Monday, December 7, 2009

Good Travel Writing and Paying the Bills as an Exercise in Diversity

A long time ago, in a universe where I had a cat, a basement, a house and a more stable income flow, a mate, a points card at the supermarket, a host of cordless telephones and a guestroom, a friend of mine and I went skiing, and he kept on using a male-anatomied expression that people use to mean "going for broke." I won't spell it out for you, but the point was, he said, that when you're at the top of the mountain (or the bunny slope, in my case), you have to just pull out all the stops and do the thing. For real.

What does this have to do with becoming a successful travel writer, or dogwalker or SAT-prep teacher or CSA gardener or record label starter? Simultaneously quite a bit, and nothing at all.

Going for broke, or pulling out all the stops, or spending 100% of your time (and then some) doing that, and just that has been the advice we've taken for years. Be a specialist, not a generalist, in medical terms, they say. It works just fine, until your specialty is no longer needed. Pneumectomies are not really performed anymore, now that we have antibiotics to fight tuberculosis, and no one is looking for a leper colony warden these days, if you know what I mean?

Going for broke, or putting all your eggs in one basket also means, essentially, going broke if your one project, your one source of income, your one pie in the sky dream burns and shrivels (or is healed or solved or made noncontagious).

Julie over at Cuaderno Inedito talks about this here, a sort of a follow-up to David's write up on Matador's Notebook after National Geographic Adventure announced its last issue, and in the wake of Chris Gray Faust's firing from USA Today where it seemed she served a million and one roles, but all for the same employer, and muses in this piece on Huffington Post, "These freelancers-slash-entrerpreneurs are smart. They are nimble. And now they are my role models, as I join their ranks."

There is more than one lesson to be learned here: adapt or lose your niche, print publishing is fading into obscurity, Julie and David are super smart, I work with a crack team of people over at Matador, and Chris Gray Faust is a tremendously graceful recent firee, and has trained herself to do what she needs to do and now gets to do it without a boss. I think we all expect her to soar.

But on a personal note, I learned something else. I don't have a schizophrenic workload, or an inconsistent professional presence. What I have is a diversified income stream. Oooh, pretty words, lauding my own hoppity personality which has driven me to work at several different things at the same time. This both satisfies me personally and professionally and means that if one project fails or lays low for a minute, my income stream keeps flowing. This is something that happened quite by accident, but it works for me, and most importantly, it insulates me from disaster if one of my clients or employers chooses to go another way. So think about it: not inconsistent, not unfocused, diversified. It's all about the spin.

And for the record, and those of you who may be wondering I: do behind-the-scenes work for Matador, write for a few websites, edit scholarly writings, do some photography, translate from Spanish to English, teach English at a University, make an eensy bit of ad revenue on the blog, teach private English classes, and do interview prep. It's like a big over-crib mobile, which sways in the breeze. All the pieces are always present, but they bob up and down and minimize and maximize their importance throughout the seasons. And that is a freelancer's dream.


Pepe - said...

Diversity is a great thing, as you mention, for both the income stand point and the "keep me interested" stand point.

Where do you find your Spanish to English translating opportunities?

Eileen said...

ah yes, the whole keep me interested point. Very important. Though there are so many readers out there, the truth is, I write what I breathe and live, and readers stick around if they like, and not if they don't.

As for opptys for xlation, I've translated for individuals, production companies, airlines, universities, documentarians etc. You just have to get out there and spread the word, I guess. It's a real "if you talk about it, they will come." The best paid and best organized jobs are (in my opinion) usually handed to you by a gatekeeper who bids on jobs. My gatekeeper treats me very well, and I don't feel inspired to bid on jobs myself, so it works out very well. If I were more motivated to make translation a full-time position, I would do things differently, but I really don't have the time or interest to do it full-time, so for now I do it on a more case-by-case scenario.

If anyone else who reads does translations and wants to point pepe in the right direction, feel more than free, but I'm guessing this is a competitive area!

FWIW, I get approached much more to translate from English to Spanish than vice versa, and this I pretty much categorically do not do. Small exceptions for "I want to write my long lost cousin who only speaks Ladino (judeo-spanish) and Arabic, can you translate a letter to Spanish" notwithstanding.

Pepe - said...

I guess my comment didn't come across as I thought. When I said "keep me interested" I was referring to you the person that wears all these different hats. I personally have various money making ventures that all tap different personal interests. It definitely keeps things interesting for me and I'm not always stuck in a rut. Your variety of jobs not only diversifies your income streams but gives you the classic "variety is the spice of life" to keep you happy.

Thanks for confirming the volume of English to Spanish vs. vice versa. It seems I was personally always hit up for English to Spanish translations from Chileans. Nonbusiness wise they frequently wanted me to translate that favorite song playing on the radio. Trust me, it sounds better when you don't know what they are singing.

Eileen said...

whoops, you're right, I did misunderstand you. Yes, it certainly keeps things interesting on my end, and since I long ago identified my biggest opponent in this life as boredom, that suits me just fine.

also, laughing about the "trust me, it sounds better if you don't know what they're saying." Plus Latin music tends to tell a story, and alot of music in English is kind of pained ramblings. Or is that just me?

julie said...

Exactly. :) Except I liked how you said it better.

Sharon said...

How do you handle the stress?
I just started working this year and my diverse gigs ended up taking my entire life.

Pam said...

Balls out. There, I'll say it.

But hey, the truth is, I'm not prepared to go there when it comes to travel writing. As the breadwinner at my house, there's no way I'd keep, uh, winning enough bread doing travel writing only to make ONE mortgage payment.

I'm not lamenting my choices, but sometimes, on crabbier days, I wonder if the balls out choice is okay for either the young and/or those with some kind of safety net when it comes to choosing travel writing.

I'm pretty content that I can say I make my living writing. I'd like to do more of it in travel, but hey, I'm okay with wearing a technical writer's hat too. Plus, I can afford that hat.