Travel Writer-TW20

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How many times I have heard it said-“I wish I were younger.” If the people who utter these words are up in age and taking about entering the Olympics or becoming a ballet dancer, I can understand, they are too old. They had missed their calling in life. But if they are talking about writing, that is something altogether different. I do find such statements very disturbing. Being too old is not a valid excuse for not writing. How can one be too old to write? The older one is the more experience one has. With age comes wisdom.

No one ever questions the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were actually kids when they made their mark in history. Plato, together with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy. Plato, founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world, wrote his famous Dialogues when he was eighty.

James Michener was forty-one years old when he took up the pen. As I mentioned before, his writing career began during World War II, when, as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian. Only until later did he tum his notes and impressions into Tales of the South Pacific, his first book and the basis for the Broadway and film musical South Pacific with the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He didn’t start turning out books until he was in his fifties and sixties. He was ninety when he died, and still writing.

I was in Singapore when Somerset Maugham came to town, as a guest of Franz Schutzman who was the general manager of the Raffles Hotel at the time. Maugham was on his last sojourn around the world. He had visited Bangkok in 1922 and again in 1961. In 1965 he was still thinking about stories to write when he died in his villa in southern France at the age of ninety-two.

We can’t forget the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw. He was born in 1856 and died in 1950 at the age of ninety-four. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. He authored sixty-three plays, but he didn’t have success until he was in his mid-forties, and that was The Devil’s Disciple.

We know he penned his most famous play, Pygmalion, when he was fifty-six, which became an award-winning movie film, My Fair Lady in 1956, six years after his death. No one ever said George Bernard Shaw was too old to write.

Then we have Pablo Picasso. I admire him very much, for the beautiful art that he produced as well as for his tenacity to continue to work with his advancing age. The world remembers him as a Spanish painter, a cubist, and sculptor, but he was also a writer. He lived to ninety-five. He married his second wife in 1961 when she was thirty-four years old and he was seventy-nine, forty-five year her senior. Even into his eighties and nineties he produced an amazing amount of work and reaped enormous financial benefits from his work. He died in 1973. Private museums have been built to enclose his works.

We can’t stop growing old, that is certain, but a writer in advancing year can produce good works providing he doesn’t let his outlook become jaded. He must preserve a childlike belief in the importance of all things. He must never entirely grow up. It’s important he interests himself in matters which have nothing to do with the maladies of old age. lf he does he is dead, as dead as that person with a lost dream. I don’t mean deserting one life for another one of fantasy. The writer must be realistic. His approach must be sincere and not a recreation for then the end product will be doomed to mediocrity. Nor should his writing be a refuge. If it has no effect it has no value. The pessimist is the one who refuses reality, but the writer is the one who accepts it. His approach, however, must be reasonable, and that is the secret of the success of a writer.

One is never too old to write, for with age comes wisdom, but neither can one be too young to start. We have Francoise Sagan to prove that point. She published her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, in 1954 at seventeen. She produced dozens of works during a career lasting until 1996. In addition to novels, plays, and autobiographies, she also wrote song lyrics and screenplays. She died of a pulmonary embolism on 24 September 2004 at the age of sixty-nine.

Let it be said that fiction is truth, and fiction is the truest thing there ever was. It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out the failures of others; not the doer of deeds who could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is there in the arena doing what he has to do-writing.

Unlike all other modes of writing, travel writing enters another dimension. Writing for a travel writer is transcendent, a means to pass on information that is informative, I but restricting. However, given enough time, the travel writer turns to other modes of expression, and some of us live our dreams of Travel become expatriates.

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Travel Writer-TW19C

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…With a Hefty Price

There was a studio apartment open on the top floor in my apartment house and Robert and Irina moved in. He was determined be would become a writer. I gave him a list of publishers and editors in Bangkok and told him to start knocking on doors.

It wasn’t long after Robert and Irina moved into the tiny apartment that I made a book signing agreement that took me to Barnes & Noble bookstores across America, a tour that lasted more than three months. When it ended I was anxious to return to Bangkok, and had decided to move into a bigger house and give up my apartment. We had hardly unpacked when Robert was knocking on my door. He was excited. It seem in a few short months Robert began to sell stories. Editors liked what he wrote.

“Irina must be happy,” I said.

“I am afraid not,” he replied. “She returned to Panama. She wants a divorce.”

Robert and Irina divorced and Robert went on to make his name in writing. The Bangkok Post runs his travel and adventure articles almost every week and there is hardly a magazine in Southeast Asia that doesn’t carry his by-line. He writes regular contributions for Tennis magazine in America and travel publications around the world. His assignments take him on journeys to faraway places like the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan, sailing in the Andaman Sea or motorcycling in the Golden Triangle. He is invited to stay in fancy hotels like the Mandarin Oriental in New York or on luxury train trips throughout Europe. But fancy hotels no longer please him. His name in print does, and he is happy doing what he is doing-writing. In the harsh reality of life as a professional writer, dreams don’t always come true. But for Robert his dream of a being a writer did. But there was a price he had to pay. His wife had left him.

Wanting to Write vs Wanting to be a Writer

Austin Berry was also determined to write. But this is a case of wanting to write versus wanting to be a writer.

They are not the same. Austin was interested only in writing which I didn’t learn why until much later. When I first met him he was teaching school in Bangkok. Today, some half dozen years later, Austin is an attorney, a Law Clerk to the Honorable Harold A. Ackerman, Senior U.S.D.J. in New Jersey. It’s hard to imagine that a few years before he was teaching school at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, and now he’s practicing law. It just didn’t happen. It was Austin’s scheme of things.

Austin graduated from Baylor University in 1999 with a degree in business. The year before he graduated he had enrolled in two “study abroad” programs that Baylor offered. The first half of the summer he traveled throughout western Turkey studying political science. The second half of the summer he traveled with his sociology professor and several other students throughout Southeast Asia, from Bangkok to Lampang and Chiang Mai in Thailand and then on to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. His sociology professor had contacts with Chitralada School in Bangkok. Austin found Chitralada School particularly interesting as it was within the moated walls of King Bhumipol’s palace grounds. The school’s administrators extended an invitation to the Baylor students to return to Chitralada School upon graduation and teach English in the primary or secondary schools.

Austin had always wanted to travel abroad and now this was his chance. After graduation he moved to Bangkok and began teaching in Grades 5 and 6. He relished the experience, teaching in a royal palace, like a male Anna and the King of Siam, but after a year of teaching he found that instead of traveling that he had looked forward to, he was spending all his time grading papers and preparing lesson plans. Teaching at the royal palace was demanding.

“So what do you intend to do?” I asked him when he came to visit me and explained his situation.

“I want to start writing, and that way I can travel,” he said, straight to the point. In an effort to change his circumstances, Austin hatched the plan of writing travel stories. He did more than plan. He bought books on how to get published in magazine and how to write query letters. He then sent queries to big travel magazines in America. Rejection slips followed. He soon realized that the magazine market was not itching for another untested travel writer. It was then, he admitted, that while browsing the travel books in an Asia Bookstore in Bangkok, he noticed books with my name on the covers. He bought At Home in Asia, about expats living in Asia, read it and became completely enthralled with the fantasy of a writer’s life. Austin learned I lived most of the time in Bangkok. After a couple of e-mails we met.

I didn’t know how serious this guy was. He liked his teaching job but he liked traveling more. To test him, I told him to come back in a week and bring something he had written plus ten ideas for articles. In a week he knocked at my door again. He had both with him, a story and ten ideas.

I scanned through the story he had written. His writing was good. One of the ten ideas he had was an article about expatriate authors living in Thailand. He also had a list of names of half a dozen writers living in Bangkok. He was on the right track. I took him to meet the editor of Living in Thailand magazine, to pitch the idea. The editor bought it and Austin wrote his first piece. He moved up the ladder rapidly now. After that first article, I took him to meet Asha Sehgal, who at the time edited Look East, a very popular English-language monthly magazine devoted to travel in Thailand. Asha liked Austin, and set him up with a plane ticket and a few thousand baht to travel to Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. Austin took a day off from teaching and made a long weekend of traveling the island, photographing it and writing articles about his experiences. The commission of one article about Koh Samui resulted in several articles in that issue, including the cover photo for that month’s edition. Asha liked Austin enough that she offered him the Managing Editor’s position starting immediately. Austin was understandably thrilled, but he still had a few months left to teach at Chitralada School. He did not feel it was right to welsh on his obligation to the school, so he finished his one year term there and then began working as the Managing Editor of Look East.

This was exactly the job Austin was looking for, and determination got him there. It afforded him the opportunity to travel and write, to live abroad, and to get paid for doing it! Austin would set out for a ten-day trip to some comer of Thailand, photographing along the way, and then return to Bangkok to write the articles. He would spend the rest of the month compiling the magazine with the articles he just wrote and the photos he just took. As soon as the proofs came back and were acceptable, he would set out again for another journey to another corner of Thailand, once journeying to Laos in search of articles.

Austin’s ambition to write did not stop with Look East magazine. He also had stories published in Living in Thailand, Traveller, Thailand Tattler, and Elite magazines, all based out of Bangkok. He continued to work for Look East magazine and write freelance articles for other Bangkok magazines, but, after two-and-a-half years of living in Thailand, Austin felt like he had accomplished his goal of living abroad for a period of his life. The tragedy of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, also weighed heavily on him and he thought it was time to head home and try to make a difference in any manner he could. Thus, he decided to return to the United States to begin law school and thereby pursue another long- time goal.

Even in law school, Austin continued his passion for writing and his road-not-taken attitude by lobbying the law school faculty for permission and funding to start a new legal journal dedicated to the critical analysis of decisions emanating from the federal courts of appeal. A new journal had not been created at the law school in more than ten years, but he ultimately succeeded in his quest. He attributes his success with the journal to his experience in Southeast Asia as a freelance writer and Managing Editor of Look East magazine.

The Price of Patience and Waiting Attitude

There are writers who write fine books based on a personal experience. Leslie Buzz Harcus, a former US Marine sergeant and China Marine, is one of these people. He had worked up a plot for a novel with its setting in Tsingtao, a seaport on the Shantung Peninsula in China. Buzz had been stationed in Tsingtao after the war.

