I debated doing some reflective post about what’s happened to me in the three years since I started this thing, when I was about to leave on a trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, my first sola backpacking trip in a few years. I thought about doing some list of things I’ve learned, clips I’ve garnered, other writers I’ve connected with, favorite posts, most popular posts, blahblahblah. But the laziness got the better of me (you noticed how infrequently I’ve been updating as of late?) and I decided to let the anniversary come and go without any fanfare. Cause who really cares anyway?
Then good old Pam Mandel at Nerd’s Eye View wrote me, asking for a pithy quote about travel blogging to be included in her TBEX workshop on creative travel story telling. I was honored but a bit baffled; the folks over at TBEX are doing good things, but their things seem to be on an entirely different end of the spectrum than my things, with different goals and objectives and measurements of success. I frankly didn’t think I had much of value to say to them.
But I gave it a good think, as I cruised around town sucking exhaust and sunlight and other carcinogens. This is what I came up with—far more than the pithy quote requested, but my unfiltered, unadulterated thoughts of travel blogging, gleaned from my three years in the mix.
It was actually quite nice to sit down and get them out. I debated crafting this, or at least even editing it, into a proper post, but again with the laziness. So, a little cut-and-paste action:
I think I’m kinda a strange person to give advice on travel blogging, since I don’t have a terribly successful travel blog. I mean, my stats are decent (I think, I haven’t ever thought to compare them to anyone else’s), but I’ve never made a dime off my blog or gone any press trips. Or even been offered any press trips. Or offered anything besides link swaps and vague “business transactions” that are probably money laundering scams. Nor have I really tried to get those things, so there you go.
My background is in literary writing and I think that’s really shaped my approach to blogging. I think of my blog as an electronic zine. Does anyone remember zines? Collaged, Xeroxed, DIY affairs? I used to make them in high school, sell them at local book stores and record shops or else just directly out of my backpack. Mmore than anything I made zines in order to get my voice out there, in order to be heard—because there was something in me that could not be still (to paraphrase Sylvia Plath), that compelled me to write and publish, and the only means available to do that for a 15-year-old kid in public school was a zine.
I started my blog almost exactly three years ago; non-fiction was a new genre for me and no one was gonna publish my work. Largely because it wasn’t very good yet. But there were still things I wanted to say, conversations I wanted to start or be a part of, questions and insights I wanted to share, so I went back to my DIY roots and started blogging. It’s really not so different for me, just a more expedient, less messy and time-consuming version of what I did as a teenager.
Maybe that’s not encouraging, but blogging has given me a lot of intangible rewards. One, it keeps me writing regularly, even if it’s just a short, funny thing I whip out in less than an hour. Blogging has also shaped the way I travel and even live. It’s kinda like keeping a daily gratitude list; because I’ve been doing it for so long, there’s a part of my brain that’s always on the lookout for something to blog about. Keeping a blog has provided me with a reason to do things I normally wouldn’t, because they’re expensive or hard or weird; for instance, I was able to justify flying to a random town in Southern Italy for a street art festival, where I had one of the funnest weekends of my life and met someone who’s become one of my closest friends. Blogging has also put me in touch with other writers and helped me build a community of like-minded individuals (again, not so different from zine-making).
Perhaps the most gratifying thing, as I move more and more into publishing, is having the space to write exactly what I want to write. I don’t have to worry about editors or marketability or anything on my blog; I can say totally and 100% what I want to say. Strangely, I think that’s where the “success” of my blog comes from, if you can say there is any. I’m convinced that the most important and precious thing a writer has is his or her own voice. The craft can be learned, and should be learned, must be learned—but the thing that makes great writers great (at least the ones I love) is the strength and conviction of their voice. No one wants to hear the same old stuff, the nicey-nice. Or maybe they do, but there isn’t any longevity in that. When I read, I want to feel something. I don’t even necessarily want to agree with the writer; sometimes it’s better when I don’t. But I want to believe them, if that makes sense.
Of course, it can be a trap, self-publishing. It’s easy to fall into a groove where all you get is “wow, that was great” feedback; where you’re not getting any constructive criticism that pushes you further and deeper; where you become mad self-reflexive and exist inside your own little feel-good world. (“There’s a reason people such as Miss Quinn publish in the zine format,” a Letter to the Editor of my first published piece proclaimed. “They lack the talent to do anything else.”) And I’ve definitely felt myself falling into that at times. It’s a fine line to walk, between utilizing the rejection and criticism of the publishing/literary world to help yourself grow as a writer, and comprising your voice to that world; and similarly between using your blog as a platform for unrestrained self-expression, and using it as a masturbatory oversharing sesh. I think exactly where that line is is different for all of us, but it’s crucial that we each identify that line and stay mindful of that line, traverse it like tight-rope walkers and use that community we’ve built as our safety net.
None of which may be very good travel blogging advice, but is nonetheless what I’ve gleaned from my three years blogging, seventeen years self-publishing and twenty-five years writing.
Now gimme my party hat and my cake.