Writing for your worth

It takes me a good, hearty exhale to start writing a post like this. I have been thinking about it all day. Ruminating on it over morning emails. Having conversations about it in my head during an afternoon walk. Discussing it with my best friend over text.

In my life, I really have had no choice but to write. Writing is what I have done from the time I can remember. Everyone told me I was a writer. Everyone. And I love writing. It comes to me as naturally as water comes from a spring. I just do it. I once heard Neko Case talk about singing and songwriting as though she felt possessed by some outside force; that music just comes out of her like a firehose. Less violently, this is writing for me.

Choosing to turn a creative art into a career lodged into the capitalist system is, quite frankly, as dumb as fuck. Those who have gone the route of finance, accounting or sales at least have some distance between their emotional lives and their livelihoods.

And writers, perhaps more than any other professional creatives, have to bend their art to the will of those who pay. While musicians may have to conform to a label’s ideals, it’s usually only one label at a time. Artists may sometimes think about which gallery their work is marketable to, but the work is still being bought and sold on its artistic merit alone.

But writers? Writers have to change their voice, style and topic to every different outlet that we write for. Dozens and dozens of different publications, editors, voices, advertising needs, audiences and guidelines. A dizzying array of expectations for word art.

The trajectory that most non-writers think that a writing career goes on is authoring books. Being successful as a book author is tough to do. Even the most successful authors out there generally have to have other sources of income. Probably every author you’ve ever read and loved is also a university lecturer or corporate communicator or spouse to the rich. You would probably be scandalised at what they got paid for their last book, even if it sold gangbusters. So most working writers are not book authors, at least not solely.

Most successful writers work freelance, and we take all sorts of jobs ranging from investigative journalism to travel narrative pieces in daily newspapers to communication, PR and marketing writing that largely happens behind-the-scenes (like newsletters, press releases, website copy and informational material). The written pieces that appear in the news or online with a writer’s byline (that’s your name at the top of the article) are vast and varied. They often do not pay well at all.

To give you an example, the last piece I was commissioned to write was for a major, major, major international news outlet and they offered me $600 for the article. In the world of freelance journalism, this is big money, but you have to keep in mind that I lodged a month’s worth of work into doing interviews, research and writing the piece. I submitted it to deadline in May; it still hasn’t been published and I still haven’t been paid. For other pieces I’ve written in the past year, the pay has ranged from £100-200 per article. It’s no life!

I sat down to write this evening because I was most recently commissioned to write a piece on a topic I’m very passionate about (dark skies) for a prestigious journal associated with a major outdoor sports brand. For me, it was a huge commission. I was thrilled, and to boot, they offered me $2 a word, which is absolutely ridiculous money in a freelance writer’s world.

I submitted a first draft knowing there would likely be a few rounds of back and forth with the editor to hone the piece and make sure that it fit the word count so that it looked pretty on the page of their journal.

Yesterday, I got an email from the editor with revisions, and requesting a second phone call (we already had a 35min call – that’s 35min I could have been writing or working for another client). I’m pretty good at being edited now (we all have a little ego, to be fair), but the suggested revisions were, frankly, heartbreaking. They strayed from the original brief, which was to write about the importance of natural darkness, and instead wanted detailed stories about my personal life. They asked for huge cuts to the length, yet wanted more emotion on display, and emotion I simply do not feel (rage, anger, sorrow). The editor’s exact words were, “I want to see more of your vexed soul.”

To say I found this inappropriate would be an understatement. The ask is impossible – the editor projecting emotions onto the piece that I simply do not feel or experience, and then wanting me to write something about my deeply personal experience. Even worse, the company’s contract takes an exclusive right to all the material in perpetuity. Meaning they keep the copyright. So, if I write about my childhood or a particular experience, the brand has exclusive rights to use my story as they wish forever throughout the universe, in an ad or marketing material whenever they want, and I can never use that story again. Wtaf you might say.

I wish this was uncommon, but it’s very common. Every different outlet I write for expects slave labour. You shall not have your own voice, but should be a chameleon that somehow captures the “brand identity” of the publication you’re writing for. Yes, this includes every major news outlet you think you know, love and trust.

