C. M. MAYO
Author of Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution, etc.

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Why? +On Craft+ On Creative Process + Literary Travel Memoirs+ War & Peace

As I always tell my workshop students, it is less than helpful to ask questions like, "Can I do thus-and-such?" or, "Is thus-and-such allowed?" Lemme tell ya, the Literary Police Force is scarfing donuts somewhere in a highway rest stop outside of... someone's imagination.

As for certain agents and editors who offer rigid little rules, you might wonder, if they're so sure they know how to write, why aren't they? As for me, I can tell you that teaching reminds me to take my own advice, which is: Go to your own bookshelf, pluck out a book you have already read and loved. That book, whatever it is, whatever anyone else thinks of it, is your best teacher.

This is a list, not of the Anglo-American literary travel canon, but of the books that have been my teachers. I have read them and loved them, and reread them time and again; each, in its own way, has been vitally helpful to me, whether for shorter pieces such as A Visit to Swan House; longer ones, The Essential Francisco Sosa or, Picadou's Mexico City and From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion, or my books, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California and Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution.

If you are writing literary travel memoir, I encourage you to read the books on this list; may you enjoy and learn from them as I did. At the same time, I encourage you, as a most valuable exercise, to make your own list of works in this genre that you have already read and loved. What do they have in common? How do they handle descriptions of nature, or animals, of crowd scenes? Transitions? Dialogue? Sandwiching in the exposition? Narrative structure?

A final note: Literary travel writing can be defined in many ways. How far does one have to go to consider it travel? As far as, say, the Pushkar camel fair would be fab, but I say, as far as your own backyard will do. The idea is, see with new eyes and an open heart; then tell us a good story.

Armitage, Shelley. Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place

Bain, David Haward.
Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines

Berger, Bruce.
Almost an Island

. The End of the Sherry

. The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert.

Bogard, Paul. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

Brown, Nancy Marie. The Far-Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman

Buford, Bill.
Among the Thugs

Byron, Robert. The Road to Oxiana

Calderón de la Barca, Frances. Life in Mexico

Chatwin, Bruce.
In Patagonia

Conover, Ted.
Coyotes

, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen

, New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing (not precisely travel writing, but who's to say? A masterpiece)

Ehrlich, Gretel.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland

Ellis, Hattie. Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

Fergus, Charles.
Summer at Little Lava: A Season at the Edge of the World

Fisher, M.F.K.
Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon

Ford, Corey.
Where the Sea Breaks Its Back

Frazier, Ian.
Great Plains

Fussell, Paul.
Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars

Gibson, Gregory. Demon of the Waters: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Whaleship Globe
(Yes, I'm calling this a literary travel memoir.
Here's why.)

Godwin, Peter.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

Iyer, Pico.
Video Night in Kathmandu

Karlin, Wayne. Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and Living in Viet Nam

Klindienst, Patricia. The Earth Knows My Name

Larkin, Emma. Finding George Orwell in Burma

Martínez, Rubén. Desert America


Mowat, Farley. Walking on the Land

Morris, Jan. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Morris, Mary. The River Queen

Naipaul, V.S.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey

, A Turn in the South

Nickerson, Sheila.
Disappearance: A Map

Peasley, W.J., The Last of the Nomads

Poncins, Gontran de.
Kabloona

Quinones Sam.
True Tales from Another Mexico

Seth, Vikram.
From Heaven Lake, Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet

Taber, Sara Mansfield.
Born Under An Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter

, Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf

, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia

Steinbeck, John. The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Swain, Jon. River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia

Toth, Jennifer.
The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City

Tree, Isabella. Sliced Iguana

Tweit, Susan J.
Barren, Wild, and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert

Wheeler, Sara.
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica

White, Kenneth. Across the Territories: Travels from Orkney to Rangiroa

Whynot, Douglas. Following the Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers


See also the blog post Around the World with Madam Mayo.
See also A Reading List for Writing Across Borders and Cultures.