Buzz had taken a writing course at Michigan State University but he attributes his wanting to write stemmed from his reading. “I love to read, especially action novels,” he said in an interview. “From my reading it was natural for me to want to try my hand at writing. So much had happened to me in China when I was stationed there as a Marine I wanted to write about it. I drew upon my experiences there and blocked out the basic idea for a novel. I had the title before anything-China Marine: Tsingtao Treasure.”

Buzz labored away on an old manual typewriter. Work became easier when he graduated to a computer. He began querying publishers and soon discovered writing was one thing; getting published was something else. “I tried time and again to get a publisher to read my material only to get repeatedly rejected,” he said. “I did re-writes, several re-writes, many in fact. I finally reached a point where I said no more re-writing; the manuscript was done and that was it. I had to find a publisher to read my manuscript. The break came when I received a letter from Wolfenden Publishers. The editor wanted to take a look at my manuscript. I posted my book, neatly printed, and waited. At last, the editor liked my book. Would I make some minor changes and clarify a few points. I did and the book came out in 2005.”

Buzz did not stop now. He finished his second novel on China, Tainted Treasure, which was published in 2008, and is working on two more manuscripts-Web of Greed and Thou Shalt Not. Buzz isn’t about to stop, even at his age. He claims once you have the title the rest is easy.

l don’t think I have met a newspaperman who doesn’t want to break away and write that book that keeps leapfrogging around in his mind. Some have done it, like Robert Woodward that I mentioned earlier. Mort Rosenblum is another. Mort was the bureau chief for Associated Press in Southeast Asia living in Singapore. I got to know him when I was outfitting my schooner in Singapore and during his free time he came to the yard to give a helping hand, not that he had much free time. He just liked boats. Mort always had a book or two he was working out in his mind. He left the AP in Singapore for Paris to become editor-in-chief of the International Herald Tribune. Eventually, with books that he wanted to write, he gave up chasing stories and reporting the news to turning out the books that he always wanted to. He bought a rakish river boat, more like Queen Victoria’s 1890 private yacht, moored it on the Seine River and moved aboard. Now, free at last, from his pen came a string of fine books-The Secret Life of the Seine; Back Home: A Foreign Correspondent Rediscovers America; Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light; Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit; Mission to Civilize: The French Way: Coups and Earthquakes; Reporting the World for America. His latest is Escaping Plato’s Cave: How Americas Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival.

Mort Rosenblum has no regrets. He enjoyed the life of a journalist chasing news stories around the world. He also enjoys sitting aboard his boat on the Seine River in Paris pounding out books. I often wonder about Charlie, the guy I mentioned who wanted to write and planned to go to Tahiti, but decided he needed to make more money before he went. I wonder if he regrets his decision. But then he would never know, for he never tried.

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Travel Writer-TW19B

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… In One’s Unique Field

Roy Howard started publishing Sawasdee, Thai Airways’ in-flight magazine. The magazine’s editorial offices were in Hong Kong and Roy hired a bright young writer, Dean Barrett, to edit the magazine. As a contributor to Sawasdee I got to know Dean quite well and we became friends. Dean stuck with the magazine for more than a dozen years and then decided to devote his full time to writing books and plays. His writing output is phenomenal. Even before I met him, before he published my stories, I enjoyed reading his articles in Orientations magazine, a glossy Asian arts magazine that was very popular at the time. He wrote on Asian history and I was particularity fond of his articles on Chinese trade routes.

Anyone who reads Dean Barrett’s books will gather than he is an authority on Asia, and rightfully so. He was trained as a Chinese linguist at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and, at graduation, he was certain he would be sent to China or Taiwan. But the Army assigned him to more studies at the Army Security Agency that included graduate work in Chinese Area Studies at San Francisco State College. Dean also received his Masters Degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii. He was set for big things. The Army sent him to Thailand where they speak Thai and not Chinese.

As a writer, editor, photographer and publisher, Dean had lived for twenty-five years in Asia, fifteen of those years as managing director of Hong Kong Publishing Company. He wrote and photographed several non-fiction books on Asia and edited several cultural and travel magazines. He also wrote hundreds of articles on Asia and was the winner of several writing and editing awards including the PATA Grand Prize for Excellence for writing on Asia, particularly on Thailand and on Chinese culture. He wrote a weekly satire column for the Hong Kong Standard for five years under the pseudonym, Uncle Yum Cha (“Uncle Drink Tea”).

Dean left Hong Kong in 1986 and moved to New York City, to pursue a career in playwriting and to find a composer for a musical he wrote.

Dean found New York very conducive to writing, especially living in the East Village atmosphere where he had an apartment. It was here he spent two years researching the Ch’ing Dynasty at the 5th Avenue library. He began writing Murder In China Red, a novel in which the protagonist is Chinese from Beijing who lives in New York.

Dean left New York after completing the musical and returned to Asia, this time taking up residence in Bangkok. Why Bangkok? He felt he was closer to the action in Bangkok. Soon to hit the bookstands was Skytrain to Murder followed by Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring.

Dean loves writing plays and he receives letters from students and actors around the world asking permission to stage his plays. “The musical, unfortunately, is a Broadway style and needs lots of money to get it staged properly,” he said. He travels to New York twice a year to meet with his composer. He continues to seek ways to market musicals in today’s tight money market. “The text of the musical and most of my one-act and full-length plays are up on-line which is how people read them and ask permission to put them on.”

Dean Barrett is a prolific writer and he writes what he please without concern about the critics. He has written extensively on Hong Kong’s traditional fishing community that includes a fairytale: The Boat Girl and the Magic Fish. His novels on Thailand are Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior and Skytrain to Murder. His novel t in China are Hangman s Point and Mistress of the East.

Does Academic Background Count?

While Dean Barrett has an academic background, Robert Davis has a background of hard knocks. The results are the same. Both are determined writers.

Robert was a professional tennis coach, and a very successful one. He had a high salary and traveled all over the world. He had a very beautiful wife. You might say Robert Davis had everything. But he wasn’t happy. He wanted to be a writer.

It was several year ago that l first met Robert, before he began writing. It happened one afternoon while I was sitting at my desk, trying to concentrate on a script that was giving me trouble, and there came a knock at my door. At the time my wife and I were living in a small two-bedroom apartment in Bangkok, on the fourth floor, a walk-up without elevator. Like writers who work at home, my place was cluttered with stacks of books, journals and research material. My wife answered the door. “Someone is here to see you,” she said.

Another disturbance! We had rented the apartment as a place for me to get away so I could complete a ten-hour TV television script I was commissioned to write on King Narai of Siam and his Greek Foreign minister. I had given instructions to my publisher and others that I did not want to be disturbed unless it was important.

I went to the door, dressed in shorts and T-shirt, unshaven, and I found standing there a neatly dressed young man with a bottle of wine in hand, and on his arm was a very lovely Latin woman. “Hope I’m not disturbing you,” he said and handed me the wine. The accent was American. “It’s Chilean wine,” he added.

What was I to say? I asked him to come in. He introduced himself, Robert Davis, and the woman who with him was his wife, Irina. She spoke very little English. Before I could ask him what he wanted he spoke out-“You publisher told me where you lived. He didn’t want to tell me until I explained that I was in Bangkok. I thought maybe you lived in America, but when he said Bangkok I was thrilled. I live here too, that is when I am not on the road.”

“So you want to meet an author,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s more than that,” he began. “You see I read your book Who Needs a Road, and the book had an effect on me.”

“You want to get a four-wheel drive and drive around the world,” I said, a bit sarcastically. I didn’t mind answering his questions but he was intruding. He could have phoned first.

“No, it’s more than that,” he said. I was really puzzled now. What did he want? All the while we were talking his wife Irina was looking around the apartment. She was elegantly dressed, in a long Thai silk dress and sporting some fine expensive jewelry. She seemed out of place in a writer’s flat. Robert continued, “I want to be a writer. I want to learn to write like you do.”

Not again, I thought to myself. How was I going to get rid of this guy? But I hesitated. There was something different about him. I didn’t quite know what it was but I was about to find out. He had a career, and a very lucrative one. He was a successful tennis coach, with players under his wing on professional tennis tours. He had the ideal, envious profession that had taken him all over the world, not only to places like Paris and London but also to places such as Reunion Island in the Seychelles and Santiago, Chile. Plus he had a high salary, and his expenses were paid. He lived first class in the best hotels in the world. In Thailand he had been contracted by the Tennis Association of Thailand to serve as National Coach, a post he bad held in countries such as Peru and Panama.

Robert and Irina lived in a large house with gardens and servants in the suburbs of Bangkok, and with his lovely wife be traveled the world over. His wife was happy, his tennis players were happy, everyone was happy, everyone except Robert. He had long had this insane desire to be a writer. I had no indication of the depth of his desire that first time we met. Nor did I know then what motivated his desire. Perhaps because, as I later discovered, he was an avid reader. Not a desultory, haphazard reader but an earnest one. He read everything he could, and this included many of the classic writers. Later, when we became friends, we talked about writing and writers, and I found conversations with him invigorating. He would come charging to my apartment and expound about an obscure passage in Tolstoy that he found. I could no longer get angry with him. Robert knew what good writing is, and he had no time for the mediocre. “If you are going to read,” he said, “you might as well read good writing.”

I am getting away from my story. At that first meeting I felt I had to paint the picture as it was, and if that meant dissuading Robert, so be it. I told him what writing really entailed. Only a handful of writers ever make it big. The blockbusters control the successful writing market, and they are commercial. “I don’t care about money,” Robert said. “I just want to write.”

This guy wasn’t going to be easy. I told him one story after another about would-be writers who when they learned how tough it was gave up. I explained what motivated dream writers. They imagine the life of a writer to be full of glamorous nights and million-dollar advances. Little do they know of the reality of the life of a writer. The rejection letters, financial struggles and matrimonial difficulties. A writer’s life is a lonely one.