The worst part is that, having sat in the corporate editor’s chair myself for many years, I sent many pieces back to writers with this sort of feedback, and hate myself a little bit more each day for it. Gladly, I never told anyone I wanted to see their vexed soul, at least.

In my vexed wanderings today, I made the choice to pull my piece from this publication. I know my worth, and it goes way beyond the ‘great’ money and byline in a well-known publication. One difficult aspect of this is a creeping guilt that I should exploit every opportunity to educate the world about an environmental issue I’m passionate about (light pollution). Sometimes it’s just not worth it, and that’s ok.

Over the past few years, I have done a lot of inner work on boundaries, self-love and reparenting. Nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – is worth stress, insult, time-suckage and grief like this. In the interest of capturing my advice for other writers, or anyone in the commercial creative arts, here are some reminders:

  • Don’t be afraid to pull a piece or walk away from a contract. You don’t need a “good” reason. You just need to feel a bit uneasy about it. Trust your damn self.
  • Some people might see you as difficult, picky, sensitive or even arrogant. People will see what they project. Honour what you feel and what’s right for your work and art.
  • There will always be more work. You can manifest it. I know that sounds woo-woo, but I had my best-ever financial year as a freelancer in 2020, after losing literally ALL of my work in March 2020. I sat down and said, ok universe, send me work cause I got NOTHING. Then I made a margarita. Work came in spades. I don’t have days off right now.
  • Know your worth. You write your unique experience. Your voice is valuable because it is yours. Conformity to a publication’s standards is necessary to a certain extent, and then there is also a point at which you need to say no.
  • Read your contract. Read every commissioning note and contributor agreement in detail. Learn legal jargon that might screw you over: in perpetuity, exclusivity and licensing are important. You could be signing away your rights to use your own childhood stories in a future book or screenplay. Red flag!
  • Never, ever be afraid to walk away from a commission, no matter how big the publication’s name, no matter how much they are offering you. Trust your own feeling about the work first and foremost.
  • Always, always keep a space to write just for you. Whether you share that with the world is your choice. But make sure you have a space (as this blog is for me) that is creative and free, that doesn’t conform to the desires of commissioning editors or commercial schedules or SEO needs or market analysis. Because fuck all that capitalist, patriarchal, slave-labour bullshit.

At the end of the day, write you, for you. Because we are on the verge of the apocalypse everyday now, and we need real people to stand up and speak their own truths. To show beauty in their own unique way. I create for me, for my soul, for my purpose. Not for capitalism or striving or achieving or for meeting the brief of some millionaire’s faceless digital media corporation. Or to sell fancy hiking gear.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

2021 Travel Resolution

I was recently approached by a major travel publisher and asked to write a short contribution to a round-up of authors offering their travel resolutions for 2021. The piece was to be about 150 words and include a photo. I was offered US$40 for this. I wrote the piece, focusing on two places I would love to visit if able, and received feedback that they were changing the direction of the article and now wanted something less destination-specific and more themed, with ‘tips’.

I rewrote the piece from a deeply honest place. It was longer than 150 words (but, really, not that long and do I need to remind anyone that the internet is infinite?). I was asked if I would “make some cuts”. I said no, that this is what I have to say. That’s when they ghosted me. A couple of days ago, I saw by chance that the article had been published without my contribution. Luckily, the commissioning editor of this website was happy to publish a slightly longer piece, so it is below.

It’s time to make change happen and we have to be brave enough to say the scary and honest things first so we can then get about the business of doing them.

Travel Less, Travel Regeneratively

I don’t make resolutions and this year is no exception. I find them to be either empty promises that make you feel good about yourself with no follow through, or just a way to self-flagellate. What can we say about travel in this new decade? 2020 changed the world fundamentally, cracking open our systems of social order, governance and economics. We have to take this, our one chance as humanity, to rethink everything. Mass tourism cannot continue along its previous and destructive course, and so if any resolution is to be made this year, it is to understand how our social order has contributed to a system of travel and travel media that is fundamentally unequal, white, colonial and exploitative. Can travel be a force for good? Absolutely. Is it most of the time? Certainly not.

