I have been an accidental writer all my life, and I have been a traveler all my life, but I had never put the two together in a professional way until September 2014 when I attended the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in San Diego. The three-day event was sponsored and managed by Lori Allen and her team at Great Escape Publishing. The program was written by world adventurer, master copywriter, and Executive Editor of International Living magazine, Jennifer Stevens.
To a certain extent we are all defined by our fears, and my first fear attending this event was that I was going to be the oldest person in the room, surrounded by twenty-something millennials, all exuding boundless energy (and maybe hormones), in love with writing and willing to work for free in order to be called a writer. Maybe they would sneak glances at me and wonder what such a relic was doing there. You know, the way my grown kids look at me.
When Jennifer Stevens took the stage in San Diego, I forgot all about me and my fears. With the enthusiasm of a beginner and the encyclopedic knowledge of a pro, Jennifer addressed the first question in everyone’s mind, how do I know if I am cut out to be a travel writer? Five minutes into her presentation, I lost my second fear about the event, would I be bored? During a breakout group session we were all given 20 or 30 minutes to write a short article about a restaurant we had visited. For me this wasn’t just about practicing the craft; why not sell my product? As it happens, there was an editor of the magazine Edible San Diego present as an expert panelist at this event, and I introduced myself later and told her I would be submitting an article to her in a few days. It was accepted and published six months later in both the print and online editions of the magazine.
Maybe because of that, or maybe because I had over 20 other articles published during the following year, or maybe it was a case of mistaken identity and Great Escape Publishing had me confused with someone else, but this year I was invited to participate as a panelist in the Denver 2015 version of the same workshop. The video above is about our greatest hurdle to overcome when pursuing any ambition or dream–fear of failure. How will others perceive us and our failures, and how will we feel about ourselves? All of which is ironic, because failure is how we learned to walk and talk; failures are the learning blocks on the way to any achievement. As I learned from a Chinese fortune cookie, failure is the breakfast of champions. I know all this, and yet I confess that I still feel trepidation during every fateful pause before I hit the Send button to an editor. Is it good enough? Am I good enough? I am afraid of what I don’t know that others know. I am afraid of what they will see that I missed. I wonder what a really good writer will think of what I wrote. I am prone to assume everyone else in the room knows more about this than I do, until we talk and I discover they are afraid of the same things I am.
This is why all writers need to keep writing, whether as neophytes or pros. Doing is the only successful antidote to fear that I know of. If you stop writing, the fears come skulking back out of the closet to which they had been momentarily banished. If it helps, remember that editors have fears, and publishers have fears, and all your readers have fears. They worry about their jobs, their families, their health, and their finances. They worry about their kids and about their aging parents, and their relationships. And way down deep, they probably worry about whether they are loved, or loved enough, and about whether they are good enough, nice enough, or compare well enough to their peers and colleagues. It seems we are all in a race to somewhere, but no one knows where or what the finish line is, and the best we can do is look at each other. Some have withdrawn from the fray, the striving, and the competition, and now they are bored with themselves, with each other, and with life.
During the writing workshop, we periodically were given assignments. So in that spirit, I have an assignment for you, my fellow writer. Get out a piece of paper or move to your keyboard. I’m serious. Do it now. This will only take a few seconds. Write (or type) these four words: “I am a writer.” It is not enough to read this. You MUST write the four words. If you don’t do this, you are not a writer, because writers write.
Did you do it? Good! Now on to Part B of your assignment. Write these five words: “I am a travel writer.” How does it feel? Can you own it? Have you written an email, a blog, or a letter to a friend describing a vacation or weekend trip? What will it take for you to accept, and own, that you are a travel writer? Will a business card make you feel like one? Will a website do the trick? I know of only one thing that works: you must write.
Now on to the final part of your assignment. Write these six words: I am a freelance travel writer.” The dictionary says freelance means mercenary, for money. Originally it referred to soldiers who hired themselves out, and whose weapon of choice was the lance. One of the oldest uses of the word freelance was in an 1809 book The Life and Times of Hugh Miller by Thomas N. Brown, where this reference to such a soldier appears: “But when the battle was hottest, Hugh Miller was a loyal combatant, not a free lance.” A free lance was unattached, an individualist, not a staff member. They fought and battled for a fee. They owed no fealty or pledge of allegiance to one particular client. A freelance writer works for many different clients. S/He is not a staff writer, but is self-employed. Freelance writers cross-pollinate ideas, cultures, and civilizations. They are the Phoenicians of the modern intellectual world.
Freelance does not mean writers work for free. Do what you have to do to get your bylines and establish your credibility. You have to pay your dues to obtain credibility in any profession at least once. You will probably have to do some free work. I have a theory about working for free. Everyone may tell you that you are a wonderful writer. But aside from friends, family, and members of our support groups, praise can lack conviction. When a client opens their wallet and pays me real money as a store of value I can use to trade with others, the value of their praise takes on tangible meaning. So get out there and get your first check. Copy it and print these six words beneath it in bold type: “I am a freelance travel writer.” Because now you are.
It’s a rite of passage. Congratulations! Now do it again.