I 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:
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?
This 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.
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.
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….
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 Magazine, The PlanetD, Your 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.
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.