One Year Later, Am I Living The Dream?

Posted by on Apr 5, 2013 in Storytelling, Travel, Writing | 30 Comments

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What a year. So, what next?

I collapse onto the seat in a flustered, sweaty heap, dragging my rucksack under the table so other Starbucks patrons don’t trip on it. Clif and Heather eye me warily.

I introduce myself.

“Harghehj, gabfgeghr, flbarble-waargh gaFRLArgh-ewar.”

It has been a long week. I’m in London for World Travel Market, which I’m attending because I’ve never attended it before. I spend a few days trying to expand this philosophy to encompass other, less pathetic-sounding reasons, but I completely fail. Around me, travel bloggers score sponsorships and press trips, hustle from stand to stand and exchange business cards like it’s a party game and they’re afraid of the music stopping. I’m presuming there’s a lot of hardcore travel business being done behind the scenes, maybe in the brightly-coloured and disturbingly artificial-looking bars that form the centrepoint of many stands, making me feel like I’m wandering through an episode of Fantasy Island and that any minute Ricardo Montalbán is going to offer me a cocktail. The air is dry and unmoving, I try to remember everything I’ve ever read about mummification as I queue for an expensive bottle of water. It’s a weird environment for human beings and I don’t understand anything.

Forty-eight hours later I still don’t understand anything, and I’m also completely knackered – the same way you can sit on a bus or in a plane for 24 hours, doing nothing but sipping water and pawing at your Kindle, and still be absolutely scraped thin of life by the end of it. I blunder around, watching everything with a faintly anthropological eye (look – the more people in the queue, the more people it attracts! Fascinating!) but generally speaking, I’m lost. Not fun lost. Wrong universe lost.

On Thursday I’m meeting a few people for coffee in London, so I skip the remainder of World Travel Market and head into the city. I give myself time to get lost, and for a gloriously panicky half an hour in which my mobile phone battery dies, I succeed beyond my wildest expectations. It restores something in me. Some part of me unfurls again and I feel like I’m back in the world I understand. I head for a coffee shop to find a power socket. By the time I’m due to meet Clif and Heather for my sixth coffee of the day near Covent Garden, I’m somewhat off my head on a mixture of relief, exhaustion and caffeine poisoning.

“Blargher, fargh – yabberyabberyackyackYACKITYYACK.”

Clif is a location-independent documentary producer & writer, formerly an Editorial Story Development Producer at National Geographic. Heather is a roaming freelance journalist and consultant, with her official title being “Editor and Creative Storyteller”. They have both professionally nailed themselves to my favourite word. This feels like the meeting I came to World Travel Market to have, even though it’s not a meeting, it’s having coffee with a couple of strangers who are probably wondering what the hell they’ve got themselves into. The smart thing for me to do would be to sit down, shut up and listen. I’m a good listener. I can coax all sorts of interesting things about of you just by listening the right way. This would have been a good time to listen really hard.

Instead, I gabble.

What I’m doing, I realise later, is trying to sum up the last year – because deep down, I know everything is going to have to change.

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At Christmas I found a diary I was writing when I was still at school, back in the early 3rd Century BC. Amidst the angsty ramblings it contained a list of the things I wanted to do when I was all grown-up.

At the top of the list was Be A Professional Writer. But I hadn’t phrased it like that.

I’d written it like this:

Make a living writing & selling stories. 

Is that really what I’m doing right now?

Last April, I quit my part-time job, packed up my possessions and left York, my home of over a decade, in order to be a full-time writer. I still am that full-time writer, using a corner of my parental home as a base while I build up repeat work and income. When I quit, I had a single major source of freelance income to rely upon. Four months in, that site went under (it has since changed hands and resurfaced with a new team). I’ve had one-off gigs that paid excellently, and other promising ventures that never worked out. I did a trial period with the gifted WordPress.com editorial team – sadly, that was one of the things that didn’t work out, although it’s now proving useful in an unexpected way. I’ve written for American Express, Gadling, CNN and other clients, and I’ve done social media work, copywriting and all sorts of other income-gathering bits & bobs.