Most women, wives and sweethearts, don’t understand that. I myself went through a couple of divorces until I found a woman who believed in what I was doing. “A writer’s life can be a lonely life,” I said, looking at Irina. She didn’t understand English but I think she knew what I was saying.

Robert still said he wanted to be a writer. “There’s only one way to be a writer,” I said. What I was about to tell him was certain to make him think twice. “If you are serious, you have to give it your full energy, let nothing else stand in your way.” I then gave the example about all the newspaper writers, each with a book festering inside them. The only way they ever wrote that book was to quit the newspaper work.

That was my first meeting with Robert. A month passed and there was a knock at my door. It was Robert. “I followed your advice,” he said, beaming.

“And what was that?” I asked. Robert had seemed like a sensible guy, with a beautiful jet-setting wife, so I knew what the answer would be. He gave up the idea of writing. I was wrong.

“I quit coaching,” he replied.

“You what!” I shouted. “What about the players you are coaching? Your house in Nonburi, and your wife? Does he want to be married to a writer?”

“I gave up the house, and we are looking for a small flat,” he said. He explained that his wife was not happy. She would have to give up the beautiful life, Paris and London and all the romance and glitter for a small pad in Bangkok or wherever it might be. He tried to make her understand that it would be all right in the end.

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Travel Writer-TW19A

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Learning to write is like the swimmer attempting to swim the English Channel. For days on end, for weeks, for months, he practices. Finally the day arrives and he begins his swim. He jump into the water, begins swimming and reaches the half way mark when he fears that the swim, the struggle, is beyond his capability. He believes he’d never be able to make it to the other side, to the end, so he turns around and swims back to where he started. He was halfway there and he gave up. Is not launching a writing career much the same? We quit when we are half way there. How many times I felt like that swimmer when I first began writing. Would I be able to make it? It’s only after I reached my goal that I said: “Why all the fuss? That wasn’t so bad.”

I wonder how many writers give up even “after they are halfway there. If one’s desire to be a writer is great enough, and not a passing fancy, he will make it across the channel. But how do we determine if a person who asks for advice about writing is truly serious or is only dreaming. Do we help them? Or do we wish we had copies of The Writers Digest to give them, as my friend Hal Goodwin did to me? It’s not easy to determine who is serious and who is not. Sometimes I do misjudge, like I did with a forty-five-year old man from Florida whom I shall call Charlie.

Charlie convinced me he was serious. We had emails coming and going, back and forth, hot and heavy. Charlie was persistent and wouldn’t give up. He claimed he had always wanted to write and he decided to give up his well-paying job in computer design, or some such field, and pursue his dream. Could I please, please answer some of his questions and give him a few tips. I told him much of what I had written in the preceding pages, basically that it’s a long tough road and, even after reading what I had to say, he was still ready to give it his best shot. He wanted to follow in my footsteps, to do the same that I had done, and that was to go to Tahiti to write. I gave him suggestions where to stay cheaply, and even the names of some of my friends living there who might give him a helping hand. He was thrilled. In one e-mail he said he had purchased his air ticket, and in another he had already packed. The only thing left to do was to notify his boss at work that he was leaving. He was required to give a two-week notice.

I hadn’t heard from him for a month or two and was certain that he was in Tahiti living in a palm-thatched hut with the laptop on a table in front of him. I wrote to my friends in Tahiti and asked if he had ever showed up. They hadn’t heard from him. Naturally I wondered what happened and I took a chance and wrote to him at his old e-mail address. An e-mail came back. Charlie told me he had notified his boss that he was leaving, and his boss felt so badly about it that he offered him a promotion and a big raise in salary. Charlie said it was an offer he couldn’t turn down. He would continue at the job for another six months, saving up more money and then go to the South Pacific. I never wrote to him again, and never bothered to answer his e-mails. His determination to be a writer wasn’t strong enough. He would always find some excuse. Either you do it or you don’t. There is no in-between. I am sure after six months, Charlie found another excuse for not pursuing his dream of becoming a writer.

That was Charlie, but not all people are like Charlie. Some people do make it and they write some very fine books.

…With the Book Inside Them

We often heard it said that every person has a book inside him. It is true; every person is a book. We may not think so, about that seemingly boring guy living next door, but we could be wrong. One doesn’t have to have to move mountains to be interesting. I mentioned earlier Henry David Thoreau. His biggest adventure was watching grass grow and yet he wrote a book that became a classic in American literature-On Walden Pond. When I see people sitting by a lake, I wonder if they might have another On Walden Pond in them. Maybe they do, but bringing out that book that’s inside them, making their story interesting enough to read, that is what writing is all about. Henry David Thoreau knew how to do that.

When the Bangkok Post interviewed author Paul Theroux and asked him if he believed that anyone could become a writer, he replied, “Everyone can write, but not everyone will find readers. The point of writing is finding someone who cares about what you write about. This should be the vision of a writer, to persuade the reader that what they are reading is the truth and that it will alter their view of the world. Otherwise what you’re doing is just wasting your time.”

Small trivia can make good reading if the writer is clever with words. And who knows, a bit of trivia might have literary value. Suppose it’s a memoir. It may provide readers with a piece of history, with some meaningful insight on life. The writer then has succeeded, even if that book doesn’t sell. A book in a shelf for future generations to read is not a book lost. One person I knew who wrote such a book was Jorges Orgibet, Jorges wrote his autobiography, From Siam to Thailand, mostly for his friends, he said. I don’t think he realized the historical value of his book. He wrote about Thailand when Bangkok had less than a thousand Brits and only fifty Americans living in the city.

Jorges was a foreign correspondent, a former newspaper publisher and the editor of Business in Thailand magazine. His popular “Backdrop” column had been a regular feature in that magazine for twelve years.

Jorges’ career began as a US diplomat to Thailand, which he gave up to become a correspondent and film director. He filmed 341 documentaries for NBC news. In 1953 he opened the Associated Press bureau in Bangkok and was the co-founder of the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Jorges never thought much about From Siam to Thailand but I find it a wonderful piece of writing. The book gives us a graphic picture as to what the kingdom was like in the old days, before it became Thailand. He gives readers an intimate view of kings and prime ministers, cabaret girls, bandits and high society–plus some of the strangest private train trips on record. And Jorges knew everyone in Thailand, those who were someone and those who wanted to be someone.

Roy Howard was a businessman. He too wrote his autobiography, Good As It Gets. I assumed, when he gave me an autographed copy, that it was the standard book that one wants to hand down to their children, one that has no literary significance. I found it the complete opposite, a good read to the last page.

Good As It Gets deals with history, people, places and events. It’s the history of Thai Airways International in a capsule but it’s not confined solely to the airline.

Compared to Jorge, Roy Howard was a latecomer in Bangkok, having arrived in 1959. Still, he came when Bangkok was evolving from a small provincial town in Southeast Asia to a budding and up-coming metropolis. He came before Thailand had an airline and arrived at Don Muang airport having just turned twenty-four years old. He began work at Cathay Advertising and became involved helping launch a new airline-Thai Airways International. When the airline offered him the job of advertising manager, with frill expatriate conditions, he accepted. For the next thirty-three years he helped the airline grow in 1960 from three DC-6B to a fleet of nearly a hundred planes making it one of the largest airlines in Asia. Out of this experience came Good As It Gets in which he recorded the birth and history of the airline.

What makes the book interesting is the people we meet. There’s Dr. Gertie Ettinger, an Austrian Jewish refugee, who, together with her husband, Egon, also a doctor, had arrived in Bangkok before the war and had proceeded to look after the majority of the European expatriates.

There’s Neils Lumholdt, the son of the publisher of one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, who became a leading figure at Thai Airways. Roy doesn’t let the world forget him. Roy also names Phil Murray, one of the most interesting characters he met, and another American character, Keith Lorenz, a freelance writer who reputedly worked for the CIA, and who drove around Bangkok in his car with a bear in the passenger seat. He write about a “charming lady,” Mrs. Chitdee at Thai Airways who was joined by a PR consultant from London named Robin Dannhorn. Robin arrived in Bangkok with his wife and two young children, wearing conservative suits and horn-rimmed glasses, which soon changed.

He also tells how he met, through Bob Udick, editor of the Bangkok World newspaper, an American writer who was half-way around the world driving a Toyota Land Cruiser, and was looking for sponsorship for a series of travel articles. Roy agreed for Thai Airways to sponsor him, “Little realizing that Steve would eventually write more than 3,000 articles for the Bangkok World and the Bangkok Post.” I was that Steve and so began my career in Asia. I finished my motor trip, returned to Southeast Asia and have been around even since.

In the advertising game Roy throws out names like Michael Brierly, Hans Lindberg, Russ Jones, Paul McKeon and Evan Maloney, all legends today. He tells us about Sam Peck, a laid-back Californian who had joined Thai Airways from the SAS organization in the USA. He tells us about his starting to jog with Al Eberhart. Roy eventually became a marathon runner with over a dozen runs to his credit.

We learn something about Swiss artist Theo Meier who settled in Bali before the war, and with the help of Prince Sanidh Rangsit, a cousin to the king of Thailand, moved to Chiang Mai where he spent the last 22 years of his life, and whose paintings are now much sought after today. And there are others, so many others, many who would be forgotten had it not been for Roy Howard keeping their names alive. I have to give thanks to Roy Howard and Jorges Orgibet for their fine books.

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Travel Writer-TW18B

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Be Yourself, Continue Learning and Innovating

Not all agree with my premise that to become a writer all one needs is lots of hard work and determination. Success doesn’t come easy and this we might say is a pitfall. I have my critics. Writer Steve Van Beek believes you need more than determination. You must have a love for words, and the love of word means the sounds of words. Steve is an accomplished writer. He has won several international awards and his scholarly book on The Arts of Thailand is a classic work. Steve came to Asia some forty years ago and lived several years in Nepal. He speaks Nepalese like a Nepalese, and I could say the same for his Thai. I have known him since the early 1970s when he began a supplement for the Bangkok Post called “Outlook.” He bought several of my stories for the magazine. Other than a writer and filmmaker, Steve is a concert pianist. He gave up music to travel and become a writer. He also turned from editor to adventure. He built a kayak and paddled down the length of Chao Phraya River in Thailand, taking fifty-two days. He explored the headwaters of the Mekong River in China and followed it down through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

Steve believes that to write well the sound of words is important. “A writer must have a feeling for the sound of a word,” he said. When Steve writes a few lines, he recites out loud what he has written and only then can he judge his work.

