Nomadic Matt’s recent post on how he started blogging as the ultimate goal to become a professional travel writer got me thinking about the industry as a whole, how the Internet creates this false facade that everyone is a writer and a sort of “why am I not getting paid to do this, too?” mentality, and thus, this post essentially wrote itself in the shower this morning. (To clarify, none of that is directed at Matt. I was just interested in his own motivations for creating his online persona, and the wheels started turning.) So many people claim what I do is a “dream job“—and you know my thoughts on that—mostly because they see the pretty stuff, and not the nitty-gritty, or think it’s something anyone can do. True, anything is something anyone can do, I’m a firm believer in that. If I’d wanted to become a lawyer, I’m sure I could have taken the required steps necessary, gone to law school, logged my hours in a summer associateship and, in the end, landed at a firm. Maybe not the firm of my choice, at first, but a firm nonetheless. Ditto to being an architect, a doctor, a bricklayer, a basket weaver. Accomplishing anything just takes the passion, the dedication, the persistence, and the willingness to work for peanuts for years in hopes that one day you’ll reap the benefits. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.
In my FAQ’s, I’ve touched a bit on how I got into this crazy, chaotic career. I took a non-traditional path and somehow managed to piece together my own custom-made job that worked for me. It’s not easy, I often bite off more than I can chew, but I’m doing what I enjoy, what I’m passionate about. That might not work for everyone, but it works for me. In his post, Matt mentioned Matador Travel’s travel writing course as a way to do the same, to get into this underpaid, unappreciated industry. I don’t necessarily agree. In my experience, you’re never going to learn travel writing by taking a class; the only way you’re going to learn it is by doing. Case in point: People like Auburn and Katie Hammel, who have done their share of travels and gruntwork, blogged about them, entered competitions and now landed as finalists over at Trazzler’s in-house writing residency contest. That’s the way to do it, folks: You have to work for what you want.
A few years back, I took a mediabistro Advanced Travel Writing course from a New York Times travel writer. Sure, I’d been dabbling in the industry a bit, but had nowhere near the experience I now do. Still, it was the biggest waste of $75 I’d ever spent. I ended up being that student, the one who taught the class, who knew the ropes better than the teacher. I did come out of there having learned one thing: This is a career that is not so much learn, learn, learn, but do, do, do. Travel writing is not formulaic; it’s a practiced art. You’re going to benefit far more from keeping journals, writing blog posts and sharing your stories with others—whether via e-mail, blog, published article or spoken word—than you ever will sitting in a classroom for three hours listening to some has-been relive his glory days, back when publications actually paid writers’ expenses. Trust me, I’ve been the receiver of this scenario far too often. Also, do not, do not, do not go back to school thinking a journalism degree is going to help you. Unless, you enroll in a master’s program at Columbia, NYU or Northwestern—all of which you’re more or less paying for the connections and potential job interviews, and that does work for some—it is so not worth your time or money.
I say (and this is entirely opinion-based) skip taking classes entirely, and create your own syllabus, your own master’s course if you will. Travel. Take notes. Write about it. It’s as simple as that. Sure, you’re not going to start off being published in Conde Nast Traveler. You may never even end there either. But begin with small potatoes, with a blog, then move on to your local newspaper—FYI, in today’s shrinking newspaper climate, you must almost always submit an entire finished manuscript, as opposed to a mere query…even if you’ve written for them before—and some travel websites. Draw attention to your work, get noticed. Then, when you have the clips backing you, you can shoot bigger…shoot for the stars if you like!
Network, network, network. So much of the little success I’ve had has resulted from meeting the right people and the right time. Maybe they can’t use me now, maybe I don’t (yet) have what they’re looking for. But years later, I’ve often gone back to editors who once rejected me but admired me for my perseverance, and then got the work I was after. Attend conferences like the annual Book Passage workshop, which gets some of the biggest names in the industry together for a whirlwind weekend, and thus your name on their radar. Ask local editors you admire if they’d be open for informational meetings.
The thing is this lifestyle is not for everyone. I’ve had plenty of journalist friends who were far more talented and better writers than I but couldn’t hack it as freelancers. They didn’t do well with the whole never-being-off-the-clock side of the business (e.g. I log so many hours every day of the week, no matter the month or occasion—far more than I ever did while working in-house, while quite honestly making far less—and often continue writing into the twilight hours). If you work from home, there aren’t always boundaries. I had these grand dreams of being able to see matinees or catch up on missed seasons of TV shows when I made the office-to-home leap nearly two years ago. Quite the contrary. I find that if I’m home and not doing anything, I’m always working. Why watch Mad Men when I could be researching and pitching my next story? Why go see Transformers 2 when I could be harassing some unsuspected editor with “why haven’t you gotten back to me?” follow-ups? This is something I’m trying to work on, learning how to not always be on-the-clock. My sanity will thank me if I ever manage to get beyond this particular obstacle.