I’ve also done things that weren’t for money. I’ve spoken at conferences on the importance of good storytelling, and I’ve released a free book on the subject. I’ve been on blog trips (the travel blogger equivalent of press trips), and I’ve been to trade shows. I’ve also gone places for fun and found things to write about – like the beautiful & eerie former airport of Tempelhof in Berlin, introduced to me by Dan & Audrey of Uncornered Market.

In short, I’ve tried a hell of a lot of things, and somehow I’ve cobbled together enough income to keep up with debt payments (yes, I have debts) and meet my bills every month. It has been messy and stressful and occasionally outright scary – but I’ve kept afloat and got a lot tougher and, I think, a little wiser.

(I used to think wisdom equated to cynicism, and that veteran writers were all emotionally burnt out hate-trumpets. From what I’ve seen, that only applies to the ones who lost the ability to enjoy their work. The rest are too busy having fun to waste time griping.)

So, it has worked out. I have survived. Barely, yes, but I have survived.

Except…I don’t want to do this anymore.

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Sometimes I get fan e-mail. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it blows my mind – the idea of my work speaking for me, having an impact all of its own without requiring my presence. That’s amazing. It’s easy to get attention online, but to be understood in some way – to have someone take the time to reach beyond their social media feed or Like button, to go out of their way to say “something you wrote sparked a response in me that improved my day” – whether it’s conveyed by a tweet, a comment, an e-mail or a handshake, that’s something I can’t ever imagine taking for granted.

Although as my fame builds and my self-importance swells, blackens and turns monstrous, I’ll certainly give it my best shot.

A piece of fan-mail at Christmas said this:

“You’re living the dream!”

It was excellent timing, because I’d just decided I’m not.

It all goes back to the words I wrote in that diary so long ago, reflecting a need within me that hasn’t changed and never will. All I want, at rock bottom, is to write stories of many kinds, and then find a way to sell those stories. “The dream” is about turning that into a business that pays all my bills and gives me the chance to see the world. Based on the evidence so far, I expect the route to that lofty goal will be messy and filled with uncertainty. I’m totally fine with that if I still get to eat and wear clothes.

To that end, I’m changing a lot of things this year, most of them in the realm of travel blogging. I’m turning down blog-trips. I’m being careful with the unpaid time I offer to people in a professional context, and I’m staying away from travel trade shows. I’m a travel blogger in that I often write about travel and I have a blog – but I’m not going to chase the business model Adventurous Kate outlines here. I want to work differently, travel differently and earn my money in a different way – not because the model she’s outlining doesn’t work (it absolutely does for her and for others) but because it’s not my dream job.

With this in mind, I’m now focusing hard on the things I love, in some cases to see if I can make money from them, in other cases simply because I can’t imagine not doing them. Here’s exactly what that looks like.

  • I’m taking on private copywriting/editing work and I’m building some services around writing & storytelling consultancy, including one-to-one mentorship for a small number of clients.
  • I’m writing for a number of online magazines (and I’ll be trying to get my work into the publications I’ve always admired).
  • I’m running a writing workshop for bloggers at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Rotterdam in May – and I’ll be looking for further opportunities to gain speaking & teaching experience around the subjects of blogging, writing & storytelling.
  • I’ll be finding ways to travel in the way I love – erratically, getting lost, panicking a little, cautiously embracing discomfort, and approaching the world with wide-eyed ignorance. This is how I love to travel. Anything else feels like cheating.
  • I’m spending more time with people I get a genuine thrill from being around. Especially the ones who argue with me. The greatest sign of respect you can bestow upon me is to tear my world view to pieces and fling it back in my face. In every sense, feel free to disagree.
  • I’ll be using my spare income to get out into the world and find interesting things to see & do, and I’ll turn those experiences into words arranged in a variety of forms, which I’ll try to sell. I really love doing this.
  • I’m still writing in this blog, have no fear / have a certain amount of fear.
  • I’m looking into other work, aka. “a normal job”, to pay off a chunk of debt and make things more manageable. That would probably be abroad.
  • But the thing I’m most excited about? Nearly 3 years after an Amazon Kindle won me over in just 7 minutes, I’ve decided that’s where some of my best writing needs to go. I’m writing fiction and non-fiction, shortform, longform and serialized, and I’m selling it through Amazon. I’ll be announcing each title in Fevered Mutterings as it goes live, but I’ll also be displaying them on my portfolio page. If you’ve ever read anything in here that really resonated and that you’d like to see more of, I’d love to know – and if you’ve ever wanted to help me by supporting my writing in some way, this is how to do it. (Thank you!)

