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Sally Shivnan discusses the joys of travel writing

This week, I sat down with Sally Shivnan, who has been teaching creative writing at UMBC since 2000. Shivnan, in addition to being a beloved English professor, has a career in writing fiction. Her most recent published work, “Piranhas, & Quicksand, & Love,” was published last year through Press 53. The book is a set of short stories, but when we spoke to Shivnan, I wanted to learn more about her prolific career in literary travel writing.

What similarities are there between fiction writing and travel writing? How can the two interact? Shivnan was firm in the idea that they have both influenced each other. “Literary travel writing in itself allows the writing to be creative,” she said. “It really gives me the opportunity to use the best of both fiction and non-fiction writing.”

“You really can use all of the great things you get from fiction writing,” continued Shivnan. “Detailed characters, strong narratives, voice, point of view, planting questions in the readers’ minds, things such as those. You also get to bring in strong non-fictional aspect such as researching the area that you travel to and spend time in. It has that strong true-to-life narrative.”

Shivnan told us that she’d written somewhere between 40 and 50 travel pieces since she first became interested in the style, which was around the same time that she began teaching at UMBC. So, what exactly does travel writing entail?

“Most of the travel writing that I have done is on spec, which means that it’s not on assignment,” Shivnan said. “I just do it on my own and then I find a place to sell it to. That has allowed me to write whatever I want about whatever places I want. The downside to that is not being sure if it will ever actually be bought and printed, which is a problem for some travel writers. Luckily, it has never been my main source of income, so it has never been a problem for me.”

That her travel writing was not her sole source of income allowed Shivnan to get a little bit more creative with “writing about place.” In a time and age where most readers are concerned with ‘who’ and ‘what,’ a focus on ‘where’ offers a sort of freshness to readers.

“Writing about place gives people a window to look through and allows them to discover a new and unfamiliar place, which is what I think all writing does in some respects. Even journalism,” she said, gesturing at me with her hand, “is about showing people things they don’t know. But I suppose writing about place, maybe, at its best, teaches the reader more about where he or she is; to see it in a different way, in a sharper way.”

She continued, “When you write about place, you aren’t just writing about a landscape or how it looks or how it feels, but it’s also about what happens there and how the settings affect the people who live there. Not just the individuals, but the entire societies, cultures and even movements.”

Though it can sound romantic, the genre certainly has its drawbacks. “Travel writing can obviously be very expensive,” she said. “It also very time sensitive for me because I can only make these trips during the off-seasons of teaching. On top of those things, I have recently begun to travel just for the sake of enjoyment.”

Shivnan then nostalgically thought back to the best things about her literary adventures. “The travel itself is wonderful,” she told me. “Traveling with a travel writer’s eye is great gift. When you go into a place with the intentions of writing about it, you become a sponge to everything you experience there and you truly get to appreciate the locations.”

Before we parted ways, I asked Shivnan if she had any words of wisdom for our readers. She responded, simply, “Write.”

“If you have a desire to write, just do it,” she continued. “If you ever want a taste of what travel writing is like, take a small notepad and pencil and just go out some place of your choice. Write down everything you experience: sights, sounds, smells, everything.”

“You’ll be surprised at what you come away with.”