It started with a persistent thought, a tiny ember of an idea, really. An ember so fragile that the softest breeze would be more than enough to snuff out its light. A desire so improbable that to say it aloud in anything more than a whisper would be laughable.
One year ago, I moved to Vietnam with no real plan. A completed stint in Bangkok would allow me to not have to work for about a year, provided I was frugal with my pennies.
A year off seems like a long time, an unimaginable lifetime, to someone used to working the 9-to-5. A year off without a career plan seems like a scary void for someone used to a steady paycheck. “And in this economy?” I kept getting asked.
When friends questioned me about my “plan”, I inevitably mumbled something about exploring the country of my birth. What was left unsaid was that I wanted to be a travel writer. I mean, who sets out to earn a living by writing about travel? Other than Paul Theroux, I didn’t know of any. Certainly none within my immediate sphere.
I just knew that since taking a family trip to Mexico when I was 13, I’ve been hooked on travel – reading it, writing it, doing it. In the days before Al Gore invented the Internet, I’d arrange my trip photos into a collage, take them to get color photocopied and send them off to family and friends along with a travel story or two. My mom’s friends would coo, “Isn’t that nice? Little Jimmy wants to be a travel writer!” In fact, the last time I was home, my mom, as moms do, still had a tattered photocopied page of photos from a trip to Barbados I took more than 15 years ago.
Slowly, though, the wheels were set in motion. After settling down in Saigon, I worked with a friend to design Fly, Icarus, Fly which went live in April 2012. After 10 years of keeping a passworded blog for family and friends only, I was ready for my very own small place in the big, scary blogosphere.
Then, a couple of weeks later, completely out of the blue, I got an email to say that one of my photos had made the Top 25 in Conde Nast’s Dream Trip Travel Photography contest. I screamed. I hyperventilated. Then I coerced everyone I knew to vote for me.
In true blogger fashion, my entry garnered 158 comments (by comparison, the next most commented photo got 28 comments) and more than 2,000 votes despite going up against photos like these.
In the end, while I didn’t win the $25,000 dream trip, I did win something equally valuable.
Belief that maybe I could make this travel writing and photography thing work.
I started sending clumsy story pitches to anyone that would listen (or at least had an email address), without prejudice. Huffington Post got the same pitch as now defunct monthly magazines in the wilds of Canada. Some took the time to send form rejection letters. Most simply never replied. By the end of May, though, Vietnam Pathfinder accepted my story about getting my Vietnamese driver’s license. Then in June, Bootsnall published a story about pho. WordHCMC also printed an article I wrote about the songbird culture in Vietnam. For the first time, I was working with professional photographers to illustrate my very own story ideas.
I also enrolled in a godsend of a blogging course. With so much to navigate in the blogging world, from making your blog stand out to taking great photos to whether to advertise or do guest posts, I felt I needed to shorten the learning curve. And having a place where it’s totally normal to ask questions about SEO, critique other people’s work and learn from other creatives is a tonic.
Now that my one year is up, I can scarcely believe that I’m earning a living through my writing. Not necessarily a very good living, mind you, but it pays all my expenses. Print media gives me access to people and events that travel blogging alone might not afford me. Blogging gives me the freedom to tell my personal stories. I love both worlds I inhabit.
Now that Fly, Icarus, Fly is one year old, it’s only appropriate that I again thank all the people who’ve come along with me on this journey. This week, the site got a complete redesign thanks to web developers extraordinaire Regis Terreaux and Carson Sharein. The beautiful watercolor illustrations you see throughout the site are courtesy of the talented Bridget March (stay tuned for more on Bridget’s work!). And the handwriting font was a gift from the amazing graphic designer Jeroen ‘JOEBOB’ van der Ham. And to all others who’ve contributed your advice, know-how, encouragement and stories, I thank you.
I can now echo the words of author Deborah Smith, “Wish it, believe it, and it will be so”.
Photo credit: Old man with bird cage (right) via Quinn Ryan Mattingly