To Write or Not to Write: There Is No Question

writing clipartI can hardly remember a time when writing wasn’t a part of my life. Perhaps it began in the third grade, when a friend and I wrote a series of plays about a family of walking, talking — and ice skating — paper bags. Together with the friends we drafted to play the parts, we performed our masterpieces in the backyard to an audience of parents and — to our enormous delight — our teacher, Ms. Donahue. In sixth grade, we got more ambitious, penning a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of tale called The Double Disappearance of Mr. Jeffrey Johannesburg. This time, we were thrilled to be granted permission to perform in the amphitheater-like music room at school, with our classmates and other students in attendance.

My subject matter and preferred genres may have changed over the years, but writing is still an essential part of who I am. However, for years I didn’t think it would be at the heart of my career. Although I minored in creative writing in college, my major was in environmental studies with a focus on human ecology and geography. I eventually went on to a master’s degree in Latin American studies, all the while thinking I would work in an international nongovernmental organization of some sort. I won’t go into the details of why I decided against that in the end; suffice it to say that by the time I finished graduate school I had realized that perhaps that path wasn’t the right one for me after all.

I pretty much fell into freelancing by default, picking up random projects while I was looking for a full-time editorial job after grad school. Before I managed to find that job, I learned about a training program for tour directors and decided to pursue it. Once I took that route, a full-time job no longer made sense — but combining freelance writing and tour leading did. It was the spring of 2001 when I came to that particular fork in the road, and I have continued to build both careers ever since, adding travel photography to the mix along the way. Over time, I have increasingly been able to weave into my writing the sorts of topics I once expected to be working with in a different setting: environment, sustainability, international development, and travel (sometimes including Latin America).

Why am I telling this story now, on a blog that until now has primarily focused on my photography? It’s because of a “blog hop,” in which writers share their writing journeys. I was invited to participate by Irene Lane, founder and president of the ecotourism website Greenloons. Each writer answers four questions about writing and then passes the torch to other writers who will answer the questions the following week. You can read Irene’s answers in The Vulnerability & Pleasure of Writing and follow the link trail back to the other great writers who have participated. Next week, two other writers whose work I admire, Celeste Brash and Judy Dunn, will post the answers on their respective blogs.

Without further ado, here are my responses to the four questions:

writing quote Richard Bach

1. What am I working on/writing?

I always have dozens of projects in the works, some of them immediate and others that I hope to find time for soon. Right now I am focusing my energy on the following:

– Pitching articles to editors based on various trips I have taken in the past year or so. The past six months have presented numerous time-eating challenges such as a knee injury, a death in the family, and several bouts of illness (nothing serious but still a wrench in my scheduling), so I am feeling the pressure to catch up. Currently I am working on articles and ideas based on trips to Namibia; York, England; Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula; British Columbia; and Spain. I’m also shopping around some older pieces and looking ahead to future travels later this year.

– Sorting through the thousands of photos I have taken during my travels and creating galleries of the best images, as well as maintaining this blog, which shares individual photos and photo essays from my travels.

– Writing new content for my Scandinavia travel website, RealScandinavia.com, which I launched last year but have been forced by circumstances to neglect in recent months. I am also developing other blogs that will focus on ecotourism/sustainable travel and history.

My biggest challenge when it comes to blogging is how to maintain my blog(s) with interesting stories without using material that I would like to pitch to editors elsewhere. It’s something I struggle with but am getting better at with time.

I also hope at some point soon to be able to carve out some time each week to work on creative writing. I have several ideas for novels I would like to write, as well as some short stories and a screenplay that I wrote a long time ago and would like to go back and revise for possible publication/production. Unfortunately fiction is the first thing to fall by the wayside when I’m short of time, but I hope to figure out a way to change that soon.

2. How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

writing quote Gustave FlaubertThis is a much more difficult question. Ultimately, I think my writing differs from that of others because (as with any writer) it reflects the unique intersection of my varied interests and the personal and professional influences that have shaped my life. If I had to choose a single factor that has guided my experiences and my outlook on life, it would have to be my bilingual, bicultural upbringing. Although I was raised primarily in suburban Boston, my family spent extensive periods of time in my mother’s home country of Sweden. We — including my American father — always spoke only Swedish at home, and our ties to Scandinavia have always been strong. I have always felt that I have two native countries, and even today, both the U.S. and Sweden are home to me. While I have sometimes struggled with this dual identity, I have come to understand and appreciate more and more as the years go by what a gift my parents gave me in raising me this way. Growing up bilingual may also have influenced my love of words and indirectly led to my becoming a writer.

