An Interview with Don George: On Being a Travel Content Writer Today
Being a freelance travel writer, there have never been more obstacles, and never been more opportunity.
As a travel blogger, as well as someone who does a fair bit of writing for travel magazines, I feel like I have a good idea of what the travel writing landscape looks like, but I have nowhere near the understanding and perception that one Don George has.
I should briefly note that I've used the term "travel content writer" above because travel writing nowadays is mutable and so many different people are doing so many different things when it comes to travel writing. You've people travel blogging, writing for travel magazines, travel copy writing, writing travel books and the list goes on.
I think this post is applicable for anyone who is remotely connected to any of these because, today, I'm speaking to a man who has watched the travel writing world be turned on its head, and has managed to stay on the right side of it all. He also talks about travel writing opportunities in today's day and age.
I reached out to Don George because, for me, he's one of the first people that comes to mind when I try to think of strong travel writing examples. His writing is natural, and it oozes passion in a way that I hope mine does to, at least in part. He lives and breathes travel, and he has that wonderful gift in his writing of transporting you along for the ride without barraging you with an unnecessary army of adjectives.
If you like interviews you'll also love my interview with Scott Wilson of "Departures" fame, Ellis Emmett on his travel show "Over the Horizon", NHL Hall of Famer Börje Salming, as well as famous travel blogger Matthew Kepnes aka Nomadic Matt.
Just to give you a quick synopsis - Don George has been a travel writer for the San Francisco Examiner, and Examiner & Chronicle. Later, he became the Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. He's now Editor at Large for National Geographic Travel, and much more!
He's written multiple books, including the Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing and received dozens of awards for his writing and editing. He's visited over 85 countries, and written hundreds of articles. If that wasn't enough, he also co-founded a conference for travel writers and photographers.
We'll get into all this in more detail in the interview, but I just wanted to give you some conception of why I have such a deep and profound respect for this man, and why I couldn't be more thankful that he took the time to let me ask him a few questions.
NOTE: This post may contain some affiliate links. That means, simply, that I may get commissions from some of my recommendations. That being said, my opinions are fully my own.
Sitting Down with Don George: Listen Up, Freelance Travel Writers
Before we get into the transcript let me just note that the little subtitle "listen up, freelance travel writers" is all about the fact that I think there's a lot to learn from this interview if you're in travel writing about the craft, about passion, and about perseverance.
My feeling is that by the end of this interview, you'll know whether being a travel content writer is really for you. Alright, let's go!
Chris Mitchell: I'll start off just by asking -- where did your love of travel come from? Was it something you were involved with as a kid? Did you travel when you were young? Or was there one particular trip where you just thought -- this is what I need to be doing.
Don George: A little bit of both. My parents love to travel. So a very young age, on summer vacations (I grew up in Connecticut), they would take us south to Virginia, or up to Nova Scotia, or the Great Lakes, Upper New York State. So we traveled a lot when I was a kid. I guess a certain love of travel got instilled in me that way.
But it really, really took off the spring of my junior year in college. I knew I was going to live in Europe the summer between my junior and senior years, because I went to Princeton and they had something called "the summer work abroad" program, and I was going to live in Paris on that, and my parents knew that.
So they decided to take me and my brother to London and Paris on spring break to give me a little taste of what I was getting myself into, with them able to guide me a little bit. So we went there.
That was my first real international experience, and I pretty much fell in love with the world then, and it just grew and grew that summer, when I was living with a family in Paris. And as it turned out, after I graduated the next year, I went back to Paris for the summer, and then I went to Greece for a year on a teaching fellowship. And that's when the whole world took off for me and I fell in love with the whole idea of being a foreigner abroad.
That's really when it all got started. That's when I became a travel writer, in a way, although I wasn't really a travel writer yet. But that was the beginning.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. I think all those things you mentioned resonate with me in a way. Because even now, when I'm writing, I realize I planted a lot of these seeds a long time ago.
I moved when I was 16 to Ireland for a little bit of time, and I remember getting over to Europe and being like -- "why isn't everybody here right now?" [laughs]
Don George: [laughs] Right? Exactly. It's intoxicating. It's amazing. It gets under your skin, and suddenly, you don't want to do anything else.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. I totally agree. Do you still find it as intoxicating?
