Writing Life

Coming to Terms With Changing Locations: When Travel Leads You Home

Two months ago, I moved to another city. And I still haven’t gotten over it.

This isn’t a tale of culture shock, though my old city and my new one are quite different. Nor is this a tale of hardship. My life is comfortable — more comfortable than most — and I didn’t have to flee war or famine to get to where I am now. My move was a professional and familial obligation, the kind of thing required by foreign service life.

Still I feel a void. I am caught up in a purgatory of unfinished business from my last city and the feeling of Torschlusspanik, the German word for the panic you feel when a gate is closing, the feeling that time is running out. There’s a gate (Tor) in front of and behind me and both of them are inching shut.

The Perils of Networking When Everyone Is Your Friend

NYC Pigeon

I know a lot of fascinating people.

I know writers and editors, chefs and restaurateurs, celebrity personal assistants and a few well-connected people in the television industry, pilots and programmers, museum curators and fashion designers. Many of the fascinating people I know I knew Before Social Media (BSM)*, while many others I “know” I have met thanks to sites like Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, etc.

I know as many details – if not more – about some of my online “friends” as I do about the ones I knew BSM. This is not necessarily because I’ve been stalking people’s profiles or Googling them. I have learned about them through reading their writing, corresponding with them, asking them about their lives. My online friends are the pen pals this introvert always wish she had: people with intriguing occupations and riveting travel stories available for a conversation within seconds of my bidding.

It doesn’t matter how I know people; the dynamics of acquaintance are so fluid these days. What has me concerned is that the more people that I meet, the more I feel like I am reducing my chances at achieving some professional goals. The more that I network, the less inclined I feel to use that network to land a job or ask for favors.

Yes, I’m going about this all wrong. But let me explain.

I adore meeting new people. While I’ve never considered myself much of a networker in the “real world,” socializing online feels very natural to me. For better or for worse, my head is filled with the minutiae of others’ interests: that guy works on death penalty issues, so let me send him this link; she is an eco-conscious mommy blogger, so she may be interested in this article on a new medical study; he likes planes; she’s traveling in Australia; etc.

I’m not sure how I keep up with it all, but it gives me great pleasure to connect the dots and share information with those I know will appreciate it. What’s more, having had this online interaction makes it easier for me to engage these friends should I meet them offline at a conference or happy hour. Being able to begin a “real life” conversation with a frame of reference, possibly even months or years in the making, puts me at ease. No doubt, I have acquired many real friends thanks to initial online contact.

So, what are the perils of this type of networking?

Over the years, as I have met fascinating people, I have corralled them into a virtual “friend zone” whose borders I am reluctant to cross. Once I know the name of a fascinating friend’s baby or allow a fascinating friend to enter my Facebook world of family photos, it becomes harder for me to ask them for professional advice lest they feel that I was using them all along. For example, once I am friends with an editor of a publication for which I want to write, asking her about the latest staff job posting or how to query her publication seems like a breach of trust on my part.

I know that job opportunities come along more often than not because of who you know not what you know. But how does a job seeker break out of the “friend zone” and feel comfortable asking for help or advice or a reference?

Social media has given all of us unprecedented access to people we never would have met BSM. This access has also helped to break down communication barriers, bringing our would-be idols down to earth and, sometimes, turning fascinating people into true friends. I am grateful for my ever-growing list of contacts. They are friends who perform all manner of jobs, live all over the globe, and inspire me to do more and reach higher. But I am also curious how I can use my network to my advantage without upsetting the friendship cart.

I have been looking for a professional “home” for years. And while I am content to freelance, I know that there are some awesome projects, part-time jobs, and full-time assignments for which I am remarkably qualified. Further, I have on more than one occasion linked an online friend to a job opportunity, a press trip, or a book-writing contract. What can I do to make others think of me when a job opportunity using my skill set comes across their desk? I know that I can not be passive in this pursuit, but taking an active stance does not feel natural when relationship dynamics are at stake.

Have you faced this problem? Now that you are connected to someone in an enviable position, do you feel reluctant to ask them how they got to where they are and how you can get there, too? Surely, I’m not the only one experiencing this networking conundrum.