From my Scandinavian side comes my love of the natural world, which is at the heart of much of my writing. A big part of my childhood summers was spent in the woods, lakes, and archipelagos of the Stockholm area, where my grandfather lived, and every other year we would make a two-week trip to his (and my grandmother’s, although I never knew her) original homeland of Norway to explore the mountains, fjords, valleys, and waterfalls there.

With this bicultural upbringing, it’s no surprise that travel has been in my blood from an early age. I took my first plane trip (from Boston to Stockholm) at the age of five months, and my first solo trip (to France to visit a penpal) the summer I turned 15. In the years since I have traveled on several continents as a solo traveler on extended trips, and my work as a tour leader has taken me to countries as varied and distant as Mongolia, New Zealand, Egypt, and Italy, to name a few.

All of these experiences have shaped my love of language, storytelling, exploration, and the marvel that is our planet. These are the things I strive to portray in my writing and photography.

writing quote Anais Nin

3. Why do I write what I do?

My previous answer covered much of what I would like to say here, but I will add a few things. I write about travel because it makes me feel alive. The experiences I have had on the road have enriched my life in so many ways — from the beauty of pristine landscapes to the welcome and generosity of local people and the companionship of fellow travelers I have met during my journeys. One of my favorite quotations is by St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I want to fill my library of life with volume after volume of experiences, and I share the stories, people, and places I encounter along the way so that others may be inspired to open the book of travel and discover their own stories.

My writing on sustainability and environmental issues ties into this love of travel, which is ultimately a love for the small blue planet we inhabit. Through evolutionary chance, our species is the one that has the power to protect or destroy the Earth as we know it. Perhaps we could adapt and survive the changes we are causing, but we owe it to nature — and to ourselves and future generations — to do our best to minimize our impacts and preserve the beauty and diversity that make this planet such an amazing place to live and to explore.

writing quote Hemingway

4. How does my writing process work?

When I am writing a reported article, I tend to do lots of research and interviews and then compile the best of the material I have gathered into one document. Once this is done, I go in and convert the notes to full sentences and add transitions. This very rough draft then gets ruthlessly edited as I move sentences and paragraphs around and cut sections that don’t enhance the story I am telling or the point I want to make. It’s a bit like cutting excess fat and toning the muscles of my article until it ends up looking the way I want it to.

For stories that rely less on reported information and interviews than on my personal experiences, the process is somewhat different, although the essence is the same: I put all the words that come to mind on a page and then trim, revise, and reorganize until the final product has a shape that I am happy with. Often I start with a key experience or moment in a journey and just write from there. What comes out during the writing of this first draft may not closely resemble the final story I end up with, but the biggest challenge with anything I write is getting started. Once the words are on the page, it’s easier to edit and shape the story from there.

My photography is often a good starting point. For this blog what has been working for me is to begin with a photo (or a series of photos around a theme) and simply write about where I was and how I happened to take that particular image or images. Sometimes that story is enough by itself and sometimes it evolves into a bit of history or other information about the place, but it always starts with the specific moment in which I took the photo.

Now it’s time to introduce my fellow Blog Hop writers….

67_Irene Lane_Greenloons_new

Irene Lane has written and spoken extensively about sustainable travel and how families can choose vacations that support communities socially, economically and environmentally.  She is frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and her blog articles and short pieces also have been published in Green Living MagazineThe PlanetDYour Life is a Trip and LadyAdventurer among others. In addition to being the founder of Greenloons, which provides sustainable travel tips and information as well as a carefully curated collection of green travel experiences for families, Irene is the only sustainable travel consultant in the United States who can certify a green destination under the internationally-accredited Biosphere certification.

judyfinal

Judy Lee Dunn writes to release her true stories in the hope that they will help her readers learn how to navigate life and live to tell about it. Her blog was named a Top 10 Blog for Writers in 2001.She has written everything from marketing and sales copy to grant proposals to children’s books, magazine articles and news stories.Judy has finally settled on her true passion, creative nonfiction. She was a contributing author for Seasons of Our Lives: Winter and is currently writing her first full-length memoir, Out Tonight. Judy lives on Anderson Island in south Puget Sound with her husband Bob. In her spare time, she likes to read early 20th century novels and feed gourmet meals to stray cats.

