Questions I Ask Myself

I haven't written a Weekly Good in awhile. This one is about how the big picture changes when the questions you ask of yourself as a writer change.

  One of the curviest roads in world, from my Morocco journey. Entering the writing life is a lot like driving this road: it can either be scary or thrilling.  

One of the curviest roads in world, from my Morocco journey. Entering the writing life is a lot like driving this road: it can either be scary or thrilling.

Change, lots of it.

Things have been changing very quickly in my life and I'm not really sure where to start. Or if I even should explain anything at all. I've been thinking about questions. Questions I asked myself a year ago and new questions I'm asking myself now.

Twelve months ago, I was so excited to get something published and it was fun to play with where I wanted to publish things or even different genres--fiction one day, a travel story the next day. I wasn't thinking about the big picture. I didn't even know what the big picture was. People told me what they thought it would be for me, but it felt very far away and foreign. Different landscape and language.

Now, I think about the big picture all the time. And I've come to see that the right questions are very important in defining what that picture is and how big it can become.

Back at the start of all of this, when I wrote a plan of what I wanted, I felt somewhat ridiculous, as though I was writing things for someone else's life, not mine. Things that seemed preposterous. All those goals were accompanied by questions, which looking back seem obvious to answer, but at the time, they were new.

Should I publish in that journal?

The difficulty of deciding whether to write for free and when. This was answered very quickly with the piece I published in The Nervous Breakdown, which was fiction and kind of an experiment in breaking out of travel to see if I could do it. It was easy to do and putting it on a site that had good literary connections--despite not paying--was practical and logical.

Is that anthology something I should pursue?

The decisions of looking at the quality of work of others that will accompany my own, and having to determine if that meets the standard of what is expected of me. I was asked to be several anthologies that were not travel anthologies but memoir, and I turned them down, because I felt it was not the direction I wanted to take my work. I think being asked is very nice, but to say no is even nicer, because it is saying yes to yourself and your larger goals.

Is it ok to tell that editor what I think?

Saying what I think and measuring it carefully--talking about controversial ideas and approaches. Having self doubt and wondering if I'm even the person to have that conversation. Realizing that if I'm in the position to think the thoughts and articulate answers, then I am the right person. Albeit, measured.

That advice I asked that person for wasn't very useful. Should I ask them for advice again?

When you are new at something, you look to the established people in whatever genre you are writing for advice. At first, when I started sharing my work, I saw myself in the world of travel blogging. But I quickly realized that was not a good fit for what I do. I went through a lot of advice at that juncture, trying to decide where I fit and some of that advice was very limited. In particular, I realized that I wasn't a travel blogger, I was a literary writer who writes travel things. I had to learn to seek out advice that worked with that. Now I focus on literary writers, adventure/travel writers, and essayists for advice, as well as editors. I don't pay attention to advice outside of those folks, because it doesn't apply and it's focused on things I'm not. Works for others, isn't going to work for me. [Note: travel writer doesn't mean travel blogger. These are two very different approaches to writing about places and peoples, and using travel blogging principles to write literary travel pieces actually hurts the work--and vice versa. These two schools are in same universe, but not on the same planet. This was a steep learning curve for me and is an important daily consideration in how to tell a "travel" story, who my audience is, the longevity factor of a piece.]

Should I bare my soul about that story?

The difficulty of writing memoir and deciding where to share it. Recently I wrote a blog post for a friend, and realized that it would be the last time I would write something so personal that would not end up on my own site or in a book. Even writing it, I was aware I had to set some of the story aside, for later. Personal stories have value, not just personal value, but dollar value. So now I've decided to save them for books and larger narratives.

Is social media helpful?

Obviously, I've decided that it is. It is powerful, if you use it well. People make a lot of mistakes, the main one being they only keep people in their circle who are just like them. That is a tremendous error. It just means the same fifty people are sharing what you write, over and over again. That says nothing about the quality of what you are producing. Get a poet to read a travel story, and then you know you've written well.