Don George: I do. I do, quite remarkably. I really do. And people often say to me, "you've been doing this all your life; you're not bored with it? You haven't gotten jaded about it?" -- but I haven't at all; I still love travel, whether it's to a place I've been to a dozen times before or a place I've never been before, there's still something new to discover.
And just the intoxication of the new and the enlargement of yourself when you come upon new things and absorb them, and take them in. It's just incredibly exciting to me. I still love it. I'm pretty much as innocent, I guess, as I was when I first ventured abroad, and it still is incredibly enriching for me.
"It was all about the wonder and the newness and how exciting everything was."
Chris Mitchell: Yes. Same for me. I really don't get tired of it. I always try and think about whether it's the fact that I have this eye that I know I might write about something that gets me engaged with it? Or is it because I'm engaged with it that I might have some reason to write about it.
Just out of curiosity, what do you think about that? Do you think you're a great travel writer because you're engaged? Or you're engaged because you're a great travel writer? Or can you separate those things?
Don George: That's a great question. But I think that I've always been engaged. It was interesting for me, it goes back to that very first trip when my parents took my brother and me. And my brother's reaction to exactly the same things that I was experiencing were so different; he was not especially enchanted with travel.
I think he's a pretty good traveler now, but I think back then he was focused on the things that went wrong, the discomfort, or the difficulties of it. And for me, it was all about the wonder and the newness and how exciting everything was. So I think I had that predisposition from the very early age.
And I also liked writing, not necessarily thinking I would be a travel writer, but I just loved writing, and the two eventually merged, and I realized they could harmoniously grow together.
So I think that it started with me with that sense of, "wow, the world is an amazing place." I love being out in foreign environments; I love being challenged and learning new things and growing that way. So that was the first step I think. And then the writing kind of came naturally after that, because I loved writing, and I thought -- well, why don't I write about these things I'm experiencing. And then the rest just kind of unfolded.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. In a lot of ways I think you can see that when somebody's really passionate about writing. I've read a fair bit of your writing and it becomes pretty clear that -- I want to be along on the ride with this guy.
Don George: Thank you.
Chris Mitchell: Even deeper than that, that amazement with the world,it's something everyone can grasp onto, whether they're a traveler or not, because it's a really human thing to be in awe.
Don George: Exactly.
Chris Mitchell: I feel really lucky to have that similar amazement, and everywhere I go I try to take that one moment to try and take it all in.
I was curious -- you started out a little bit of time before me. How do you feel the travel-writing landscape has changed over the years? I know it's changed drastically. But I mean, from when you started until now -- can you even put that into words what a shift there's been? And do you see it as positive or negative? Or can you put a label on it like that?
"It made me realize -- 'wow, non-fiction writing is something worthy of honour and emulation, and maybe I could do this.' And that planted a seed that led to my career."
Don George: Well, it's been a really seismic shift. The landscape is completely re-done.
When I first got into travel writing and travel editing, there were probably twelve really great outlets for people who wanted to be travel writers; there were a handful of magazines, three or four probably. And then maybe eight Sunday travel sections, that different newspapers published, the major American newspapers.
And if you wanted to be a travel writer, that was pretty much it, those were your options. You wanted to be published in one of those. So a very small group of editors controlled that whole world, which was both good and bad. On the one hand, I think they had really good taste, and they were generally very well traveled. So they had high standards and a high sense of quality, and they curated the content that people read.
On the other hand, if you weren't in those 12 publications, you didn't exist, hardly.
So now, it's just been exploded. And everyone's their own travel publisher, really. With the Web, you can be your own platform.
So I think that it's a vastly, vastly different world. There isn't that sort of, third person curator having nearly the power or presence that they had when I was starting out. Which is good in the sense that anybody can publish themselves, but is bad in the sense that -- anybody can publish themselves.
Chris Mitchell: [laughs]
Don George: So it's harder for a reader, I think, to figure out -- what's the quality? And who should I pay attention to? And it's awfully noisy in here; who are all these people writing travel stories?
So I think it's challenging for readers to figure out where to get their information from. I think it's liberating but also challenging for writers, because while you can be around platform, it's hard to make a living doing that. So the practicalities of it get really difficult.
How do you pay for your travel-writing passion? That's an ongoing problem.
