The Thing With Travelling Writers Writing Something Other Than Travel Writing
I have always wanted to be a writer. But what kind of a writer? That was always the main question.
At University I studied creative writing and specialised in subjects like poetry, novel writing and writing for children; the things that I had always assumed I would like to end up doing. I took a module on professional writing purely for the travel writing part, without really knowing much about the genre at all. I liked travelling (though I hadn't done very much of it) and thought that maybe this line of writing would be easier to get into, easier to make a living off, at least easier than it would be to write a really cracking piece of chic lit or knock out a bestselling children's book.
Finishing University, I knew that the idea of writing alone wasn't going to pay the bills, so I got myself qualified as a TEFL teacher and took a job teaching English in China. Having always liked working with children, I thought this was a fairly natural transition as it would keep me busy with something I liked doing and also give me the opportunity to see new things and be inspired. Arriving, I still had my latest novel very much on the brain and tried to keep up with writing it as much as possible.
But it was impossible. After all, I was in China.
Just a bit of background: I come from an island called Guernsey which is 9 miles long by 3 miles wide. That's tiny. I moved to 'the mainland' (aka Britain) to study in Bath and the after that, straight on to the other side of the world. As you can imagine, trying to keep my head focussed on the workaday novel I'd been writing since before I left England was no easy business. How on earth was I going to keep in character as YA-novel-writer-extrodinaire while starting out my existence in a brand new country that just so happened to be mesmerizing, bonkers, weird and wonderful? Short answer – I didn't. After just a few weeks abroad, I found that I could no longer write that novel at all.
What I could write was travel writing.
Given where I'd ended up, everyone from back home thought I was nuts. I mean, China? I didn't know anyone who had ever actually been to China. After finishing my studies, all I knew was that I wanted to get out of the UK, see the world and write. I took the first decent job I was offered and ended up at a language school in Hangzhou (a pretty little city – 'little' by Chinese standards – which equates to a population of 9 million.) What a world to suddenly find yourself in! A world where a walk through the local street food market yields a dinner of scorpions, spiders and soft-shelled crabs speared and roasted on sticks. A world where strangers walk up to you in the street and touch your hair, and tell you that you are a beautiful white doll. A world where a plate of fried rice costs less than a quid and you can afford to take day trips to nearby villages almost every weekend. I was blown away.
Family and friends wanted to know all about my mad adventure, and I wanted to write – having stopped work on my novel, I would have written anything rather than nothing at all. So I started a blog. Nothing groundbreaking, just an online diary with amusing stories and anecdotes from my bizarre life in the Orient. It turned out to be surprisingly popular. One day a stranger approached me on the street and asked “Are you Celia Jenkins? I read your blog.” A journalist friend saw my blog and commissioned me to write a travel piece for his magazine, but other than that, it didn't really go anywhere. I just pootled along, updating my blog once or twice a week, hoping that one day I would get back into writing fiction.
Flash forward two-and-a-half years and I still wasn't writing very much of anything. I blog here and there, read ferociously and think about that time in the future when, surely, I'd get back into writing. Sometimes I mulled over my lack of writing success, got quite miserable, and ultimately told myself there wasn't much I could do about it in my current situation. So after a considerable stint in China, I was in need of a change of scenery and a new adventure to stoke my creativity. I moved to Japan, opting to work only four days a week to give myself more time for writing, and write I did.
I started a novel; an idea that I've been carrying around with me for years and years. This novel, I knew, would be the novel. The novel that changed everything, got the ball rolling and set me off down the yellow brick road towards my dream career.
It went terribly. Perhaps the problem was that I loved the storyline far too much, knew the characters far too well and, ultimately, was so besotted with my own half-formed idea that I didn't see how awful it was. I wrote religiously, but having not written fiction seriously for a long time, it became evident quite quickly that the story wasn't going anywhere. The realisation that my work was rubbish hit me hard and I completely gave up on it. Getting back into writing hadn't exactly gone as I'd planned. I needed a miracle.
Not long after that, something rather extraordinary happened. A miracle, some might say. An ad popped up on my Facebook page – a new website, looking for travel writers. For once the cosmic algorithm had worked in my favour and rather than an advert for green tea flavoured chocolate bars or how to prevent male pattern baldness, the ether had thrown up something I was actually interested in.
The website from the advert had launched only months before and was looking for writers to pen articles about Japan – travel, cuisine, culture, working life... anything at all. Within weeks I was writing focussed articles on a variety of topics, and getting paid for it. Not a professional wage, but certainly better than a lot of those contracts you see where rip-off merchants are trying to get desperate writers to work at $3 per 1,000 words or something equally pitiful. I was making money, doing what I loved, with complete creative control over what I wrote. It's true that travel writing hadn't been my original idea when my childhood self dreamed of becoming an author, but it was a start, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
Over the next year or so I wrote over 150 articles for that website. Some of my articles were rather popular, and I was awarded a 'Writer of the Month' bonus several times. Wanting to branch out, I joined Upwork – a freelancing platform where clients can connect with freelancers on all sorts of projects. Through that platform I completed one-off writing contracts as well as forming long term working relationships with clients who I now write for regularly, and who pay me a professional rate. When people ask me these days what I do, I don't tell them I'm an English teacher who would love to be a writer one day. I am a writer, plain and simple. It's what I love and what I think about more than anything else. Sure, I do other things to pay the bills, but writing is where my soul is.
So now that I'm working professionally as an actual, real-life travel writer, what about the other genres of writing that I'm so passionate about? What about my cracking piece of chic lit or my bestselling children's book? It's one of those big struggles. I often feel so desperate to write fiction but, frankly, there just aren't enough hours in the day. I work really hard – there isn't a day of the week when I'm not writing. I've almost entirely given up learning languages and other hobbies to make space for my number one priority, and still I just can't find the time for other major projects alongside all my travel writing commitments.
When I get stuck thinking about how depressing this all is, what I tell myself if this:
You write where you are.
And I'm not even really talking about a geographical location – I'm talking about where your heart is. I'm talking about where you are in your life and what is going on in the here and now. Yeah, I do a huge amount of travel writing about Japan because, right now, I live in Japan. But I won't live here forever, and when I leave, I daresay I'll still continue writing about Japan for as long as this experience is written on my heart. But perhaps, one day that will peter out and make space for something new.
I try to branch out wherever I can. When the mood strikes me to note down a couple of haiku or scribble a quick short story, I do it straight away – if I don't grab the moment then it gets washed away in a sea of everything else that's going on. I have certain times of the day that I have put aside for reading (and writing) certain genres to make it more of a routine, to gift myself that time that is set aside for nothing else. It's all very well saying that you don't have enough time, but if something is important enough, you make the time. But all in all, I've surrendered to the basic idea that all I can do is throw myself into what I'm doing at this moment.
Where I am in my life right now, travel writing is a lot of fun and it comes naturally, so I'll keep at it, with a little space occupied at the back of my mind with all the things I'll get to write in the future. I'm looking forward to the day when I think up a cracking idea for a novel, a real corker, an idea so captivating that all I can do is write that one thing and forget about everything else. Writing something other than travel writing is the goal that's always on my horizon, but until then, the truth of the matter is that I am a travel writer. If the shoe fits...
Celia Jenkins is a professional writer, TEFL teacher and part-time knitting enthusiast. She is currently working on an e-book of sushi related knitting patterns, a series of bilingual picture books, lots of travel writing and other exciting projects. You can find out more on her website www.celiajenkins.com