To move forward from here is for travellers and travel writers like me (read: white, rich European/Americans), to understand our part in the systems of the world that create inequality, climate change and environmental destruction, and critically, to change. This means owning the uncomfortable truth that we must travel less or not at all, and we must travel very, very differently. Some of us, many of us in the industry, probably need to consider career changes (I have), and travel as a whole must be understood as a privilege and not anyone’s right, and one that comes with grave and profound responsibilities to listen, self-reflect, learn, fight for justice and give back.

One pathway to this is the concept of regenerative travel, whereby each trip not only is ‘sustainable’ or carbon-zero, but actively regenerates the environment and communities. But these trips are hard to find – the concept is new and most of the travel industry is focused on economics, money and restoring what was. To travel this way takes real effort. There is no quick list a traveller can tick off to achieve a life of regenerative travel. It means doing the hard work of self-reflection and owning your personal history and part in the systems as they are today, and then making the tough choice to travel a lot less, and when you do, to choose trips and experiences that actively give back in a non-exploitative way. It’s a nigh impossible ask just yet.

An example of this is the Global Himalayan Expedition’s regenerative trips, which are carbon negative by funding and putting travellers to work installing clean, solar electricity in remote communities, while providing multiple opportunities for the traveller to listen and learn from the Indigenous people they meet along the way. Tips? Stop travelling for a period of self-reflection. Listen. Reassess why you want to go somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Is this actively helping the world or just self-indulgent?’. Nine times out of 10, the answer will be a tough pill to swallow, and in those cases consider staying home and getting involved in your local community instead.

Purge

I am the sort of person who doesn’t like anyone to see me not being strong. I was raised by a parent with some deep-seated emotional issues and being strong was a coping mechanism. When I excelled and was capable, I was rewarded with attention, which was the only form of maternal ‘love’ I ever got. Or maybe it’s because of my Leo sun and Cancer moon. Or maybe it’s just a personality quirk (ok I don’t believe in those). Whatever. The end result is that when I am curled up in a ball sobbing, no one ever sees it. Ever.

I’m strong to a fault. I caretake to my own detriment. I people please. I over-give. And because I’m an empath, I’m acutely aware at all times of every single thing that other people are going through and make every effort to accommodate them. Then when it comes my turn to be vulnerable and sad and broken, I don’t even know how.

A few years ago, I crumpled. I crumpled into a dark night of the soul that lasted months and I still haven’t fully healed out of it. I had so many emotional splinters that I’d been ignoring – actually I didn’t even really know I had them – it took emotional purge after purge. I purged until I was in a heap and no more tears would come, and then just dry heaved. One dark January evening, I had purged so much emotion out that I didn’t think I could get through it. I wasn’t suicidal but I just didn’t think I had the strength to exist anymore. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t move. I was just purely exhausted. I grabbed at the last string of something I hadn’t tried yet, and that was meditation. It helped, briefly. I kept going. It helped more.

Slowly, slowly, since that 2018 night, my nervous system has been restored. I cried everyday still for a long time, but a little less each day. Then there were days when I didn’t cry! Miracle. Days turned into a whole week, and then suddenly I found myself meditating more than crying. Meditating, and moving — not self-flagellating exercise, but soothing and gentle movements like walking, quiet yoga postures, stretching — these helped shift my energy.

But when a new trauma strikes, the old trauma responses are ingrained. It’s one thing to feel peaceful and healed when you aren’t actively being triggered, but when a situation comes along that scratches at that old wound, it can feel as if you never healed at all.

Tonight, I was fine, totally fine, until I wasn’t. I am alone. I am lonely. I am sad. These realities make me feel weak and powerless. Are others judging me? I am judging me. Everyone else has someone to drink gin with and watch bad TV with and welcome Tier 4 with and I am a sad sack sitting in my flat. Alone. I know I am strong and capable and beautiful and I know I have to give this love to myself, it comes from no one else. But let me judge myself some more for this, is where my mind goes.

I know these things are Brian – my brain, my ego – telling me lies. But tonight I am struggling to move through it. So first, I will write it and I will publish it and I will splay it around on the internet so that people can judge me or feel smug or pity me or whatever they want to do. At least I am telling the truth.

