Or, What Happened When I Embraced Being a Writer
I’ve been a freelance writer since the turn of the millennium. It’s a strange career, and one that’s found me chased by men with guns through the jungle more than once. Every new experience is fodder for my writing, whether as fiction, research for articles, or grist for my essays.
I began writing at five years old, staying up past bedtime to write stories longhand by flashlight. I read voraciously and wrote about characters who had the same problems and fears as five year old me, a habit that’s stuck with me—updated accordingly—for life.
I understand the world, and my place within it, through stories; we create the world through the stories we tell, and the stories we believe.
My first paid piece was an essay I didn’t expect would go anywhere beyond friends and family. As a freshman in college, at a school surrounded by forests and fields, I decided to teach myself how to hunt. There was a dearth of mentors around my freshman dormitory, so I read what I could on the internet and mucked about teaching myself from scratch.
I wound up on a windswept ridge in freezing rain on a particularly fruitless hunt when I had to pee…whereupon I discovered the difficulties of relieving oneself while wearing mismatched layers of bargain-aisle thermal clothing. It was the last piece of a thoroughly miserable puzzle.
Helping others laugh at me, through my writing, helps me be able to laugh at myself and my misfortunes. Rather than swearing off hunting forever, I went back to the dorms and wrote an essay specifically about the difficulties of peeing in winter, and more broadly, about trying to learn complicated new hobbies from scratch with nothing but the internet and hope.
Months later I needed a summer job. “Remember that essay,” my mother said, “about peeing in winter?”
“I took it to the local paper.”
“They want to publish it. And talk to you about a job.”
They ran my piece, paid me beer money for it, and that summer, published several dozen more. I picked up scraps of news below the dignity or beyond the interests of serious journalists, and turned them into a human interest beat that launched my career.
Worth a Thousand Words (and a couple more bucks)
I discovered that I could sell more articles if I took my own photos, so my father—a former photojournalist—taught me the visual side of storytelling.
The next summer I went to my favorite paintball field to research an article. “Come back next week,” the owner said. “The editors of Action Pursuit Games and Paintball Magazine, the biggest publications in the sport, will be here for a tournament. I’ll introduce you.”
I showed up with a paintball gun in one hand, and my portfolio in the other.
They asked me to write about that little no-name tournament, and must have liked it—they published hundreds of my articles over the next eleven years.
At the end of college I wondered what to do with myself. I was an English and Psychology double major, so my options were Starbucks or grad school. My portfolio of paintball and local news writing got me into Dartmouth for their Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program. I aspired to more lucrative things than writing, but didn’t want to give up the travel, the freedom, and the adventure. Not yet, anyway, and maybe, not ever.
To pay the bills during grad school, I chased paintball stories across the planet for the seven biggest publications in the industry. I wrote as much about the people and places where the game was played, as I did about the events themselves. I told stories of the journeys and challenges players overcame to attend events. I found the human interest side—the stories—and put that on the page between photos of people shooting at each other for fun.
Incidental to covering events in the UK, Malaysia, Russia, and elsewhere, I traveled to twenty four countries, and wrote essays for whatever newspaper or website would buy them. Again, I experienced the world and many cultures through the stories I learned, lived, and subsequently wrote about—for paintball magazines, newspapers, websites, and for fun.
After graduating with my Master’s degree, I faced another decision point: what next? My degree opened the same two doors as before: Starbucks, or more grad school.
Neither appealed, so I sold my furniture and flew to Asia to ride the railroads as “research.” For what, I didn’t know.
I returned to the US, moved in with the girlfriend (now my wife, Annie) who patiently waited for me, and wrote three nonfiction books: “White River Junctions,” inspired by my graduate research on White River Junction, Vermont; “501 Paintball Tips,” inspired by my years in that industry; and “Following Josh,” about that adventure riding the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian Railroads.
While I paid my bills with the articles, I found my true passion in longer form writing.
That work lead to the editorship of several magazines for Beckett Media, the company that owned “Action Pursuit Games” and “Paintball Magazine.” As the paintball publications died off, they moved me to their law enforcement and firearms related magazines, where they made me editor of such politically correct titles as “Gun World.” I enjoyed working with writers from across the outdoors industry and the experience was invaluable, especially in seeing the business side of newsstand publications…
…but my heart remained with the craft of writing, and the storytelling aspects of editing.
These days I’ve parted ways with Beckett Media, and my subsequent employment with Harris Publications, and once again focus on the craft of writing and editing—for my books, for private clients, and for those remaining publications that still pay for my kind of human interest content.
I wonder if I’ll ever figure out what to be when I grow up…I ask as a middle aged suburban father of three. Until then, however many more decades it takes, I’m happily at work meeting new people, making some of them up, and telling stories about our world in a host of different ways.