World Nomads Scholarship Thoughts

IMG_1388The 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.

Tim 

Bend, Oregon

22 thoughts on “World Nomads Scholarship Thoughts

  1. Your reply to all the comments is very elegant, but I sincerely hope the last thing you said is not true. “…That I can’t really teach them.” Maybe just open with, “try not to offend the indigenous people of the country you are writing about with racist clichés.” Or Native Americans or blond Australians, (I’m sure they are none to pleased with being stereotyped as xenophobic) Outside of that, have fun.

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    1. Hi Laura, excellent point and well noted! I can certainly teach that. Not that you asked but here’s the thing that so tricky for me with this. The piece definitely crossed lines but I’m not willing to give into censorious impulses, especially when it comes to art. The piece made me feel very uncomfortable, right off the bat, but then you very quickly change your mind about both of the characters. This seemingly vapid and insensitive “blond” becomes compassionate and, frankly, likable. This apparently domineering sleazeball becomes lonely and sympathetic. And then at the end, everything is turned on its head again. There’s far more at work in this one than in most of the essays I read. What would you do?

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  2. Tim, I’m beyond honored by your comments on my piece, and so humbled that my writing moved you. Thank you for this opportunity and for the inspiration!

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  3. Thanks so much for this post and your feedback. I think people forget sometimes in their urgency to reassure the underdogs that most of the time the people who ended up “winning” (not just in contests but in landing that job, that guy or girl, other things in life, etc) were also once–or more accurately, many *many* times–the ones who got passed over and had to feel the numbing, disheartening sting of rejection while someone else got to have what they wanted. I can’t wait to meet you and the others, and thank you so much for including me in your decision. 🙂

    –Alexander

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    1. So true. People often ask me how I got where I am and it’s certainly not because of any natural talent. Rather, I refused to give up and found open ways to find doors and open them even when there seemed to be none. Then a weird thing happened: Those doors started appearing everywhere. Your courage to write so honestly about your experience showed me you understand this too. We’re going to have a blast.

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  4. Thank you for the considered and in-depth comments! You certainly weren’t required to give them, but I appreciate your thoughts and willingness to speak to the concerns of many of the readers. I was thrilled to be a finalist and would be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely disappointed not to have been selected (who wouldn’t be?!) but it was a thrill to have you mention my work, and even for you to have read it in the first place. I look forward to following along with the incredible trip the four of you get to take, and can only hope we might get to work together one day in the future. Thank you, too, for the time and effort you put into the contest; I can’t imagine the challenge of sifting through so much!

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    1. Your essay was a standout among standouts, to be sure, and I actually asked WN if we could just have all eight of you in the finalist group come do the workshop. (“Uh, no.”) In the end the differences were so minute and so hair-splitting that it truly seems unfair, and so I asked people I respect to weigh in as well. In short, your work was top-notch and showed far more promise than I ever had at the stage you are at. I would be thrilled to help you in any way I can. I’ll be reaching out shortly with my personal email/phone.

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  5. Tim, “What would you do?” Now there’s a loaded question. In one moment I want to wrap Aimee in my arms and whisper “What were you thinking?” and in the next, I want to shake her and bellow “What were you thinking?” Both for very different reasons.

    As to you, you are in the very unenviable position of electing to champion a derisive essay. Unless there was a submission titled “That time I attended a super fun clan rally” I don’t know if you could have made a more contentious choice, but that is the mantle you have chosen to carry. Not wanting to give into censorship is admirable however you are also in a position of responsibility when deciding what to promote as writing to aspire to when you step forward to say “and the winner is”.

    I really do hope that Aimee takes to heart how much words matter while you have her and the others under your tutelage in the Balkans.

    “There is a fine line between Censorship and good taste and moral responsibility.” -Steven Spielberg

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    1. Great comment, Laura. Love the quote, too. I think Aimee’s piece is a case study in that fine line. I’m not sure if any of these essays are what any aspiring writer should hold up as the pieces to mimic, though. They do, however, reflect a way to think when out on assignment. Even Aimee’s. I understand your point, I do, and to run with it: I think the thing to takeaway from Aimee’s piece (besides be more aware of the language you use!) is how well she used tension, something that many of the pieces lacked. My initial reaction to her first few paragraphs was to cringe, of course, and I nearly stopped reading because of my second reaction, which I’m not proud of: to judge her through my own flawed lenses. What a vapid, closed-hearted traveler, I thought. But then she stuck it out and found empathy. We see her become willing to cast aside the prejudices she made so very clear and see Antonio as a lonely human in need of connection. And then, at the end, I’m still not sure how to read Antonio but my opinon of Aimee had flipped, which caught me off guard. Her language up high is extremely coarse, no debating that, but her actions in the piece demonstrate a very different person than her words would suggest. That tension parallels her own mental tension that my wife says women wrestle with all the time. I dunno. Maybe I’m reading far more into it than I should but my own mentor pointed out the same things. The point is that the bones of the piece are so conflicting, which when applied to any other topic will make for a great read. Anyway, I appreciate the debate and am always willing believe I’m wrong, so thank you!

