1. Finding My 'Voice'
For several years after I quit my 9am-5pm job and became an independent writer I was a lousy blogger. It was around 2010 when I first launched a web page. I wrote out a few articles, posted some photos and then promptly forgot all about it. Every three months, I’d sheepishly write out a check for $80 to cover the blog’s web-hosting fee, and then curse myself later for wasting the money after I’d looked at my bank statement.
I’m not sure what was holding me back at the time. I didn’t particularly like the design of the page (thankfully I can’t find a screen shot to post here) and I didn’t feel inspired by it. The main problem, I think, was that I couldn’t find a voice. I didn’t know what I wanted to say.
That changed in the summer of 2017 when I received a Facebook message from a friend of a friend in Romania, Ioana Pelehatăi. She introduced herself as an editor at the online magazine, “Scena9.” Ioana knew that I was a guidebook author and had written about Romania, and she was writing to ask if I had some funny or interesting stories from the road that I’d be willing to share for their readers. I could write the stories in English and they would translate them into Romanian.
Maybe it was the simple fact of having a fixed assignment, a structure, but from the moment I sat down to write my first story for them -- “Unde Este Autogara?” -- the words began to flow from my brain. That day, I stumbled on a writing formula that I realized could help me launch a new blog -- a formula I would end up going back to time and time again.
Looking back, I see now my earlier attempts at blogging had been blocked by the pressure of having to write creatively about places from a strictly neutral perspective. I was essentially trying to duplicate my day job as a travel writer (it’s a mistake many bloggers make). But in writing out that first story for Scena9, I realized my new blog wasn’t going to be about places (at least not directly); it was going to be about me.
I don’t mean this in an egotistical sense. A blog strictly about me wouldn’t be interesting to anyone (maybe my mother). What I mean is that I would position myself as the main character in my stories to serve as a kind of foil for, or agent of, the reader. I’d stumble my way through destinations like a modern-day Good Soldier Švejk and do my best to write up the absurdities (and maybe insights) as they happen.
It was a simple literary device, but it unfroze me. I ended up writing four or five stories for Ioana, though in the end they only published one (maybe I hadn’t quite honed my style yet). It didn’t matter. I was off to the races and had a decent base of stories with which to re-launch my blog.
2. Freedom To Write What I Want
That was a long-winded windup to try to answer that elusive “What’s the end game?” question. Right from the first story, though, the blog was already giving me something. In this case, a new way of framing my writing that suddenly made it fun again.
In “Unde Este Autogara?” -- “Where is the Bus Station?” -- I tell a very insubstantial story of a time some years ago that I was stuck in a Romanian mountain village and forced to try out my rudimentary Romanian-language skills on a hard-of-hearing old man. I figured Romanian audiences would appreciate the tale because everyone, it seems, has a variation of a story where they’re trapped in the middle of nowhere with no way out.
Working out the structure for that story opened my eyes to the literary possibilities arising from the nearly endless series of seemingly insignificant interactions one has on the road as a travel writer. There’s a constant clash of cultures, languages and expectations that often result in mixed signals, crossed wires and usually lots of laughs. It’s baked into the cake.
And if I could write about an obscure village in northwestern Romania, what’s to stop me from writing about any other destination if I feel like it?
Travel-writing traditionally follows the well-worn path in that one article about, say, Vienna typically begets another and another and another. A quick glance at the most popular travel magazines and websites reveals an overabundance of coverage on the very same places (and very same topics). Travel bloggers often fall into this trap too.
I’m not blaming the magazines or their editors (or my fellow bloggers). Places are popular for a reason, and everyone wants to publish stories that people actually click on and read. But there’s something to be said, too, for trying to free yourself from those constraints -- even if only between paying gigs.
A few years ago, I sent a pitch for a story to a well-known U.S. travel publication that I’d written for several times in the past. In the pitch I proposed a trip to Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, a tiny wedge of territory that I envision as being somewhere east of Slovakia, south of Poland, and west of Ukraine (though today it’s technically part of Ukraine). Between the two world wars, it was appended to Czechoslovakia and to this day retains a kind of mythic appeal to Czechs. I’d never been there before and thought the story might be of interest to the magazine’s more-adventurous readers.
