How I Became a Travel Writer: Vivienne Mackie

About Me: Vivienne Mackie

the author in Annecy, I the Savoy region of France

the author in Annecy, I the Savoy region of France

I believe I’ve always been a writer (and a reader) and a traveler, at first separately, but slowly over time they morphed into one. As a very young girl I loved language and words, and I won a writing competition at age six. From then on, I wrote stories for family, helped with the school magazines, wrote for magazines in college and took psycholinguistics as part of my Clinical Psychology major.

Parallel to this, I started my passion for travel very young too, journeying with my grandmother from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to England when I was eight years old. We sailed from Cape Town on an ocean liner that took about two weeks to complete. We stopped in the Canary Islands, where the people speak Spanish, and I became fascinated by a different language I couldn’t understand. Although I was determined to learn Spanish, I never reached a fluent level. However, I speak Afrikaans (a Dutch derivative), some German, a little Greek, and I’m reasonably fluent in French.

After that trip to England, I’d avidly read books about kids in other countries, and I dreamed of visiting their lands one day, which (in hindsight) started my interest in multiculturalism. Even from that young age, I began to get the idea that travel and multicultural understanding were very important for having people from different parts of the world try to get along with one another. I still believe that. I feel that when we travel and see that other people do things differently, it helps to broaden our knowledge of the world and, hopefully, our tolerance for things/customs/ideas that are different. The emphasis is that different doesn’t mean wrong.

Travel Journals and Photos

Olmec: you can see how large those Olmec Civilization statues of heads in Mexico are.

My family was rather poor, but every year we’d take a holiday to some game park or local scenic wonder in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), or to the coastal resort of Beira in Mozambique, the neighboring country—a foreign one at that! I always took black and white photos even then and kept a journal, a habit that continued and developed, as did the number of trips.

I was lucky to marry the man who is my husband, a guy who also had (and has) the travel bug. His job as a research scientist takes him all over the world. My job as counselor and ESL teacher also gave me the opportunity to visit students overseas and expanded my love of other cultures and customs.

I started to accompany my husband more and more on his research trips as my kids grew older, and the travel journals became more detailed and elaborate, and the photo count bigger and bigger.

The Turning Point

the author and her husband in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

One day, after my husband and sister both said, “You should write a book, you know?” I had a ‘Eureka’ moment, and I knew I needed to do something with all this material I’d collected.

So….I did, starting with local newspapers, then expanding to other papers, a few magazines, a couple of stories in anthologies, and online sites.

What I Write About

up close to a Giant Galapagos Tortoise

up close to a Giant Galapagos Tortoise

I’ve had a few occasions when I’ve been asked to go and visit and write about a certain place, but more generally I query based on where I ‘m going or have been. Sometimes I’ll get an assignment letter from one of my contacts based on that query.

But, in general, I prefer not to work or travel on assignment for a number of reasons. Mainly because then I have more flexibility and can visit what and how I want and not be constrained by planned itineraries and schedules. I also believe that a travel writer can be more open and honest that way. After all, if a hotel gives you a free room, for example, or a restaurant a free meal, they’re likely to pull out all the stops and go out of their way to please, knowing you’ll be writing them up. And then you’re hardly likely to write negatively, are you?

saying hallo to a goat on Crete

saying hallo to a goat on Crete

Most travel writers don’t make a lot of money doing travel writing these days, what with media budget cuts etc. Yet, it’s possible to earn enough to cover many of the travel costs. I still work part-time as an ESL teacher too, so I’m lucky and have the best of both worlds.

What’s good about being a travel writer?

saying hallo to a wallaby in Australia

saying hallo to a wallaby in Australia

For me, the adrenaline rush of arriving at each new place, of each new adventure; the fun of collecting information and putting it all together; the joy of sharing our trip story with words and pictures; the feeling of satisfaction when I see my words in print.

Travel and Story Material

feeding a giraffe at the Giraffe Center outside Nairobi, Kenya

feeding a giraffe at the Giraffe Center outside Nairobi, Kenya

Travel itself can be exciting and unexpected, but later this can make for great story material. Travel can bring funny moments, such as recently in Krakow when a duo of older men singing and playing Polish music in a park started to sing “Glory Halleluja” when they found out we were living in the USA!

Travel can be unexpected, like the time we stopped to talk to a lone Cretan shepherd in the hills of Crete and ended up at his house for dinner and spent the night, even though I speak only rudimentary Greek and he had no English. Travel can be very sad, as was the case when a planned trip to South Africa was marred by the totally unexpected death of a very close friend there. Travel can be frustrating, like the time when my suitcase went missing and was never delivered as promised when we were on a Scottish island that had no clothes stores.

the author shows off a temple flag at a temple in South Korea

Travel can be scary, and for this two examples come to mind. First, when my husband got very ill in Ethiopia. We were way out in the countryside, and they had to try and fly us back to Addis Ababa on a tiny plane. Or the time in a big game park in South Africa when elephants blocked the road for hours, and we were stuck in our rental car. We should have been driving back to the camp as darkness was descending. Luckily, both of those events had a happy ending!

But, whatever else, travel is not boring and we can learn so much about other people and other cultures. I believe that travel is one of the most important things that people can do as a way of trying to understand the world. And if I can write about that, so much the better.

The Cons of Travel Writing

There is, however, a downside to travel writing too. Writing of any kind is a rather solitary pursuit, and you can get lonely at times. Sometimes too you hit the dreaded “writer’s block” when you just can’t get motivated or excited about a piece of work or project, even though you may have a deadline. For me, the best way to overcome this is to walk away from it—literally. I leave that project, go for a walk, meet a friend, make a special dinner, plan some ESL classes….or whatever. And in a day or two I feel the spark again to continue.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below

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