Who should I network with?

One thing I learned right away is that some people are important to know, and others are not. Just because other people think someone has influence means very little unless they actually do. And even if they do, that influence might be relatively small--it might be that they are at the top of the heap, but when you look around, that heap is a very small heap. The big picture forced me to have to predict where the influence of others might land and if it that influence was worth maintaining. Oftentimes, it was not. I learned to do my own homework about which editors, publications, and writers to network with. One thing that I came to embrace fully was that I write for the whole world, and I'm interested in connecting more in that world. This means not staying specifically with an American audience, but shifting simultaneously to  Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and India. Of course I am American, and I will always write for American publications and readers, but I still remember the day and Indian editor called me and asked me to write for him. This was the first step to crossing over into an international network.

What is "real" writing? Can writing be bad? Is everyone a writer? What should I write?

I asked myself this a lot the first year. I saw a great deal of writing which was badly written and I felt terrible that I thought it wasn't good. It was hard to think that. I'd always had the idea that anyone could write: what I learned is that yes, anyone can write, but not everyone can write well. Sometimes in certain genres, certain writers are celebrated as being really wonderful and yet they are mediocre, more about marketing themselves than creating quality.  On the other hand, I read many writers who wrote stunning pieces that were simply articles. So I learned that real writing is not about the topic or the style of the writer, it's only about: do they write well or not--and do they write about A, B, C is a new way? Discovering this was a tremendous relief after entering the writing world publically very quickly and realizing I was going to have to write many different kinds of things. Anything one writes can be fabulous, but only if the writer makes it so.

How should I deal with criticism?

I'm actually writing a post on this for next week and I hope you check back for it. But the basics are: the better you get and the more published you are, the more readers you will have. And for every hundred who love you, ten will hate you. And then there is that layer of readers who don't hate you but are bothered by your success and like to send you little notes correcting your grammar, set up almost-hate mail campaigns on social media, and so forth. It's all relatively petty and at the end of the day, you have to ignore such pleas for attention, even if it grates on your nerves. It's not part of the big picture, but how I deal with it is. This has caused me to ask questions: why do people feel insecure? Why do they compare? What is the benefit that they get from such interactions? I realized it's important to understand the why, not just try to ignore it.

I figured out the answers to those questions organically, as the year passed. And now I look at that list of goals I wrote down when I started and am not surprised that I met every single goal. Not because I'm particularly driven, it is just what happened. Maybe too, the big picture wasn't that big a year ago, so the goals were easier.

Instead what excites me is writing out the next set of goals, which surpass anything I have ever thought of. This time I am including things which I could not imagine doing, just for the hell of it, to see if I will really do them. This time I'm forcing myself to move outside of my own expectations and the expectations of others: limitless. Why not?

There are different questions this time around:

What is an explorer?

How do the voices of women fit into the larger literary travel narrative?

How far can I push myself?

How will travel publishing change in the next five years? How is what I'm doing helping that?

What defines adventure?

How can I tell the stories of others differently?

What is my network going to look like? How can I tie this into being a citizen of the world?

How are my concerns about women's rights and the environment going to play into my work?

What books will I write and who should I choose as influencers for those books?

How does physicality play into the narrative of a journey?

How many books do I want to write and what locations will I choose for those settings?

How much memoir will I share within those books?

Which editors do I want to work with and what kinds of conversations and connections do I need to make so that I can collaborate with them? (or) How can I maintain the editor relationships I have now, and how can I take them farther?

Now that I have my agent, what kinds of discussions do I need to have with her? How will she influence my publishing decisions and even my schedule?


Those are my meandering thoughts tonight. I'm on a thrill ride, and it's not going to end anytime soon. Just saying that and acknowledging it makes it easier to ask the hard questions and seek the deep answers. It's interesting to see how the questions I'm asking have gained depth because I have gained confidence. This time around, I am more interested in creating new ways to think, new ways of doing things, breaking the rules and the comfort zone. It's going to be a fantastic year.