It has been a tricky year. Not everything has worked out. But I’m still here, I’m making good progress, and I’ve narrowed things down from what I can do to what I want to do – so it’s time to find a way to make them work for me.

From the bottom of my heart, I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who has followed my story this far, and anyone who feels like sticking around to see what the next chapter looks like.

And Clif & Heather? Next time we meet, I promise there won’t be any hypercaffeinated gabbling. I won’t be confused about what I’m doing and where I’m going. And I hope I’ll be able to sum it up with one simple line, so I can spend the rest of the time listening to you guys.

I hope I’ll say “I make a living writing & selling stories.

Images: Mike Sowden
  • http://sotcblog.com Britany

    I gotta say, you’re one of the few bloggers out there who regularly catches my attention with captivating stories that are worth reading the whole way through and not skimming for headings and pictures. I’m really looking forward to reading what you come up with in this next phase!

    • http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings Mikeachim

      I look forward to finding out what I have planned for myself as well. Hopefully it won’t be terrifying and random – although based on how things have gone so far, maybe that’s an unrealistic hope…

      Thanks for your kind words, Britany. :)

  • http://islandmomma.wordpress.com Linda

    Regretted not bumping into you at WTM, and now even more so, because it had pretty much the same affect on me (not to mention I had blisters because *they* told me I had to wear ‘proper’ shoes!). Being who I am (inclining to the notion I’m stupid) I thought it was me who was unsociable and unbusinesslike – hence we didn’t bump into each other because I kept ducking out of the social stuff. Although I did meet some lovely folk, conversation was so hard among all the noise and, well, competing with Twitter.

    I totally understand what you’re saying (says she who came back from WTM, bought a new domain name and is paying for hosting 5 months now without having, actually, decided what it is I want to do next.) I don’t care what you write about I love the way you write (well, sorry but if you decide to write about football I might lose interest a tad). Yours is one of the few blogs I open up immediately it lands in my inbox. You are an extremely talented writer, and, in fact, I bet you can even make football sound interesting!

    I wish you all the luck in the world with everything in store, and look forward to reading you all over the place!

    • http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings Mikeachim

      I promise, with 100% certainty, that I will not be writing about football.

      Unless it’s in close relation to the words “I hate…” and “…with a fiery, fiery passion.”

      The only person who can possibly make football interesting to me is David Mitchell:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MusyO7J2inM

      Hope we get to meet for coffee again soon. :)

  • Honza

    Well, looks like I’ll finally will have to buy that kindle…

    Keep it up Mike!

    • http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings Mikeachim

      You…you don’t have a Kindle, Honza?

      ….

      I think we should put some quality time aside to discuss our friendship.

      Like, soon.

  • http://twenty-somethingtravel.com Steph

    You know, I’m starting to think this “freelance travel writer” thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean I love sitting down to write every day, and being my own boss, and even the occasional free trip, but I HATE stressing over making ends meet, constantly scrambling for work and basically finding zero time/money to take an actual VACATION. I think it’s great that you are re-assessing to find a model that works for you, because to do otherwise would just be insanity.

    Also I’m bummed I’m missing your TBU panel.