So I think it's a very mixed evolution. I was the travel editor at the San Francisco paper for a long time. So I was in the very privileged position of being one of those curators of travel content, and that was a really dream job in lots of ways, both as a writer and as an editor. So I saw the good in that, and I thought, "wow, this is really wonderful, and I get to present great writing to the world, and I'm very excited about that."
I liked that, but I also understand that now it's great that people who don't necessarily have any ties to some big organization, some big media organization, can still get their writing out in the world, and that's a good thing. But I think it just makes the job for readers especially difficult.
So it's a mixed bag. I'm not sure that either one's better than the other. But it's just been an evolution that's happened during my lifetime. So it's been really fascinating to follow it, and try to keep ahead of that curve and see where it goes.
It's been super-fascinating for me as a writer and as an editor to be on both sides of that relationship and see how it's evolved over time.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. I think that's fascinating because, realistically, there's few other people I think I could ask that question and get a more accurate response, really. Because you have really seen it all.
It's interesting. It seems like in recent years -- or for a while now -- you've been looking to support people who are looking to pursue the career that's offered you so much. The conference -- does that take place in San Francisco? I know it's in California.
Don George: Just outside San Francisco, in Corte Madera, which is in Marin County, about fifteen minutes from San Francisco.
Chris MItchell: That's the Book Passage Travel Photographers and Writers Conference?
Don George: Exactly.
"I've always followed my gut. And it's pretty much worked out. And I want to encourage and empower people to do that in their own lives."
Chris Mitchell: So can you talk about shifting into that role? In a sense, you could have just locked the door, and written unlimited freelance articles, and you would have been fine.
Obviously, it's a bit more than that, It's a personal interest -- it must be -- because you don't have to do it. [laughs]
So can you speak a bit about that? Sort of, mentoring?
Don George: I have a very personal passion about mentoring, and bringing great writing into the world and promoting it.
I don't know exactly where it began, but I think, for me, it partly began when I was a senior at Princeton, and I took an incredible course called, "the literature of fact," which was taught by a great writer named John McPhee, who's been a staff writer at the New Yorker for -- I don't know -- fifty years, probably.
He was a staff writer at the New Yorker when I was at Princeton, and that was a long time ago. He opened up the world of non-fiction writing for me by showing me that non-fiction writing could belong on the same pedestal. As an undergraduate, you put these poets and fiction writers that you're studying in your classes on these great pedestals. And he was saying, "hey, living non-fiction writers are just as pedestal-worthy as those dead people that you're studying in your other classes, and in fact, it's very exciting to watch the evolution of modern non-fiction writing."
That course definitely changed my life. It made me realize -- "wow, non-fiction writing is something worthy of honour and emulation, and maybe I could do this. And that planted a seed that led to my career."
I love teaching and I love sharing what I know about the world with people. I love inspiring people; I love giving them the sense that they can do things that they don't think they can do.
I really love the Book Passage Conference, because on a grander scale, it helps inculcate that sense of, "you can do it; here are some tools that will help you get where you want to get." But the main thing is you just have to get yourself there.
That's sort of been the theme of my life, pretty much all the way through, when I've had to decide -- do I want to go to the left, or do I want to go to the right at this fork in the road? I sort of asked my gut, which one do you really want to do? And I followed that path, and it's not always been the logical path, or the path that people looking at the situation would have said, "you know what; this makes more sense to go that way."
But I've always followed my gut. And it's pretty much worked out. And I want to encourage and empower people to do that in their own lives.
So I find now that I get just incredible fulfillment and satisfaction from the conference and things like that, from teaching workshops that I do around the world, and just helping people find their voice and find their passion and their path.
I think that's a part of the whole. The whole for me is bigger than me writing an article. It's me creating a workshop or creating a class or creating a conference. I've come to think that creating a conference is every bit as important and meaningful as creating a book.
When I was young, I thought, "I want to create a bookshelf full of books, and that will be my contribution to humanity." But now I think creating a conference is at least as good as a book. And creating a really successful workshop is. And giving a good inspiring talk it.
I've sort of realized that there are lots of different creative ways of spreading the message that I want to spread, and that whole mentoring is a huge fundamental part of that that I get great personal satisfaction from, and that I feel somehow that part of the reason why I'm on the planet is to do that.
I feel incredibly grateful and privileged that I've been able to do that.
"...following your passion is huge, and persevering, and trying to figure out what you really want to do, not what other people think you want to do, or tell you you should do, but what you really want to do. I think that's the most important thing."
