T h e B l o g

The blog is created for answering all your questions about Chris van Ryn, travel, writing and photography.

If you have any questions, please email chris@chrisvanryn.com

Where do you live? I live both in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand. I have an apartment in each city and I like to divide my time between both. Being in both places means that I visit each time with fresh eyes. I am always discovering interesting things this way. I always feel like a traveller.

In Wellington my apartment is right in the centre of town. I live inside an old clock tower. It's here where I was inspired to write the article Wellington on Foot.

I think people should always be travellers. I never want to 'arrive' at a certain point on the landscape of my life. The pleasure of achieving goals is short lived. I prefer to enjoy the journey.

Have you lived in another country?

For a few years I lived and worked in Amsterdam, Holland. I loved the lifestyle in Amsterdam. Living in the city centre. In many ways, I've replicated this lifestyle in NZ, by choosing to live in apartments. I hardly every use a car and can walk or cycle to most places. And I think high density living is environmentally friendly.

Tell me about your career. I started my professional career as an architect and worked both in Holland and New Zealand. In 1989 I established an architectural studio in Auckland (called Freestyle Architecture) which I maintained for nearly 30 years. This is an early image of one of my projects, an Ad Agency which was part of Saatchi and Saatchi. After that I moved into writing and photography. I established a commercial photography business (called Freestyle Event Photography ) which my son now runs. For the last 12 years I have been working as a freelance travel writer, essayist and photographer. At the moment I write for a variety of different magazines: Life and Leisure, AA Directions, M2, MindFood, North and South, The Listener and DPhoto. And once or twice I've had some work published in off-shore papers and magazines. I've won some awards for my travel writing and photography.

I enjoy being a freelance writer. It means I can choose my assignments and when and where I want to go. So I have a lot of flexibility.

Why did you leave architecture?

I wasn't being creative any more. In fact, I just wasn't growing. When you get to a state of being 'comfortable' you stop learning. Being 'uncomfortable' has it's stresses but it's where the greatest growth and creativity comes from. Discomfort brings out the best in me. Makes me a better writer and photographer. And when I'm growing I find life most fulfilling. The comfort zone is a beautiful place - but nothing grows there.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I find it exhilarating that you can start with a blank sheet of paper, a tabula rasa, marshal thoughts together and fill the page with a narrative. You start with nothing and end up with something!

Like photography, writing is a concentrated form of paying attention. You have to closely observe things around you. I find this like being mindful and it makes for a rich life experience.

The more I write, the more important it is to look carefully within myself, to make sure the voice that goes on the page is an authentic voice. That's both the most interesting thing for me and the reader. For me because I'm learning every day about myself. For the reader because I think most people sense and appreciate an authentic voice. No pretences. What you read is 'me'. And, in order to have a narrative to write about in the first place you need to have an 'experience'. This means I am constantly exposing myself to new life adventures.

What do you enjoy most about photography? I love the fact that it creates a 'pause' in your life, where you need to stop and really observe something. And then you ask yourself 'how can I see this in a different way?' The entire process makes life so much richer. It reveals things to me that I would not have seen. It's like becoming more mindful. Sometimes these things are complicated and messy, like travelling through a war zone while in Gaza. But there are many times when it's very simple things you see, like dust motes sailing through a shaft of light. Or with macro, you get to see the truly amazing world of close up. Like this fly I took years ago. Beautiful.

Photography, like writing, is a way of seeing the world. I think we each develop our own personal way we perceive the world and this informs our photography (and our writing). For me, for example, I love insects. Because without bees, flies and beetles, the world would be a totally unrecognisable. No insects, no you. No me. This idea creates the conduit through which I look at the world.

What do you like most about travel?

Travel puts me to the test. It forces me to grow as a person because there are so many situations you can get into, that you need to manage, find a way through, overcome. Some situations can even be quite scary. But, at that moment of fear, I try to let fascination creep in. Each time this happens, I become more empowered and capable as a person. And then there is the constant growing awareness of how many people live different lives to my own. Of course, we all know this because we learn about it in school or hear about it in the news. But when you encounter it first hand, it's a very different kind of learning. One of the best things about travel for me, is the kinds of serendipitous conversations I can have with strangers I meet along the road. I've had the best and most interesting conversations with people I will never meet again. And, I think, the fleeting connections you have with strangers can be really powerful for your wellbeing. I've written about them in some of the articles on this website. Go here

What countries do you travel to and why?