Now, I look at it as a blessing: At least editors are getting back to me, and at a time when staffs have been cut in half across the board, giving editors even less time to take a gamble on a new writer. A few short years ago, all my cold pitches went unanswered. At present, even though probably only two percent of my stories are even accepted—that’s something I bet you guys didn’t realize, huh? I GET MY SHARE OF “YOU SUCK’s” just like the next girl—and that I put so much time into stories that might never see the light of day, I still look at rejection as progress.
I remember my mom wallpapered her kitchen with rejection letters after finishing her MBA from Vanderbilt in the 70’s. I’ve taken this own approach and saved every NO response in a file; in fact, I’d say I’ve collected enough to wallpaper our entire three-bedroom, three-bath house as of now. And that’s likely just from my 2008-2009 letters alone. But it serves as a reminder of all the work I’ve put in. And when I do land a huge assignment, it’s just that much sweeter. I’m hoping one day when I’m a New York Times bestselling novelist (ha! we all have dreams, right?), I’ll look back at all those e-mails and laugh. Maybe even some of those editors who rejected me time and time again will come knocking down my door, wanting to interview me or have me write for them.
In fact, I only became a freelancer thanks to rejection: I interviewed at nearly every magazine and major NYC paper in existence—from the New York Times to Travel & Leisure to Details to many crappy B2B publications—with multiple follow-up interviews at many publications, and no one wanted to hire me. Fine! I’ll find my own way to do what I love, was my own mentality.
Many people can’t take the heat and the inconsistency of this business. Some weeks I pitch five stories; others, I pitch 25. Some months, I have 15 assignments (on top of my contract work with 7×7, Bayer and Frommer’s) that, all added up, equal a mere month’s salary; others, I get two cushy stories that are all I need to survive—cushy, that is, in terms of pay, not effort put forth; to clarify, if you ever break down freelance writing to an hourly wage, it’s simply. Not. Worth. It. I might scream if I actually worked out what I made per hour.
Some can’t take the unknown. This is the hardest part of the job for me. Sure, I have enough income this month, but what about six months from now? Magazine lead times are so far in advance—and you often don’t get paid until the story hits the newsstands—that you’re always looking far down the road (ditto to pitching in accordance to editorial calendars). And then there’s all the time you spend doing your own accounting, and tracking down publications, demanding they pay you. When I wrote a story for Real Simple, I didn’t get reimbursed for expenses or paid for my work until 11 months after they promised to pay me. And no, you can’t charge late or courtesy fees either.
If you really want to do this, you’re going to have to start small. That could entail taking low-paying assignments with Matador Travel, Trazzler, Jaunted, AOL Travel, Examiner.com, etc., which are all notable sites indeed but pay very poorly, not enough to earn an actual living. That said, if you get enough clips under your belt, then you can try for better-paying assignments, and besides, if you’re just wasting hours in an office reading blogs (as I once did), you might as well be honing your writing skills while navel-gazing, am I right? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And be prepared to, often, work for free. While I was working at Newsweek, simultaneously I penned a weekly Sunday travel column for a newspaper—1,200 words or more for nearly 104 weeks—and never earned a penny. But I did gain a readership, valuable experience and a creative outlet for others to see my words. It’s the nature of the beast: To do what you love often means to do it for free (at least at first).
This PSA is not meant to chastise you, but merely meant to both guide and motivate. I get so annoyed with people saying I’m so “lucky;” look here, people, no one made my “luck” but me. When I moved to New York, I didn’t know a soul, I had no connections that landed me in the HR department of Conde Nast the second I rolled into town. I was a recent college graduate with a degree from a Southern public university (meaning I was often laughed right out of an interview because my resume didn’t say Medill anywhere on it), armed with a suitcase, determination and an air mattress while sharing a studio in the West Village with a Complete Crazy. But sometimes you just need a little jolt of inspiration to motivate you to action. Hearing from a recent friend’s own experiences, successful literary agent Nathan Bransford, who dealt with his share of rejection and finally landed a sweet book deal to get his second novel published (the first never got its shot) has further motivated me, along with my posse Moose and SVV, to pursue our own shared novel-writing dreams. Moose has joined a writing group, SVV has started setting up his new writer’s office in our garage and me, well, I’ve begun to bring the half-finished manuscripts that have accumulated on my hard drive over the years out of hiding and dust them off in preparation to return to projects I once was passionate about. It may not happen tomorrow, next year, even five years from now, but still, I have no doubt one day, we’ll all make it happen.
As far as travel writing goes, let me be candid: You might never make it. But hey! Then again, you might. One thing’s for certain: You’re definitely never going to make it if you don’t try. So, what are you waiting for? Start now! Consider me your accountability partner in all your endeavors. (Just don’t tell me I’m “lucky” or have a “dream job” or I will have license to kill.)(I’m not a murderer, so please don’t make me do that. I prefer a clean criminal record, thank you.)