Celeste at AngkorCeleste Brash spent five years living on a remote coral atoll with no plumbing and limited solar electricity and ten years in the small village of Teahupoo, Tahiti before moving to Portland, Oregon in mid-2010. Throughout this time, she’s contributed to around 50 Lonely Planet titles to destinations ranging from Thailand and Samoa to Guyana and California. Her articles have appeared in publications including Lonely Planet Magazine (UK), Gadling.com, BBC Travel and Islands Magazine and her award winning travel narratives can be found in the Travelers Tales anthologies The World is a Kitchen and 30 Days in the South Pacific.
Having traveled to nearly 40 countries, she speaks fluent French and conversational Spanish, Thai and Indonesian. She’s also worked as an English teacher in five countries, danced in a Tahitian dance troupe, performed as a soloist with a French choral group, worked as an international pearl marketing strategist and spent weeks studying gorilla behavior at the San Francisco Zoo — and has yet to write about most of this. She specializes in off-the-beaten-track destinations, first person adventure, new angles on popular hot spots, travel with children, food and wine.

4 thoughts on “To Write or Not to Write: There Is No Question”

  1. Annika,

    I love the way this blog-hop has revealed a backstory and process that I always wish we had time to unravel when we’re together, but which we never seem to have the time for.

    As a late bloomer, I envy you your early experiences with words and languages. You were wise to listen to intuition and allow these influences to shape your career path.

    Hope to see you in Ireland.

    With admiration,

    Ellen

  2. Thanks for the lovely comment, Ellen. I really enjoyed reading your blog hop post, too. In fact, I always enjoy reading your work and seeing your marvelous photography. I particularly enjoy your “Internal Traveler” essays and admire the way you reflect on your journey through life, and the way you have embraced the adventure of your nomadic lifestyle and discovered new definitions of home and self.

    I hope you do make it to the Summit in Ireland and that we can find some time for a proper talk. If not, I hope our paths cross again soon somewhere else in the world, and in the meantime, I love keeping up with you online.

    Sending admiration right back at you,

    Annika

  3. Annika,

    I was traveling when this post came out, so I’m late to the party, but just wanted to say, what a lovely post. A play about a family of paper bags? Ha! You caught the writing bug early, didn’t you?

    You blogging challenge (not giving away material that will be published) is mine, too. For my memoir, that means post with character sketches, background information on my hometown (the setting of my book), but none of the words/stories that are in my manuscript. It is a challenge. indeed.

    On your answer to #2, wow, how blessed you were to develop such a connection to your mom’s roots and culture, in addition to the American experience.

    Like Ellen above, i was a late bloomer, too and have been playing catch up all my life, it seems. I will never have the joy of producing 10-20 books that other authors do, but better late than never. :)

    Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this blog hop, my friend.

  4. Thanks, Judy. I am looking forward to reading your post next week, and now that I know you’re writing a memoir, I will look forward to reading that eventually as well! As for being a late bloomer, I imagine that the life experiences and insights you accumulated before you began writing make the writing you do now all the richer. I think we become writers when the time is right. I don’t know that my starting early has necessarily made me a better writer than I would have been had I started later; it just made me a different one, with different experiences.

    As for the paper bags, here’s how that came about, in case you’re interested: My friend and I were in the car with my mom, driving through our hometown. We passed a park ringed by a low stone wall; we’d passed it hundreds of times before, but for some reason this time we started talking about it and came up with the phrase “the mysterious stone wall.” We decided that would make a good partial title for a play (remember, we were eight), but we needed something to go with it. When we got back to my house, we started walking through the kitchen, opening drawers and cabinets in search of inspiration. (I’m not sure why we felt that was the way to achieve it.) Eventually we opened the cabinet under the sink where my mom kept empty paper bags, and for some reason that was it. We had our first title: “The Paper Bags and the Mysterious Stone Wall.” I don’t remember all the other titles we ultimately completed, just that there was one play called “Kitty and the Ice Skating Paper Bags.” And that most of the paper bags had names kind of like the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White: Happy, Lucky, etc. Except for some reason one was George and another was Gorge. Ah, elementary school imaginations! :)

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