The first rule you learn when writing for large publications with millions of readers is to never read the comments. The first rule you break when writing for large publications is to read to comments. You can tell yourself you don’t care if people like your story but what you want more than anything is for people to like your story.
But here’s the thing you should know if you don’t already: you need the haters far more than they need you. I would not be where I am today if the only critic I ever engaged was my mom. Editors rip my stories to smithereens all the time, and if they don’t a panic sets in. Point out the terrible sentences and the mess of a structure and then offer me a blueprint to make my own work better. And so they do (I don’t even have to ask!) After 17 years of writing full time, the criticism still stings but I no longer bleed.
All of this to say, yes, I’ve been reading the comments on the World Nomads writing scholarship site and want to give a shoutout to the people pushing back against the winning picks. I’ll address the most loaded of those comments at the end.
I can’t prove it, but it is almost a mathematical certainty that spectacular essays slipped through the cracks in the process. The team did read every single entry (in English) and forwarded me those that they felt had merit. They had to be brutal. In that slaughter there is no way a story that I might have found to be top-notch didn’t land on the desk of someone who dinged it for too many cliches, and therefore it never made it to me. You can understand this. Some of you wouldn’t have placed any of the winners in the “worth further consideration” pile at all.
Of those essays that did make it to me, I felt eight were real standouts, all for different reasons. Four of those were my top contenders and the other four were so damn close to those top contenders that I would have been happy with any of the eight becoming the winners. What came into play next were the interviews (for the finalists, only, and I didn’t do them) and the personal essays (which I did read). My own mentors, the people I owe my career to, then offered their own feedback. Which essays showed enormous promise and yet still displayed the kinds of flaws that I could fix? Whom might I be able to help the most? Who’s trying to do something different or unique or breaking the rules in a creative way that so very nearly works? It wasn’t until afterward that I knew your name, where you were from, or even if you were a man or a woman, assuming you hadn’t made that clear.
Of those that didn’t win, Kaushal Oza’s “Cricket in the Valley” is the real tragedy here in my view. I thought it was gorgeous, like seeing a slice of a film that begs you to linger. It took a very tough subject and made it float by almost languidly with these little bursts of color—much like a cricket match. One of my mentors pointed out some difficulties that it had with the scenes but otherwise, Kaushal, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You are already beyond most anything I could tell you. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
I also spent days thinking about Sarah Puckett’s “Journeys into Life and Death,” which would have made commenter Adam seethe. He, like commenter Cat, is stuck in the tired frame that demands travel writing “illuminate the destination &/or make the reader actually want to go there.” No Adam. No Cat. That’s why we have guidebooks. Puckett’s story might not feel like a travel story at all but read it again and you’ll see it’s about the way places give us meaning right up to the very end. That’s travel, my friends.
Oliver Jacques’s “The Persian who Wanted my Wallet” was also one of my favorites for everything it didn’t say: that a traveler could trust a gut instinct to do something that goes against the very first rule of traveling—mind your valuables! To Leah Tioxon (“No Turning Back’) and Danielle Tate-Stratton (“The Horse Thief”): You may never know just how close you came to winning.
I’d be honored to work with any of you.
Now on to the winners. First Alexander M’s “Naked As I Was Born” does have some problems with language and “conviction,” as commenter Editor in Chief says, but I can help with those. This showed skill for what wasn’t said as much as for what was, for the way it almost normalized the “electricity” of the pained conflict you feel is lacking. Helen Glenny’s “The Price of Books” can stand on its own. She’s not afraid to talk about the ugly side of the places we go and not just the amazing sunsets. In the Balkans you can bet she’s going to talk about the war.
Aimee Binstead’s “Two is Not Always Company” deserves the most answers. First, I want to say in no unclear terms that there is never an excuse for racism, that it is real, a scourge and that it needs to be rooted out with ruthlessness at every turn. To do that, I believe you must engage it with awareness, not run away from it and name call. This story clearly has some issues that deserve no justification but take those moments out and you have an even stronger entry, in my view. I can work with that.
To be truthful, this one came up from the depths of the finalist list to the podium thanks to her interview (which I didn’t do), her personal essay (which I did read) and how much I think she might benefit from what I have to offer. To those of you wondering why it made it onto the shortlist in the first place, it has to do with something she did before she even wrote a single word. She took the “making a local connection” prompt and did the exact opposite of what almost everyone else did in that category.
You can write about the “heart and depth of two strangers connecting” as Editor in Chief wants but, frankly, unless you’re Jesse and Céline, I’ll probably find your tale predictable, earnest and flat, even if the writing itself is fine. (See here, here and here.) Heather Eliot’s “Sandbags in the Archipelago,” published on World Hum in 2003, is one of the few stories I’ve read about “a relationship being made” on the road that’s compelling because the escapism it’s built around feels all the more delicious being rooted in pain. (Commenter Adam would hate this one too but take note: The story made it into Best American Travel Writing 2004.) Binstead took “making a connection” and flipped it around. Now we have some tension.
There were other one-scene stories that I really liked, such as No Turning Back, especially since it too broke some major rules and didn’t reveal where we were until the very last sentence. That tells me the writer really wants me to focus on what’s happening in that train car and that’s all that matters right then. It so nearly worked. The Horse Thief, also mentioned above, had an exciting, nerve-wracking scene that I can still feel in my stomach. Frankly, I loved the ending too. My colleagues would flay me for even admitting that. Too many other entries I saw were fun or wild or heartfelt but they just didn’t quite gel.
And let’s be clear on this, too: Unlike commenter Laura’s “handsy German truck driver” or “that French tourist who kept one hand under the jacket,” you sympathize with Antonio. At least I did, and so did Binstead, and that drew me in, just like he did to her. That’s your character development, EIC: We learn where Antonio (allegedly) was in life and where he is now and we see him change in one abrupt moment. Did Binstead miss some golden opportunities? Sure. Again, I can help with that.
In the end, we can argue all day about which pieces should have been awarded what, who’s more deserving, and why Bob Dylan earned the bucks while Sixto Rodriguez did not. I’m not sure there are any satisfying answers there. In fact, the first thing I’m going to teach the winners in Montenegro is that I can’t really teach them. I can show them the things that have worked for me but what truly matters has to come from within: To have the courage to throw yourself out there, to observe and engage with wonder, and to get back up the critics hate your work.
I could not agree any more strongly with Editor in Chief’s statement that you benefit from a door opening by taking action. Traveling is the easy part.