Writer Rolf Potts visits UNH, shares travel stories and wisdom

By Craig Harriman
On February 11, 2014

The UNH Writers Series presented Rolf Potts, a seasoned travel writer, at the MUB Thursday night for a well-attended lecture and discussion about the process and experience of being a travel writer. 

"Each year the UNH Writers Series selects a variety of lecturers from poetry, non-fiction and fiction for the students at UNH to find interesting," Sue Hertz, an associate professor of English who organized the lecture, said. "Rolf is warm, articulate and funny and we thought the students would find him interesting."

Potts educated the audience with his wit and humor and was backed by a collection of photos from his travels. Covering tips for finding stories, living frugally to financially afford to travel, the role technology plays in traveling and the ethics to consider when dealing with other cultures, he helped the audience understand what to consider as a travel writer.

Potts has written two books: "Marco Polo Didn't Go There," a collection of travel stories from over the years, which includes a commentary track in the back explaining the story behind the stories, and "Vagabonding," which is more of a guide for long-term travel.

"So often in his writing Rolf plumbs the cultural connections and collisions that emerge through travel," Tom Haines, assistant professor in English, said. "His talk tonight offered such good insight into how we each can be more alert, engaged and compassionate as we move into unfamiliar terrain."

Potts had simple advice for those attending that wanted to, or were considering, travel writing as a career.

"The truest form of wealth that you can actualize is your time," Potts said. "If you're not making time for travel, and you want to travel, then maybe you should travel."

Potts learned to see where he was through the eyes of the people he met there. "I learned to collect weird travel perspectives," Potts said.

"It's important as a travel writer to get beyond those assumptions that inspire you to travel and find those interesting in-between places that are actually interesting to write about and interesting to experience," Potts said. "The number one window into a place is people."

"The more you're meeting people, the more you are experiencing culture and the more you have that's really interesting to write about," Potts said. "Be participatory in the culture." 

Potts spoke plainly and admitted that travel writing isn't going to reward you with piles of cash.

Unless one is born into money it is not easy to get started as a travel writer.

"You have to make money to travel on," Potts said. For him, that meant teaching in Asia long enough to build up a nest egg to get started. He never looked back.

"Travel writing is a lot of work per hour of travel," Potts said. "At the end of the day it's about the writing."

"'Vagabonding' is a book for people that dream of travel," Potts said. "I am lucky I have a niche success with the book that helped me keep going."

That success gave Potts the ability to continue his travels and write articles for publications like National Geographic, The New Yorker, Outside Magazine, The New York Times, The Believer, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio and the Travel Channel.

Potts even hosted the Travel Channel Thanksgiving in 2008, according to his lecture.

Michael Toner, a graduate nonfiction writing student at UNH, already has both of Potts' books and was able to get them signed after the lecture.

"I'd love to travel and write if I was able to build the capital to live that life," Toner said. "Even if it wasn't a lot, it would be a way to meet my needs."

According to his biography, Potts has reported from 60 countries, spanning six of the continents over the last ten years. He is now lecturing at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and in the summers is the director of the Paris Writing Workshop.

Potts has also written countless articles for Slate.com, WorldHum.com and Salon.com. He has been granted the Lowell Thomas Award five times and 20 of his essays have been awarded notable mention by "The Best American Essays," "The Best American Non-Required Reading" and "Best American Travel Writing." Potts also won Italy's prestigious Chatwin Prize for travel writing.

Next in the Writers Series is Jessica Hendry Nelson, author of "If Only You People Could Follow Directions," on Thursday, March 6 at 5 p.m. in MUB 1.

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