Thursday, May 09, 2013

My Journey to Travel Writing


Inspired by a post on about the author, Shannon O’Donnell’s. background and how it led to travel writing, I decided to let you know about mine.

 Like many kids, I dreamed of travel. National Geographic was one of my favourite magazines, with its beautiful photos of exotic lands. When I felt bullied in high school, I dreamed of escaping into a bigger world where, at last, my worth would be recognized.

 My parents travelled a fair amount for the times. My dad travelled on business in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.  As a family we spent every vacation visiting various historical sights around the eastern United States. My mother loved travelling in the U.S. and to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America as a young woman. She had only two or three weeks vacation from her job as a secretary in Chicago, but made good use of it.

When I was a kid, only the very rich travelled to Europe. It wasn’t that long before that some of our families had left Europe, usually escaping poverty or some type of persecution. My paternal grandmother emigrated from Ireland via Scotland to the U.S. late in the 19th century, escaping the life of a factory worker in polluted Glasgow.

I didn’t really expect to travel widely—I was pretty content with life in the U.S. as I got older-- but somehow it happened. Two professors in college influenced me a lot, and both were internationalists. One, Robert Evans, was an Englishman who had attended the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and spoke highly of it. He wrote me a good recommendation, and I ended up enrolling at the Washington campus of SAIS for an M.A.

I received a full scholarship for the second year at the Bologna campus. At the time my parents had not yet been to Europe and I suspect they were fearful for me, but luckily they agreed that I could go. While I was studying in Italy I took advantage of every opportunity to travel, visiting Britain and Ireland, France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, the Soviet Union at Christmas time and Greece and Turkey at Easter. In the spring I bought a car in Munich and with some friends, took in the Grand Prix at Monaco. When the term was over, I set out on my own to explore Spain, Morocco, more of France, Belgium and Germany .I had many adventures along the way, some of them pretty scary,  but after that I was hooked.

During my first decade in the “real world” I bounced between various journalistic and academic endeavours. Whenever I had the chance, I travelled, usually back to Europe. At last I secured what I hoped would be my “dream Job” as a business reporter in Toronto at The Globe and Mail. It proved to be less than dreamy, however. The editor for whom I had been freelancing successfully was difficult to work for in person, and my health began to suffer. I knew I would have to quit, but I wanted to stay at least a year so it would look better to future employers.

Luckily, my friend and colleague Brian Milner (who has hung in at The Globe all these years) mentioned that the travel editor, Joe Cohen, was looking for columnists, and I prepared three sample columns on budget travel, which were accepted. When my year was up I left the staff job but, luckily, was able to keep my column. I even went back to freelancing extensively for the editor I’d had trouble with, Ian Carman, founding editor of The Report on Business .I owe all those people a lot, just as I owe the teachers and previous employers who gave me the background to work at that newspaper.

The column lasted 11 years and formed the backbone of a fairly remunerative freelance writing career, in addition to providing many travel opportunities.

When it and another travel column I had been writing for The Gazette in Montreal ended at about the same time, I was plunged into a long period of uncertainty and suffering about my direction in life. Then some family situations captured my attention for several years  By the end of that period I still was not sure what to do, but began exploring fiction writing. So far, it has proved to be interesting but not lucrative. A few years ago I started writing this blog, returning to my favourite topic of budget travel. The difficulty now is that the cost of travel has escalated, but my income has not, so I am wondering how long I will continue the blog. As long as I enjoy it and attract some readers, I suppose.

During my prolonged midlife crisis I was fortunate to discover, through my friend Valerie Broege, the work of Carl Gustav Jung and the C.G. Jung Society of Montreal .I made a lot of new friends there, and actually wrote a play which they agreed to stage as a public reading, about an imaginary analysis of V.I. Lenin by C.G. Jung in 1916, when both men were living in Zurich. You can see a clip from it on my Website,

Recently I read a book by Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst in California. He speaks of the “slender threads” that have connected his own life journey, and how following these threads has opened to him a life much richer than he expected when he was young. I must say the same is true for me. I didn’t set out to be a travel writer or a writer of any kind—my original goal was diplomatic service, but that is what happened, and I am very grateful it did.

Building an interesting life or achieving a dream requires taking a lot of chances. So my advice is don’t be afraid, go for it. The detour that you thought was off your path may actually turn out to have been your path itself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Margaret,

It was so nice to read this latest post. It made me realise that although we've known each other since 1987, I never knew how you got started as a travel writer. Anyway, I hope you will keep the blog going for those of us who don't get much chance to travel and live vicariously through your writing.

Your friend Joan

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