Some of the places I go to are assignments given to me by travel companies looking to promote destinations or magazine editors. At other times I will choose a destination and simply go there, if I think there is an interesting experience to be had that I can write about. So much of what I choose is based on writing and photography opportunities. Often, I'll go to a place because an opportunity has arisen. These are not 'loud' opportunities, if I can put it that way, For example, I might be in Kenya and meet someone in a hostel who will say over breakfast 'oh you must come and see us in Nigeria" and I'll be like, 'ok, when?' That's happened a lot. In truth every country in the world has something interesting to experience and write about. It's just how you choose to 'see' it. That's one of the great skills of successful travel. To find interesting things to write about, you have to put the effort in. Everyone (I do really mean everyone) you meet has something interesting to share and teach you.

Tell us about your writing style?

As I mentioned earlier, I try to write with a really authentic voice. That means shortening the distance between the thoughts I have getting it down on the page. The moment I start to 'investigate' that thought it begins to change its tone. Judgements and expectations enter distorts things. Spontaneity and authenticity is lost. Once it's down on page, I like to go over the writing and ask questions: how can I say this in a simpler way? How can I say this differently? In a more interesting way? I'm very fortunate that my wife (Audrey) and son (Rouan) are both great editors so my pieces always go through them first. And my son gave me perhaps my best lesson once. He'd read a piece I'd written and wasn't impressed. When I started telling him the travel experience I'd had, he said 'well just write it the way you're telling it. Just like that.' That's excellent advice that I've stuck to ever since.

What's the best camera to buy? Photographers have a saying: 'The best camera is the one in your hand.' It means you can take great photos with a phone camera or a point and shoot as much as you can with a top end SLR. And it's saying always have some sort of camera on you. A good shot is being in the right place at the right time. More about being in the moment and recording it then what equipment you use. Having said that, for magazine photography you will at least want a camera with a high resolution (pixel count) to ensure good quality editing and printing. My personal travel cameras of choice at the moment are a Canon 80D with the 18mm to 35mm Kit Lens and a point and shoot Canon G5x. Both are really excellent travel cameras. Lightweight and versatile. For studio work, I'm still drawn to the SLR range and use a full frame sensor - the Canon 5D. Mirrorless cameras are improving every year and there may come a time when I fully switch over. For a while I was using the Olympus four thirds system. You can see some of the images I took in Madagascar here or in DPhoto or read the article Move it in Madagascar. It takes great images, but I didn't find the Olympus robust enough to withstand the rigours of travel or the focus responsive enough.

Can you describe an interesting moment as a photographer? Well I remember when I was cycling across the mountains in Madagascar. I wrote about it in the article Move it in Madagascar. There was one time when I took a photo of a group of these village kids in a remote area and then showed them the image of themselves. Take a listen to the recording. Great fun. We all laughed and laughed.

Top Tips for a beginner writer.

If you're starting a story and don't know how to begin, what to say or even where it's going - just start writing . Don't judge anything you write. Throw words down in a kind of stream of consciousness. No one is going to read it but you. Resist editing at that early stage. Writers call this technique 'laying tracks'. Getting the words down. You'll often be surprised at the quality of some of the writing.

Once you've got your story down, the first step in editing is to get rid of every superfluous word, sentence or paragraph. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learnt. Then get rid of adverbs. removing adverbs forces you to say things in a different way.

When you've got the gist of the story down, and you've done a first edit, go back and make sure it has a narrative arc. Travel stories are first person narratives and I like to follow the short story model for guiding the narrative arc: you enter into an experience (travel) it has challenges along the way, you overcome the challenges and as the story comes to a close, you're changed as a result. That's a narrative arc.

Good travel writing starts with having an interesting experience. Take a chance. Go the wrong way. You have to teach yourself that everything is interesting. And everyone has something interesting to share. You have to learn to ask the right questions.

Looking to improve your writing?

Eight rules to follow for writing a story

  1. YOU. You introduce the character.

  2. NEED. Give the character a desire.

  3. GO: Send them on a journey, out of their comfort zone.

  4. SEARCH: The character adapts to their journey.

  5. FIND: They get what they want, or, they don’t get what they want.

  6. TAKE: They pay a heavy price for that.

  7. RETURN: They go back to their comfort zone or make a new one.

  8. CHANGE: They’re not the same person they were at the start.

How did you get your first break as a travel writer?

I returned from India and penned a story about a street kid I met in Varanasi. I sent it as an unsolicited piece to a magazine and they accepted it for publication. I guess you could say I got lucky. That article went on to win an award at the Travcom Media Awards. And just like that I started writing travel pieces. The story got published twice, once as a short form piece of about 500 words in The Listener and one a five or so years later as a longer piece of about 1,900 words in North and South magazine, where I'd followed up on this kid's life. It's called Varanasi Calling.

