Saturday, 23 August 2014

Book Passage: Travel Writing Masterclass with Don George

By Octavia Spartels

According to Don George, “passion connection” is a condensed expression of a journey compressed into one or two words. Emerging from our five hour intensive masterclass, "cathartic" is the only word that sums up the journey we have just undertaken. George's warmth enveloped our session illuminating the subtle, serendipitous nature of travel writing better than even the most unseasonably bright Melbourne day could.  He didn't miss a beat. Pretty good for a guy fresh off the red eye from San Francisco.

Carving out a successful career as a writer and editor for some of the most respected publications around George is now a Book Review Columnist for National Geographic magazine. He is also the author of 'Lonely Planet's Guide To Travel Writing'.

Our group filtered in at around 11am a motley crew of thirteen, notepads in hands, eager to suck up any and all of George's pearls of wisdom, any keys we could find to unlock the doors leading to the coveted profession of travel writer. We weren't disappointed. And in a world where “journals become precious friends” and the safety of all your belongings comes down to a lock and a prayer our preconceived notions about the world of travel writing were certainly confirmed: Don George may just have the best job in the world. 

The morning was consumed by talk of lessons learned, the power of the anecdote and that "aha" moment, where everything clicks, so essential to the writing of great works of non-fiction. 

Our group was very concerned with, nailing such moments, with getting things right. We wanted to know how we could be less self-indulgent as writers, how we could strive for that perfect piece of prose.  But George wanted us to think less about ourselves. We, as writers, were simply a “vehicle to illuminate a place” we were a guide to the consideration of a larger context. We were no big deal.

After an hour of theory, after being shown the humble travel writer's "Tools of the Trade" (which included a pad, a tape recorder and a camera phone) we were ushered into the outside world to write. Our goal was to capture the heart and soul of Melbourne in one paragraph. Earlier, George had discussed how difficult it is to write about places that we're accustomed to. He recounted hearing the "call to prayer" in Pakistan for the first time, elated by its alien strangeness. Days later, he barely took notice of it. As residents of Melbourne surely we masterclass attendees would suffer from the same malaise but due to our heightened mood and the embracing warmth of the day we were able to see the streets of our city in a new light. 

Yet I still found it difficult to write. Though the buildings and parks sparkled with a glow I hadn't seen since December I couldn't bring this to life on the page and I made my way back to the Wheeler Centre with little to contribute. Once there I discovered a group transformed. The light had lowered in the room. Though still an affectionate backdrop to our scene it now reflected a mood more contemplative and serene. George explained that, like me, he too had been wandering aimlessly and shared the fact that his favourite way to get to know a city was to “get lost”. Perhaps the words come later?

We presented our works and opinions to the group and each contribution was treated with the care and respect that comes when revealing a personal anecdote to welcoming strangers. George was complimentary, validating and made us all to feel comfortable enough to reach our own conclusions. The floor was ours and we revelled in our varied experiences of the day, both alike and unlike at the same time. 

We ended the day a group noticeably transformed. From George we discovered we had all been using the most crucial tools a travel writer can possess, not the notepad, the phone camera or the pen, rather the ability to listen and observe, which are truly difficult arts to master. 


  1. Great work. Enjoyed it.

  2. Lovely piece, really enjoyed the read.


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