    • http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings Mikeachim

      I think there is a good living to be made for a lot of people, but it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all, and that message isn’t being broadcast quite as widely as I’d like. I see plenty of folk making money and doing work they enjoy, but hardly any of them are doing the same work, or making money in the same way.

      Since we all want different things, deep down, this feels like the only sane way ahead for the whole industry. Most of us gave up our existing jobs to find a dream career, ie. something put together using our own rules on a life well lived. And we all need to thrash out those rules for ourselves. And we’re supposed to break existing ones, and invent new ones on the spot, and it’s all meant to be a bit terrifying – but not in the way that we’re hating the work we do and feeling like it doesn’t fit us. That feeling should be consigned to the job we left to blunder our way into this self-employed lark. :)

      In my case, there was something that John O’Nolan wrote for Travelllll.com that really struck a chord with me a while back. He said that while travel blogs were being built up into businesses, they were missing the number 1 thing a business needs to get on track – a business plan. And I think a lot of what goes on in the generally accepted template for travel blogging is really difficult to plan ahead with. It’s fleeting and based on opportunities that are timetabled by other people.

      And that has been a big part of my wanting to approach things different – to play the long game with some products and services, to invest my time in something I can properly plan out and steer and continually course-correct, and to feel like I have business milestones to hit that will hopefully result in profits. As you say, the stress of making ends meet can be a terrible thing – and it gets in the way of long term investment, because of the scramble to meet bills this month. That was a lot of 2012 for me. As someone once wisely said, it’s difficult to work on your legacy when you starved to death last summer…

      Are you attending either of the TBEXs?

  • http://katebailward.com Troublemaker

    Good to see you’re back on track. And remember: whenever you need someone to disagree with you, I’m your woman.

    You’re welcome.

    • http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings Mikeachim

      Both you and Pam are my go-to bullshit-callers.

      That’s a compliment, by the way.

      Well, somewhat.

      Feel free to disagree, obviously.

  • http://www.nerdseyeview.com pam

    Mike.

    It has been difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that kind of writing that does not turn me into an emotionally burnt out hate trumpet is also the kind that doesn’t — in my experience, hopefully, YMMV — pay so well. I’m in love with narrative, so when it comes to creating what’s essentially marketing materials, where the money is, well…I just don’t WANT to. I don’t want to any more than I want to have a 9 to 5 office job or move to the US equivalent of Milton Keynes. (Cue that song by the Jam.)

    And guess what? The narrower I tighten my focus on writing Travel Stories (and we can have a meaty argument about what those are and are not any time) the more successful I have become at doing the kind of work I want to do.

    Do I wish I was making more money at it? Sure, but I like my life, and it’s built so I don’t (yet) have to compromise on my art. Am i living the dream? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But I live a life that’s balanced, I’m not scrambling to get by, I’m not selling out, and I’m not an emotionally burnt out hate trumpet.

    Living the dream is a nice fiction, but like the overnight success, we don’t see the ten years of work or the times when we are wide awake from night terrors because we can’t pay our bills. Once, I had a job I HATED, really hated. I walked in to the kitchen to get coffee and a guy I worked with was there waiting for his coffee to come from the machine.

    How’s it going? I asked.
    Living the dream, he said.

    I guess, like everything else, living the dream is relative.

    • http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings Mikeachim

      It really is. And it can’t be dictated. And while I have the greatest respect for anyone who opens a door for someone else, it’s not their call to say if that person should walk through or not.

      (Metaphorically, I mean. This really doesn’t apply to, say, doormen. Those guys really know doors. I walked into a revolving doorway the wrong way once and got trapped. Oh, I don’t want to talk about it).

      I definitely believe in the complicated-science-that-looks-like-magic that happens when people narrow down their exertions onto the things they truly love and start creating Really Good Work. I believe that because of factors we don’t understand, in a practical sense the world essentially adjusts itself to fit them. This is of course completely and utterly impossible, but it does seem to happen quite a lot.