Interestingly, the first story I wrote for The Listener was sent back to me by the editor at the time with a note to say he liked the story but could I please rewrite it, ensuring the story had a "narrative arc". At the time I never realised what a privilege it was to have an editor send something back, not only requesting a rewrite but also offering advice. For most editors, you just don't hear back. And it turned out to one of the best pieces of advice a writer could get. I've included it in my top tips for writers.

There was quite a gap between that first published piece and becoming a freelance travel writer and photographer. But it was certainly the catalyst and gave me the confidence to think I could actually make a go of it. I began to very proactively apply myself to learning the craft of writing and photography.

Writing Tip: How to get your story published

Getting published is no small achievement. Travel writing is a lifestyle profession that a lot of writers (and travellers) want to get into. There’s a lot of competition. And with the changeover from print to online the market for getting published and paid is narrowing. To increase your chances here are some things you can do:

  1. Make sure you have an interesting story to tell. I went there and saw this is not going to cut it. Take the path least travelled - literally. Also see my blog posts on Top Tips for a Beginner Writer and Eight Rules to Follow for writing a story.

  2. Your story should be professionally edited. The last thing you want is spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and place names with incorrect spelling. If you need an editor send an enquiry here.

  3. Have your word document well presented. I like to justify the margins and use line spacing of 1.5. At the top of the page have your story title, word count, your name and your contact details. I send my stories as a pdf. Some editors will want Word documents.

  4. A writer who can take photos has a distinct advantage. Learn both crafts if you can.

  5. Any photos supplied should have well thought out captions. Captions are like mini narratives for a reader.

  6. Supply a Sidebar information box: how to get there, what to see, what to eat and drink and anything else that helps the reader who might want to travel to a destination.

  7. Read the magazine you wish to submit too (it’s amazing how many writers don’t). Get a feel for the magazine style. Note the word count of similar stories and stick to this give or take 20 words. That's because different word counts might result in different pagination.

Writing Tip: Show don't tell

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained on". E.L. Doctorow

One of the great rules of writing is "show don't tell". As a writer, guide the reader through unfamiliar territory without taking away the experience. Avoid saying too much in your story or pointing out what your story means. Allow the revelation to belong to the reader. Challenge. Confront. Dare. Throw them into new territory. Sometimes confuse them. Then let them go on their own journey of discovery. This is the ultimate fulfilment for a reader. Keep in mind this guiding metaphor of classic style: a writer, in conversation with the reader, directs the reader's gaze to something in the world.

The writing challenge in 'show don't tell' is to be kind, but not too kind. If your story is obscure or vague, then the reader may never be fulfilled - or requires a book to explain the book such as the one written by scholars that explains the obscure threads that Nabokov wove into Lolita.

A travel story should be shaped into something meaningful. Otherwise, whats the point?

Writing Tip: Go down to the dark places but bring back the light.

As a travel writer, it's important to reflect the world as it is, for every country, every city has a shadow. But it is also our duty to discover and bring brightness to the page. Go down to the dark places, but bring back a torch. You want to have light enough to see the page. Stand in the shadows but be available and interested in joy. Don't get stuck on one note. Keep open to different shades. Every now and then, give your writing a shake. As a traveler and writer remain open to all possibilities. Contrast has power. Writing should make us sit up and take notice - but in the end make us feel glad to be alive.

Having your own voice: Having your own voice as an artist, is the process of discovering who you are, and placing this on the page for everyone to see. It is being authentic and refusing to compromise yourself for your audience. The thrilling aspect is that art is a tool for uncovering who you are. A writers 'voice' is a writers individual use of language which enables her at last to come at the material which only she can express. It is the hallmark of the accomplished writer and his or her unique authority. There is a price to pay for having your own voice: it will only appeal to a certain audience. It is unlikely to be mainstream, for it is your unique take on life. But what other choice do you have? Either you are YOU, with your own voice, or you choose an inauthentic voice - you try to become someone you are not. And this can never produce great art. You become a mmimic. Discovering your own voice is synonymous with fulfilling your potential and becoming all you can be in this one life. And, the only way to find your voice, is to use it. In 1993 in an effort to be my own 'voice', I posed nude for a magazine I was writing a column for, at the request of the editor. I thought, 'why not?' I like living on the edge. This is a chance to be my own 'voice.' It turned out to be a source of great entertainment for my peers.

Artists that have uncompromising distinctive 'voices' that inspired me are: Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Philippe Starck and Vladimir Nobokov. At one time or another I tried to be all of these people. But in the end, I realised I can only ever be me.

Writing Tip: Brevity

Brevity is the soul of wit and many other virtues in writing. It's harder to achieve than it sounds. Part of the art of being succinct happens during the editing process. You'll be amazed at how many words can be removed from your writing without obscuring the meaning. If anything, brevity creates clarity!

