Perry Garfinkel talks travel writing

A Martha’s Vineyard travel writing expert will teach a workshop at Noepe Center for Literary Arts this August.

Perry Garfinkel at the famous Jaipur Observatory in Rajasthan. — Photo courtesy of Perry Garfinke

Perry Garfinkel had writer’s block. His editor confirmed what he already knew: His draft was crap. It lacked tone and structure. And what else was there besides tone and structure? Under the weight of the deadline, 160 hours of tape recordings, and a shelf of reference books, Mr. Garfinkel collapsed into the fetal position.

Later, chatting with friends (writer’s block welcomes distractions), Mr. Garfinkel mined some valuable advice. “What if we met at a cocktail party, and I asked you what was the most important lesson you learned?” one friend asked. “Start with something familiar,” said another. “Take them in through a door they recognize, and from there you can lead them into more esoteric rooms.”

Mr. Garfinkel returned to his home in West Tisbury to sleep on it. An idea for a lead jolted him awake at 3 am. Before the inspiration could fade into the dark, he turned on the light, brewed a pot of coffee, and cranked out another draft by noon.

This time, his editor wrote back only one word: “Wow.”

That draft became the crown jewel of Mr. Garfinkel’s writing career: a story on the history of the Buddha and the migration of Buddhism around the world. National Geographic featured it as a cover, and it went on to become the national-bestselling book “Buddha or Bust.”

The success cemented his literary reputation: Perry Garfinkel knew a thing or two about travel writing. In fact, he’d already written a book, “Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure,” which Arthur Frommer (founder of the popular Frommer’s series of travel guides) called “the definitive work in the field.” Mr. Garfinkel has blogged for the Huffington Post, and is a longtime contributor to The New York Times.

He also headed the Features department of the Martha’s Vineyard Times for a spell before moving to California, where he now resides. He says it’s a “dream come true” to return to Martha’s Vineyard to teach a travel writing workshop at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts later this month. Mr. Garfinkel caught up with The Times to discuss the art of travel writing.

Why do you like to write about the Vineyard?

I write about the year-round Islanders, not your typical subjects like the president or celebrities. You can find a fascinating person when you turn over any rock. One of my first pieces for the NYT Vocations column was about Barbara Ronchetti of Island Alpaca. She’s typical of the people I like to write about.

What is your teaching experience?

I started teaching writing workshops, I confess, before I knew how to write well. I learned how to write better by teaching, because I had to go back and analyze why I was doing what I was doing. When I moved to San Francisco, I came up with this idea of teaching travel writing, which was not widely thought of at the time. That class turned into “Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure.” I continued teaching daylong workshops through continuing education programs, and now through hotels.

What is your proudest travel writing work? Why?

The [aforementioned] piece on Buddhism for National Geographic. They sent me around the world for 10 weeks. As a travel writer, the hard part was organizing the trip; there were no international cell phones at the time. I remember being in Hong Kong trying to call my translator in Beijing on a pay phone using coins, and I didn’t even know what the coins were.

What kinds of things have changed in the travel writing world since “Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure” came out in 1988?

The whole landscape has changed because of the Internet: the way research and transmission is done, where you can write, who you can write for. You can blog for yourself, which has created a lot of niche bloggers. How it’s changed the quality of writing … there’s pros and cons. Good editors help you write better. Without that, there can be a lot of dreck.

What are some of the other challenges facing travel writers today?

One of the challenges is how to get paid well. Internet-based publications pay less. It’s hard to make a living, or even freelance. It’s hard to get accommodations covered … in the past it was much more generous. When a publication downsizes, often its editors turn around and freelance. So you may be competing with longtime staff. Also, there’s not a place in the world no one has gone. It’s hard to discover undiscovered islands these days.

Do you think about your story as you travel, or reflect on it later?

I’m thinking about it 24/7. I research before I go, I make contact with people I’m going to interview, I map out the trip, and leave space for serendipity (which often leads to the better story). On location, my journalist cap is always on, even when I think it’s not. Half of you has to be in it and forget you’re working, because you want your heart and soul to be in it experientially. The other part of you has to pull back and be analytical as a journalist. I get to live the experience twice; the second time is when I burrow in and write.

Some people might think their life or their travels aren’t interesting enough to write stories about. What would you say to that?

I don’t encourage first-person stories, they’re the hardest to do. The objectivity to write about yourself is not well honed in the neophyte, and at the end of the day, you’re not that interesting. A good travel story is not about you, it’s about the place.

Can Islanders take this workshop? How do you “travel write” about where you live?

One of the things I recommend to starters is to get assignments in your areas of expertise. You have a better sense and can write with more credibility than anyone else when you write about a place you know.

What about visitors? How do you write about a place you’ve never been?

We’re going to use the Vineyard as a template on how to write a great story. They can take that template and apply it to where they’re from or where they want to go.

What else will you teach?

Coming to the Vineyard is sort of a palette. We’ll go out on assignment to places I know, and have people I love come and do mock interviews.

Why should a beginner take this course? Why should an experienced writer?

The mix of the class is often greater than sum of parts. Beginners sometimes have fresh eyes and see things that the more experienced person doesn’t. The story I tell resonates across the board, so the material stands the test of time and experience levels.

You often request that participants in your workshops send a postcard from abroad or their backyard. Have you gotten any cool postcards?

Oh yeah, all the time. People like to stay connected; the experience I share creates a bond. Sometimes the participants want to continue meeting on their own. For me as a teacher, it’s important to give a homework assignment. This one is easy to follow through and fun.

“Travel Writing Workshop with Perry Garfinkel”: August 30 through September 5, Noepe Center for the Literary Arts, Edgartown. $1,595 includes a Sunday-evening introductory reception, five days of travel writing workshops, and six nights of accommodations at Noepe Center. The cost of workshop without accommodations is $495. For more information or to register, visit