Yachtsman Ed Boden, much like Steve Van Beek, loves words, and he loves to read. He was an aerospace engineer working on the space program at JPL in Pasadena and gave it up to sit aboard a tiny, 25-foot long sail boat and sail around the world. He now had all the time in the world he wanted to read. He also believes success, success in anything we do, writing included, depends a great deal upon luck.

He believes that I make one’s success in writing sound too easy. To do so is a pitfall. He attributes success in part to luck. “In the real world,” Ed states, “only a few people get to see their ‘carefully contrived plan’ carried to fruition, while the vast majority never even see them at all. Successful people are those who have, somehow, been able to call on their talent and then have had Lady Luck smile on their efforts. Then, there are the untold numbers of ones who had the required talents to put together their plans, many that would have been superior to those of the ‘successful’ folks, but inexplicably they were rewarded with Lady Luck’s frown. Talents, too, comes in varying grades of degrees from weak to strong. Interestingly, the ability to call on a talent is really a talent too.”

I agree somewhat with what Ed had to say but with one exception, and that is luck. People tend to say a person accomplishes certain things because he was lucky. Ed points out that I was lucky with Mr. Sullivan, the editor of Life. I could have left his office and never got to meet him, and my life would not be the same. My good luck was that I remained long enough in his office to hear the secretary pass out Mr. Sullivan’s address to another writer. This is where I disagree. Had I not talked to Sullivan, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have found another means to reach my goal as a writer. I recall an incident that happened when I was present with John Fulton, the American matador, when the press was interviewing him in Seville. A reporter said, “You are very lucky; you have never been gored.” John quickly responded, “I don’t call that luck. I call that being more cautious than other matadors.”

Some people associate luck with statistics. Toss a coin a thousand times into the air, and 500 times it will turn up heads and 500 times tales. Certainly, had John Fulton not retired early, one day, if we believe in statistics, he would have met a fighting bull’s horns. That was a pitfall but can we not turn a pitfall into our advantage? Is not writing the same? How many good works have been abandoned because the author gave up? Unlike bull fighting, a writer can never push his chances too far. If he is good, the world will hear about him. Make a rejection slip from an editor a badge of courage.

But the world will not hear about a writer if he falls prey to false advertising. Here is where the danger lies. What wonderful opportunities these advertisements offer. If I subscribe, the ad tells me, in ten easy steps, I can make it to the bank. The ad makes promises. For a fee, naturally, my book will be submitted to not one but to many book distributors, and these include, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the three biggest. They state their packages include full-service, and automatic distribution with online retailers.

These book promoters are not lying. They will, certainly, submit books from their clients. But then what? Anybody can submit a book to Ingram, Baker & Taylor and But what the e promoters don’t tell me is that Ingram Baker & Taylor and do not promote books. They just distribute them.

Writer can promote their own books if they are willing to put forth the effort. I discovered this with my book Who Needs a Road. Al Podell, the co-author, had experience in promotion, having been picture editor of Argosy magazine. He went himself to the offices of Bobbs-Merrill, requested a desk and the publisher’s stationery and sat down to write letters. He then had the publisher post the letters to newspapers, radio and TV stations, men’s club and women’s clubs and, perhaps, even to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well, telling them all that I was coming to town and available for interviews. It not only worked, the promotion succeeded far more than I could handle. Podell surprised even Bobs-Merrill. They couldn’t print books fast enough.

A writer’s danger is wasting time. Pondering and not acting. It doesn’t cost money to become a writer; it costs time. But time is not to be wasted.

When I was a young man in Paris I liked to visit the cafes on the Left Bank. I had my favorite and in the beginning I found it inspiring to sit among so many gifted writers and artists. But each time I went to these cafes, the same artists and the same writers were there, day in and day out. Shouldn’t they be in their rooms and studios writing and painting? Were they no more than parvenus of the arts, talking, mocking, and bragging about what they were going to do, dreaming, but not producing. I stopped wasting my time listening to them.

Writing a book is only the beginning of problems. Once it’s completed, what do we do? After writing thirty books I still face the same dilemma. The book has to be sold. The danger is the mistake we make thinking that a book will sell itself. It most definitely will not. It needs to be publicized. Months before books are published book critics weigh in on what should be read and what should be avoided. For librarians, bookstore buyers, and online booksellers, these “trade reviews” provide crucial direction amid a flood of more than 150,000 titles a year. At one time these reviews came free. No more.

Kirkus, founded in 1933, is the most expensive or these trade journals (3,000 subscribers pay $450 a year), but its reputation for ferocious independence and brutal reviews makes it a valuable guide in a world of hype. While Publishers Weekly and Library Journal might correctly predict the success of a novel, you can always count on Kirkus to draw blood. Kirkus does allow, however, self-published authors, long ignored by the trade journals, to buy a Kirkus review for $350. This does require some thought. If Kirkus is going to charge people $350, will they then write honest reviews?

I find it dangerous to fully trust publishers. We make the mistake to think they are omniscient, that they know all the answer, what is good and what isn’t. Publishers can very well misjudge a writer’s work. What is alarming is how they can influence writer when, in fact, they have their own interest at heart and not the writer’s. I have known cases where publishers have held up good material simply because they didn’t want other publishers to get hold of it. They do this by asking writers to give them options on their work, sometimes paying a pittance to hold it. Rather than rely on publishers and nonprofessional friends and associates, I create a work that is the product of my own skills and thoughts rather than what someone else thinks my work should be. Proofreading is one thing writers need, but content editing is quite something else. Editors tend to overreach.

Spelling and grammar, naturally, are important but for these I can correct them later. What is important is the thought, the writing itself, the message I have to tell. Spelling and grammar come later. My friend Dave Pryor, a golfer had a problem, not with grammar, with putting. He had a hard time with his putting. What did he do? He learned to putt. He practiced until he got it down. “What’s so difficult about grammar?” he asked when I mentioned how difficult grammar can be at times. “Get a good grammar book and start studying.” He was right, and I did just that. I taught myself grammar. When I look at some of the writing today I wonder if grammar is important at all. But that’s not the point. Grammar is important. It’s like Picasso and Salvador Dali painting abstract art. They had to learn to paint a hand and flowers in a vase first. They didn’t start with abstract art. That came later.

Nevertheless, we must know our grammar and punctuation. It’s easy to master nouns and verbs, but the difficulty begins with the case, subjunctive and pluperfect. Punctuation is even more important than grammar. A misplaced comma can change the very meaning of a sentence, like the professor who went up to the black board and wrote a sentence-“A woman without her man is nothing.” He asked the student to punctuate it correctly. The males in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” All the females in the class wrote: “A woman, without her, man is nothing.” No one can say punctuation is not important after that.

What is more difficult than mastering spelling and grammar is learning to be logical. Easily said but not so easily done. For instance, to get someone into a room you have to go through a door first, and to do that a writer must be logical. You don’t need a PhD in philosophy to reason that out. You must learn to play with word, logically. The fun part of writing is playing with words.

Both a pitfall and a danger is making enemies. Writers make enemies. You can’t please everyone. “If you put my name in your book I’ll sue you.” I apply caution and use a different name. Now they say: “Why didn’t you use my name?” I can’t win-that’s a pitfall. The danger is they might sue me.

Notice in the introduction of most book there are disclaimers that state “any resemblance to a living character is purely coincidental.” Don’t you believe it. There is no original thought. It’s impossible to imagine a person or a thing that is nonexistent. Writers base their characters on people who are real or who, at least, were real at one time. When Somerset Maugham toured Southeast Asia in the 1920s, he gathered background material for his novels and short stories. When the stories appeared in print, it caused quite a disturbance among the patterns for his supposedly fiction characters. One story in particular was “The Letter.” An attempt was made to bring suit against him but the courts ruled against it. Nevertheless, he left some ill feelings behind.

It was also said that Joseph Conrad disturbed some residents in Singapore when they turned up in his novel Lord Jim. And James Michener found himself in difficult times with the publication of Hawaii. He exposed many families who got their starts by devious means, and it was said he could never return to Hawaii. It seems a bit far-fetched but we do know Michener sold his beautiful cliff home on Oahu and moved his residence to the mainland.

There is one other danger for which writers should beware. That is to believe that he is infallible

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Travel Writer-TW18A

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Chapter 18A

Adjustment to Changes

Writing has it rewards, and as I mentioned, they are many. But writing also has its hazards, pitfalls and even dangers.

Writing is a lonely business, and it can be one of the hazards of writing. Sometimes I feel I might be losing my mind, or there are times I can’t escape from the character I am creating. When I sit down at my desk to write, I put myself into a shell. This is especially true if I am writing a book. I must isolate myself from my surroundings and create new imaginary ones. I must make this new world very real. I need to give life to those characters I mold; I must live their lives. It’s rather like method acting, that technique in which actors recreate real life’s emotional conditions. Writing becomes an attempt to create life-like, realistic situations. Some actors becomes so involved in their profession they can’t turn off, even when they are off stage or away from the camera. Writers are often the same. I find myself a writer twenty-four hours a day, even when I am sleeping. I wake in the middle of the night with new plots racing around in my head. Sometimes I have to get up and write them down. If I don’t, the next morning I am angry with myself. I can’t remember what they were. How could I let them go? They were brilliant.

When I am riding in a car, walking down the street, sitting in a barber chair, my mind is not my own. I am writing. I find I have to describe the world around me in words, the expression on that woman’s face sitting across from me on the bus. The conversation I hear, I try to find words to express the accent, the tone of voice. Then there are the sounds. A train rumbling over tracks. A woman with shoes with wooden heels walking on a hard surface floor. My mind is never my own. As I am always writing, I am always in a daze. How do I capture it all? It becomes a challenge. My mind is constantly at work-sketching, painting, drawing-all day long, all night long, even in my sleep. That is what writing is about. In Writers Lifeline, Ken Atchity, on the same subject, made the comment, “The ideas for stories that wrack my brain will not let me rest until I write them down and then and only then I am free-until another idea blossoms. The process begins again.”

