Competing with Astronauts


Do you think you have an interesting travel adventure to tell?  A story that’s sure to captivate your readers all around the world?  Today’s guest post from speaker Pam Mandel tells you why your adventure isn’t all that special.  And tells you what you can do about it.


blue moon

We go places. We write some things down. We think that our experience matters, that what we write matters. I wanted to write about this idea. About this vanity and how we have to make people care with our writing, we can’t just assume they care by default. But I set the idea aside, because I was feeling snarky. I try to do this when I’m feeling snarky, so I turned off the computer and went to dinner with my husband.

Then, I was distracted by Neil Armstrong.

We had walked home from the neighborhood fish and chip shop. I shot some pictures in the golden hour light with my phone and turned around to see a nearly full moon in the pale blue sky. “I wonder if he’s there,” I said to my husband, “now that he doesn’t need his body to travel anymore.” “There’s a memorial for him on the date of the blue moon, the 30th, I think,” the husband answered. A blue moon is when there are two full moons in one month. It’s a rare occurrence, hence the phrase “Once in a blue moon.”

Once in a blue moon, a man will get into a tiny tin can strapped to a rocket and go barreling through space. He will stand on a dusty rock and look back at the earth, a tiny blue marble from his vantage point. And then, he will return home again. I forgot about being snarky and thought about Neil Armstrong instead.

His travels blow my mind. All these years after the fact, after the romance of space travel has faded and gloriously revived with the landing of the Mars Rover, it blows my freaking mind. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, for the love of god, and I think it was a big deal that I went trekking in Ladakh? What is the matter with me?

I am surprised at how sad I feel at Neil Armstrong’s death. I think he is the greatest traveler for my lifetime. What modern traveler can surpass Neil Armstrong? Imagine what he must have felt — the first person to step foot on the moon, knowing, unequivocally, that not one single human had been there before. Imagine turning around and seeing your footprints behind you on the surface of a previously untouched ball of rock. Armstrong’s steps, those first indentations, one foot, then the other, on a place unknown…the bottom of his boots hitting that same pale silvery globe hanging in the late summer sky. Oh.

The responsibility of being that first person is almost too much to bear. You must take it all in; you must look, hard, twice, three times, and remember everything. You must think about the awkward climb down the ladder and the puff of dust released into the atmosphere when your boots, one, and then the other, hit the ground. You must not only embrace this moment of discovery, the moment when you turn and look across the horizon back to the black sky from whence you arrived, but you must hold on to the idea of “This is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to be here, right now.”

According to the International Antarctic Association of Tour Operators, in the 2010-2011 season, 33,824 tourists visited Antarctica. Some of them blogged about it; some of them will be at TBEX. Now, the world is such that you can now be in a place with multiple bloggers who have traveled to Antarctica! And you could be heading to the seventh continent yourself — it’s only a question of expense now, not logistics. But it is not enough to have gone to Antarctica. You must be your own Earnest Shackleton, another great traveler, and take your crew there and back again. To demand the attention of an easily distracted readership, one that is choosing between your post and a photo of a kitten with a clever caption, you have to find the story and write it until your readers are there with you.

Shackleton was filled with awe. Between the dull factoids about his ship and his crew, his journal, South, is full of poetry. “I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns.” What a story he tells; I shook my head at every twist and turn. And Armstrong, he went to the moon! “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” These great travelers picked their words and told their stories and made us care, so completely, about their adventures.

As modern day travelers, travelers with our own mini media empires, we like to delude ourselves that we are important, that we are seeing these places differently than the thousands of others who have been there before us. My Paris. My Honolulu. My Bangkok. But we are not Neil Armstrong, our trips are exceptional only to those who know us and care. Angkor Wat is full of tourists who look just like our neighbors. Our shadows cast the same shapes on to the deserts of Jordan. The penguins are bored with our presence as we tumble out of zodiacs on to Antarctica’s rocky ice. We go places. We write some things down. We think that our experience matters, that what we write matters.

But it doesn’t matter, our presence is not enough. We’re not Shackleton or Armstrong, so we need to work a lot harder to make our readers care. I’ve made any number of people mad at me by suggesting they take a writing class, as though this was an insult. What they often ignore is that I follow that remark with the statement that taking a writing class — a basic composition class, not a travel writing class — is the single most effective thing I have done for my career. Great adventurers during the golden age of exploration did not have to rely on their prose to gain attention, the fact that they had encountered an elephant or found Livingstone was enough. We don’t have that luxury. Someone has been there before us, our adventures are in reruns. We have a joke at my house. I’ll say something like, “I’m going on safari, I’m going to see lions,” and my husband will say, “That’s cool, but I’ve seen that on TV.”

Before I left my house for that walk, that snark reducing walk,  I had written these words: I don’t care about your trip. I’m happy for you and I’m glad you’re blogging about it, writing is good for your brain and your mom (or cousin or college roomie) will be glad when you check in alive from the riotous streets of Cairo or after that week you spent in the South African bush. Bully for you. But if you want me to pay attention, really pay attention, you’re going to have to learn to write, to really write. It is all you have. It is all we have.

Don’t believe me? Look at the sky and consider the competition.

Author bio:  Pam Mandel writes Nerd’s Eye View, a blog that’s mostly about travel.  She’s presenting How to Tell a Creative Story at TBEX Girona with Will Peach.

Photo credit:  Josué Cedeño via wikimedia commons

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15 Responses
    1. I actually LOVED reading Shackleton’s story and the picture are those gorgeous Frank Hurley still shots that totally give video a run for its money. i’m not saying today’s attention span isn’t short, but mine was long enough to read South.

    1. The best writing class is the one you’re in.

      Okay, I realize that’s not helpful. But given that most folks are probably NOT going to apply to a university level creative writing program, I point people in the US to the community colleges or university extension programs. I’d avoid travel writing course out of the gate and start with the basics — Introduction to Nonfiction is a GREAT place to start, though an introductory fiction program (which is what I did) lays down the same basic writing mechanics that will serve you well regardless of what path your writing takes.

      My 02, take it for what it’s worth. And hey, I clicked through to see your blog, your writing is very pretty. You might find you’re at home in a poetry class. Just an idea.

  1. Hi Pam, It was nice to see Neil get the credit he deserves. He was from my mom’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio and when he returned from the moon he showed up to be honored in a parade on the small town’s Main Street. He shook my hand and I cried. Later, he was the speaker when my son graduated from the University of Southern California. I cried again and realized it is a very small universe. Thanks for sharing your admiration of one of my favorite travelers. — Best, Lynn

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