Writers take up the pen for a variety of reasons — the primary one being, for most, because we like to write. Secondly, we do it to earn income, though frankly there must be a hundred easier ways to make a living. With a few exceptions, writing is not a quick trip to wealth.
Of course there are a multitude of other reasons to write. A good friend of mine published a paperback which ultimately sold 150,000 copies. I think his main motivation was to prove to a multitude of gloom-mongering friends and relatives that he could in fact write a successful novel. He subsequently ran off with an attractive girl half his age to live in Spain, proving that being a successful author can have certain other intangible fringe benefits.
Writers do have the unique advantage that their job travels with them wherever they go. In this day of laptop computers and e-mail you can dwell virtually anywhere and fire off material and photos electronically without even having to set foot in the country where your publisher resides.
Personally, I’ve discovered yet another fringe benefit of writing. I get paid to do the things I want to do. About 15 years ago I started penning a few travel articles for The Medical Post, a national newspaper for physicians in Canada. As a practicing physician, I found my colleagues were interested in reading about my globe-trotting, some so they could try out the same adventures but many to simply enjoy my experiences vicariously.
Not only did I discover that I loved to write, but I found I had a passion, and a knack for photography. I also broadened my writing repertoire to include medical-historical topics I discovered while traveling, eventually leading to co-authoring my first book, Amazing Medical Stories.
I broadened my range of subjects and also began selling articles to a various other publications including our regional newspaper, The Chronicle-Herald and to Reader’s Digest (Canada). Eventually I had published enough travel pieces to earn membership in the Travel Media Association of Canada, whose industry members have provided me with more potential material than I can ever hope to use.
Recently I received my first travel writing award, presented by Choice Hotels for the best Canadian destination piece written in 2004. In addition to a handsome plaque, I was presented with a check for $1000 and a voucher for a weekend at any Choice Hotel. More importantly my credibility as a travel writer was enhanced, making future assignments even easier to obtain (this applies in any field of writing so keep entering those contests.)
While previously I would take what assignments I could find, I now began designing my pieces around the things I wanted to do. A few years ago I approached a brand new cruise operator who was initiating in a small icebreaker. I spoke with the owner and was able to get several different assignments that featured his operation. It was a trip I’d only previously dreamed of, but I got the cruise and the cruise operator got a lot of valuable publicity.
I spun off several additional articles about my great-uncle who supplied and set up many of the British bases around the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1940s. Imagine my surprise when I discovered at the remote base of Port Lockroy that the British Antarctic Territories had issued a 3 pence commemorative stamp featuring my Uncle Eugene’s vessel, the Trepassey.
To date I’ve written my way to a private audience with the king of the Ashanti, cruised the Nile, attended the Imperial Ball at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, hiked the Grand Canyon and celebrated the advent of the Year of the Rooster in Hong Kong. In total I’ve visited six continents with plans to see the last on my list, Australia, in the near future.
My writing shifted gears yet again at the instigation of my oldest friend, Joe Frey, who has written for Time Magazine, The National Post, The Globe and Mail and is a contributing editor for Outpost Magazine. Joe, a Captain in the Canadian Armed Forces, also holds chair of the Canadian chapter of the Manhattan based Explorers Club. Founded by early American polar explorers, the club boasts a membership which reads like the Who’s Who of the exploration world.
Joe frequently covers topics related to the Canadian and American armed forces and has traveled to Cyprus, Somalia, and Kosovo when people were still shooting at each other on a regular basis. He encouraged me to do some articles profiling extreme medicine in such venues as deep sea submersible, F-18 fighters and military submarines.
I never dreamed I could do this type of article, but found that since most military forces are short of medical personnel, the Public Affairs Officers (the force’s version of PR reps) were quite open to getting coverage in medical magazines and newspapers. I soon found myself in the deep sea submersible that discovered the wreck of HMCS Clayaquot four hundred feet down off Sambro, Nova Scotia. A subsequent aviation medicine piece put me at the controls of a vintage T-33 fighter plane, and later in the back seat of an F-18 during a “Top Gun” style aerial combat exercise. Later I had an opportunity to dive in one of the Canadian navy’s new Victoria Class submarines.
In addition to doing articles for popular magazines and newspapers, I used my experiences to publish a few articles in more serious publications including professional journals and the American historical/numismatic publication, The Celator.
My writing qualified me for membership in the Explorers Club in time to be eligible for their one hundredth anniversary dinner at the Waldorf in New York. How many other people get to sample delicacies such as honey glazed tarantula, fried scorpion and cricket sushi while wearing a tux at one of New York’s best hotels? You might have caught the CNN footage of me munching tarantula that evening (if not see the clip here).
After dinner, which featured thick steaks and New Zealand wines (the road kill buffet was just an appetizer) we heard Edmund Hillary, Buzz Aldrin and several other luminaries tell us of their experiences. Bertrand Piccard, one of the two men who recently circled the world nonstop in a balloon, even confirmed a long held suspicion of mine. The character Jean-Luc Picard, the Enterprise’s captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was actually based on Bertrand’s uncle, Jean-Felix Piccard. Both Gene Roddenberry and Jean-Felix were Explorers Club members.
Subsequently I became Regional Director of the Explorers Club’s Quebec and Atlantic Canada chapter. When I look back I see it was my love of writing that allowed me to do so many fascinating and exciting things. By building on a foundation of published work, themed along topics which interest me, I was able to experience things of which most others only dream.
Maybe my idea of fun and yours are quite different, but it doesn’t really matter what you enjoy. Whether you are a Teddy Bear fanatic, an art buff, or enjoy the company of celebrities, you can tailor your writing to allow you to do and see the things you want. As a writer, you have an excuse to ask to go just about anywhere and do anything. Don’t just write down your dreams. Make them come true!
All photos @ George Burden
“In the rigging: climbing the rigging of a barquentine off the coast of Newfoundland”
“Mayan riviera: rappelling into a 30 metre deep “cenote” (sink hole) in the Yucatan”
“Giza: riding a camel on the Giza plateau in Egypt”
“SDL: in front of the deep sea submersible in which we’d later discover a torpedoed WW II war ship”
First published in The Writer.