Tuesday, June 14, 2022

How to become a travel writer

 Review: Tom Miller. Where Was I? A Travel Writer’s Memoir. Tucson: Molinero Press, 2022. ISBN 979–8–7 842–3710 – 1 (paper)

Michael Sedano


Don’t let the bastards get you down disparaging your métier, like travel writing is non-fiction light, and mouthing small-minded stuff about “writing” being something more exalted than “journalism”. Tom Miller’s heard, and ignored, those voices, even when whispered from within.  


Not that it has been an easy trek, but if becoming a noted travel writer was easy, everyone would be Tom Miller.


Young Tom Miller leaves his Washington DC home to drop out of college. Becoming a non-student student, he finds a niche among the underground press that flourishes in the sixties, where magazines like The Realist linked to dozens of newspapers whose hundreds of writers offer news and pointed satire unfit to print elsewhere.


 UnitedStatesians who lived through the era remember seeing the Millers of the era, scruffy stoners hitchhiking from crash pad to crash pad, living like bums (hippies), scrounging the scroungeable, and picking up a dime here and there for a meal or a bag. 


Miller can write, and, being naïve about publishing for money, the kid has a low threshold of satisfaction. But there’s a horizon ahead:  he learns sea-level publications, like Esquire Magazine, pay seven hundred dollars for stories Miller sells for ten bucks to an underground rag.


Young Miller goes on to befriend and write about iconic personalities and musicians as a participant-observer, building his writer’s career on the edge of conventional employment. The writer doesn’t give up his day jobs, but he’s constantly planning stories, writing and selling enough to live. Constantly.

Miller’s a person who loves what he’s doing, and he understands clearly what motivates him: 


You'll see why so many of the people in both countries who call the border home appreciate its nuance, its paradox, even its political fusion. There's a whiff of anarchy there, full of wonderful contradiction and deft incongruity. We've got a two-thousand-mile belt of cultural miscegenation, lively and mobile, and there are those of us who wouldn't have it any other way.


Miller expresses this love for his adopted tierra as part of the story of publishing his border book. Three NY houses turn it down saying no one’s interested in the border, but if you want to play up the brutality and savagery, write on.


Failing three pitches, Miller gets an audience with the world’s most insightful literary critic. This critic rakes Miller’s book over the coals and in the process, Miller admits he learns to write a book under the tutelage. 

The world's best critic isn’t some pointy-headed intellectual churning out PhD English majors at a big-name University. This critic works for a living. Harvey Ginsberg gets paid by Harper&Row. He’s an Editor.


His comments depressed me to no end. I was chastened about continuity (employ connectivity!), plot (use fictive elements!), and phrasing (keep your wording fluid!), as well as subtext (let the reader draw conclusions!), rhythm (tempo!), and character (depth of personality!). There was pacing (keep this stream flowing!), excess (don't go overboard!), and diction (keen articulation!); nuance (subtlety!) and attitude (keep your voice down!), when to expand (let ‘er roll when necessary!) and when to compress (condense when necessary!) He cringed at the title of one of my chapters, “Discreets of Laredo.”


What Miller doesn’t say (let the reader draw conclusions!) is Harvey Ginsberg’s rubric as recalled by Miller should be tacked to the wall in front of your typewriter. The recollection is amusing, not punny at all, but useful.


Showing and Telling. Where Was I? reads just fine on its own, but for the legion of Tom Miller readers (Linda Rondstadt blurbs “I am a Tom Miller fan”) the book fills-in numerous between-the-lines experiences that didn’t fit into stuff we’ve read and wondered over while enjoying the heck out of what we did get from the vato. 


Linda and I, we Tom Miller readers, have long been looking forward to the next Miller. This may be the last.


My writing has been stalled by a medical condition, a situation that has given me pause to reflect on my career and its first-person nature. I've benefited by my free-lance life, but my professional aspirations have deviated from the conventional. Writing about conflict and culture in the Southwest borderland and Latin America all these years has both shaped and suited my nature. Like a well-stamped passport, I've entered many lands. Now I invite you to join me crossing one more border. March 2022.


Where Was I? is not a eulogy, nor should readers take the self-published Where Was I? as memento mori. Parkinson’s Disease doesn’t shorten a person’s life, Miller tells us, but Parkinson’s takes the travel out of travel writing. Hence, a writer uses what he has, memory. 

Health writing, like the closing chapter, XXXIIII “Silence and Sympathy,” offer a body's most valuable insights. Readers sharing a difficult health journey will benefit from Miller’s insight into his untreatable, incurable condition. He no longer denies his disease, instead, looks at its unknowns as another journey. 


Sabes que? It’s good to learn more about Tom Miller’s writing career disguised as autobiography. So many highlights—Quixote, Cuba, Panama Hats, vengeful Saguaros—understate a key fact you have to read between the lines for. 


Living a free-lancer’s life keeps a person on edge. In turn, the border between eating and hunger lies between idea and keyboard. Miller, The Writer, keeps turning ideas into words on paper, submits them, takes rejection in stride, and submits one more time.


I have a feeling Tom Miller isn’t going to submit to this next setback. In fact, mira nomás, Molinero Press, Miller Press (must we tolerate appositional translation?), has stories to tell. I’m looking for them.

Órale. Here's Tom Miller's first Guest Column for La Bloga. Brother, be well.


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