Writing is a form of existentialism, that mental exercise which gives me the complete freedom to decide, but to which I am laden, like a weight, with the complete responsibility for the outcome of my decisions. The price paid, as I said, is aloneness. A writer is alone with his thoughts. It can be no other way. We hear the joke about the absent-minded professor. It’s not that way at all. The professor is deep in thought.

I like what Joyce Carol Oates had to say about this. She was incredibly prodigious with an output that never ceases to amaze me. She had the talent for creating characters that fit every walk of life. She said, “If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.”

Writers live in their own world which becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to share with others. That is one of the dangers of being a writer. We are fortunate only when our partner, wife or husband, understands this. If not, then we live alone in a world that Albert Camus, the French existentialist writer wrote about and which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. According to Camus, the price a writer has to pay is aloneness.

When it comes to pitfall, travel writing creates them, and often they are unavoidable. To get published we must adhere to the rules, and that means writing what editors want. The idea of good travel writing, of course, is to promote travel. Fine. But what happens when I am visiting a place I don’t like? My solution is to write about only those places that I like and favor, and then I don’t have to fabricate and write lies. Critics often accuse me of only writing nice things about a destination, and it is true. What they don’t know is that I don’t write about those places I dislike.

One pitfall that is most difficult to avoid, if not impossible in our modem day, is that we have come to a total reliance on computers. What a pity. We can’t be without our computer. We are like Charlie Brown’s friend and Lucy’s brother, Linus, who can’t be without his blanket. Our computer fails and we fail. Typewriters didn’t crash. They didn’t need electricity to operate. They didn’t need updating. They weren’t linked to ready mail they call e-mail that you have to read every morning and spend the next hour or two answering. It was so rewarding when traveling abroad to go to a Poste Restante and find a letter waiting. These days you can stand at the summit of Mt. Everest, or someone can, and with a cell phone send an e-mail home to mom. How un-adventuresome. Wasn’t it far more exciting when we had to wait two days to find if the climbers reached the summit? How much thrill can that be standing on top of the world and having your mother telling you to be careful and make sure you bundle up. “Hi, mom, yes I’ll be careful. Yes, I’ll keep warm.”

What seems so odd is that computers and word processing may have simplified the writing process but they have not improved the output of writing. What the word processor means is that we just waste more time on nonsense things. We spend more time at the computer doing things other than actual writing. Fyodor Dostoevsky didn’t have a computer when he wrote the thousand-page plus Crime and Punishment. He had a pen that he dipped in ink. I had my Hermes, my typewriter that I lugged around the world with me, and I thought I was very sophisticated. It served me well.

We call our lifestyles today progress, a push-button, throwaway society. We may lament the past but there’s no going back. Only a fool would take up a quill and inkwell and sit down to compose a novel. We may like the old days but there are no time machines to take us there. We have advanced to an age where we are compelled to remain, and to survive we must adapt. This is the electronic age. Writer Robin Dannhrn fought progress for a long time. He felt that to write well, to get the feeling for writing, he had to use a pen. Not a ballpoint pen but a genuine ink pen. “I like to feel a pen in my fingers. I feel closer to my work,” he used to say. He wrote in long hand and then had a typist type out his copy. Maybe one or two changes were needed. When typists became harder to come by, he was forced to get a typewriter and to learn to type. Then he graduated to an electric typewriter. He was reluctant to tell me he was using an electric typewriter. And finally, after all these years, Robin bought a computer. He had to. Editors no longer want hard copy. He grumbles and moans and he gets frustrated when paragraphs disappear and all sorts of things happen. He was forced to join the modem age but he still laments the passing of pen and ink.

One writer that refused to give up the typewriter was Bernard Trink at the Bangkok Post. He had an old beat-up typewriter the size of a boxcar and every week he pounded out his Night Owl column, sitting there at his cluttered desk, with photos of half-naked Thai bar girls pasted on the walls. He had such a wide reading audience that the management had to put up with his idiosyncrasies. They feared if they did let him go they’d lose readers. Eventually, however, the management let Trink go, to the disappointment of his readers.

I find it interesting to scrutinize some of the old hand-written manuscripts by the old masters. The margins are filled with scribbling and notes that are hardly legible. I remember, when I worked in the office of Jefferson Caffery, the American Ambassador in Paris, seeing a typewritten letter on the ambassador’s desk from a writer. It was a personal message, and I can’t remember the subject matter, but I do remember all the cross outs and corrections. It looked like a chicken with muddy feet had walked across the letter. The letter was written and signed Ernest Hemingway.

I often think about Margaret Mitchell. She didn’t have a computer. Can we say her pitfall was that she wrote by hand? Hardly. And yet she had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for her immensely successful novel, Gone with the Wind, published the year before. The novel is one of the most popular books of all time, selling more copies, than any other hard-cover book, apart from the Bible, and is reputed to be still selling at 200,000 copies a year, An American film adaptation, released in 1939, became the highest-grossing film in the history of Hollywood, and received a record-breaking number of awards. Gone With the Wind was Mitchell’s only published novel. She was struck and killed by a speeding automobile in 1949. She was forty-eight years old. At her request, upon her death, the original manuscript (except for a few pages retained to validate her authorship) and all other writings were destroyed. Of course, we have to conclude, had she written on a computer her destroyed works could be recovered. These works included a novella in the Gothic style, a ghost story set in an old plantation home left vacant after the Civil War. According to the recollections of Lois Cole, a friend of Mitchell’s and a Macmillan employee, three people had read this tale (written before Gone With the Wind) and thought it was worth publishing by one of the bigger publishing houses. Cole suggested that Mitchell enter it in the Little, Brown novelette contest.

One pitfall that many writers fall into is to accept offers to join writer’s clubs and writers’ groups that offer quick ways to fame and fortune. I learned my lesson in the beginning when I joined one writers’ club, and for $49.95 a month, I communicated with others who were in the same boat as me. How marvelous to know I wasn’t alone. How inspiring. I corresponded with dozens of beginning writers like myself. We exchanged notes and ideas. We criticized each other’s work. We confessed our faults. We fed on each other’s weaknesses. Then one day it came to me, of the two or three thousand members, not one of them was a published writer. They were all wannabe writers. They were all dreamers wanting for someone else to whip them into shape. Did I need to spend $49.95 a month to tell me this? After the first month or two in the club I got to thinking, why do I want to communicate with writers like me who are struggling? When I checked the list of subscribers there wasn’t one named writer on the index. What sheer folly these clubs promise the inexperienced beginning writer. They provide, they say, a base for networking, invaluable writing resources update on the writing industry, writers’ local and overseas markets, worldwide jobs, freelance opportunities, and much more! Words, words, words. I must say, their word are impressive. The members, however, may not have been professional but the people who run these organization certainly are when it comes to giving advice for a price. One provider I noticed offered services to writers such as seminars and discussion groups. For the small sum of $500 I could join a writer’s seminar for a three-day weekend. Not a writer’s course but for a weekend. A hotel around the corner from the workshop offers a discount at $99 per night, single occupancy.

I did more homework. In one widely read and well-recommended writers’ guidebook there was a list of highly recommended proofreaders. I questioned a professional proofreader about this, a young lady who worked for a large publication firm in Los Angeles. I asked her why she didn’t list her name with the mentioned writers’ guidebook and earn a few extra dollars for herself. She said it was too costly. She explained she’d have to pay an exorbitant sum of money to have her name listed in the publication. Did I hear right? She would have to pay to be put on a recommended list! Does that mean the recommendations in the writers’ guide are there because they paid a bundle of money and not necessarily because they are good at the trade? We can call that a scam.

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Travel Writer-TW17

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Chapter 17

Most people worry about losing their jobs. The higher up the cooperate ladder they climb, the worse it becomes. The farther they can fall. You hear people say: “What if I lose my job?” “What can I do if I am laid off?” “I’m too old to start another profession.” It’s a concern, and one that most people must face. What if they lose their jobs?

That is one of the rewards of writing. Writers don’t lose their jobs. They just change editors.

One of the toughest decisions I had to make in my life was to give up my government job in Washington to become a full-time writer. I knew once I made that decision there would be no turning back. I had to be honest with myself, and above all, sincere. I could not compromise the truth. No matter what else I had to do, I had to adhere to these principles for, without, I would be just a hack. I had to turn away and completely make a break. And I had to go as far away as possible, and to use the cliché, I had to “bum all my bridges behind me.” I decided on the South Pacific, and to get there, I took a bus from Washington to Mexico City, hitchhiked my way down through Central America and caught a freighter in Panama to the Pacific. When I climbed aboard that bus in Washington, one world ended and another began. I called it my rebirth. No longer could I make excuses. No longer could I blame others. It was totally up to me now. I had made up my mind. I would not burden myself with regrets. The die was cast. I was going to be a writer.

After I made up my mind what direction I would go, I discovered that freedom from the nine-to-five, with no boss telling me what do, didn’t mean freedom from work. I would have to work harder than ever. And now, instead of one boss telling me what to do, I had as many as the publications I wrote for. The saving grace, however, was that not all of them would fire me, as long as I produced. I made sure I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. A writer need not ever be out of work. The world always needs writers.

Doors open to writers that wouldn’t normally open to the average person, the businessman or vagabond, the scholar or the bystander. The reason becomes quite obvious in a very short time. People, or most people, love to see their names in print, and they are aware writers can do this for them. On the other hand, there are those who perhaps fear the writer, for they might have something they don’t want known, and it’s these people who treat writers kindly, false as it may often be.

Indeed, one of the big rewards of writing is meeting people, people you wouldn’t normally meet. That could be bank presidents, Hollywood stars or even a hit man. True, I even interviewed a hit man.

