In 1271 the Polo family took the first step on a grueling journey of thousands of miles, from the canals of Venice through the desert plains of Persia to the fabled court of Kublai Khan. You know the name of that 17-year-old explorer (so does every child who ever hung out at a pool), but do you remember the names of the father and uncle who led the expedition?
Marco Polo’s famous descriptions of spice and silk, of desert raiders and healing springs, have fascinated people for generations. But Marco was not the first in his family to make the epic trip. In 1260, his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo set out to sell jewels on the lower Volga. They saw many of the same wonders Marco would report eleven years later. Yet few remember them. Why?
Because Marco wrote about the journey.
Marco also put you in the scene. Readers can feel the grit of the desert and the soothing waters of the oasis at day’s end. Those details, along with the description of the clothing and conversations he experienced, turned a travelogue into a fascinating tale. Centuries later, he’s still capturing the attention of readers the world over.
Today we’d describe Marco’s technique as a simple version of narrative nonfiction. Modern writers from Tom Wolfe to historian David McCullough employ the tools of the novelist to create compelling stories. While basing their material strictly on the facts, narrative nonfiction writers seek to recreate the actions, scenes and feelings that shape a country or a company. They focus on ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They put the reader in the scene.
Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) places this ancient principle in a business context when he says one of our highest aspirations as humans is to love, to learn and to leave a legacy. One way to do so is by sharing your hard-won knowledge with others through a memoir. I had the great good fortune to receive a call from a well-respected publisher a few years back that needed a writer for just such a project. The result was One in a Million, the story of a nurse who took her company from the coal fields of Scranton to the Nasdaq.
I’m not comparing her life to that of Marco Polo’s but like the famous explorer she realized that in order to leave a legacy you have to write about the journey. This short video on YouTube talks about that process.
Enjoy the trip.