Words On The Road:
The Ambivalence of Travelling and Writing
Few job titles exude such a romantic, dreamlike aura as “travel writer”. A faded passport, piles of eared Moleskine notebooks, reliable credit cards, an everlasting smile on the face, and the phone number of an editor willing to catapult you from a pseudo-paradise to another are some of the associations that bubble up when thinking about this, well, line of work. As someone who has these very two words signed on every email I send, I would argue that the aforementioned require time, back and neck exercises and heaps of muscling in, and will likely remain a dream, a romanticizing, for most of those who choose to take the red pill. Still, although my notebooks are eared but not Moleskine, my credit card (singular) Master but not reliable, my smile erratic, and I haven’t yet met an editor with catapulting powers, I wouldn’t want to sign my emails any other way. As they say, it’s not about the destination.
It all started with fortuity and stochastic processes
I spent the first two years of my legal age working, surfing, and partying at a hostel in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. Among all ilks, I met from all over was Mat – a 20-something teacher cum surf instructor from Cornwall, England. We bonded over our common appreciation of beer, desideratum for surfing, and later, photography. We kept in touch on and off over the powers of Facebook. Until the beginning of 2015.
I had just sailed across the Pacific Ocean with a friend I’d made surfing in Panama and found myself at a small archipelago in the south of French Polynesia, roughly eight days cruise from Tahiti. I had been keeping a journal for the past few years and had written daily entries over the course of our voyage. So when, during one of our “dinghy survey missions”, we found an epic wave pealing off the corner of an islet inhabited by a lone 50-odd year old American, I wrote about it.
With what I would soon find out to be a first draft in my hands, I recalled that Mat had been working as a freelance journalist and was involved with surf publications. A “might as well” thought enticed me to send him the piece and ask whether he knew of anyone who’d be keen to publish it. He got back to me with an edit of my draft, which was published on Surf Simply Magazine weeks later.
Fast-forward a few months, I’m in New Zealand preparing for a road trip with my brother after a season of fruit-picking when Mat forwards me a proposal to do a paid trial run on writing articles for Surf Simply. I agree, write four pieces, they approve, we discuss the brass tacks of potential long-term collaboration, and I begin to produce material on an increasingly regular basis, establishing what would be my first “client”.
Once the door was open and the first step was taken, I began to wonder how to extend that opportunity into a full-time, sustainable practice. In hindsight, it is clear how the dots connected; yet back then, every unfolding event had a hue of happenstance. Nothing felt like it would amount to any thing at all or in particular. It seemed like the only way to go.
A day in the life
One of the most gratifying perks of freelancing is embedded in the word itself – the freedom to move suddenly and quickly, which to me equates to having more control over how to spend my days, to shake the concept of routine altogether. In fact, this ability to dictate, to some extent, when I work, exercise, have a cup of tea, nap, gaze out the window or hit the pub, is one of – if not the – the main reasons why I pursue such a volatile occupation in the first place.
I have spent a silly number of hours reading how-to guides on productivity and other so-called life-hacks that flood our feeds, and from that, I have realised two things. First, this is definitely not the kind of writing I aspire to output. Second, although they seem dynamic – at times even enlightening – on the surface, I probably have a better chance of unearthing something meaningful to me if I adopt an empirical attitude – grab life by the balls, so to speak.
At present, I aim for a balance of discipline and spur-of-the-moment living by splitting my day in quarters and wiggle-waggling my way around it, pliably and joyfully. This home-made system is designed according to my latitude and season, and is espoused by a series of notes/exceptions which allow me to say fuck it and still land on my feet without losing momentum. Or so I hope.
Clock-wise, the first quarter on my Day Diagram is assigned to either SLEEP or WRITE, from 7am until 1pm. That means that if I’m not sleeping at that time, I’m working. And by “working” I mostly mean bread and butter work – the stuff that I get paid for. I love indulging in brainstorming and heartfelt writing just like the next person, but I’m a big believer of Maslow’s pyramid of necessities and, through personal experience, have found that if I don’t have a shelter over my head and food (plus wine) in my belly, I can’t function, let alone disgorge that which I believe to be significant, unavoidable.
The second quarter of my day, due to my struggle to get the gears going after a meal, is mostly dedicated to a mixture of passive-learning and physical exercise. Depending on the day and what events are on in town, from 1pm till 7pm I’ll be napping, taking online courses, trail running, practising yoga, gardening, or simply [trying to] think of nothing without having to call it meditation. I have been on a one-track-mind the entire morning, so this is a way to make both my mind and body pulse, mixing and matching activities that don’t require much energy but nonetheless stimulate me. It is also a time to stretch my back.
