Let go and live to tell the story: Travel writer shares advice on recounting experiences

click to enlarge Peter Chilson
Peter Chilson

By JILL WILSON

for Inland 360

If there’s one thing Peter Chilson is familiar with, it’s how to navigate the unfamiliar (and sometimes terrifying) for the sake of a story.

Before Chilson settled down as professor of writing and literature at Washington State University, he toured the world as a journalist and travel writer. His essays, reports and stories have appeared in various publications, including the London Daily Telegraph and Best American Travel Writing. Chilson’s award-winning 1999 travelogue, “Riding the Demon,” detailed his year-long experience of West African road culture. In his 2007 novel, “Disturbance-Loving Species,” he put a fictional spin on his African experiences and won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize.

In his latest book, “Writing Abroad: A Guide to Travelers,” co-written with Joanne B. Mulcahy, Chilson assists travelers in embracing the unknown and writing about those experiences in clear and meaningful ways. That topic will be the focus of a workshop Saturday coordinated by the Palouse Writer’s Guild.

Inland 360 sat down with Chilson to ask a few questions about writing, travel and embracing fear and fiction in the search for authenticity.

How did you get your start as a writer?

Chilson: It really started with reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I always kept journals and loved to write. I helped found my high school’s newspaper, and began working as a reporter for newspapers at age 15 or 16.

Travel was always an interest of mine, and I worked as a journalist and travel writer for various publications. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and taught English to middle schoolers.

My latest travel writing has been about war, in a series of reports for Foreign Policy Magazine. I was the associate editor for High Country News in Colorado. Shortly after I published my first book, I was hired (at WSU) to start a creative writing program at the undergrad level. I’ve been here for 22 years.

What is some advice you give to traveling writers?   

Chilson: If you’re really going to have a meaningful experience – if you are going to travel and have fun – then you have to lose some of your fear or at least embrace your fear. For example, in learning another language you’re not going to learn that language unless you can just be vulnerable and make mistakes. People are going to laugh at you; you’re going to mangle the language as you learn it, and you’re going to say things that may sound strange or inappropriate. You need to lose that fear of making mistakes or forget it. Your mistakes actually become material. To me that is part of the human experience.

Your first book is characterized as a work of creative nonfiction. How is creative writing useful in relaying real events?

Chilson: There’s an old idea in fiction that you get closer to the truth than you can in nonfiction. I’m looking for a certain authenticity through this first-person experience. Immersing myself in the experience is part of the research. That comes from a form of reporting called “new journalism,” which is what I was trained in in grad school. It’s a form of documentary reporting that borrows from the techniques of fiction. You’re writing a scene, devolving visual characters, using dialogue. You’re inviting your reader to be on the scene physically so they are more or less experiencing the car ride with you, and they are going through that military checkpoint with you. So when the soldier draws his gun and points it at you, you, the reader, are standing next to me and you see exactly what I see. The idea is that through fiction you can get closer to the authentic emotional physical experience than you could in a newspaper report.

What is the one item you never travel without?

Chilson: A short wave radio. And the notebook is never far away.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Travel writing workshop with Peter Chilson.

WHEN: 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 29.

WHERE: 1912 Center, Fiske Room, 412 E. Third St., Moscow.

COST: $15 general admission, $10 Palouse Writers Guild members.

OF NOTE: The workshop is organized by the Palouse Writers Guild, and advance registration is required by emailing Khaliela Wright at khaliela@gmail.com or registering online at https://palousewritersguild.org/.

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