*I use BSM (Before Social Media) for brevity. Please don’t think I’m trying to coin an annoying new anagram here!

Photo: ZeroOne

Of Freelance Writers and Junkets

There was a debate about travel writing ethics today on Twitter (#twethics), which started with a story on Gawker called “New York Times Travel Writer Broke These Travel Writer Rules With Junket.” Gawker ran the above photo of Mike Albo, said travel writer, who was accused of engaging in a “swag orgy” because he accepted (from JetBlue) a paid trip to Jamaica. First of all, I don’t know about you, but that guy doesn’t look like he has been privy to any kind of orgy. This guy doesn’t even have time to shave, much less be involved in an orgy, swag or otherwise!

Anyhow, Gawker and numerous people on Twitter were appalled that a travel writer – for the New York Times, no less! – would go on a junket. Also known as a press trip or a “fam” (short for familiarization trip), a junket enables a writer to get third-party funding for a trip to where the news is occurring. The New York Times writer guidelines and the guidelines of many other fine newspapers and magazines forbid freelance writers from taking paid trips. I am quite familiar with the NYT guidelines, as I’ve sent in numerous – rejected – queries on which I had to state at the top of the page the date when the trip was taken. I suppose there’s some fact-checker in-house who looks to see if any trips coincide with any known press trips.

I certainly understand why the “no free travel” guidelines are in place. But, as one Twitter user chimed in “no press trips means #travelwriters have to pay to go to work.” (@tjohansmeyer).

I have been travel writing for more than 10 years. I have taken some press trips – most of them early on in my career – and I have written about travel while paying my way and/or living “on location.” I think there are advantages to both.

Press trips, which are usually sponsored by tourism and visitors boards, hotels, or tour companies (or a combination of those), can be very helpful to a writer. They help us get in, get what we need to know, and get out. Indeed, the trips can be a whirlwind, with CVBs whisking you around to only the places they want you to see. But travel writers have hearts, minds, stomachs, eyes, and curiosities that enable them to see past the fluff and swag.

As far as getting in and getting out, that’s important. While on a press trip, most travel writers are thinking of how they can sell this particular experience 2, 4, or 10 times using different angles and pitching to different markets. So, while we may have an assignment to write for “X” magazine, we also want to try to spin the story to write for A, B, and C magazines, too. So, could it be possible that Mike Albo was on a junket in Jamaica for an assignment for, say, High Times Magazine, but found something that would have been of interest to the New York Times while he was there? I think that a majority of travel writers spend more time writing (and querying and marketing) than they do actually traveling. And that’s because it is so expensive. Subsidization is often the only way for it to make any sense.

You can also have a bit of a Catch-22 when it comes to press trips and assignments. Many publications won’t allow you to accept free travel. But then, many press trip providers won’t invite you on a trip unless you have an assignment.

On the other side of the coin is writing while you’re already living in the location. “Go where the locals go!” is what many travel publications beckon us to do. But maybe the locals don’t know as much as we think they do. For example, I lived in Mumbai for two years. Someone recently posed me a question of a good, mid-priced hotel in that city and I drew a blank. I knew the Taj and the Oberoi, but what did I know about the other hotels? I had no reason to spend a night in one of the rooms. Had I been asked to research the hotels, I would not have paid to stay the night to figure out the quirks of each hotel room. And, yes, it takes staying in a place overnight to figure out if the bed is lumpy or whether room service is any good. Locals may also not be as attuned to the tourist sites, either. For example, my husband, who grew up in New York the son of immigrants, has never been to the Statue of Liberty. Some local knowledge, huh?

Publications like NYT do not approve of press trips, nor do they pay for writers’ expenses so that they can travel. But, could you imagine if David Pogue, the Times’ chief tech writer, had to pay – out of his own pocket – all of the gadgets that he reviews? Perhaps travel just isn’t important enough to merit its own budget?

At any rate, I’m going to keep TRYING to write about travel because I like exploring and telling people about new places. Luckily, I can use my many web outlets to do just that. Because it’s not only readers that are leaving newspapers and magazines to die at the hands of blogs; writers are conducting their own boycott, too.

By the way, if you want to pay my way to travel, the Miss Adventures writer guidelines say it’s okay!