As I currently live with other people and far away from the city centre buzz, I chose to set a daily “social time” between 7pm and 11pm. This is when I really let my hair down; I fill up a glass of wine, cook and chat with my housemates and remind myself what the world is like outside my laptop screen.
The fourth and last quarter is once again scribbled with the words WRITE or SLEEP, the difference being that there are two schedule suggestions: 11pm to 7am or 11pm to 3am. I understand that I’m only human and that the bottle of wine I opened at dinnertime can – and often will – refill my glass more than once. But I also know – after experimenting with my sleep patterns, not reading a scientific paper – that my organism needs roughly eight hours of sleep per day. Hence, I worked out a semi-flexible system where, should I feel like finishing that bottle of wine into the night, I let myself write until 3am, then I sleep until midday and start the day with a brunch at 1pm; or I unwillingly refrain from the god-like fermented grape beverage and hit the sack at 11pm, giving me a sound, eight-hour night of sleep until seven o’clock the next morning.
Being an advocate of living on the edge as much as of getting shit done, I take this framework with a grain of salt – a stone of salt, actually. This is a blueprint to what I think could be a balanced, creative day; a means to match my wishes with my needs in a conscious, rather idealistic way. My only strict rule is never to go to the toilet without something to jot notes on.
Choosing my words, carefully
There’s this assumption that every writer writes about what they want to write about, but I soon found that not to be the case necessarily. At least not in the beginning, and not when you try to make a living on writing alone and have neither a pay-check nor savings or rich parents to fall back on. Considering that my curiosities are ever-increasing and inexhaustible, that word-typing is my sole income, and that nowadays there is a solid market for “content writing” (though I’m still trying to figure out what the fuck that actually entails), I could say that I write about whatever I have to write about – first to keep afloat, then to keep alive. If to put it romantically: I don’t choose the stories, the stories choose me.
Currently, I craft two surf-related pieces per month for Surf Simply Magazine, pitch different ideas to various publications (either revolving around the topic of marine environment or travel – or both), and take short-term “content writing” gigs here and there – such as this series of 10 twenty-thousand-words articles on New Zealand’s upcoming electronic travel authorisation system I just finished – rarely having a say on what I cover, but covering rent nonetheless.
When it comes to journalism, I follow a tip I read somewhere from a journalist whose name I don’t remember, and tend to “recycle” my stories. The idea here is that revisiting a subject matter allows one not only to monetise on potential new angles by pitching it to distinct publications but also boost one’s know-how on that particular subject, which, if you are genuinely interested in, works as a double-plus.
Soul-selling and bread-winning aside, my mantra is to “write about what I think I should think about”. Regardless of getting paid or getting published, every thing that I write is some thing that I have thought or would like to think about, some thing that, for better or worse, nags the heck out of me. The ultimate goal is to make this writing about these things my sustenance, to be able to pursue only the topics and stories that tickle my fancy. But while that doesn’t happen, I keep personal ramblings as my daily bite of sanity (or insanity?), my ethereal footmarks on the cosmos.
From page to paycheck
Like anyone freelancing in a creative field without a consistent paycheque, a commission or an assistant, getting something published/sold is probably the toughest, most boring part. (Or maybe it’s the boring trait that makes it tough?). I’m still unaware of how the pieces fall, but what I am sure of is that it takes some bruising of the knuckles (or should I say numbing of the fingertips?) from knocking on a lot of doors before someone welcomes you in. One has to tango with frustration.
When it comes to content writing, my modus operandi is rather dynamic: I use, or used to use, freelancing platforms such as Upwork to find projects and contact clients, keeping an eye out for potential long-term collaborations. As for freelance journalism and selling finished pieces, the road is more winding. Due to a combination of the current metamorphosis in news media and the stupid amount of content floating in the digital stratosphere, few publications are willing to drop money on a .doc file; and the ones that do remunerate either do so sparingly or are tough to get through. But again, I do reckon it comes down to fraying the knuckles until breaching in.
That being said, I only approach a publication if something beyond the prospect of payment draws me to it. And speaking of payment, my experience has shown me that if/when they happen, they do so in schizophrenic fashion. In the case of content writing, some clients ask about a per-word rate, others offer flat rates according to the project, and a few still work on the clock. These depend more on the client’s budget than your personal rate: they will hardly pay more than they can afford, even if you do a neat job.
In the journalistic strata, I have found flat rates to be the most common scenario. The lowest commission I got was U$100 for a 1000-word piece, the highest was €350 for the same number of words. When selling a ready piece, flat rates (sometimes irrespective of word count) are invariably the way to go. Here, I never expect to be paid more than U$100 for a long-form essay, and have found many publications whose budget sits around U$50. I prepare myself for all circumstances. Haggling is not unheard of.