Writing Tip: Sentences

A good sentence depends not just on its word count but also its geometry. Long and short sentences have their place.

You want a sentence to be clear, but not too clear, odd but not off putting, so that it can catch us off guard and remind us that we're alive. That's what travel writing does. It reminds us that we are alive in a thriving global community.

For travel writing, I like to use mostly short words in a sentence. I feel it has a better rhythm and is closer to speech.

Without a sentence, words are rudderless rafts and meaningless.

The hardest trick for a writer is to be clear without being dull.

A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought.

Writing Tip: Reading aloud

A time-honoured trick for checking the quality of your writing is to read it aloud. Though the rhythm of the speech isn't the same as a branching tree, it's related to it. Reading your writing aloud is a good way to feel the cadence of your sentences.

Words Matter

Words matter. They can uphold the world we have built, or they can reveal the alternatives we find hard to see. Words are events. They do things. Change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it. In moments of pain or anger, when words spring from the rawest recesses of the heart, they amplify our deepest insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, in turn fuelling a maelstrom of mutual misunderstanding. Words have power.

Writing Tip: Uncertainty

In writing you are passing information to a reader using works and you use use works in such a way as to reduce the uncertainty about what you are trying to say.

Write travel stories that tell you essentially what it means to be human.

Writing is the joining of minds through language.

Nothing alters your perception of who you are and where you belong as fundamentally, radically and permanently as being somewhere else.

How I write

I've never written without a computer, so the idea of writing long hand is completely foreign - and almost inconceivable. I love the idea I can move passages around at will, without the boundaries of page or pen. That freedom enhances my experimentation. Some consider the pen-to-hand connection important for creating - I'm not one of them. I've mostly abandoned the lap top and write on my phone, in Google Docs. It's a fabulous liberation and amazing to me that I can write anywhere at any time, just by reaching my for my phone. And this has certainly shaped how I write and how I create. When I'm working on a story, I tend to create in my head as I walk around the streets and when I have an idea I think has merit, a sentence or line, I reach for my phone.

Here's my general approach to writing: I get the draft down as quickly as I can. This has to do with maintaining my 'voice' which you can read in the blog post called 'Having your own voice'. I work on two or three stories at one time, building slowly, adding to each story over days. Once the story is 'completed' as in, the content and outline is down, I begin the process of refining and editing.

I write at any time of day. I have no routine, nor do I subscribe to this approach. I think you do what works for you. I regularly save and copy my stories in Drive. I start with the 01_Story and at some point, rather than say, delete paragraphs that no longer suits the story, I create a new version: 02_Story and so on. That way, redundant passages are still available and may well suit another story or be resurrected later on.

Once I'm finished with a story, it is shared with my editor. I a story never leaves for a magazine without being professionally edited.

Having your own voice continued

Writing with your own voice is like wearing clothes. It's about expressing who you are, what's important to you.

Each of us has a different signature. So each of us should produce something different from each other. A different voice. This is what we strive for. To achieve this, each of us has to jump into the unknown.

We have our own vocabulary, our own voice and the right to say what we want to say. Within each of us is a source. And when you find that source, it can deliver quality.

On the artistry of writing: No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just in the right place.

Talking to Strangers: A way to improve happiness.

Researching my upcoming article on The Science of Happiness, I came across data that said talking to strangers improves happiness and well-being. I've since made a concerted effort to connect with strangers: in the sauna, in coffee shops, on a park bench, on the bus. And the results.... have been, well, exhilarating.

Recently, in a central city coffee shop I chatted with a woman who sat next to me drinking chai. I began by asking her, had she ever had authentic chai in India. From that chai catalyst our conversation ranged widely. We covered her time as a 16 year old student on a 6 months exchange program in China, then moved to her studies in anthropology. She took issue with some of the premises that Yuval Noah Harari proposed in his book Sapiens which I found fascinating. When I found out she was now working in finance we discussed the sustainability of the capitalist model and countries operating a non profit mode, before moving and then found ourselves shifting to a conversation about the Stoics and, in particular, the philosophy of The Last Time Meditation. Before leaving, I recommended reading the books by William Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life and The Stoic Challenge. All I can say is, don't ever underestimate the person next to you drinking chai. Have a comment?

What is Creative Non-Fiction?

Creative non-fiction combines the literary craft to tell real life stories. It’s like combining poetry with journalism. Non-fiction told in a compelling, visceral and immersive way. Stories that draw the reader in and when they leave the page they feel.. changed. Creative non-fiction can be a travel story, an essay, a memoir or a personal portrait.