A couple weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk to a middle school journalism class on my work as a freelance writer. It was a time not only that I got to reflect on my past and development, but to inspire a group of extremely bright children to follow their passion in a way that’s innovative and dynamic. While today’s post is about my story, this is for the children of Edison Park in Miami, Florida, in hopes that it will help them find their voice in an ever-changing journalism world.
When I was growing up, away from the mountains, away from an outdoor life, and not a thought in the world that it would become such an important part of my life, I surrounded myself with decades of National Geographic issues. The earliest memory of being a writer is that initial inspiration. While I, in elementary school, enjoyed sharing my stories and my ideas with my classmates, it was the daring adventures of mountain climbers, explorers, and astronauts that first captured my imagination.
When I was in middle school, there were two authors overall who I admired: Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. They were both adventurers and in a sense, the original travel writers, but there was one aspect about their style that truly caught me. Their version of the world wasn’t perfect, or polished, or idealized in any way. It was dirty, it was gritty, it gave away every single detail, as undesirable as it may be. This wasn’t travel writing, this was travel journalism. In 7th grade I read The Call Of The Wild, and a grade later, I read The Old Man and the Sea. These stories weren’t about the places, but they were about particular people, and the environment that they found themselves in. Struggling through the frigid Alaskan wilderness in the late 19th century, or a nameless old man caught in the waves off the coast of Cuba, and his reverence for the fish that pulled him to an uncertain fate. While these stories may have been fictional, it was the details: the description of an icy storm, the wrinkles on the old man’s face, that made these characters and these locations come alive. In my writing overall, I aim to capture an attention to detail, working on engaging senses, not only talking about how great or how terrible a single place may be.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I started Mike Off The Map, I had no expectation for how big it would truly become. Writing should be personal and authentic, developed with a singular style, polished over time, and consistently challenging oneself to do better. When I sit down to pen an article or a story, I have to be inspired, and have a clear idea of what I’m going to say. People can easily tell when something is unreal or inauthentic. They can tell when writing is flat, or uninspired because it comes off as trying to sound like someone else. When I look back on my first posts, I cringe, and thats to be expected. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said
“Your first 10,000 photographs are going to be your worst.”
While I have grown as a writer, I know that there’s always space for improvement. Write because you want to, not because you’re looking for fame, or looking to get published. Be modest about your abilities and accept criticism when it’s deserved. Allow your teachers, peers, and family to be honest about what does and doesn’t work and force yourself to be challenged in your improvement. It’s important to have other writers and contemporaries to admire and to follow, but to never copy or try to replicate their style. One of the most under-looked skills in writing is consistency. It’s easy to become discouraged when nobody is reading your work, or you feel that its useless. Don’t use a talent as a means of grabbing attention, but use it because you have a genuine story to tell. The more you pen, the more that you put down, the more that it’s going to keep developing into a piece thats worth sharing with others and capturing imagination.
If you have a genuine passion for your work and your field, no matter what it may be, someone is going to notice it when you show confidence and knowledge. When I set out as a climber and an outdoorsman, writing was a means to tell me story as I delved into this world that was just as unknown to me as to my audience. I wanted to convey the fear and the uncertainty of what I was exploring and it was my way of connecting with a similar audience. Use your own genuine experience to push your writing forward, and use your writing as a means to go out and look for more experiences. Most of all, read as much as you can, and be inspired, but not intimidated by other writers who found their voice.
Have patience, listen to your peers, keep reading, and most importantly, keep writing, as hard as it may seem at times. The more that you find your individual voice, the better your story will be.