One Year Later, Am I Living The Dream?

MikeachimStorytelling, Travel, Writing30 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