Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Contest Worth Entering

Part three of my rambling series about figuring out what I want to do with my life is coming soon, but I'm interrupting it to let you know that Epiphanie, the creator of some very cool camera bags, is sponsoring a rather awesome contest. The winner gets to choose between a Canon 5D and a $2,500 Southwest gift card. Think of all the places you could go or photos you could take. Insane!

And though I usually refuse to enter all the contests that require you to do one million and one social networking tasks (argh!), this one was too good to pass up. Plus to get one entry (which is all it takes to win!) you just have to comment on their blog, which isn't so difficult. And I decided that it was such an awesome giveaway that it was worth blogging about too (in the hopes that if you win, you'll come visit me with your Southwest gift cards...they fly to RDU!...or pay for me to come visit you.) Anyhow, the deadline is tomorrow, Wednesday, March 31, so leave a comment on their blog and hope that you (or I) get lucky.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Finding Focus

(Continued. Read Part 1 Here.)

Officially, I am now a writer. That's what I tell people I do when they ask, though a note of hesitancy always slips into my voice. What really qualifies someone to claim to be a writer? Do you have to have a certain number of things published? A business card? A website? Or do you just have to churn out word after word after word with the hopes that some day someone will read it? Writer is what my taxes will say for 2010. It is my only (sometimes) paying job. From the outside it looks like I'm finally doing exactly what I set out to do back when I was young enough to believe that you really can be anything and everything you want to be. But from the inside, things are still confused.

You see, writer, though containing only six letters, is a big word. It has so many meanings. There are newspaper writers and television writers. They are speechwriters, screenwriters, press release writers. There are bloggers and website writers. There are travel writers. There are essayists. There are poets. There are playwrights. There are biographers. There are novelists. Behind every single thing we read--from bestsellers to the back of the cereal box--there are writers.

So trying to sort out just what kind of writer I am, just what kind of writer I want to be, has been difficult. Because as I said before, I'm a rational person, and I can't ever escape the thought that what I do has to make money (and in the here and now, not the somewhere down the road). No matter how many times Jeff tells me that we're fine without a reliable paycheck from me, no matter how many times I smile and nod, I can't let the thought go. And so when I sit down to write, I usually don't find myself lost in a story, but instead find myself pondering what kind of writing I can do to make a buck. I peruse websites that aggregate freelance writing jobs. I consider churning out how-to articles for Demand Studios. I delve into the idea of monetizing my blog. But always, I reject idea after idea. Because when I really take the time to find my voice amidst all the noise, I realize that none of those jobs embody the type of writer I want to be, that if those are my options for writing, I'd honestly rather just take a desk job. Writing what someone else wants me to write has as little appeal to me as entering data all day ... and at least data entry pays better.

And then there's travel writing. The road most of you probably think I want to go down. The road I myself thought I might want to go down. I've had a bit of luck getting some articles published in magazines and newspapers. I'm at work on my second guidebook. I lovingly keep up a blog dedicated solely to travel. But as I said to Jeff while we sat in a plaza in Cartagena and had a drink, "I don't think I want to be a travel writer." You see, I could care less about top hotels, best restaurants, the 10 most romantic spots in the world, or the most fashionable carry-on bags. I don't like interviewing people. I hate querying, following up, and waiting for responses that rarely come. I'm going to cancel my subscription to Budget Travel if I see Italy on the cover one more time. Writing service pieces (where to go, what to eat, where to stay) interests me once in a blue moon. I don't like working (or feeling like I should) while I'm on vacation. I hate social media (the bloodline of writing these days it seems). I prefer paper to online. And I can probably count on one hand, in this world of shortened attention spans and rapidly dying print media, the number of publications I'd actually like to work for.

On the surface travel writing seems like the perfect fit. I love to travel, and I love to write. But it's not. When I travel--as I see new things and meet local people and come to understand once foreign cultures and histories--I take tons of notes. I file away images, both in my mind and on SD card. But when it comes time to sort through them all, what I find myself creating is not articles but stories. I don't want to tell you the facts; I want to tell you the bigger truth. I am not a journalist. I am a storyteller. Fiction is what I love.

(To Be Continued...)