Chris Mitchell: I think with your writing it becomes evident what your motives are. When I was looking into the conference and things like that, when I read into it a bit more, I think that attitude's contagious. I think it's really a meta-conversation, because I'm over here; I've been writing for a while, but I'm shifting into another gear of freelance writing, and I'm looking in your direction in a lot of ways, to think about how I can really do this.
I'm at this place know, where I'm at the start of this long road, and I feel very much like I'm making all these decisions that are coming straight from my gut, and I'm wondering -- is this right or is it wrong? -- but it's the only way we can move forward.
Don George: Yeah.
Chris Mitchell: I had all these technical questions I was going to ask,like, "what do you think a travel writer should do?"
But do you think the most important thing for someone, to be a strong travel writer, is to follow that gut, and to follow that passion?
Don George: I think that's a huge part of it for sure. It's also really important to read a lot, to find writers that you really resonate with, and learn a lot from, and to read and read and read, and absorb whatever you can absorb from them, both travel wisdom and style wisdom.
But I do think that, yes, following your passion is huge, and persevering, and trying to figure out what you really want to do, not what other people think you want to do, or tell you you should do, but what you really want to do. I think that's the most important thing. Following through on that can sometimes be really challenging and intimidating and scary but ultimately I think pays off.
Chris Mitchell: Yes. Definitely. And hopefully that's very much the case. I think you're right. You literally wrote the book on travel writing. Literally.
Has there been a moment where you either saw your name on something or you were about to speak, one moment where you thought to yourself, "wow, I really pulled this off." Or are you constantly just looking to the next thing? I'm just curious if there's ever that moment that you just think -- wow, I'm amazed at what I've done here.
Don George: [laughs]
Christopher Mitchell: When I look at your resume,I think, "yeah,this would not be bad." [laughs]
Don George: Thank you.
There've been definite moments along the way. Well, I guess the first one, although I don't remember it precisely, but the first article I wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, when my by-line was in the Sunday paper that was read by a million people, or I'd like to think so at least -- that was a major moment.
When I became the travel editor at the newspaper and my photo was published and there was a little announcement. That was a very, very major moment for me.
When I became the global editor for Lonely Planet, that was a really big moment. I remember some of the first TV interviews that I did, and radio interviews, thinking -- this is a milestone; this is a big moment.
Then I guess, when my book came out The Way of Wanderlust. When that came out, that was a huge moment for me, because it put between two covers what I'd been doing with my life for thirty years, and it was a way for me to share me and my philosophy and my experiences in the world, with the world. It was a way to put in one very compact physical form what my life had been all about, and I felt it was in a way a kind of a memoir. It was the story of my life. So that for me is maybe the crowning moment, when that book came out, and suddenly I could give it to people and say, "here's me; here's my world."
That was a big one.
There have been a lot of moments along the way, and there are still times when I want to pinch myself and say is all of this real? And have you really been able to do that?
When the travel writing book first came out, that was a huge moment, because it brought together pretty much everything I learned and thought about travel writing as a writer and as an editor for all those years. Maybe twenty years or so. And to bring that all together in a book about travel writing, the thing that I loved, and the thing that I had made my whole career around, that was pretty special and exciting.
Yeah, there have been quite a few moments, actually, now that I think about it.
Chris Mitchell: No kidding.
Genuinely -- your writing genuinely inspires me. I try and read a book a week. I try. But I think for me, I started trying to do that five years ago, and the difference in my writing now, for one, I've been writing a lot more, but I think it had a lot to do with just taking the time to respect words, to respect what you can accomplish with the written word.
So for you, you've talked about this body of work you have, which is incredible, what do you hope you've conveyed about travel at large with your writing? Or maybe, about your own personal journey? It's difficult to put it all down to one thing. But what do you hope, if someone's read your body of work, they understand, about travel at large?
Don George: Well, there's a couple of fundamental messages.
But one is that the world is essentially a very friendly, benign place, that we're all in this together; all we human beings are in this together. Maybe one of the greatest lessons I've learned is that we really are basically all very similar -- the dissimilarities are so far outweighed by the similarities -- and that our goal is to get along and to make the planet better and to create peace, to pave the way for peace, peace in the world.