I found it fascinating to be a writer for the Bangkok Post. I received my assignments from editors to interview new faces in town, everyone from Hollywood actors to entertainer and from noted authors to bureaucrats. It was most interesting for I knew if I met these same people on the street and said hello they would probably look the other way. But when I appeared in a hotel lounge with notebook and pencil in hand they mellowed. Some of these celebrities I found interesting; others not. Some completely threw me off guard, like novelist Han Suyin, author of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. At lunch at the Lord Jim at the Oriental Hotel, instead of me interviewing her, she interviewed me. She was fascinated with my living in Bangkok and had question after question to ask. When lunch was over and we parted, I thought, “What an interesting person she is.” It then came to me that I hardly knew anything more about her than I did before.

Writers’ rewards can be many if we want to take advantage of them. As I mentioned, authors get invited to parties and social functions not because they might have a storming personality or that they are interesting conversationalists. They get invited because they are authors. That’s it. Party givers like to have an artist or a writer hanging around. Artists and writers add color to a gathering. They don’t even have to say anything, which makes them even more interesting. Normally I don’t like parties but I have to remind myself that parties and social gatherings are what provide me with material to write about. Thomas Wolfe wrote some of his best prose from material he gathered at parties, parties that he disliked.

Then there is the supposition that writers ‘have power, another reward. But power in this case must be used wisely. When a writer has readers he then has influence. And influence can become power, positive or negative, depending upon how we use it.

We have all heard the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. A writer can make or break a person. Take Bob Woodward as an example. Remember him? He was an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. While delving into a story, along with co-journalist Carl Bernstein, he helped uncover the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. President Nixon was out and Bob Woodward was in. Now with his name behind him, Woodward wrote twelve best-selling non-fiction books and has twice contributed reporting to efforts that collectively earned the Post and its National Reporting staff a Pulitzer Prize. Bob Woodward realized the power of the pen and he used it to his advantage.

Writers may not be aware of their power and influence. They can be that part that becomes greater than the whole. I don’t think Karl Marx fully realized the impact his writing would have on the world. He wrote and published (with Friedrich Engels) Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848), commonly known as The Communist Manifesto, the most celebrated pamphlet in the history of the socialist movement. He also was also the author of the movement’s most important book, Das Kapital. These writings and others by Marx and Engels form the basis of the body of thought and belief known as Marxism. Indeed, Marx and Engels used writing to air their grievances, proof that the pen can be as sharp as a knife and just as destructive.

Writers can create images and, if they are powerful enough, readers will believe them. I remember the marvelous promotion the Beatles had. I was teaching school in Washington when newspapers began running ads for what was to turn out to be the world’s most popular singers. The ad was so simple at first-four wigs and the words THE BEATLES. Those same wigs appeared time and time again, and I couldn’t help wondering what they represented. Before long, we were all booked. Who were the BEATLES? You didn’t have to ask.

In 1960, Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote a book called Child Care and changed the next generation of parenthood. It was translated into 42 languages and sold almost 50 million copies. His philosophy, as stated in Child Care, was that parents should not spank or discipline their children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem. Children should be free to express themselves. (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). His writing is alleged to have created a generation of misfits and delinquents. We can ask ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves. That is what the power of the pen can do.

Call it a reward, or perhaps the antithesis of a reward, an anathema perhaps, but a writer can shape the world. They can do this not only by their printed word but also from adaptations of their work, and this we call cinema.

Without the writer where would the cinema be? Actors get the credit, directors get the awards, the cameramen and the costume designers are lauded, but it’s the writer that is often the last on the list to be mentioned, if not forgotten all together. The scriptwriter is the one who will get the credit. And who, after all, is a scriptwriter but someone who feeds on writers.

Nevertheless, writers want to see their work made into movies. It’s their ultimate recognition, and it’s every writer’s dream, whether they want to admit it or not. For certain it’s these movies that have a profound influence on the public. Directors and producers look for good material and they turn to novels and short stories for that need. Somerset Maugham was one of the first writers to set the pattern. In 1928, his short story “Sadie Thompson” was adapted to the silent movie screen and starred Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore. It was retitled as Rain. The following year, Hollywood took his short story “The Letter” and with stars like Jeanne Bagels and Herbert Marshall, it became a hit. Maugham couldn’t fail after that, especially after 1932 when Rain became the first sound movie to be made and starred Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. Others of his to follow were Of Human Bondage in 1934, The Painted Veil in 1934, The Vessel of Wrath in 1938, The Moon and Sixpence in 1942 and The Razors Edge in 1946.

The remake of Maugham’s movies continues to this day. The Letter appeared three times more, Of Human Bondage and The Razors Edge twice and only recently in 2006 The Painted Veil hit the big screen again. In the British movie industry, J. Arthur Rank applied an unusual technique to movie making by taking several of Maugham’s short stories and collectively turning them into movies. These were Quartet in 1948, Trio in 1950 and Enore in 1952. Maugham appeared as himself in the introductions.

Oftentimes, sadly, the public is not aware of who the authors are in movie hits. Being Julia, released in 2004 and starring Annette Bening was based on Maugham’s novel Theatre. And as I mentioned, there was The Painted Veil in 2006 that starred two top performers, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Maugham was hardly mentioned.

Ernest Hemingway died more than forty years ago and Hollywood continues to make movies from his books and short stories. It began in 1932 with adapting A Farewell to Arms to the silver screen. The movie starred Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s good friend. Cooper did Hemingway the honors again when For Whom the Bell Tolls was filmed with Cooper taking the lead role. His leading lady was Ingrid Bergman. The Old Man and the Sea was filmed three times: in 1958 with Spencer Tracy; in 1990 with Anthony Quinn; and in 1999 there was an animated version with the voices of Gordon Pinsent and Kevin Delaye. There were many others that became movies taken from Hemingway’s novels-To Have and Have Not, The Sun Also Rises and Islands in the Stream, and from his short stories-“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Killers.” Hollywood wasn’t short of big names to play Hemingway’s characters–Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, Lee Marvin and George C. Scott.

And no writer was more loved in Hollywood than James Michener. Michener’s book Hawaii was so big they had to break it down and take chapters for the film by the same name. The first film Hawaii was in 1966 and starred Max von Sydow and Julie Andrews. The movie focused only on the book’s third chapter, “From the Farm of Bitterness,” which covered the settlement of the island kingdom by the first American missionaries. A 1970 sequel, The Hawaiians, starring the late Charlton Heston, covered subsequent chapters, including the arrival of the Chinese and Japanese and the growth of the plantations.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a novel about a Korean War pilot assigned to bomb a group of heavily defended bridges, was made into a motion picture in 1953 by Paramount Pictures. It won the Special Effects Oscar at the 28th Academy Awards.

Centennial was made into a popular twelve-part television miniseries of the same name that aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979.

Sayonara is a 1957 film which tells the story of an American Air Force flier who was a fighter “Ace” during the Korean War. Directed by Joshua Logan it starred Marlon Brando. Michener handled very well the problems of racism and prejudice. Brando certainly got carried away with his role. He went back to America and took up the fight for the plight of the American Indians.

And certainly one of the most successful Broadway plays turned into a top run movie was the musical South Pacific with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The Broadway play and the movie came from Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

Now the million dollar question, how do books become movies? I recall some of those how-to-do books I read when I dreamed of becoming a writer. They told hungry authors how for $29.95 they could sell to the movies. The writers of these books applied every trick in the trade to dupe young writers into buying their books.

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. Imagine the countless books a movie producer receives each year. He hardly has the time, nor takes the time, to read but a few, if any at all. But film scripts do reach them. That’s obvious for there wouldn’t be movies if there hadn’t been scripts. Nevertheless, it takes a special skill to write a script, and even then it’s a gamble that it will ever be bought up. Writers have to ask themselves, do they want to spend months preparing a film script with the likelihood it may never be read?

Writers like to see their works become movies, if not for money for recognition. But it’s a sad tale when writers count on it. The late Mario Puzo had his opinion, both humorous and honest, on the subject of selling to the movies. Puzo certainly was a writer with movie experience, an author who wrote a number of bestselling novels, including The Godfather, Fools Die, and The Last Don. He warned aspiring scriptwriters that the only way to get a fair deal in Hollywood is to go into the studio with a mask and gun. Sounds harsh but it’s true. You need a gun to get them to listen. But don’t ever try it.

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Travel Writer-TW16

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Chapter 16

Nothing is more disturbing than hearing someone who wants to be a writer say they don’t know what to write about. In other words, they want to write but don’t have anything to say. Something doesn’t sound right. I have the urge to write and that means I want to express myself. To express myself is to be heard. But how? By what means?

In the last chapter, I talked about motive, but I made no mention of “mode”. Mode is the manner in which an artist expresses himself, be that of a poet, novelist, composer, lyricist, playwright, mythographer, journalist, technical writer, film scriptwriter, historian and, yes, travel writer. It all comes down to the use of words. An artist uses paints; a writer, words. Writers are wordsmiths. Without writers, we wouldn’t have civilizations. “Civilizations began with writing, and there was no civilization without writing,” Dr. Quigley at Georgetown University taught in his Development of Civilization class. Indeed, a writer’s output contributes to the cultural content of a society, meaning writers not only record happenings, but they also shape society. Anyone who does not agree can read Karl Marx or Martin Luther.

There is a cure for those who want to write but are in doubt as what to write about. The solution is to read the good writers. Read, read, read. Learn from writers, good writers, and ideas will come. Find a mentor. Such a person can make a big difference to the outcome of one’s life. When successful people tell their story, they always mention how important one or more individuals were in helping to fashion their success. Bill Clinton said meeting then President John Kennedy when he was just sixteen-years old led him to decide to pursue a life in politics. Would Tiger Woods be the legend he is today without the influence of his father, Earl Woods, who is credited with preparing Tiger to become a professional golfer? The influence of one person can make a gigantic difference in one’s future.