Then I will feel it all. The sadness. The loneliness. The abandonment from way too many people ignoring me, giving me up, forgetting about me or not even caring about me the way I thought they did. I will love myself through it. She deserves that love, she has that love. I will resist Brian’s cries that I should not write this. Should not publish it. It’s too raw, too honest and too much a chance for everyone to see you at your worst, Megan. Look at you, what a pity, Brian says. People will think you are really fucked up, Brian says.

I will feel it all and let it out, then let it go. I will look at the stars. I will sleep and I will get up tomorrow and try again.

the quiet time

stillness. silence. of a type i’ve never before in my life experienced. yes, there were the the wild places. the far reaches of tajikistan, the gobi desert, white sands, otago. places where i noticed the missing rumble of humanity. but now is different.

i wake and wonder if i’m still dreaming – though my dreams have been restless and cleansing and strange, and this silence is the opposite of that. some mornings i wonder if i’ve possibly passed over. normally on a sunday, planes landing into heathrow airport would be thundering overhead every forty-five seconds, a familiar pendulum reminding that life as we know it, the steady hum of commerce, industry, capitalism, is ticking over. today, it is so quiet and so still, if it weren’t for the sun’s comforting ascent, i might wonder if the planet had stopped spinning altogether.

this morning i hear nothing. an occasional bird’s twittering song, but even the birds seem mystified and have quietened themselves. a report yesterday said that seismologists who, in searching for earthquakes normally measure the persistent vibrations of the ground, found that “seismic noise” has dropped by one third. the turning of tires over asphalt, the roar of airplane engines, the rattle of trains and metros, the clanging of building machinery constructing another skyscraper. all shut down, and it is quiet. the whole planet is, very literally, stiller.

the stillness is hard to get words around. i sense that, if my back garden were a pond, even the vibrations of typing on my laptop might cause ripples in the water. the fact of experiencing this deafening quiet while still somehow surrounded by nearly 9 million people is almost too much for my brain to take in.

later, noise of a more primal sort will patter as my street slowly lifts to life. children shouting in back gardens. a neighbour finally hammering together that bit of fence that blew down last winter. the trill of a fork on a plate as someone lingers over a lunch outside. and sirens, there will be sirens.

i live alone in a small studio attached to my landlord’s 1920s terrace house in southeast london. my flat is a tiny empath’s oasis with its own entrance, and now it is paradise. a place to live out this house arrest in peace, a hard-won serenity i laboured over the past few years and work daily to maintain through regular cleansing rituals, emotional purges, meditation and scent control.

i’ve kept to myself. though the government has said we’re allowed to go out once a day to take exercise, it almost seems counter to the point. the virus has stilled the planet for a reason. it’s brought our economies, our way of life, our busyness, movement and constant on, to a grinding and then very quiet halt. it has asked us a few simple things: stay at home, stop what you are doing, be still.

many jog and work from home and use zoom to attend meetings and pub quizzes and raves. many plan future travel, fill the time making lists of how to fill the time, learn to cook, make sourdough and sew. many drown in netflix, in delivered cocktails, in online exercise classes. a strange shadow of life pre-virus.

it’s not anyone’s fault. we are all products of a system. we have been programmed to be productive from babyhood. told if we are still, we are worthless. taught if we experience the depth and fullness of the human spectrum of emotion, that we are mentally ill. chided that if we feel sadness, grief or anger, that we are depressed or disruptive and should be medicated.

and now, here we are asked to be still. we are asked to go within. we are asked to reconsider our lives as everything we’ve built crumbles. we are shown that things we learned as gospel before we could express ourselves – to be productive is to be a good human, to feed yourself to the system, to spend is happiness, if you feel something deeply move to avoid it – are falsehoods.

the virus orders us all into time out. go and think about what you’ve done. who you are. what you have valued, and what you have believed to be true. your complicit and complacent personal participation in how we got here. and what you truly want for this and all of life that is to come with and after you. go and feel it – all of it, finally.

this is what the virus demands.