The editor was kind, but clear, in her rejection. It went something like this: “Sounds great, Mark, but why should our readers want to go there now? What would be our hook?” I tried, but in the end I couldn’t find a truly compelling reason to go just now.
And in a way, that’s the beauty of blogs. They’re not necessarily tied to the demands of the market and there doesn’t always have to be a hook.
3. Building Communities & Finding Friends
The first thing they hammer home on the job at a newspaper or magazine (or in journalism school) is always to write with your reader in mind. Writing is a conversation across space and time, and if no one is listening, well, there’s no point in writing.
A story may not need a hook, but it does need a reader.
When I first launched my blog 18 months ago that was my biggest fear and still nags at me now. Whom am I writing for and what am I trying to tell that person?
The art of finding readers, even for established publications, is a little like using a divining rod to find water (though the abundance of data these days has made the process easier and more accurate). Magazines and editors still act on the basis of pretty broad assumptions about who their ideal reader is.
Glossy travel mags seem to shoot for relatively affluent and well-educated readers who have the curiosity and means to travel to the exotic lands pictured on the cover -- and possibly also to less-well-off readers, who might only aspire to go. Guidebooks go for pretty much the same demographic (but perhaps more for adventurous rather than affluent readers). An interesting aside: I learned at a writers’ workshop a few years ago that a surprisingly high percentage of people who buy guidebooks don't have any intention of actually travelling to the country, but only want to read about what the experience would be like. Judging by titles to places like Mongolia and Greenland on my own bookshelf, I probably fall into that category as well.
When I was working for Bloomberg News in New York, our target reader was pretty clear: market-movers and bond traders, and then possibly influential company execs or politicians. The idea was to give readers exactly what they needed to make money (or avoid losing it). It’s rare, though, when the target can be honed that precisely.
When I first started my blog, I went through the same exercise of making assumptions and narrowing down potential reader segments. Those choices would help me to refine my selection of subjects to write about and at what level of detail.
In the end, I settled on the obvious for a blog that promises “travel and adventure in Central Europe:” people with a strong interest in the region, Prague residents and expats, and any other potential readers who might share one or more of my side interests in topics like literature, architecture, modern history and life under communism. I was hoping to find a universe of armchair historians, frustrated academics, book-toting backpackers and cranky expats, but I didn’t know if they were out there.
Bear with me a moment. All of this is getting me closer to resolving that “What’s the end game?” conundrum. The short answer is that "yes, they were out there," and that's made all the difference.
It’s true my blog hasn’t brought in much cash (okay, let’s be clear, no cash), but that was never the goal. What’s been more valuable (and something I didn't foresee when I started down this path) are all the amazing people and communities that the blog has brought me into contact with. While the overall readership numbers remain relatively modest, the trend is on the upswing. The most gratifying aspect, though, is that each new post flushes out of the woodwork new readers (and new friends) with shared passions and interests.
It’s especially fun to see when a post unexpectedly strikes a nerve, such as the story on my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, or on the old Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse. Both stories resonated with communities I didn’t know existed and filled my Facebook page with reams of reminiscences. The three-part series I wrote about my former Czech translator, Arnold, when I was working as a journalist in the 1980s, is something I’m particularly proud of and would never have written without this blog. The same goes for The Case of the Missing Roommate, that story of my first botched weekend in Prague long before I ever thought I’d live here.
4. The End Game
Readers who have braved this post -- without any photos, no less! -- looking for a definitive answer to the question I posed in the title might be a little disappointed. I’m a long way from ending this blog thing, and it's still too soon to talk about end games.
Over the past year and a half, my blog has brought new friendships, reignited old friendships, led to some unexpected speaking engagements, podcasts and radio appearances, and established a platform -- or at least the illusion of one -- for me to talk about things that I find interesting or important (or simply amusing, like a non-existent Romanian bus stop from a long-ago memory).
Certainly, there are many ways to improve, but if I’d had the cheek to set some big goals at the outset, I think I’d be pretty happy with the progress so far.
(Readers, I'm about to embark on a long research assignment in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in the United States. I'll try to update the blog regularly, but there may be some gaps in the weekly publishing cycle. MB)