For International Women’s Day: On being a female travel blogger
For International Women’s Day on March 8, which is also my birthday, I have decided to publish a very long post about how it has taken my entire life, an enormous amount of work and all of my savings (and then some) to find my voice and become a writer. And how this journey has been the most important of my life. And why travel blogging has played such a crucial role.
It is a woman’s voice, sire, which dares to utter what many yearn for in silence. – Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Everyone writes and blogs for different reasons, and they each have different goals. I have always felt a little out of the general stream of travel bloggers, whose concerns seem important and valid, but often secondary to me. For me, travelling in India the first time, for six months back in 2005/6, was about recovering from grief and depression, and trying to restart my life.
It was on that trip that I started travel blogging. Travel blogging for me is about helping me achieve my most ardent, most pressing dream: to become the writer I have wanted to be since childhood. And to do it in spite of a lack of confidence and support.
So please read on, when you have the time. It’s only one woman’s story, one woman’s voice. I do not mean to write for all women, or to make a political statement. I am not identifying as a “victim” — I think I’m very lucky to have been born in Canada, and I realize that every human on earth has struggles, a journey of life lessons, each unique. Joseph Campbell said, and I agree, “the privilege of a lifetime is being you.”
But if you relate to my journey, and learn something from my story, then it is worth sharing. Women are still struggling, all over the globe, to attain education, equal rights, freedom from abuse. But some of us luckier ones, born in Canada, have still had to struggle to find the confidence to speak up and be heard.
Becoming a professional
I am reading a lot of blogs these days on what it takes to be a professional travel blogger. And it’s great that we, as a group, are at that stage in our evolution when professionalism is such an overarching concern. The Professional Travel Bloggers Association was just launched, and I became a member; and I am an active member of Travel Blog Success, an organization dedicated to helping travel bloggers improve their craft (click on ad in sidebar more for more information). I am also the co-founder of Toronto Travel Massive and Delhi Travel Massive; and more recently, the #WeGoSolo movement to support and encourage female solo travellers. So I’ve definitely thrown myself into this world, and hope I’ve contributed in a positive way.
But that’s not what this blog post is about. This blog post is about why I became a travel blogger in the first place. When I look at blogs and bloggers I admire, and read thoughtful expositions on blogging, I don’t fully relate. Yes, I would like to be a better blogger, make more money, become more professional. But all of that is very, very secondary to my original goal and the guiding force behind my motivation: to find my voice.
Younger women may not be able to relate to my struggle; but then again, they might. Though I don’t like revealing my age because I think people tend to judge you, and that we live in an ageist culture, the truth is that I was conceived in the 1950s, and born in early 1960. In fact, I was born on March 8, which is now known as International Women’s Day. But I was born in the pre-women’s liberation era. My family expected my sister and I to clean up after dinner and “get your brother a glass of milk.” My dad taught my brother to skate, play hockey, drive the boat, and all the while neglected me, simply based on my gender. In fact, I developed earlier than my brother and was more capable, willing and interested than him in many of these activities (which may have been why he was more often a tormenter than friend). Of the cousins, I was the youngest: but I was still the one who stood up on water skis first.
Unfortunately, I suffered abuse in the family too, an abuse that took my voice away — because the elder, male relative made it clear that I was not to tell. And when I was a teenager, my father left our family and my mother, for another woman, and I felt deeply abandoned. And not once, but twice: after my dad’s relationship with the dreaded Dorothy failed, we moved in together. But then he left me again, this time for the woman who was to become his second wife — and this time I virtually had no where to live. I camped in my Mom’s basement — she had moved into a much smaller house with my younger siblings — and then quit school and moved downtown where I got a job as a waitress.
The Cinderella complex
I think it has taken my whole life to attempt to recover from these early disappointments, and especially the feeling of having the rug pulled out from underneath. One minute I lived with my family in a big house; and then in seemingly the next moment, I had no where to live. I was a very bright student, I skipped grades 4 and 8, stayed home almost as often as I attended school, and still managed to get some of the highest grades each year. I also was an avid and precocious reader — I was reading through the Charles Dickens oeuvre when I was about 10 or 12 — and showed an early talent for story telling and writing. I dreamed of attending university and studying the romantic poets, and Shakespeare, and comparative religion and mythology. I was always fascinated with the “mysterious east,” and drawn to eastern spirituality and mysticism, and loved reading the Tales of the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
But in the face of having to survive, and not having any family support, I had to abandon these dreams. I became a waitress at The Peter Pan restaurant on Queen St. W. in Toronto, along with my best friend Pam, and fell in with musicians, party animals and punk rockers. A few years later Pam died by hanging herself with a red scarf from a pipe in the ceiling of her shared basement apartment. Without Pam, the “party life” was over for me. My boyfriend at the time agreed to help pay for me to go back to school for journalism, a compromise field of study that would at least give me writing skills and make me employable. I had no passion for journalism; I enrolled because it seemed practical.
And then I started working. My first job was as an editorial assistant at a leading Canadian fashion magazine where my pride was insulted and my confidence shaken by having to pick up the editor’s dry cleaning and prescriptions. From there I went into public relations, where I made a lot more money and was frankly treated with more respect.