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  6. Tim, I had to sit with what you had to say for a few days. (The thought that I was only looking at Aimee’s writing through my own flawed lenses took longer to digest than my Easter turkey) My experiences , good, bad & ugly are what I hold dear to me , but I certainly don’t want to be defined by “one handsy truck driver”.
    So I went back and read the piece again, and then again and then a few hours later. Once I put aside my initial visceral reaction to punch Antonio I didn’t hate it so much. It’s still not my favourite travel story, but I can now see Aimee’s talent for building a scene. I mean it definately got a reaction.
    My own pedestrian essay to WN came in part as I watched my daughter begin to discover the joy of travel. A prospect that both delights and terrifies me in equal measure. Perhaps someone of Aimee’s generation would think “silly old cow, give it up and take up knitting”, and that would be shaped by their millennial experiences. (And that’s ok too)
    Anyhow I did want to pass that along (to Aimee too if she’s following) and not hide behind internet anonymity . You can see my travel pics on Instagram @
    laura_e_leb (yes I’m a real person)

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Laura. I am in contact with Aimee and will pass this along. As you might imagine (hope to imagine?) she’s deeply embarrassed by it all. While it has become clear to me that she had no intention to offend, what’s important now is that she’s very much aware of how it did offend and certainly never wants to repeat that. I think that’s the end goal, no? Please send me your essay. I’d love to read it.

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  7. It look as though I am a little bit late to the party, and am unable to congratulate the winners now that the main post is closed.

    I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge congratulations to the winners, and well done to all the others who were also shortlisted. I would also like to say a big thank you to World Nomads for the chance to take part in this exercise. Writing to a brief is something I rarely do, and the opportunity to take part in this process has of itself made me a better and more confident storyteller.

    Have a blast in the Balkans guys!

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    1. Your favelas story was a top contender and revealed a willingness to go deep into the belly of a place. I had a few suggestions on how you could have made it stronger but I’m sure they are things you considered yourself. In the end, with such limited room, you must take a gamble on deciding which details to go with. Yours must have been a particularly brutal process. Happy to discuss further.

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      1. Thank you for your lovely words Tim. The final piece was significantly cut down from the original draft and there was so much more I would have liked to have shared. The chance of some feedback from you is as good as a win in my books! It’s all about learning, growing and improving. I’ll send you a private message with my email address. Thanks again.

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  8. Well! I am so surprised to see the new WINNER Kaushal Oza but I am very happy at the same time for Kaushal.

    Dear Tim,
    You have worked hard on selecting the Winners and this post by you takes the audience (contestants & readers) to your story of reading the stories. What I see in this post is how as writers we often are able to best express our thoughts- our stories through written words.

    You said you can’t teach but you can make the winners LEARN the art you practicing from the past so many years and I have learned from you already by reading your interview with WN. I so desperately wanted to attend 3 days writing workshop with you but didn’t get lucky.

    All I want to say is, ‘I have been reading your stories on WordPress and I love them’ and I saw that you haven’t visited India and as an Indian, I welcome you to Incredible !ndia and I bet you will get one of the BEST stories here in India.

    Wish you all the best for Montenegro! And then you can plan a trip to India.

    P.s. I had submitted a story, ‘Stronger than you know’ for WNS 2017. I want to know if my story reached you.

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  9. Dear Tim,
    You have worked hard on selecting the Winners and this post by you takes the audience (contestants & readers) to your story of reading the stories. What I see in this post is how as writers we often are able to best express our thoughts- our stories through written words.

    You said you can’t teach but you can make the winners LEARN the art you practicing from the past so many years and I have learned from you already by reading your interview with WN. I so desperately wanted to attend 3 days writing workshop but will work on mine writing.

    Just by the way I saw that you haven’t visited India and I welcome you to Incredible !ndia and I bet you will get one of the BEST stories here in India.

    Wish you all the best for Montenegro! And then you can plan a trip to India.

    P.s. I had submitted a story, ‘Stronger than you know’ for WNS 2017. I want to know if my story reached you.

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  10. This is so generous of you to leave this behind-the-scenes view for people to understand the process, Tim! I also have about 10 tabs open of your reading recommendations. Thanks!

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