      I also think that true professionalism is the ability to tune out everyone who says that said profession is dying or dead, and the wisdom to know how absolutely useless such opinions are.

      “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

  • http://whatsdavedoing.com Dave

    I’m with you, my friend.

    The longer I travel and write about it on my own terms, the more I want to travel and write about it on my own terms. I’m slowing down as well – for the last year I didn’t spend more than two weeks in one place. For the next year, two weeks in one place is the minimum. More likely it’ll be months.

    I’ve turned down one press trip already this week, and there’ll be a few more that get the ‘thanks but no thanks’ in the next little while. They don’t work for me – all they typically do is tire me out, stress me out, and give me some fairly generic content for my site that I don’t actually need. The expectations of hashtags and hyperbolic enthusiasm don’t sit well with me, and are about as far from the reason that I travel as I can think of. I’m not planning to go to any industry events this year either, for much the same reason.

    So what am I doing instead? Travelling slowly, to places I want to go, for as long as I want to go there. While I’m there, I’m writing, sure – for my travel narrative site, my travel tech site, and paid freelance work. I’m also exploring … and talking to friends and family, in person and online. When I need to, I’m napping. Sometimes I nap a lot.

    What I’m not doing is pitching twenty different tourism companies for a free trip, or commenting on 50 other travel blogs a day, or spending three hours each morning having circular arguments on travel blogging forums. It’s surprising how much more enjoyable my life is as a result, and how much more time I have to focus on the things I truly love.

    I travelled for many years before I ever knew what WordPress was. I would continue to do so if every travel blog in the world spontaneously combusted tomorrow. I need to keep making money, of course – but more importantly, I need to love my life. If I wanted to spend my day doing things I don’t enjoy, I’d go back to the cubicle and earn significantly more money doing so.

    Best of luck for year 2, Mike. You’ll rock it.

  • http://www.unbravegirl.com Sally

    Good for you for admitting that it just isn’t working for you. I don’t think it would ever work for me either. I’m too nervous and scared and I need dental insurance too much to ever solely do the freelance thing. Plus, I worry that if I had to rely on writing for my livelihood and I had to write a lot of stuff I didn’t love, I’d just end up hating writing. That’s probably my biggest worry — not scrambling to survive or losing all my teeth (okay, I do worry about that a LOT) — but that writing would just become like every other job I’ve ever had and eventually hated.

  • http://alittleadrift.com/ Shannon O’Donnell

    It’s a long and windy course, this life is, but I am so happy to read about your new projects and this direction. Quitting your job was the big brave step, and that is worthy of inspiration and admiration sir, and so it’s right that you are getting these emails. It’s courageous now too to recognize that you have new places and situations that necessitate you moving in a new direction with your storytelling and writing projects. I am looking forward to how the coming year shapes and changes your life! xo :)

  • http://blog.maptia.com Jonny Miller

    “I’ll be finding ways to travel in the way I love – erratically, getting lost, panicking a little, cautiously embracing discomfort, and approaching the world with wide-eyed ignorance.” – that, right there, is EXACTLY why whatever happens you should never stop writing ;)

  • http://www.sportslashlife.com Daniel Boyle

    A great post. I think it’s important for all of us to regularly take a look at what we’re doing and make sure we are doing what we want to do.

  • http://www.helenhare.net/food helen

    “…the same way you can sit on a bus or in a plane for 24 hours, doing nothing but sipping water and pawing at your Kindle, and still be absolutely scraped thin of life by the end of it.”

    oh *goodness* yes. you can tell you’ve travelled, sir.

  • http://www.adventurouskate.com Adventurous Kate

    It’s always nice to be waist-deep in a post and then go “OMG THAT’S ME!” Thank you for the link.

    However…it’s not working for me, either. I mean, it is and it isn’t. I still love travel and blogging, and I’m still making a living at it, but I am getting incredibly stressed, frustrated, even angry. I’m sick of this being every waking moment of my life. I need to be stimulated in another way — which is why I’m now looking for freelance work completely unrelated to travel.