We have to admire writers like Henry David Thoreau. He never had the problem of what to write about. He could write paragraphs on tying shoelaces and make it interesting. His journal over a two-year period when he lived on Walden Pond is a masterpiece. He is thought of by many to have been a recluse, a loner. The truth is he did live alone on Walden Pond but it wasn’t in isolation. He went to Concord, the nearest town, almost every day, so his writing is not a book about living alone. It’s more about reflections on life. It’s about considering why one “is” what one is, and in doing so recognizes the beauty and mystery of nature in the world around us. It’s about being aware-not later or tomorrow but now, this minute. Thoreau writes at length about daily things in life, like what it costs him to farm, or having a glass of cider, or building a chimney. The writing style is conversational pen, and honest. He doesn’t try to get tricky with words; he just tells it like he sees it. It’s beautiful. For anyone who feels the importance of nature, or as he put it, “sees the Great Spirit in every leaf, tree and bug” then his writing will be cherished. He had a message for all writers: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Earlier I mentioned the young man I knew who wanted to be a writer and we often exchanged ideas about writing and writers. When I sold my first story on a mundane subject like technical writing, he criticized me and turned a cold shoulder. How could I prostitute my writing?

Yes, I wanted to write literature. I wanted to write great books. But how is literature written? Great books? They have to start from a humble beginning, as a child has to learn his ABCs before he can read or write. I wanted to write, anything, just to get started. I felt like a painter who likes to paint and experiment with many styles and techniques. I found writing this way. I didn’t intend to be a travel writer. It just happened. When I began traveling and visiting places seldom visited, people wanted to hear about where I had been. That by no admission excluded me from writing fiction (some reviewers say my travel writing is fiction anyway). To this day, I try my hand at everything. I do find news reporting the most difficult. To sit at a desk in a newspaper room and have deadlines tossed in front of me is the most difficult.

When successful writers like to talk about their writing, they do it in essays, biographies and nonfiction books. Norman Mailer wrote a best-selling novel in his early years, The Naked and the Dead, based on his personal experiences during World War II. It was hailed as one of the best American novels to come out of the war years and named one of the “100 best novels in English language” by the Modern Library.

In the following years, Mailer continued to work in the field of the novel. Barbary Shore (1951) was a surreal parable of Cold War leftist politics, set in a Brooklyn rooming house. His 1955 novel The Deer Park drew on his experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the early 1950s. It’s interesting to note, despite his credits, six publishers initially rejected The Deer Park. Mailer admitted that writing a best seller at a young age has its drawbacks. He was never able to achieve the same success yet his publishers demanded it from him. I too waited for his next epic novel but it never came. Instead he began to deviate from the novel and started defending “causes.”

In the mid-1950s, he became increasingly known for his counter-cultural essays. He was one of the founders of The Village Voice in 1955. In the book Advertisements for Myself (l959), including the essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” (1957), Mailer examined violence, hysteria, sex, crime and confusion in American society, in both fictional and reportage forms. He has also been a frequent contributor of book reviews and long essays to The New York Review of Books since its founding issue in 1963.

Mailer wrote many works, some good and others not so good. In addition to his experimental fiction and nonfiction novels, Mailer had produced a play version of The Deer Park, and in the late 1960s directed a number of improvisational avant-garde films in a Warhol style, including Maidstone (1970), which includes a brutal brawl between Norman T. Kingsley, played by himself, and Rip Torn that may or may not have been planned. In 1987, he directed a film version of his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance, starring Ryan O’Neal, which has become a minor classic. Thus, you might say Norman Mailer was a prolific writer, but he was never able to turn out “The Great American Novel” that he wanted so badly to do.

Somerset Maugham was primarily known as a novelist, but he was also a travel writer. His The Gentleman In The Parlour deals with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On A Chinese Screen is a series of very brief vignettes, which became notes for short stories that were never written. He published his own journals under the title A Writers Notebook, which only Maugham scholars and admirers find of interest.

J. D. Salinger is noted for his novel Catcher in the Rye (1951). It was his only novel; all the rest were collections of short stories written mostly for magazines and later published in book form. For example, “Franny and Zooey” is a 1961 pair of stories, published together under one cover. Both stories take place in November 1955. The stories originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine and were published in book form in September 1961.

One writer we can really learn from is Ayn Rand. Aside from her novels she wrote The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, a non-fiction work, a collection of essays regarding the nature of writing. What she tells readers is that writers cannot produce a given work without infusing their own value judgments and personal philosophy. She claims that readers cannot come away without some sense of a philosophical message, colored by his or her own personal values. Authors may not even be aware of it.

Rand taught that language is a tool you had to learn. When you are writing, you should not be conscious of the words you are writing. She states you must rely upon stored knowledge, that which you have shaped in your mind before you sat down to write. What this means is you have to rely on your subconscious and then, and only then, you will find words for your thoughts. This is why I said earlier that one should not worry one’s self about grammar and spelling when composing. Concentrate on the idea and the words will flow freely. Rand said not to attempt to edit every sentence as you write. Write as it comes to you. Then, later, read it over and do your editing at that time.

Rand hits home when she tells us that good writing has to be objective. She wrote: “The non-objective writer has nothing to say. It’s our thoughts we want to communicate.” I follow Rand’s philosophy. I want to communicate with others, the fundamental purpose of my writing, thus I rely on an objective approach. When someone tells me they want to be non-objective, what they are saying is they don’t want to communicate.

When I have a story in mind that I want to write, I work it out it in abstract. I figure out the plot and then proceed to fill in the banks with facts. When I wrote my nonfiction novel For the Love of Siam, I did just that. I had an abstract thought in mind. The shipwrecked seaman in the time of King Narai who caught my attention was not, after careful research, guilty of treason as accused. A number of books have been written on the subject, all, or almost all, accused him of wrongdoing. But when I read more about him, I began to think differently. Research on the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya was most difficult as the Burmese had sacked the city and razed it to the ground. Not a record was left. Nothing. But not all was lost. Foreign travelers and visitors left records-French, Dutch and Japanese. Many documents painted an entirely different picture of the Greek sailor. I felt I had to write what I considered to be the truth, from the abstract to known facts. It was fact that Ayutthaya was the greatest city in the world at that time but I had to begin with an abstract. The style I chose to write this story is in a nonfiction novel.

I follow the masters. I imitate them, but I do not copy them.

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Travel Writer-TW15

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Chapter 15

What is my motive for wanting to write? I am often asked this question. Is it an axe I have to grind or the course of history I want to change? It’s none of these. I just like to write and portray the world as I see it, as an artist likes to paint to express life as he sees it. I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t want to do this. That is my motivation.

But then, what is motive anyway? It’s a very much misused word. Teachers tell kids in school they lack motivation. The motivation teachers talk about refers to psychiatry and educational psychology and that has nothing to do with the motive for wanting to write.

I learned a long time ago not to concern myself with motive. I write because I have a story to tell, something to say. That, for me, is all that is important. Some things you can’t explain. And why should I? I don’t like to get preoccupied with concepts. They say all good writers have a motive. I question that, not the meaning of the word but the substance. I remember reading a critic’s comments about Ernest Hemingway. The critic was a university professor who was labeled as a Hemingway expert. He had spent a lifetime reading and studying Hemingway. He went into great lengths about Hemingway’s motives, his philosophy, his psychic make up. What was Ernest Hemingway’s motive? What did the author want to achieve with his writing? We don’t need a psychologist to answer that question. Hemingway was a man who loved life to its fullest, and he wrote about life as he knew it. That was his motive: to write a good story. Nothing hidden about that, nothing complex. If there was some esoteric meaning, some psychological reasons for writing what he did, it came not by design. I guess you can say we all have psychological reasons for doing what we do. Hemingway told a good story, and that was it. Leave it to the academicians to work it out. He was too busy writing to think about a motive.

I could say the same thing about Shakespeare. Old Will would tum over in his grave were he to learn that there are so many Shakespeare scholars out there analyzing him.

Some people find writing a stepping-stone to other things. They want to be heard. Politicians fall into that category. Some do it for fame, to become better known. Others might do it purely for money. An ex-president of the United States wants to make a few extra million dollars, so he writes a tell-all autobiography.

For others till, writing is a glamorous profession. And they are right. We are invited to talk shows and book signings. We are asked to appear as guests at public performances. We find we are invited to parties not because we have bubbling personalities but because the party hostess finds that writers and artists are added attractions to the parties. It doesn’t really matter what we write about. If we make the writers’ list, we find ourselves before an audience being asked our opinion of the war in the Middle East, gays in the military, abortion rights, and aliens in space. We are writers and we know all these things.

How many people have told me they wanted to be a writer, and when they learned what is involved, they gave up the idea? As I mentioned, one might not realize it, but the time spent learning to write might be equal to getting a law degree or to becoming a medical doctor. The untold truth is that the education of a writer, especially a travel writer, never ends.

It’s continuous. History becomes my bed partner. Facts are my quests. I read history text as one might read a novel. I study facts and events and learn statistics. I have to keep files and newspaper clippings. The greatest asset a travel writer can have is a file filled with news clippings. I have been clipping interesting bits of news from newspapers ever since I can remember. I file them away in categories. One day they may prove to be useful. “Where do you get all that information?” editors always ask me.

Keeping notes is vital. One cannot remember small details. I may have a mental picture, say of a train trip I made, but can I remember what the train sounded like as it rumbled over the tracks, or how fellow passenger were dressed. I had to write it down to help recall it. I can never forget my first impressions of Paris, the over-all picture, but what about small details? Sure, I remember the sounds, but would I have remembered the cracks in the pavement where I walked had I not made notes? Would I have remembered the detailed writing I saw on those colorful posters plastered on the pillars along the Revoli had I not jotted them down when I returned home that evening?

I never let motive enter my thoughts. Motive must come naturally. Ken Atchity, a past professor of literature and creative writing at UCLA for seventeen years, who turned literary agent in 1989, summed it up when he wrote: “Writers write to learn more about what they’re writing about. When they want to understand a subject, they write a book about it.” Is it not so, we learn from writing?

Stephen Crane was a writer who had a motive. He wanted to write about the horrors of the American Civil War. He is remembered for his single most important book, The Red Badge of Courage, published 1895. It’s an impressionistic novel about the meaning of courage, the portrait of a young soldier in the American Civil War. It is one of the most influential war stories ever written, and what makes it so remarkable is that Crane was born after the war and had never seen battle himself. He got his material by talking to veterans of the war. Stephen Crane wrote other books, not so well known: Prose & Poetry; Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and short stories like “The Black Riders & War Is Kind.” And with his track record of the Red Badge, it’s quite likely he would have written more great books but he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight in Badenweiler, Germany on June 5, 1900. He had moved to England two years before and had befriended writers Joseph Conrad and Henry James. He could not have picked better literary company.