 

cat shadow

welcome back

for so long and so many reasons, i have been away from this blog. largely, professional writing can strip your creative juices for producing anything personal. i was sharing all of my best and most interesting anecdotes in paid work, leaving little left for this humble space.

then, apple went and deleted mobileme, and so my beloved former website went down with it, leaving me to completely redesign this space. i decided (rightly) to go with wordpress and transform what was formerly my basic gypsytracks blog into a full fledged portfolio and website. and i love it.

a lot has happened since our move to london last year. i got my UK residency. we’ve been on several international trips. i was invited on a weeklong blog adventure to wales last autumn, and fell completely in love with that country. and, i suppose most importantly, i gave up my freelance life and took a position a few months ago as editor of the rather fantastic travel guide hg2 | a hedonist’s guide to. it was a huge transition but i am really loving it. although unfortunately, between my commute (commute!) and many daily tasks, it leaves little time for personal blogging. i hope to change that.

so, for now, please enjoy the photo of the cat shadow, which i snapped at a cozy little pub in reading several months ago.

cat shadow

the daily shoot

i’ve decided to start doing the daily shoot. this is in an effort to practice my photography with a bit more structure and to learn to use the manual settings on my camera to take pointed pictures that revolve around a theme. the above photo was snapped about half an hour ago out my back window. today’s theme is “blue”. that’s it. just take a photo where most of the shot is encompassed in blue. i do realize that taking pictures of the sky is a bit cliche, but also that one of my recurring motifs seems to be sunflares. and i quite like all the busyness of the power lines and clouds that break the picture up. [tweetmeme]

money or life?

it’s 6:47 pm. i am sitting in havana tapas bar on georges st. eating a spanish omlette and dousing myself with a glass of chilean cabernet, my third this evening. i’ve spent the greater part of the afternoon here, drinking wine and working on writing projects and generally pondering my recent decision to do freelance writing full-time. i am too broke to afford this meal; in fact, the mere buying of this meal may actually mean that i can’t pay my rent on october 16, but i am not unhappy.

my latest forays into finding a “real” job in dublin have been unsuccessful three times over. the lowest point of recent times was actually applying as a checkout girl at Lidl. for those unfamiliar, Lidl is the european grocery equivalent of wal-mart – dirty, crowded and cheap with bad, VERY bad lighting. i actually become ill whenever i go into Lidl (which i do a lot recently to buy the cheap bread and €1 frozen pizzas that i’m currently living off of, spanish omlette aside) from the crowds and “ethnic smells” and general mayhem inside. (i can get away with saying “ethnic smells” because i am a degreed interculturalist now). what’s worse? Lidl hasn’t even called me back. i can’t even get hired for Shit-Checkout-at-Bad-Immigrant-Grocery-Store-Job.

i love freelance writing. if i was really honest with myself, that is what i would want to do full-time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (okay maybe 8 hours a day, 5 days a week).

i do not love being broke. first of all, i am a wine drinker. i need wine to function (that might be a stretch) and my boyfriend is also a wine drinker. a good 13% of our conversations actually revolve around wine, and it’s a good thing he actually has a paying salary because we like to go to wine bars and buy nice bottles of wine. often. being a wine drinker in dublin is not cheap, mind you. ireland is not a wine culture – people here prefer the pints. so, we spend a lot more money on wine than one would in italy or france or napa or even new mexico. but we like our wine.

i am also a traveler. the better part of my writing skill and inspiration come from traveling. being broke does not lend itself to traveling, either. i would kill to be in spain eating an actual spanish omlette right now, rather than the dublin, havana bar version of it (which is actually quite decent), but alas, i am not. at the moment, i could not afford a plane ticket off this rainy island if i wanted to. here again, i am lucky to have a boyfriend with a real salary who will gladly foot the bill to places like brussels, to where we are going in 2 weeks time.

there is also that pesky business of a residence-or-work visa hanging over my head. the other day, i spent nine (count them 9!) hours at the immigration bureau along with loads of africans and indian families with crying babies trying to get my student visa changed into an “i’m a desperate american looking for work” visa. after 9 hours, my number wasn’t even called, so i gave up and went back 2 days later. now i’ve got 6 months until march 19 when i will be unceremoniously kicked to the fuckin’ irish curb, if you get what i’m sayin’.

so, i’m optimistic! these things work out, right? seriously people – if you ever want a reality check and a blow to your dignity (not that you would???), i’ve got one word for ya: emigrate.