Judith Fein is an inspiration in so many ways–she co-founded and runs the acclaimed literary travel site, yourlifeisatrip.com, and she recently published her first memoir, also titled Life is a Trip. In this interview, Judith offers some inspirational advice for aspiring writers and talks about her own trajectory as a travel writer. Check out her website here!
From your website, I see that you’ve published in over 90 travel publications. This is incredible! How did you get started in the writing and publishing industry, and what have been the “keys” to your success?
We all have skills in life. I can’t cook. I can’t sew. I tried gardening and it cost me $300 to grow one tomato! But I have always been drawn to writing and I published my first poem when I was 6 years old.
As you know, it is ridiculously hard to earn a living as a writer, so I morphed over the years, doing other things to supplement my writing. (Nothing illegal, I promise!) I taught. Did translations. Things like that. I started writing plays, and about l0 of them were produced. Then i became a TV/film writer. The money was very good, but what is the price of your soul? So I sat with my soul and I waited. And waited. And waited until something else revealed itself, and it did. I contributed a quirky travel piece to NPR; it was accepted, and I became a regular on “the savvy traveler.”
One day it occurred to me that if I had a platform on national radio, maybe someone would want to publish a travel piece of mine in a newspaper. I made a few sales and I said hmmm, maybe a magazine would be interested. Then, I started writing for the web, giving travel talks, and making travel videos and films with my husband Paul Ross. Soon, though, we had another hmmmm moment, and we started to teach travel writing. With Ellen Barone, I started www.yourlifeisatrip.com, and we have more than 95 writers now who have contributed to our site. In 2010, I sold LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel and was soon asked to give talks based on my book. Pretty soon our entire life was about travel. Nothing else. Travel. Write. Speak. Speak. Write. Edit. Travel. That’s it.
Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?
I would learn HOW to travel, and I mean that sincerely. So many people want to be travel writers, and it’s very hard to break into a field where there is so much talent and competence. What is YOUR specialty? What makes your heart sing? Do you love art? Music? Cooking? Gardens? Fashion? High-adrenaline adventure? Wine? My specialty is culture…peoples’ culture. I learn so much from each culture I encounter, and it transforms my life, so I pitch stories about culture. I pursue culture when I travel. I wrote a book about it.
Surely you have a passion, or several passions. I would focus on that. When you travel to the next town, pursue your passion there. If you go on a trip, make that your focus. Your passion will lead to your success. It does not matter WHAT your passion is—that passion will give you a competitive edge because you have a niche specialty.
Where do you see your career going in the next three years? Five years? Ten years? How do you see new media impacting these projections?
Honestly, I don’t project into the future. I try to live in the present. In the present, if you stay focused, you get a sense of what is going on around you and what opportunities there are. When you remove the anxiety about the future, it allows you to dream. And when you dream, you get ideas. And those ideas can lead you to the future in the way that is right for you.
As you’ve mentioned, you are one of the editors and co-founders of the fantastic literary travel site, YourLifeisaTrip.com. What inspired you to start this site and how have you made it an integral part of your work? What advice do you have for bloggers who are interested in submitting their work?
I was talking to Ellen, my co-founder. We had four goals: 1) have a place to publish our work where we don’t have to pitch to editors; 2) help other writers by publishing their work; 3) travel more; 4) make money. We have accomplished three of the goals. People often approach us to put ads on our site, but all of the money we have made goes back into our site.
And we must be doing something right, because we won two Society of American Travel Writers awards for best group travel blog and best income-producing website.
I am always open to ideas from bloggers, of course. They should send me a one to two line pitch about the story they want to write. It must be first-person and experiential, and under 1000 words. And it must be a story. Not a destination piece about Paris, Istanbul or Fiji, but a story about something that changed them, amused them, freaked them out, taught them, etc. An example would be: “I went to Paris, and my suitcase was stolen. All I had was the jogging suit I traveled in, and I decided to spend the least amount to money in Paris to look like a million euros.” Or: “I have a reputation as a macho guy, but the truth is that I am terrified of heights. It took me 10 years, but I finally got up the courage to go sky diving in Barbados.”
Judie, I’d love to talk a little bit about your new book, Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind this project and how it came to fruition?
This is the truth: I had an experience that left me depressed, unfocused, and…well…just sad. I am not usually a sad or depressed person. I said to myself: you can either sink into a deeper depression or….you can write and transform it. I opted for the latter. For several months, I stopped everything else in my life and just wrote in a feverish state. I didn’t judge what I was writing. I decided to write about the transformative magic of travel. About things I experienced on the road that taught me new ways to look at life. I wrote from the heart. I wrote about what was true for me. I hoped it would inspire others to allow themselves to undertake transformative travel or, rather, to allow themselves to be impacted and changed by what they experienced on the road. I wasn’t thinking about a publisher. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. It wasn’t didactic. I just told the stories.
When it was done, I had no idea what to do with it. I remembered that I had met a publisher on a ship. I had her contact information, so I wrote to ask if she would be willing to read the book. She said yes. I figured at least I would get some feedback. Four days later she called to say they wanted to publish the book. Actually, what she said was even better. She said, “we would be honored to publish your book.” That’s the story.
Hardly a day goes by without someone saying to me, “I wish I had your life.” I always reply: “Fine. Are you willing to work l5 hours a day on the road and then l5 hours a day when you are home? I love my work, but it consumes my life. I am either at the computer or on the road. Is that okay with you?” If it IS okay with you, welcome to the club. You are well on your way to being a successful writer.
Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in taking a travel writing bootcamp class with Judith in late September, check out this opportunity: http://www.communityprograms.net/wc/wctravelwriters.htm
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer, speaker and videographer who lives to leave. She is the author of the acclaimed book, LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. With her photojournalist husband Paul Ross, she travels the world, learning about how other people live, love, laugh, worship, eat, celebrate. Their website is www.GlobalAdventure.us.
Interview conducted in July, 2012 by Kristin Mock.