    I think you’re making some very smart decisions — like not giving your time away for free. Currently trying to do the same. (But a conversation I had at ITB with a few people had us saying, “Where’s the limit?” I mean, would you REALLY turn down an unpaid but comped trip to Antarctica? To Bhutan? To Japan? Everyone has their price…)

    It all comes to valuing the work that we do and not giving it away cheaply.

    “I’m spending more time with people I get a genuine thrill from being around.”

    YES. Love that.

    Looking forward to seeing what you post on Amazon. You’ve definitely got a paying reader here.

  • Elaine

    First time I have seen your blog thanks to a link by LandLopers. I will be back and will look for you at the Amazon store. Good luck!

  • http://www.thenorthernist.com Rachel

    I’m glad to hear your honesty about what’s working and what isn’t, Mike. It reinforces that I am tempermentally not suited to a freelance lifestyle, at least not right now–I’m not disciplined enough and I quite like having a salary. I admire anyone who can make a living in that way.

    I’m chuffed I did manage to meet you at WTM and hopefully will do so again in less manic settings one day. Sad I’ll miss your TBU workshop…any others on the horizon?

    There’s something in the water, air, whatever, as it seems like a lot of people I respect in the travel blogging realm are pausing to reflect on where they and their lives are going and entering new chapters in their journeys. Whatever you end up doing, I think most of us will stick around to see what happens.

  • http://www.reasonstogonorth.com Alvina

    How refreshing to have someone tell it ‘as it is’. All is not smelling of roses on the Travel Blog trail. :-)

  • http://www.weareholidays.co.in/ WeAreHolidays

    It’s important to plan the things we want to achieve in next few days or a span of time. I respect your honesty and openness to the work you do for your blog and the your precious readers.

  • http://Travelingreporter.com Erik

    What an extraordinarily honest account. I’d like to try that line of work for a year or two myself, if not the financial outcome of it. But it can hardly be worse than glaring into a computer screen all day, knowing your’re completely safe, can it?

  • http://antsinherpants.com/ Sharan

    This is such a refreshing post. I’m sick of hearing ‘happily ever after’ stories. It’s true that that what a lot of people call ‘ living the dream’ is chaotic and what ideas to control the chaos are great. all the best. don’t give up!

  • http://gigigriffis.com Gigi

    Really lovely post! I feel similarly in that I absolutely love writing, telling stories…but the life of a typical travel blogger doesn’t appeal to me. Press trips sound stressful. Moving every few days? No thanks.

    Luckily, I think there are a lot of storytelling and travel paths. I’ll be interested to see where you end up.

    Best of luck in all of it!

  • http://www.travelistic.co.uk Scott

    What a great post Mike!

    I guess we hear from alot of people that all of this stuff is living the dream, when deep down they realise it might not be. Its good you have now got a clearer idea of what needs doing to get you back on track.

    Cheers

    Scott

  • http://www.perfecttravellers.com Perfect Travellers

    Congrats on the one year!

  • http://www.twobadtourists.com Auston

    Great insights Mike. I often find myself wondering where my future is as a blogger. Like you say, there are great days…especially when you get fan email. Other days it seems quite lonely in a sort of digital abyss amongst so many other writers and bloggers. Anyways, keep it up….you certainly have a talent for writing so share it with the world!

    • Mediolanum

      I checked out this site because it was reccomended by Huffington Post and because I really would like to follow a great travelling blog, intrepid, courageous and curious in the spirit of Graham Greene’s “Journey without Maps”, and because there are so many junk blogs out there. Well, you DO write well, but, you are so frightened. Your fear seeps through every line. You must have known that this undertaking involved serious degrees of insecurity. But, and I mean this constructively, your readers don’t read you to hear your doubts, they wish to live vicariously an exciting lifestyle that they would not have the courage to live themselves (myself included). You have chosen to walk the tightrope, now get rid of the safety net and stop looking down. Otherwise it might as well be an adventure blog by Woody Allen. With respect! James