During the next 10-15 years, I worked at good jobs, mostly, but jobs I didn’t care very much about. And I started in therapy to treat chronic anxiety and recurring bouts of depression. Therapy uncovered a deep well of rage and insecurity stemming from my childhood and teenage years; and it also helped me to heal.
But then, in my late 30s, I was hit by a series of losses that left me in the deepest depression of my life. In a few short years: my mother died suddenly and my sister and I found her body (she had died in the night of heart failure); I had a bike accident and broke my elbow; my fiance left me, with an expensive wedding dress hanging in the closet; my dad died of cancer; and my sister married and moved out of town. I lost all of the main supports in my life, and found it very hard going.
To get out of the chronic depression, I threw myself into yoga and became a certified yoga teacher. While in yoga teacher training, I suddenly felt compelled to go to India. And this is where the next chapter of my life started.
The journey begins with a single step
Losing both my parents was a wake-up call. I was living alone, with my cat, in a tiny attic apartment and working as a freelance writer and editor in the financial field. My dreams and hopes were deeply buried. But the effort to get out of the grief depression, and the realization that life was ticking by — I was now in my mid-40s — lit a fire under me.
I deliberately started digging up and manifesting my dreams. Dream #1: Become a yoga teacher. Dream #2: Travel in India. Dream #3: FINALLY become a writer. A real writer, not a copywriter. A writer who tries to express what she observes, what she feels, what lies buried in her heart and what is most important to her; a writer who cares passionately about story, and trying to evoke a sense of place and capture a feeling of wonder. (Like Dervla Murphy and Sylvia Fraser, whose birthday is also March 8.) To do the kind of writing I admired, and always wanted to emulate, but never had the time, the support or the confidence to pursue.
All those many years I had writer’s block, I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Plus, I lacked skills and confidence. However, I gained skills from years of copywriting, and I gained confidence from the positive feedback I received about my writing on my first India travel blog, which was on Travelblog.org. My subject matter I found in India.
I finally found the combination I needed to unlock my life-long creative block: travelling in India and blogging. I truly fell in love with India, and India became my muse — the colour and chaos, the challenges of travel, the beauty of the architecture and the people, the heart-breaking scenes of poverty and of course the intense attraction I felt towards Indian spirituality, especially yoga. All of it inspired me, all of it was grist for the mill. And blogging gave me a platform, a means to write unimpeded, to try out ideas, to hone my skills. I didn’t have to rely on getting assignments from over-worked editors offering lower and lower fees, and tougher and tougher contracts.
I did pursue getting assignments for a few years, and was published in a number of leading magazines, newspapers and online travel sites. But over time, I found sending query letters to editors who never responded, coupled with the low pay rates and terrible contracts, demoralizing. I can’t bear to write a query letter now.
But the blogging kept me hooked because when I want to publish something, I write it, format it, add some visuals and hit the PUBLISH button.
There’s a concept in therapy called “unfinished business.” If you don’t attend to it, unfinished business may create problems for you. At best, you may always find satisfaction elusive; at worst, you could suffer more serious consequences such as anxiety and depression; or physical problems, like the degenerative disc disease I have in my neck, the 5th Chakra, which is the Chakra of self-expression.
For me, finding my voice and becoming an accomplished writer was a huge piece of unfinished business. I had wanted to be a writer since childhood: I remember my mom saying, “I can see your name on a book jacket, just Mariellen, one word!” I had to do it, no matter what. Had to try. It felt like my life depended on it; that without overcoming the inner challenges, especially the challenge to find my confidence, my life would not be worth living. And when I discovered my love and talent for writing about India, it felt like dharma — like a sacred duty, what I was put here to do.
So I pursued it, with all my heart and everything I’ve got — to the point where I was so far out of my comfort zone I felt dizzy. And very vulnerable. I dedicated everything I had to this pursuit, all of my time and energy over the last few years, all of my money and resources. It took a huge amount of PUSH to get my creative juices flowing; it took everything I’ve got.
Then, suddenly, when I was in India in December 2012, I reached the end of the road. I went as far as I could on my own steam, and I felt largely satisfied. I suddenly knew I was not living a sustainable life, and I had to come home and face the many things I have been avoiding (such as an unstable financial situation and some unresolved grief) since dedicating myself to this somewhat quixotic mission.
Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. – Mahatma Gandhi
My new challenge is to find a way to put a more solid foundation under me, though I haven’t felt like I’ve had a solid foundation since about the age of 15. I can try and build on what I have, a reasonably successful blog and a social media following — in fact, I have plans to remake my blog and create a travel & tour business. Or I can start new, with (I hope) a well-paying job as a copywriter, web editor or social media manager. Or perhaps another opportunity that I currently don’t foresee.
Keeping the dream alive
Do I regret running after a dream without proper funding or support; do I regret the enormous amount of my life force energy I have put into becoming a writer? Not a bit. But if I hadn’t done it, my regrets would be bitter indeed. I would always wonder, “What if ….”
I just wish I didn’t need to work so hard to release my voice in the first place. I wish I’d had the support I needed. And I wish the same for all girls.
So, on International Women’s Day 2013, my wish and hope for the girls and women of this earth is to speak up and be heard, to make yourself heard. Though you contribute just one small voice, every voice is important.
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