The Red Badge of Courage was made into a movie by John Huston in 1951 and starred Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy. Again the book was turned into a made-for-television version starring Richard Thomas. It appeared in 1974.

I don’t confuse motive with theme. In novels and short stories the theme is the idea behind the story, or the message or lesson the author wants to convey in his work. Themes are generally explicit and seldom implied. Critics tell readers, as teachers do students, that all stories inherently embody some kind of outlook on life which can be taken as a theme whether or not the author is even aware of it. Does it matter? My point is, if one has a story to tell, then tell it. I forget about defining motives or determining the theme. I let the critics and teachers do that.

Whatever I do, I try not to be cute with my writing, and I don’t become confused with “constrained writing,” that literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern. Constraints might be important in poetry, which often requires the writer to use a particular verse form, but not in prose. Is constrained writing, or style if you wish, more important than thoughts or ideas? Hardly. Constrained writing is motivated more for its aesthetic concerns than anything else. It is no more than a word game. For example in lipograms, a letter, commonly e or o, is ruled out. In alliterative writing, every word must start with the same letter, and in acrostics the first letter of each word or line forms a word or sentence. Then there’s the limitation in punctuation which may imply that no commas are to be used, or there is e.e. cummings who wrote his name and much of his poetry in lower case and without periods. Imagine the toil the author of Gadsby went through to write this English-language novel consisting of 50,100 words, none of which contains the letter “e.” How would you like to read a novel written without a single verb? In 2004 Michael Thaler did that in his novel The Train from Nowhere.

And finally, you might want to be another Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss. He wrote the well-known children’s book Green Eggs and Ham using only fifty different words. He did it resulting from a fifty dollar bet with Bennett Cerf, publisher and co-founder of Random House.

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Travel Writer-TW14B

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Chapter 14B
Lots of Reading

Reading and studying must be a continuous effort to do good writing. Writer must know their history and pass it on accurately to the reader. That doesn’t mean to be heavy handed. If we start reading an article telling in cold facts about the history of a place, the chances are we will not read beyond the first paragraph. To avoid this, I make a list of all the historical facts I find interesting, facts that I feel that others might find interesting too. Then I interweave this information into my text. Thus I can educate readers without them realizing they are getting a history lesson.

Sometimes, of course, I have to do my research after I return home. I may have heard a rumor or gathered an odd piece of information that warrants an investigation. When I follow up, I can be shocked at what I find. For instance, I was on a Greyhound bus traveling from Seattle to San Francisco. I had the seat behind the driver. Knowing I was a writer, he occasionally passed bits of information on to me. We were leaving Oregon nearing the California border when he said, “Japanese aircraft bombed this place during World War II.”

I didn’t want to argue with him but the Japanese had never bombed the U.S. mainland. They had launched a series of ill-directed high-altitude balloon bombs destined for the North American continent, and all but one fell harmlessly. A Japanese submarine had shelled Fort Stevens in Oregon, and another sub fired twenty-five rounds at a California coastal oil refinery, but the mainland had never been bombed by air.

There was something else, however, the bus diver said that aroused my curiosity. He mentioned that the local newspaper in Brookings ran a story about the incident. Was there some truth to the bombing? The seed was planted in my mind.

Two years passed, and this time I was motoring up the coast. When I reached Brookings I remembered the bus driver’s tale and went to the newspaper. “That’s right,” the editor said, “one of those war secrets; would probably still be hush-hush had not the Japanese pilot been through here last Memorial Day on a peace mission.” I could hardly believe it. The newspaper carried a photograph of an elderly Japanese gentleman. The caption read that Nobuo Fujita, seventy-eight, was appearing in Brookings “nearly forty-eight years after he flew the only successful bombing mission against the U.S. mainland.” I had to read it once more to make sure I was reading right.

I was really hooked now. I had to meet the pilot. I was flying back from San Francisco to Bangkok with a stopover in Tokyo. The newspaper editor gave me the Japanese pilot’s address. In Tokyo I boarded a train and made a two-hour train trip to his village. I spent two afternoons with this incredible man. He revealed to me his remarkable story. He did indeed bomb the U.S. coast from a small Zero-type reconnaissance seaplane launched from a submarine. The plane was kept in a sealed deck hangar and had to be assembled before it could be launched; it had to be taken apart again and stored before the submarine could submerge. The method was primitive but it worked. Once assembled, the plane was catapulted with compressed air from a ramp on the deck. The plane’s top speed was barely one-hundred-and-fifty mph, and its only armament was one machine gun. But it did carry two seventy-six kilogram incendiary bombs.

Here was an incredible story. I wrote it up for the Bangkok Post and the media around the world picked it up. Hundreds of letters and e-mails followed.

I missed out on a bigger story, however, and that was to learn more intimate facts about the pilot and his private life. It would have made a great and interesting book, the war through the eyes of a Japanese pilot. I had learned that after Pearl Harbor, Fujita flew reconnaissance missions over Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand and other Pacific ports which included Suva in the Fiji Islands and Noumea in New Caledonia. He admitted he and his observer were in constant fear of discovery, but they had never been spotted or attacked.

My conversations with Captain Fujita had been limited. His English wasn’t that good, and we could only talk about general things. I wanted to know details, how the aircraft was stored aboard the tiny submarine, the methods of propulsion used to launch the plane and so much more. On my next visit, I arranged for an interpreter to join us. But I was too late. When I phoned Captain Fujita’s home from Tokyo, I learned he had died a few weeks before. His story was lost forever.

Many other interesting leads took me to exciting places. I visited with shamans and soothsayers in Malaysia and witch doctors in Indonesia. I followed a sixteen-year old Filipina to witness her being nailed to a cross in the Philippines. I interviewed pirates in the Sulu Sea and deep-sea divers in Borneo. The reward of being a travel writer is meeting strange and fascinating people. They do exist but you must seek them out. I follow the simplest tip, the most innocuous rumor. It may lead to a dead end but sometimes I hit pay dirt.

Travel writing has taught me to be open-minded and tolerant of other cultures and religions. I learned a long time ago that I am little more than an observer in these far-off places. I am there to visit, nothing else, and my objective is to learn something about the people who live there. I am neither to teach them nor to lecture them. They have their customs, habits, religion and way of life and it is not my duty to alter or change their way of thinking. I leave that task to others whom, I hope, are more qualified than I am.

Unfortunately, there are times I divulge secrets passed on to me. It’s not always intentional. I tell people if they don’t want it to be known what they have to tell me, then don’t tell me. Sometimes they tell me anyway. Of course, being a good juicy yarn, it’s hard not to pass it on to readers. Bill Mathers is one of those people, a treasure diver with many good stories to tell, except with him, he said he had no objection to my writing about him, and so I did. I wrote a chapter about him and his diving adventures Asian Portraits, later republished under the title The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson and Other Stories. Bill regretted he ever told me that I could write about him. It almost cost him his life and nearly led to his execution. It so happened that Bill owned a beautiful schooner called So Fong. He used the vessel for diving expeditions. On one of his expeditions, he found himself into serious trouble with the authorities, and what I had written about him wasn’t much help for him. In fact, it was my writing that almost sent him to the gallows. It was most unfortunate.

Bill was sailing So Fong with a crew of four from Singapore to Hong Kong when, supposedly, he was in Vietnamese waters and apprehended by the Vietnamese navy. So Fong was taken into custody and confiscated. The crew, after a long delay, was released but Bill sent to prison. The charge were spying. In the closet in his cabin he kept his old U.S. Navy uniform. He had charts of Vietnamese water . It looked grim for Bill Mathers. Also found aboard was my book Asian Portraits. It had a chapter on Bill and his escapades as a diver. For nine months Bill was kept in solitary confinement without having any word from the outside world. He was told of the charges against him and was twice taken from his confinement to be executed. Then, without telling him what they were doing, they escorted him to a waiting Air France plane, and he flew to Bangkok.

The world was waiting for the bearded, much shaken man when he stepped down from the plane at Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok. A press conference followed. He was convinced, he said, he had been held in prison for what I had been written about him in Asian Portraits. I felt like crawling under my seat, vowing I would give up writing forever. Bill later learned what the charges were and, in fact, his father had sent a copy of Asian Portraits to the Vietnamese authorities to show that his son was an innocent diver searching for archaeological wrecks. Not long after his ordeal Bill set off on another expedition, with another salvage boat, and we heard it was to find a Manila galley off Saipan in the South Pacific. It was a Portuguese wreck, or perhaps it was Dutch. Bill never told me. He said he would see me when he got back. His story did appear in National Geographic. He found the wreck, and it was Portuguese. Bill is on another adventure, but he won’t tell me what it is.

Travel writers are sometimes accused of falsehoods on matters with which they had nothing to do. It happened to me when I wrote about a junk shop on Rope Walk Lane in Penang. It was a decrepit place when I saw it, stacked high with junk that soiled your hands and clothes when you rummaged around. But what treasure you could find in the rubble. It made a good story and I wrote about the shop in a travel column for the Bangkok Post. The next time I went to Penang, I stopped at Rope Walk and found the owner had my newspaper story framed and hanging on the wall. I did more photos, upgraded the story and did another feature for a glossy magazine. It was awhile later that I was severely criticized for my story. I was accused of exaggerating and writing about conditions that didn’t exist. I couldn’t understand why until the next time I went to Rope Walk. The owners had cleaned up the store with items for sale neatly displayed on shelves. Many even had the prices on them. My articles were behind glass frames on one wall. It wasn’t even remotely the same place as when I first saw the junk shop and wrote about it. That is the fate of a travel writer. You find a neat little restaurant you like. It’s never crowded, and there is always a table. Then see what happens when you write about the place and it gets known. You have to wait in line the next time you go. What to do! In conclusion, I don’t write history; I write about history. There is a difference.

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