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Writers’ karma

A couple months ago, I started working on a series of articles for Matador about how to travel for free as a ____. The blank was to be filled in with any series of jobs: chef, writer, yoga teacher, musician, actor. The list really could go on and on.

Except it didn’t.

When I started reaching out to people I knew who were traveling for free (or almost for free) and invited them to share their knowledge, experiences, and tips, they expressed initial enthusiasm, followed by an almost-immediate squirreliness.

A couple flat out told me they didn’t want to share “their” secrets because they didn’t want anyone else to get in on the game. Here’s what one of them wrote:

I’m definitely interested, as long as we don’t give away ALL the secrets! After all, … we’d hate to have everyone doing it and taking away all our cool travel opportunities!


The attitude made me feel yucky and cranky, so I tabled the idea of the series and started thinking a lot more about the notions of generosity, karma, competition, and perceived entitlement among travel writers and professionals. The idea that any single person or small handful of people is somehow entitled to hoard “all our cool travel opportunities” strikes me as both selfish and sad, first, because there’s not really a shortage of cool travel opportunities, and second, because I really don’t believe (I truly, truly don’t) that more people entering a field makes things tough for those of us already in it.^ If anything, I believe that more people in the game makes us sharper, less lazy, and (should we choose to be) more collegial.


A couple Thursdays ago, I blocked out an hour in my schedule to talk shop with a writer and editor who has decades of experience in the industry. I dislike talking on the phone and even considered canceling, but I’m glad I didn’t– we spent our time sharing ideas and discussing projects of mutual interest we could collaborate on, both now and in the future. When our conversation concluded, I was on a high for several days afterward. This was someone who could have made herself inaccessible; instead, she was generous in sharing her ideas and experience with me. I was profoundly grateful for her support and her willingness to not be squirrely, and I’m looking forward to what comes of our conversation.


I can count on seven fingers (really… I just did it) the number of fellow travel writers who I consider to be genuinely, actively embracing a “Yes, let’s share” karmic approach to their profession. I think it’s worth noting that they’re all full-time writers who live (and, in most cases, feed families) off their writing and so they, more than other writers, potentially stand to “lose” more by “giving away” opportunities to other writers.

Turn that over in your mind when you get a minute, because there’s a lesson there.

And then decide: Do you really want to be a squirrel?

^I do want to point out, though, that I don’t really think anyone should enter a field–or appeal to anyone else’s generosity or bulging Rolodex until they’ve put in their paces and are really prepared professionally to be in the game.


17 responses »

  1. Julie, this reminds me of an anecdote from college that’s somewhat embarrassing to write about. I was still thinking at that point that I’d go directly into a PhD program in History after graduation (Ha, how South America changed all that!) and I was whining to my boyfriend at the time about how there would be so many smart people applying. And he said, “Don’t you WANT there to be more smart people in the world? Especially since you’re so depressed about the state of the country?” Duh. But it didn’t occur to me at the time; I was too worried about my own chances. It’s similar with writing and travel – wouldn’t we want more people with talent, more people exposed to different kinds of opportunities, as opposed to more of the mundane content-filling mediocrity that takes up so much of the media?

    I think there’s a vein of travel that’s really selfish – it’s the same vein that says, “oh, go there before it’s spoiled by the tourists” or “too bad these people have microwaves now.” There’s some real, self-serving ego going on. I know it’s way more complicated than that, but sometimes I’m amazed by how travel is about parceling out your little piece of wonderfulness and hoping no one else (especially not the local people) also gets to get up and go.

    • Thanks for sharing that anecdote, Sarah. It’s definitely relevant. This is why I don’t get all worked up about the supposed democratization facilitated by the Internet and blogs. The more good writing that’s out there, the better. The more intellectuals, the better!

  2. Woah. Totally intrigued by this post. First felt slightly depressed by state of things, too. Just today, I was considering e-mailing a fellow writer to ask about her experience submitting to X site because I have a great idea for them. Then I had this thought to myself – “Wait, why would she share with ME? I’m her competition.” And I didn’t e-mail her. Now I’m feeling like maybe I should have a little faith in this writer/the entire community after reading your great experience!

    And on Sarah’s note, just wow. I am totally baffled by this same push and pull between keeping places to ourselves and sharing them. Actually just commented about that on recent Matador piece. You should both consider checking out Sherry Simpson’s The Accidental Explorer. She’s got a great piece in there about a beautiful spot in Alaska–she never mentions the name because it would “ruin” it. But she struggles with this decision. Just like writing, there’s an inherent selfishness and selflessness to travel, writing, life, I guess.

    Anyway, I’m rambling, mostly because I’m just generally jazzed up that someone(s)–now I know at least 7 :)–in this community of writers is aware of and kind enough to share ideas, help, advice, experiences. Thanks.

