Sarah Menkedick’s writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Oxford American, The Believer, The Paris Review Daily, The New Inquiry, Amazon’s Kindle Singles, and elsewhere. Her story Homing Instincts was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2014. She is the founding editor of Vela, an online magazine of nonfiction inspired by travel and written by women.
How did you get started traveling?
I went overseas for the first time in 2002, when I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, my junior year of college. I suppose that was my initial crash course in traveling; literally, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun, because I smashed my face into a plaza in Naples on New Year’s Eve and had to get two new front teeth. That year was all about pushing the limits of what I’d previously thought possible: if before it had seemed audacious to merely leave the country, then once that was achieved it became just barely conceivable to take a road trip through Italy, and then after I’d pulled that off (new teeth intact and pride thoroughly wounded) it became imaginable to live in a tent and work in a French vineyard all summer to save money, and then when that money had been saved it was suddenly plausible to backpack across Corsica. I did all of this, however, with an (incredibly patient and intrepid) ex-boyfriend, which makes for a very different experience, obviously, than going it alone.
My first solo trip was to Mexico City in 2004, on a whim. It was also my first experience traveling outside of Europe. I bought a round-trip plane ticket from Chicago for $250, landed at 2 a.m. speaking no Spanish, and was promptly whisked away by a wily taxi driver and nearly robbed. I spent that first night sobbing in a hotel room after having jumped out of the moving taxi. And then I picked myself up, found my way to my hostel, and met Europeans who’d been traveling for six months, a year. It was that new frontier of the possible. I was hooked. I came home with the plan to travel South America for as long as my money would last. I left that September. From then until 2010, with brief two or three-month intervals in the U.S., I lived, taught, and traveled overseas. Traveling generates its own momentum; you meet people who suggest things you’d never have imagined (“why don’t you apply to teach English on Reunion Island?”) and you begin, like any young adult, to build a trajectory out of what was once an interest or a curiosity.
How did you get started writing?
This is a bit trickier to pin down. I thought when I first started college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that I wanted to be a journalist, but one week of an Intro to Journalism Course promptly cured me of that. I dropped the class, switched to History, and never looked back. I majored in, of all things, History and History of Science, which perhaps primed my parents to accept writing as a pragmatic career choice. For a long time I assumed I’d do a PhD in History, until traveling began to erode my dedication to academia and make that world seem too claustrophobic. The plan had always been to do a PhD in order to write books for a general public, books about things like the way people thought about miasmas in the 18th century. This was, mind you, before I had ever tried to sell a book (note the surprising lack of bestsellers by History of Science PhDs about resistance to germ theory).
After four years of traveling I dropped the PhD part of that plan and realized that the best part of “the writing life” is the ability to research and investigate all sorts of topics, to nurture a free-ranging intellectual curiosity. I took a teaching job in Beijing and used my blog (so painful in retrospect!) as a way of making sense of everything that was happening in China just before the 2008 Olympics. When I moved to Mexico after that teaching job ended, I decided to make a go at writing full time, with the idea being to tackle the subjects I’d developed an interest in over years of living and traveling abroad: cultural imperialism versus relativism, place and identity, migration. And of course, the good old grist of travel writing: goat slaughters and ill-fated trips to remote villages and chance encounters on the side of the road in Chiapas, etc. I used some of the essays I wrote during this time to apply for an MFA program in 2009, and was very lucky to be admitted with funding in 2010.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I suppose the first big transition for me was my entrance into the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010; I’d never studied writing and this was my first time discussing the mechanics of craft, learning to read as a writer, etc. For as much as people dog MFA programs and for as ambivalent as I feel about recommending them, I did learn a ton during this period, mostly about how to pay careful attention to writers’ choices and styles, and to choose reading in order to study certain points of craft. I also paid much closer attention to my own writing and sheared it of the inevitably bloggy sensibility that came out of years of blogging. My writing matured. My first big breakthrough in terms of publication came with my Kindle Single in 2011; I won an award based on that writing, and I was able to use it with magazine editors to show that I could write long.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I think my biggest challenge is fighting the urge to take everyone at face value, or to assign some sort of romanticized credibility to the stories told to me, the foreigner, the reporter. My default posture, like that of many travelers who are eager to learn about complicated subjects and primed to love the señora who serves them devastating chiles rellenos in a remote mountain village, is credulity. I think this goes hand in hand with empathy and to a certain extent is necessary; there is a gross arrogance in presuming you know more about people’s stories than they do, or whatever identity politics course you took can explain their particular mode of storytelling. That said, it’s very easy as a traveler looking for access and characters not to push too hard against people’s stories, and to get at a bigger story oftentimes you have to push. So how do you strike that balance between a kind and necessary skepticism and an equally essential humility and willingness to believe? I’m constantly negotiating this and I think there are stories in the negotiation as well.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Before 2012, I wrote basically from memory, and most of my work consisted of essays. In 2012 I worked on a big reporting project with my husband, traveling around the tiny villages of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte to the annual village fiestas. I had no idea what would come out of all those travels but I took extensive notes — down to what monikers were written on the collective taxis (“El Rey de los Pollitos”). I then struggled with how faithful to remain to my notes and how much to write from memory, emotion, instinct. In the beginning I constructed stories entirely from my notes, expanding a bit here and there, but then I realized that unless I closed the notebook and trusted my intuition about the flow of the narrative — what small moments to give a critical weight, what seemingly bigger ones to leave out or de-emphasize — I’d end up with a boring chronology of equally weighted observations. I still struggle with this. I love detail, and I think a story — particularly one emphasizing place — written from this accumulation of minute details can be riveting and fascinating. But obviously the writer has to make choices. I still struggle with when and how to adhere to my notes, especially now that they’re more and more detailed, and when to let go of them and trust my memory.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Survival. I am horrible at the practical aspect of all this. I still write whatever I want to write and hope that eventually it works out, and that I somehow get compensated. What this means is that I spend a lot of the year in Mexico.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Of course. I’ve graded practice TOEFL listening and speaking exams for The Princeton Review (eight hours a day of South Koreans describing their favorite books in terrified English) and done freelance editing and taught English and taught writing and written practice SAT and TOEFL exams. I loved doing the latter; I got to be that person asking “What does the author mean in paragraph 3 when she says marmots are ‘tenacious’?” It was the ultimate geeky job.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Annie Dillard remains my all-time favorite writer, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is my favorite book. I know she’s not a travel writer, but she has so much to teach about seeing and about crafting narrative out of the most unlikely details. I love Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and also Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, which is from that same era (and features some of the same characters) but is not nearly as well known. I also love Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars; he’s best known for The Little Prince but his writing for adults contains some of that same surreal, understated magic. I love Alma Guillermoprieto’s journalism about Latin America. I adore Bruce Chatwin, but he is one of those writers who are very dangerous to emulate. It’s easy to write bad Bruce Chatwin. I actually read In Patagonia in Patagonia, one of the few times my reading and traveling have achieved symmetry, which I think is fateful. Patagonia is still my favorite place in the world. In terms of more contemporary work I think Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an absolutely stunning, haunting work of journalism and travel writing.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Know the clichés. There are so many. Pay attention to your assumptions and perceptions as a traveler, and the assumptions people have about you, the way you are perceived, beyond the obvious. To travel, in my opinion, is to get the opportunity to break free of all the received ideas and narratives of one’s own culture and of mainstream media. Challenge those ideas and narratives, but not too fervently or else you’ll simply be constructing another insular story out of your own beliefs.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The ability to pay attention. I think this is the biggest reward of life as a writer as well — living a more aware life, being attuned to the texture of the days. Also, an iron gut.