Thursday, March 25, 2010


You know how some kids just know what they want to be when they grow up? They determine at age five they're going to be a doctor and twenty years later are graduating medical school. Or they spend their childhood mimicking the news anchor and then land a broadcasting job after college (after interning in the field all four years). Or they run for class president in second grade and end up a career politician. Well, that wasn't me. Not exactly at least.

There was one thing I've always wanted to be--a writer--but I haven't always been true to that tract.

Through grade school, I remained primarily dedicated to my goal. I excitedly scribbled a Young Authors story and proudly accepted a medal for my writing nearly every year. I worked on the student newspaper. In my eighth grade autobiography, I wrote that I intended to study writing and become a novelist.

But in high school, I lost focus. Though I'd never considered a career in science up to that point, in fact hadn't cared for the subject one bit, I was suddenly finding myself being encouraged to pursue that field. Apparently, I was good at it. The knowledge came easily to me, and my teachers were eager to discuss the possibilities. They didn't mean any harm. They didn't know that I really wanted to be a writer. They were just showing me all the doors that were open to me, doors that led to good jobs with good pay. Come the summer after my junior year, I was studying astronomy at Governor's Scholars rather than creative writing at the Governor's School for the Arts. At senior day for the soccer team, it was announced that I wanted to pursue a degree in engineering. My world had flip-flopped, but that just seemed a part of growing up. Most of us, after all, don't grow up to be the firefighters or astronauts or baseball players we imagine we'll be when we're children.

In college, the conflict came to the fore. As I trudged through biology, chemistry, math, and physics classes, I looked forward only to the lone English or German class on my schedule. Late at night from the floor of my dorm room closet, I'd call home crying about how much I hated physics. When I officially submitted my declaration of major form, changing from bioengineering to English and German, it felt like a failure, but I also felt free.

In the end, owning a piece of paper that declared me to be the holder of degrees in English and German didn't make it any easier to be a writer, or to even dedicate myself to that path. You see, I am a rational person, and being a writer did not seem like a responsible decision. Writing is a path fraught by uncertainty. It is a career that does not come with a guaranteed paycheck. It is a lifestyle marked by failure more than success. And so I meandered. I hemmed and hawed. I tried teaching. I tried research. I tried non-profit work. I tried editing. And while some of those jobs were more palatable than others, it was often again like college. While I made my way through the day, I dreamed about the creative writing class I was taking that evening or worked on the story I planned to present to my writing group. I entered a contest here or there. I won prizes for a few essays and a short story. But writing remained always on the sideline.

Until this year. When faced with a new city and no job, I decided to jump into the cold, murky waters, bottom depth unknown, of writing. Yet still, a few months into this new career, I still don't think I'm where I want to be, doing what I want to do. I still feel like I'm treading water, pondering the descent to where it is I want to be, sticking my mask into the water to see the amazing life that's right there waiting below the surface for me, but holding on to just the slightest little bit of air in my BCD. But you know, I think I'm ready. It's time to orient myself, do one last final check, signal that I'm A-okay, and plunge in.

(To Be Continued...)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finding My Voice Amidst All This Noise

Sometimes I wish I could move somewhere where being connected required real effort on my part, where I had to make a conscientious decision to check in and see what's going on in the world. I'm not sure such a place exists, however. I've heard cell phones ring on a spit of land in the middle of the Okavango Delta and in the depths of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I've been approached by beggars sending texts. We're nothing if not connected.

There's a lot of noise out there. And at the risk of sounding old, I'm going to say that it's too much and it's too loud. There's Facebook. And there's Twitter. And there's some new Google Friend program-a-ma-bobby. There's blogs of friends and blogs of family and blogs of people I have never and will never meet. There are iPhones and iPads and iDon'tKnowWhatElses. There's CNN.com and WashingtonPost.com and NewsNoOneCaresAbout.com. And of course there's Wikipedia with its bottomless pit of information.

Without putting any active thought into it, with only the twitch of a muscle, I can find out that a girl I probably never even said one word to in high school is going to have sushi for dinner tonight. I can browse the vacation photos of someone I last saw at my eighth grade graduation. I can learn that Reese Witherspoon is now dating someone new, that Heidi Montag (who the hell is she?) has reached the limit for breast implants, and that some jackass Congressman from Texas yelled "It's a baby killer" not just "baby killer" during the health care reform vote.