I think that's a really fundamental message. I've always tried to be a bridge in my travel writing between the place I'm writing about and the people I'm writing for -- the people who are going to read my work, and the people I am trying to introduce to my readers. I've tried to be an understanding bridge, and a bridge of compassion and open-mindedness, and empathy and respect and honor. So that's a big part of it.
Then I think the other thing is that love is a really important principal and passion to have - that if we love the world, and we love every day, and we pour our good passion, our good-hearted idealistic passion into the world, we make the world a better place. We literally rearrange the molecules of the planet, and we make it a better place on all kinds of levels, and that that's what we're here to do -- to make everybody's lot better, and to infuse the air around us with this kind of love and sense of honor and respect and understanding, and just enjoyment, savoring the wonders of the world.
I've really tried to infuse my writing with that sense, so that hopefully when people read my stories, they feel this sense of wonder and even love for the planet and its infinite riches, and differences.
If I can communicate something of that to people, I feel like I've gone a long way towards doing what I hope to do with my life.
Chris Mitchell: You couldn't see me because we're doing this over audio,but my neck hurts from nodding so much. [laughs]
I always come back to this quote by Aldous Huxley, which is "To travel is to discover everyone is wrong about other countries." I think that's so true.
In prepping to talk with you, I'd read a lot of interviews, and I had listened to some other interviews. A few times, you've mentioned that you felt like you were really a lucky guy. I guess I was curious -- how much do you think is luck, and how much do you think was just that persistence that you talked about? Or can you separate the two?
Don George: I think it's a hundred percent both.
Chris Mitchell: [laughs] Fantastic.
Don George: I do think there's luck. But I also definitely feel that we make our own luck, by choosing the path that you want to go down, and really focusing on it, and thinking to yourself, "I know where I want to get; how do I get there?" -- you make things happen. Things happen, because you're consciously intentionally focused on making that happen. And I feel really strongly about that.
So I think it's a combination of both. But it means you have to be willing to do the work to make that happen. You have to have the background knowledge and expertise to make it happen.
When an opportunity presents itself, you have to be in the right position to take full advantage of it, or it's not going to come to fruition for you. So you have to be aware of the opportunity; you have to see it, but you also have to be ready to take it.
So it's a combination of luck/preparedness, and fearlessness, or at least a certain amount of foolish courage, where you just leap at something and go, "alright, I know this is crazy but I'm going to do it, because it feels like the right thing to do. I think that's super important. I think that luck is partly creating a situation that you want to have and partly fostering the courage to jump at and grab and embrace that possibility when it presents itself, and you have to have both.
Chris Mitchell: I'm not shocked that you managed to put that into such eloquent form.[laughs]
But I think that sums it up perfectly.
I should take a moment to genuinely thank you for coming to chat with me, and offering a lot. I know that a lot of people are going to be reading this on my site, and wondering how can they follow you more, and how can they learn more about some of the things that you've mentioned. I wanted to give you a chance to let them know where to head. So if one of my readers is thinking, "this Don George guy, he's obviously got something going for him; I got to follow him" -- where should they head?
Don George: Well, I have a website, which is don-george.com, which is not updated as frequently as it should be, but it's there, and it sort of points people to more ways to read about me, or be in touch with me.
I love it when people buy my book and send me an email saying something like, "I really liked this," or ,"I have a question about that." I love getting feedback from people about stuff that I've written, so I welcome that very much.
And I teach classes around the world, and give talks, and I try to post those on my website.
Chris Mitchell: Honestly, Don. Thank you so much. It's been nothing but a pleasure. Again, the neck pain, it's going to to hurt from all this nodding in agreement. Hey, It'll subside eventually, but the words will live on for a lot longer, right?
Don George: That's really nice. This is probably the one time in my life when I get to say "I'm glad I've been a pain in your neck." [laughs]
I really do feel like it's just a big... It's a big embrace. We all take care of each other. John McPhee got me started on this road and I love inspiring other people to follow this road, and you'll be inspiring other people to follow you, and I just feel like that's how it works. It's a wonderful chain of love and passion for what we do, and kind of honor for what we do.
I do believe that eventually the world will be a much better place if we all keep doing what we really love.
I want to thank Don George again from coming on my blog for an interview. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and I hope it was enlightening if you're a travel content writer, consider yourself part of the "freelance travel writers" crowd, writing for travel magazines and everything in between.