating and more uncertain than ever in Ukraine, but no one cares about liability, and this is one of the freedoms they have and we don't. You'd need two months and a two million dollar insurance policy to get permission to do anything like this in North America.
Ivano-Frankovsk. Another informal overview, this time from a roof.
A village in the Carpathian Mountains, in western Ukraine.
Monument to the founders of Kiev.
Steppe, eastern Ukraine.
February 12, 2014
The story of my 2012 expedition across Labrador with Noah Nochasak, which has already appeared in Explore and Reader's Digest, is now online at Perceptive Travel, the literary travel webzine.
There's also a profile of my arctic travels in the current issue of Expressions, a magazine for Acura owners. Don't ask how I ended up there: we drive a 12-year old CRV.
All words and images ©2008-16 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.