Freelance writer, Adventurer (named National Geographic Top Ten Adventurers of the Year in 2012), and Environmental Science Educator
Being a "freelance writer" is a catch-all term for zillions of radically different jobs, from people who work for the Brookings Institute and comment on national security, to what I am presently doing, which is to launch my tired and aging body into extreme outdoor adventures and then try to scratch out a living by convincing people to pay me real money to hear my stories and insights. Even in my own career, I have worked in radically different genres, from college science texts to live storytelling performances with a modern dance company. And everything in between: books, magazines, podcasts, websites, whatever. It's a fast moving, fast changing field. The real joy is to remain relevant, in some way.
In 1970, I was working toward my Ph.D. in chemistry. One spring day I was walking my dog in a high alpine meadow in the Colorado Rockies. My dog started digging holes in the moist earth, which had just been released from the winter snows. After digging the holes, my dog would smell the earth and then race in giant circles around the meadow. I followed his lead, smelling the dirt and running joyfully. In that moment, I knew with absolute certainty that I could never live a conventional life, inside a laboratory or office. After I got my Ph.D., I worked as a carpenter, horse logger, commercial fisherman, and then a writer. I had no formal education in writing, but I always loved to write. There is no specific training to becoming a writer, although it wouldn't hurt to take a few journalism courses (which I never did.) One editor told me that there are two kinds of writers in this world, those who make money for the company, and those who do not. Early on, I became a writer who made money for the company. I have sometimes stumbled, and always tried to reinvent myself, while at the same time trying to not reinvent myself, so I can remain loyal to my core values.
There is no typical day. Yesterday, I went ski touring with my friends, in the high alpine avalanche slopes of the Canadian Rockies. Today, I had three tasks: work on my visa to Russia for an upcoming expedition, prepare a talk I am giving on Monday, and record a podcast for a new website that just hired me. I might be on an expedition for months at a time, or I might be inside my office, working on a book, or on the road, in the concrete jungle, living in the back of my pick-up, couch surfing, grabbing pizza and wraps from kindly bookstore owners -- telling stories. In the fall, I'm in the Montana mountains hunting for the year's supply of meat, because a huge part of my "job" is to live an inexpensive alternative lifestyle so I don't need as much money as others require.
The biggest challenge is to say something relevant without being preachy and boring. Fundamentally, I see myself as an entertainer, but at the same time I want people to grow in some significant way from the experience that I provide them.
I love all aspects of my job. I love going out into Deep Wilderness, often for prolonged periods of time. I love to write. Being on the road with a group of young professional dancers, to "tell' my stories through words, music, and motion, felt like being a six-year old and running away from home to join the circus -- only without the elephants. I never do one thing for very long, so boredom doesn't have a chance at getting a stranglehold on me. And for the past 35 years, I've almost always been able to shut the computer off and ski during powder days, or its equivalent.
Sometimes I hear that my job is easy. Sometimes I hear that it is hard. Don't believe any of that.
My "workplace" is the frozen polar icecap, jungles of the South Pacific, and as I said above, the concrete jungle and the dance floor. Today, mid-afternoon, I am sitting in my pajamas in a very very messy office in British Columbia, Canada. The magic of the internet is that I work at home and no one needs to know anything but the quality of my work. Of course, when I am on stage, I try to wear a clean shirt and remember to zip up my fly.
Step out of the values of society and learn to live cheaply. And I don't mean just cut back on a few frivolities. I mean, question the fundamental values of this consumer-oriented, oil-soaked, internet-crazed civilization. Spend all your available time and money "buying" free time. It opens so many doors, provides so much freedom.
Oh boy. I had no clue where I was going or how I was going to get there when I started out. I really bumbled a lot, made a huge number of mistakes, ran up dead ends, rebelled when I didn't need to rebel, and didn't rebel when it would have helped if I had. It would be tempting to "give my younger self" a clear road-map. But then all the mystery and intrigue would be lost.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
Martha Graham, choreographer
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