Over time and headbutts, I began to brick up a multidimensional framework that would, hopefully, optimise the chances of writing for my bread and butter without relying on an answer from someone who has an overflowing inbox and only 24 hours in a day. I structured three spreadsheets – List of Essays, List of Publications, and List of Pitches – so as to organise, direct, and keep track of my ideas. With that, everything that is not content writing for clients falls either into “essays” or “pitches”, both cross-referred to “publications” in order to determine who to nudge about the topic/story at hand. Regardless of what I’m going for – selling a finished piece or asking a commission to produce one – I do a thorough online search for the editor’s contact details of the given publication, craft a straightforward, honest email, send it, and move on to the next idea.
Where the “ambivalence” lies
Although I have spent the last decade bouncing around the globe, I don’t recall ever being impelled by wanderlust. It has always been about the mundaneness of it; the fact that I could catch a plane across the world and still see that people smile and cry and hate and love and that the sea breeze sticks to my skin and that ridiculous, enraging, inexplicable, and beautiful things happen everywhere. The place-hopping and sight-seeing never felt like travel per se: it wasn’t a momentary experience with an entrance and an exit but a long road upon which to keep on treading.
If anything, this process of moving from one place to another has been a metaphysical journey. It’s an empirical reflex to my all my scepticisms. It’s a dive into my personal contradictions. I only trust in what punctures my viscera, so it made sense to aim (even if utterly unconsciously at times) for a modus vivendi that would stab me as frequently as possible – and that is where movement/travelling comes in.
Likewise, I never dreamt or even considered the idea of writing for a living. They both (writing and travelling) were and are elements, steps, responses, to what life threw at me at a given time. They were and, to some extent still are, an inevitable piece of my existential puzzle. I believe it’s the constructive trait of these “practices” what represents so much to me and what led me to allow them to be such a ubiquitous part of my life.
My lifestyle is filled with starts and restarts. From a practical perspective, this means looking for new places to live on a regular basis and restructuring my routine and mindset to befit my new home. It means putting down rent deposits, purchasing SIM cards, figuring out time differences. It also requires me to keep track and abide by immigration policies, exchange rates, and steer away from long-term thinking. None of it works if I have too big a backpack.
Internally, I’m in a constant rush. Events and emotions are processed during layovers or bus journeys; I land on the get-go. I often struggle to crack the surface of relationships. I yearn for deeper bonds. I lose my bearings. I wonder when, where, and whether to stop. But despite frustrations and hardship – which I know to be found in any lifestyle, whether you choose it or not – I enjoy the way this framework reminds me of how supple I can be, teaching me to live with what I need, not what I think I need.
And then there’s tomorrow
As I write this, I undergo a process of transition which is both personal and professional – or rather the first mirroring onto the latter. It seems that the fundamental elements I’ve long cherished about writing are once again springing to the surface, forcing me to reassess what the fuck I’m doing. I feel in my guts that I have reached a fork in the road. As a person, it means that I’m growing, cycling. As someone who writes for a living, it seems like I need to reinvent my words. Both processes go hand in hand: I see more clearly how I want to spend my days and thus am provoking a shift in the way I work.
I have identified a curiosity for interview/profile pieces which I’m keen to dive deeper into. Subject-matter-wise, I’m keen to stray from what I’ve written so far, explore new grounds, trying to write more about what I don’t know than what I know. Ideally, I’d like to find at least one more publication to collaborate with long-term, so as to have a bit more control over my finances and thus be able to construct a more directed body of work whilst developing a stronger tie with a collective initiative.
Also, for a while now, I’ve been keen to expand the scope of my writing and have been toying with the idea of merging the written word with other mediums. Together with an Aussie friend of mine, we’ve been taking the first steps on a feature documentary/narrative film. Last October, I spent a month at an art residency in Finland and now have got a bunch of essays to finalise and organise into something a bit more polished – a book, perhaps?
The act of writing as well as travelling continue to be fundamental elements of my carving an existence in time and space, the only difference is that I am (or at least feel) more aware. I’m more aware of my approach to both, their repercussions in my being and my relationships with people and places. I manipulate them with more dexterity, even though I haven’t a clue what shape I’m moulding.
All this, consequently, brings me closer to realising what makes me tick, which in turn optimizes the chances of living up to my near-full potential, and that is what I believe every human strives for, instinctively. Momentary frustrations, anxieties, doubts, struggles, non-Moleskine notebooks, lamentable lines of credit, and catapult-less editors aside, if both writing and travelling keep shaking me up as they have, I know I’ll have spent my time well.