THIS summer I’m celebrating 40 years as an outdoor writer.
I’m going to mark the occasion by taking a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with my two sons, followed by a five week campervan and mountain walking trip with my long suffering wife to the hills of France and Spain.
Then, all going well, it’ll be back on the training bike as I prepare for an autumn ride around the North of Scotland 500.
In between I have to spend a few weeks working – I’ll be filming my second series of Roads Less Travelled for BBC Scotland – this time a campervan journey between Dornoch and Orkney, with a good bit of walking, cycling and paddling thrown in for good measure.
And when I get a chance to draw breath I’ll be writing up columns for this fine website, for my monthly contribution to the Scots Magazine, and getting some walks and cycle routes completed for my little quarterly magazines Scottish Walks and Scottish Cycling.
Despite my description of these activities as ‘celebrations’ in effect this summer will be little different to the past 39 summers and the greatest lesson I’ve had to learn is that of time management – how to get a good balance between wandering the hills, either here or abroad, and the inexorable amount of time it takes to sit at a computer and write up the stories and features that someone will pay for.
And that’s the crunch. At the end of the day the climbing and the travel and all the activities are wonderful, but you have to turn those experiences into a product that you can sell to make a living, and that’s not easy.
I’m not looking for sympathy. I’ve had a wonderful 40 years and I’m well aware that I have been hugely privileged in being able to make it work out, but I know that amongst WalkHighlands readership there may be some folk who fancy a similar lifestyle, so I’ve put together a few thoughts that may, hopefully, help them in setting out on the right trail.
While I’ve dabbled with photography, radio and television, essentially I’m a writer. I’m not a great writer of the Jim Perrin or Robert MacFarlane variety but a relatively successful jobbing writer who has strived to work within a very small and specialist field.
In that sense I’ve been very fortunate. When I started knocking out articles on an ancient sit-up-and-beg typewriter in the office of the Youth Hostel where I worked forty years ago there were very few others writing about the outdoors.
I learned very quickly to know my market. I familiarised myself with the magazines and newspapers that might be interested in the kind of outdoorsy themes I wrote about and I bombarded them with material, much of which was returned to me with a little bit of paper called a rejection slip.
I remember the wildlife writer Jim Crumley telling me he once made a collection of such rejection slips. Such was this collection that he wrote a feature about it and sent it off to a newspaper. Three week later an envelope arrived with a crumpled and tea- stained slip inside. Written one it was one stark sentence: “Another one for your collection.”
Tom Weir spent a whole year sending out features here there and everywhere before he finally had something published and in my early years as a magazine editor I tried to encourage those who showed similar determination and grit, including a young lad from Lancashire called Chris Townsend!
I was also aware that I had to improve my own writing skills, and learn how to ‘market’ the stuff I was scribbling. It’s all very well having a strong desire to be an outdoors writer but unless you actually enjoy writing then there’s little point in making it your career – you’ll be spending a huge part of your time sitting at a word processor thinking up words. The outdoors stuff is only your research…
I enrolled in a Creative Writing course but much more importantly I learned how to ‘visualise’ success; I learned about the perils of procrastination – Charles Dickens once wrote: “Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him,” and throughout my career I’ve realized that hard work and luck appear to go hand in hand. The harder I work the luckier I become…
I should make it clear that success rarely comes without effort – sometimes huge effort. In my early years as a writer I tried to balance my writing career with working as an outdoor instructor at a centre called Craigower Lodge in Newtonmore. That meant getting up a 6am, writing until 8am, teaching youngsters to climb or ski all day then coming home to write until 9 or 10pm.
I had a young family at the time and I knew such a prolific output was unsustainable so I had to choose between writing and instructing. I chose the easier option…
After four decades of writing I’ve come to the conclusion that mankind is made up of two kinds of people – those who can enjoy an experience for its own sake, and those who can enjoy an experience but then have to tell everyone else about it.
I fall into that second category, and I think it’s a crucial characteristic if you want to become an outdoors writer. And that story-telling characteristic has to be supported by passion, the driving force that will also create the raw material to work from.
Read all the best outdoor writers – Robert Louis Stevenson, Nan Shepherd, WH Murray, Tom Weir, Hamish Brown, Jim Perrin, Robert MacFarlane, Colin Fletcher and Edward Abbey, to name just a few, and the driving force behind them all is a passion for their subject.
I’m not convinced passion is something you can create – it comes from within you, and it’s fuelled by the sensations you experience when you’re in the hills, or backpacking the trails, or paddling a kayak, or riding a mountain bike. In short, you have to be passionate about your subject and to be passionate about the outdoors means spending a lot of time out there.
That’s why outdoors folk who present television programmes, like Nick Crane or Steve Backshall, are infinitely more passionate than those television presenters who happen to work on outdoor television shows. I’ve enjoyed a successful television career spanning over twenty years and I put that success down to passion. A former BBC Controller, Michael Jackson, once described me as: “completely un-televisual, but passionate.” Ho-hum…
And that’s the characteristic that has remained with me all these years. That’s why, at the age of 66, I’m doing all these outdoorsy things this summer in celebration of 40 years as an outdoors scribbler. Will I write about them all? You bet… it’s what I do!