The World Over: A Profile of Rolf Potts

Frank Bures

Although the advice was tough to hear, Potts took it and moved on. "I would've had to go back to the beginning of the book and start over, so it just made more sense to let it go and continue with my life, instead of sitting in a room in Kansas throughout my mid-twenties trying to make it work."

Potts had written himself into a corner, and it became painfully clear just how much work had gone into the books he'd loved. According to Don George, whose editing career has included stints at Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Lonely Planet Publications, a commonly held misconception about travel narratives is that writing them is easy. "A really well-written piece of travel writing seems effortless. It seems like a person probably sat down and dashed it off in a half hour," he says. "But in fact, it's just months of rewriting and restructuring and trying different things."

It's a problem faced by writers of any genre, of course, but travel writers have a special burden of forming a coherent story—with a beginning, middle, and end—out of the unformed mass of events that make up the act of traveling. "Let us be straight about this," wrote Tom Bissell, author of Chasing the Sea: Being a Narrative of a Journey Through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of Life Therein, Culminating With an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World's Worst Man-Made Ecological Catastrophe, in One Volume (Pantheon Books, 2003), in an essay on the subject. "There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect."

Potts had come to realize that, with "Pilgrims in a Sliding World," there was no story, no narrative he could find his way into. Rather than force it, he did what came naturally to him: He packed his bags. In late 1996, he boarded a plane for Korea to follow some college friends who were headed to teach English to kids in Busan, a gritty, industrial city on the southeast coast of the Korean Peninsula.

Potts worked in Busan for two years as an English teacher. But he didn't really want to be an English teacher; he wanted to write. He filed some dispatches for the Wichita Eagle, he wrote for some English-language newspapers in Korea, and he started saving his money and looking for other outlets back home. But in 1997, not many magazines had a Web presence. Few U.S. editors used e-mail, and most rejections were mailed the old-fashioned way. Potts was living too far away for any of that, but there was one publication that was open to a new process, so Potts sorted through the ruins of his failed book project, found a nice vignette about Las Vegas, and sent it to Salon.

"I really liked his writing," says George, who was Potts's editor there. "It had a freshness to it. He was good at bringing characters to life. And he got into really interesting and funny situations. He had a nice sense of humor, but also it had a philosophical underpinning that I liked a lot, a larger worldview behind the misadventures."

George ran the story, which begins, "I understand this now: Things don't happen in Las Vegas. Things are happened in Las Vegas. All actions in the town are so meticulously predicted and orchestrated that spontaneity itself exists only as the ghost of compulsion." He ran a few of Potts's other stories too. Then Potts pitched a column titled Vagabonding, which provided the title for what would be his first book, a collection of practical essays on the ins and outs of long-term travel published by Villard in 2003. Soon, his byline was running alongside some of the biggest writers of the day.