Whew. What a lot of useless information. The age of information has made us repositories for junk, turned us into junkies for crap. And I'm (finally) saying enough.

Upon turning 29 nearly two weeks ago, I decided to make this a year of taking stock, of cleaning house, of finding focus. I'm cutting out on the things I don't care about, cutting back on things that suck up my time. I want to spend my time tending a vegetable garden, riding my bike, reading good books, making ice cream. I want to live my own life, not be a voyeur in someone else's.

And so today I'm clearing my cache, cleaning out my bookmarks, letting go of bad Internet habits. You'll still find me on Facebook (but only once or twice a day, not every time my cursor is in the address bar). I'll still be keeping up my blogs and checking in on others (though I'm whittling my visits down to the blogs of friends and families and a very few select others). And I'm sure that every once in a while I'll click on a stupid CNN.com article. But overall I'm breaking the bond. The Internet and I have been spending way too much time together recently, and I really don't like where the relationship is going. I just have too many things I want to do here in the real world.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Six Things I Like About Durham

Because I love a good challenge, I'm taking on Lisa's assignment from the comments to my post on Six Things I Miss About D.C. So without further ado, my list of Six Things I Like About Durham.

1. Our House
Though it still needs a few pieces of furniture, though we still haven't emptied all the boxes, though some of the walls still beg for decor, I like our house. It's cozy and comfortable. It's got great architecture. It has a nice backyard. It has room for guests. It feels like home.

2. The Durham Literacy Center
In searching for a way to meet people and get involved, I found the Durham Literacy Center, and recently I've started volunteering there as an ESOL teacher. I love it. The center is really well run, with a training program that empowers volunteers to really be effective. The students are amazing--smart, funny, enthusiastic, and hardworking. They work hard all day, yet manage to be eager students in the evening. A combination of refugees from countries such as Iraq and Burma and immigrants from Latin America and Africa, these people came to America for a better life and are working hard to make that happen for themselves. And the other people who volunteer at the center are like-minded individuals who I enjoy working with. I really look forward to the nights I get to teach at the DLC.

3. How Friendly People Are
In D.C., not talking was the norm. It was a rare occasion when you talked to the person sitting next to you, legs practically touching, on the Metro. Passing on the sidewalk was not cause for hello. Heck, half the time you could get on the elevator at work and your co-workers wouldn't even bother with small talk. Here, everyone says hello. Everyone asks how you are. Everyone talks to each other. Sometimes, after all those years in D.C., it's a bit unnerving. I want to swivel my head around to see if there's someone else behind me they're talking to. And sometimes when I really just want to grab a gallon of milk and go, the chatty cashier having long conversations with everyone in front of me makes me impatient. But overall it's nice. Not to mention that we have great neighbors. In D.C., we never knew our neighbors (even though we literally shared a wall). Here, despite the crappy winter that's kept everyone inside, we've already met four sets of neighborhoods, and they all seem great. (Not to mention that the woman across the street is also from Louisville. Small world.)

4. All the Stuff within Walking/Biking Distance
Since we don't have good public transportation here, and since driving involves taking your life into your hands, it's particularly awesome that we live within walking or biking distance of many things. The library, the farmer's market, the Durham Bulls stadium, Duke University (Jeff's work), and a slew of restaurants and shops are all within easy walking and biking distance of our house. Once the weather warms up a bit, we're going to be able to leave the cars in the driveway the majority of the time and explore by foot and bike.

5. Being Able to Grill
In D.C., local ordinance prohibited grilling within 100 feet or something like that of a building, and our condo rules prohibited grilling period. It sucked. No chargrilled burgers. No steaks. No beer can chicken. Our poor grill had to be put in storage. But not anymore. Now it's out on the porch, ready for backyard barbecues and heavy summer use. In fact, last night we grilled up a pair of steaks, and oh my were they good.

6. ......
I'll have to get back to you on number six. I'm at a loss. I'm hopeful that once summer rolls around I'll have many more to add to the list. I really should be prohibited from moving to a new city in winter, because I hate winter, and I find it very, very hard to find good things about a place in the winter. But in summer everything is so much better. And also, I heard that the beach is less than three hours away. If true (and if the beach is good), then my glasses might turn out to be rose-colored after all.