Jobs: ‘You’ll never be rich, but you will certainly have plenty of stories to tell’ - life as a Travel Writer
- Credit: Archant
Norwich based Travel Writer, Laurence Mitchell dispels the myths surrounding his profession and explains what it's really like to travel to some of the world's most obscure destinations.
Name: Laurence Mitchell
Age: Let's just say I once saw Jimi Hendrix perform live and can remember the first time The Prisoner was shown on TV.
Job Title: Self-employed travel writer and photographer.
My job in a nutshell: I research and write travel guidebooks as well as writing travel features for magazines. I also take photographs to illustrate both of these.
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How did you get your job? I sneaked in through the back door when no-one was looking, initially selling a few photographs to a major travel guide publisher before eventually being offered a contract to write a guidebook to a country that did not yet have one. Slowly I developed a niche of sorts, writing about off-the-beaten track destinations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. More recently I have expanded this to write more about my own locality of Norfolk and Suffolk; I also write walking guides to the area.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? Well obviously the travel – I sometimes get to travel to wild and remote places that I otherwise would not have necessarily considered as an obvious destination. It is also very satisfying seeing my work in print for the first time – either as a shiny new guidebook or a hot-off-the-press magazine article. It is lovely when I get positive feedback too – it means a lot to me when someone goes to the trouble of letting me know that they have found my work useful or inspiring.
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What is the most challenging part? Also the travel sometimes, especially visiting a country where I do not speak much of the language and there is little available information. Travel writing, especially guidebook writing, is really not as glamorous as some might imagine. It involves long hours of slogging the streets and note-taking whilst on the ground; then long hours sat in front of a computer at home putting all my near-incomprehensible scribbling together. Like all forms of writing, travel writing is a solitary pursuit. It can get lonely at times and involves an awful lot of work for very modest rewards. In the long run, though, it can be very satisfying.
You might not know this about my job: Travel writing tends to be viewed rather romantically as being the ideal job: you know – lying on a beach, sipping a cocktail whilst tapping on a laptop to wax lyrical about 'azure skies' and 'breathtaking views'. The reality is, of course, rather different. Most of the places I write about don't have beaches... or cocktails, although they do have wonderful scenery. I'm not complaining: I really quite enjoy run-down Soviet-era hotels, honest rustic food and dodgy buses on bumpy roads.
What was your first job? I did lots of different jobs before I eventually went to university as a mature student to study Environmental Science at UEA. I suppose my first job as a 'man of letters' was when I worked as a postman in the Midlands. Having worked as an English teacher in Sudan after leaving university I trained as a secondary school geography teacher and did this for a number of years before giving it up for the vagaries of the travel writing life.
Where do you find inspiration? I admire the work of a number of 'old school' travel writers like Norman Lewis, Colin Thubron, Jan Morris and Dervla Murphy. I'm also much taken by the so-called 'New Nature Writing' – poetic writers like Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. I really think my forte, if I have one at all, is to write about 'place' rather than travel per se. And it is 'place' that inspires me, whether it is the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the wood-cloaked hills of the Balkans or the reed marshes of the Norfolk Broads. This is what I want to get across in my writing: the sense of being in a landscape that is unique to a particular area or region rather than just the nitty-gritty of getting from A to B and taking in the major tourist sites. I am really a geographer at heart.
Do you have a favourite place that you've written about? This is almost impossible to answer as there are so many places I have visited that have been memorable in all sorts of ways. India is certainly one – I first visited that country nearly 40 years ago and have been back to a couple of times since. It is a wondrous, sometimes frustrating place that requires considerable patience and emotional investment on the part for the visitor. Always hard work; always rewarding – I'll probably go back one day. Central Asia, especially former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan, is a wonderful region too – not so much in the way of sightseeing but for astonishing mountain scenery and the sense of treading the ancient Silk Road. I'm also addicted to the Balkans, especially the countries of the former Yugoslavia like Serbia. Having said all this I really enjoy much of what this country has to offer too: Norfolk and Suffolk, the North and the Welsh borders especially.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a similar career? My only regret is that I didn't start travel writing earlier. Had I begun ten years earlier I think it would have been much easier to break into – I realise that this isn't very helpful advice for those starting out. I think it is important to only seriously consider travel writing as a profession if you have a passion for both travel and writing. It is a hugely competitive field these days and so it is important to be able to accept a lot of rejections along the way. The main thing is to keep at it; keep on plugging away until you eventually find an outlet and then develop it from there. It is a really good idea to have a speciality of some sort – either a geographical area or a niche interest. Most important of all is to be sure to do plenty of both – travelling and writing. Your writing will improve with practice, and so will your travelling in a way. Abandon all thought of material wealth: you'll never be rich but you will certainly have plenty of stories to tell.
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