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The World Over: A Profile of Rolf Potts

This is roughly how travel writing breaks down: On one hand, there are articles in which everything goes well, the colors are bright, the food is delicious, and the locals are invariably friendly. These articles, what Potts and other travel writers call "destination stories," make people want to go somewhere. On the other hand, there are essays that have characters and a plot where things go wrong, where readers glimpse the soul of humanity and come out with an expanded view of the world. The reader is transformed along with the writer.

"Obviously there is a spectrum," says George. "There are pure literary narratives at one end of the spectrum that have nothing to do with hotels or directions or restaurants or anything. It's pretty much about an immersion in a place and what that does to the writer. And at the other end of the spectrum there is ‘The Ten Best Chinese Restaurants in San Francisco.'"

"Travel writing is a literary genre," says Jason Wilson, who edits Houghton Mifflin's annual Best American Travel Writing series (the 2000 edition of which included "Storming The Beach") as well as The Smart Set, which publishes narrative travel stories. "Service journalism is 750 words of tips. It's there to make sure that pictures and ads don't bump into each other."

"Most travel writers do both," Wilson adds. "I'm going to say all these bad things about service journalism but I've done it. I've committed it. I mean, you've got to do the travel, and that's what funds the travel." Potts, too, has succumbed to the joyless task of crafting a wafer-thin, always-upbeat narrative out of what is essentially a boring vacation (which, ironically, ruins the vacation). He includes one such story, "Seven (or So) Sins on the Isle of Spice," about his trip to the southern Caribbean island of Grenada, in his new book, though he admits that it is the "least compelling" story in the collection.

Although the result usually amounts to a deadly dull travel slideshow on paper, newspapers and destination travel magazines are full of service stories with a narrative veneer. But that doesn't bother Potts. "Just because there's a lot of fluff showing up in consumer magazines doesn't make me ashamed to be a travel writer, because I'm not interested in fluff. Rather than just condemn travel writing, I'd rather reclaim a part of it for people who take both traveling and writing very seriously."

A few years ago, after nearly a decade of nonstop nomadic living—jumping from coast to coast and crisscrossing the globe in search of stories, with a regular stint teaching creative writing at the American Academy in Paris each July—Potts started thinking about something he hadn't thought about in a long time: home.

Back in Kansas, Potts, together with his parents, bought thirty acres of land near his sister's house outside Salina. Not long after, he was working with family members to gut and remodel a doublewide trailer that he calls home in those times when he is off the road. There he can sit by his woodstove, look out his window across the prairie, and collect his thoughts before heading out to try to make sense of the world, a task he feels has become more and more urgent.

"I think now more than ever," says Potts, "travel writing has to strive for the higher forms of literary nonfiction. It can't just be throwaway journal entries that you dash off after a cocktail. It has the high intentions of literary journalism and literary memoir. It has to share the goals of both."

As for his own goals, Potts is working on three ideas for books and has over a dozen ideas for stories, and he recently landed a gig hosting a show for the Travel Channel about early American settlers and their traveling conditions that will air on Thanksgiving.

"I have a lot of ambitions," says Potts, "but the one thing I really want to do is to capture the dynamic of travel and the changing world. And I want to keep writing about people, and about universal human themes. I want to keep writing about what travel can teach you as a human being."

Frank Bures is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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The World Over: A Profile of Rolf Potts (November/December 2008)
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