    • Alyssa-

      I think you should totally email your fellow writer and ask for the contact if you feel that you’re ready to submit to that site. Not that this is a tit for tat kind of dynamic, but you know, well… it kind of is.

      And continually look for ways that you can support other writers, too. But you already do that, so yay, you’re not a squirrel!

  3. Ahhh, people are SO selfish–I don’t understand it AT ALL. Isn’t that what travel writing is all about? Inspiring people to see the world and letting them know every possible way they can do it???

  4. Lovely post! This sort of thing seems to happen in all facets. My theory is that we are so conditioned to compete for survival that we often can’t see the big picture anymore so that it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the self.

    When I see selfishness amongst teachers I really don’t understand where people are coming from. Am I teaching so that I can become a famous teacher? Hmm, I might enjoy some recognition now and again, but the truth is that I got into education in order to help people learn. If the goal is helping people learn, then why wouldn’t I share my resources, for example, with other teachers. In sharing alone there is a forgotten joy. But we all forget (myself included) from time to time. We forget to step back and remember our real goals, the big-picture goals. For teaching and writing it is the same to me, to pass on to others the information I hold of value.

    At this point I am receiving much more than I am able to give on the writing front, but just you wait, it’s coming!

    • Marie-

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I love the phrase “In sharing alone there is a forgotten joy.” I hadn’t thought of that precisely when I was writing this, but I love to support writers and colleagues as much as possible and I truly enjoy seeing them succeed in terms of being published. I also really enjoy seeing colleagues having fun trying out places I’ve recommended or connecting with people I’ve put them in touch with.

      And you allude to something else important. There’s a phase in every career where we need to be in receiving mode. But that’s important– that’s the student mode and it’s our task, during that time, to absorb as much knowledge and information and resources as we can!

  5. Thanks so much for writing this post Julie!

    Besides it being extremely relevant to surviving in the writing industry, it also talks to our innate feelings of self worth. Really.

    If someone is pretty good, talented,… sooner or later, people will naturally realize that, regardless of existing competition.

    I remember an editor friend of mine raving about a press trip to Croatia she once took. She even promised to share the PR contact with me. When the time came around, it became an issue of “you need to give me something first before I share their contact info…”


    Of a PR agency I could have easily found myself had I known their name?!

    Besides the initial bad taste it left, I quickly brushed that incident aside.

    Sharing is a lot more spiritual rewarding and I’ll have it no other way.

    My mantra remains -> Everyone’s life path is different. Stick to your own path. Try not to compare one’s self to others. It will never move you forward.

    Yes, easier said than done, but really, the only competition a person should truly have is the internal struggle to be better. To compete against and challenge themselves. Not others.

    • Lola-

      Thanks so much for introducing the idea of the sense of self-worth being integral to this conversation; it is. We only ever feel threatened, I think, because we’re afraid that we won’t measure up. Rather than invest the energy in thinking that, we should invest our energy in growing and maturing.

      And thanks, by the way, for being one of the seven. 😉

  6. This post is so you, Julie, and I feel so lucky to have someone who is willing to share and help others grow in my writing circle 🙂

  7. Pingback: Raw Food Photography and Last Minute Assignments « Geotraveler’s Niche

  8. Great post – I totally agree with you. I’m with you that the more people that know the “secrets” the more likely it is that opportunities will increase.

    Perhaps it’s believing in karma, but there’s a logic to it for me too. That the more people are talking about unique travel opportunities the more they might be created – because they’d be getting talked about and more businesses and travelers could replicate the same idea. If something’s successful, why not do it more. I just see it increasing cool opportunities.

    P.S. I came across your blog via the registration list TBEX10 – hope we can cross paths there!

    • Bessie-

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting- you’re absolutely right. Sharing is just logical! Thanks for letting me know how you found Cuaderno Inedito. I look forward to meeting you at TBEX– I’ll be speaking on the panel about travel writing and ethics, so please find me and say hi! Where will you be visiting from? (I live in the city, so if you need any recommendations, don’t hesitate to ask!). Adding your blog to my reader now….

  9. Thanks so much for this post!

    I agree completely with you: the more travelers, travel writers, intellectuals, people passionate about their lives out there the better. Sharing ideas steps up everyone’s game, opens doors for one another, and makes life and work better when there’s a level of sharing and community involved.

    Competitiveness and stinginess are driven by fear, as though by pushing someone else down or refusing to share will makes one better, bigger, more successful.

    Those people may get results in the short-term (maybe even long-term), but in the end, they’re playing small. It takes courage to be positive and of service, not hiding behind ego, competitiveness, or whininess.

    One of my mantras is ‘you’re either of service or you’re a servant.’

    I’d rather be of service to others than a servant to my fear. And that, in my opinion, is ‘playing big’. 🙂

    Thanks again for this post!


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