Kate Siber’s writing has appeared in Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Men’s Journal, and The New York Times. She is also a contributing editor to Plenty magazine, for which she often writes about sustainable travel. She resides in Durango, Colorado with the fruits of her labor: a growing pile of used running shoes, five pairs of skis, an impressive collection of international teas, and a seven-pound feline that (sometimes) answers to the name of Sophia Maria Lourdes Gato.
How did you get started traveling?
It all started in 1981 when the Siber parents decided to take the family summer vacation abroad, taking kids Matt, 9, Andrew, 6, and Kate, 11 months, on a European tour, National Lampoon style. All of their stodgy Boston friends thought they would head straight to the looney bin after tromping around Europe with three small children — not least formidable of whom was Kate, already notorious for her disagreeableness. Amazingly, this turned out to be a great idea and was the first substantial period of time when Kate didn’t cry incessantly. They had discovered the secret to Kate’s happiness: keep her in motion. Her favorite moment was in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, when she (in stroller) and her grandmother chased pigeons into clouds of flapping grey wings.
How did you get started writing?
I think my interest in writing manifested itself with the Mad Cat Express (cue next cheesy childhood story), a newspaper with stories and games that I founded in third grade. Granted, there were only three issues (at which point I got bored) — but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. Since then, I have written pages and pages, whether stories, recordings in a journal, or papers for school, which, geek that I am, I always loved. Simply put, I “got started” by simply picking up the pen and writing anything I could think of.
I always thought of writing as a diverting pastime, however, like crossword puzzles. I didn’t consider it a potential full-time living until I quit working at a magazine two years ago.
What do you consider your first break as a writer?
I think I am continually getting breaks, but I would cite reporting and writing my first bylined feature for the Associated Press bureau in Rome, where I interned, as my first break. Without those first clips from the Associated Press, I don’t think I would have moved on to Outside, where I continued my crash course in journalism. I studied literature in school and started journalism at the AP right after college.
When I returned from six months in Italy, I spent a month or two at my parents’ house looking for a job. This wasn’t exactly a break, but it was definitely a turning point: I talked to an alum from my college about journalism — she worked at a women’s magazine in New York — and she asked me what I wanted to do. I answered, “well, I want to work anywhere in journalism. I don’t know, newspapers, wire services, magazines.”
“No, really. What is the thing you REALLY want to do, specifically? Your dream job? No obstacles. No qualifications. No prerequisites. If you could be doing any job,” she said, trying to prompt me to narrow my scope. I had to actually think about it; I had never considered looking at it this way. I was so bogged down thinking about jobs that I thought would be good resume-builders or that would eventually pay off that I wasn’t even thinking about my real end goal. I hadn’t stopped to consider what I really wanted to do, what would be my perfect job.
“Well, this sounds ridiculous because I’m so not qualified, but I’d like to do something like write travel and environmental stories for magazines like Outside and National Geographic,,” I responded.
“Then send your clips to Outside and National Geographic and see what they say,” she said. Well, that seems like dumb advice, I thought, but I took it anyway. I looked at Outside‘s masthead and chose Katie Arnold and Elizabeth Hightower, and sent them my clips out of the blue. Then I thought that was really dumb, canned the idea, and started perusing journalismjobs.com again. Two weeks later, I heard from Mike Roberts at Outside, who asked if I’d be interested in an internship after my clips landed on his desk. I packed up my car and was in Santa Fe in a matter of two weeks, and though the job wasn’t writing brilliant feature stories, it was a fantastic opportunity and a giant step in the right direction. I learned a ton. Three years later, I am doing exactly what I want to do. Though I could always be writing bigger and better stories, I still can’t believe it.
I’m not relating this story because I think everyone should go off and randomly send their clips to magazines. I think the moral of the story is that you should consider what you really want, which often gets lost in the shuffle of what everyone else is telling you is a good idea or the best path to success. Things don’t necessarily always fall into place perfectly, but if you at least have an idea of your perfect job, you’ll always have something to shoot for. And with a destination in mind, it’ll be easier to steer the course. That’s my silly bit of philosophy for today.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Not getting overwhelmed. When I’m traveling and gathering information, I can find the sheer amount of stuff I could cover exhausting. It really can be work, even though it’s fantastic, engaging work.
In the last few months I have been getting nervous on planes too, which is a new development and rather inconvenient. My advice to budding travel writers: Do not, as I have done, read a lot of plane-crash or near-plane-crash stories in a short period of time.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Getting over my fear, not becoming over-ambitious, and not putting too much pressure on myself to be Hemingway. Once all the research is done and I am sitting at my desk (or in a plane), fingers to the Qwerty, looking at a blank Word document, that’s when the fear sets in. What did I get myself into? I think. Can I really do this? Sometimes I psych myself out, particularly if I’m really invested in my subject. I think this must be the best story ever written about Fill In The Blank EVER and if it isn’t I’m a failure, which is completely ridiculous.
Now, instead, I try to remember that I love to write and to simply enjoy it and to tell my story, my angle, my perspective. That’s really all you can do. I think of it as a fun exercise, and I definitely don’t ever consider that hundreds of thousands of people could eventually read it. In short, I try to avoid obsessing over what the finished product will look like. When I start just enjoying the process, I find that’s when I do my best work. It’s sort of a mental trick that’s akin to simultaneously relaxing and getting motivated and positive and excited at an athletic competition, if that makes any sense.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I am usually pathologically organized, so I tend to find the nitty gritty of the business side, like taxes and invoices, straightforward. In my opinion, you make a lot more work for yourself if you aren’t organized, and I like to spend as little time as possible dealing with business details.
I imagine my biggest challenge would be asking for more money if and when the time comes. I just read an article in The New York Times about how the pay gap between men and women actually increased in the last decade, with women making about 75% of what men make. Many women I know — and I have talked to some friends about it — abhor the thought of asking for more money, even if they haven’t had a raise in years. Years! The protocols regarding when it’s appropriate to ask for more money and how to ask for are beyond me, and I have to imagine I won’t put that much effort into learning them. Frankly, I’d rather be writing, traveling and playing in the mountains.
In another sense of challenge, I have struggled with jealousy of other writers. Yup, silly. Can’t believe I’m admitting it. But honestly, I think other writers have that problem too. I see other people’s bylines and I think “dammit! I should be writing stuff like that!” I am getting a lot better, though, as I am realizing that I have my hands full with my own work and there are plenty of jobs to go around. I do think that can be a bit of a mental block for budding writers, however, or maybe veteran writers too. I am trying to battle it by having as much admiration for my fellow writers as possible, learning from them, rather than trying to justify myself in face of their accomplishments in a fit of my own insecurity. It’s a good exercise and I am learning a lot. I go so far as to think of all of my freelancer friends as one big happy extended family. Ah, the glowing oneness of freelancerdom! We’re not really all on the same team, but I like to think so.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Not yet! I have been able to make a living on writing alone so far. That said, I write about other subjects, like the environment, outdoor sports, health and fitness. I also do a fair bit of unglamorous work, like travel service and product reviews, which can involve a lot of phone reporting and on-the-ground testing. Actually, testing running shoes isn’t so bad. Still, right now I have to be somewhat diversified to make it work. In this business, I see having a lot of interests as an asset.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
A multiple-choice pop quiz for the aspiring travel writer. I would like to be a travel writer because:
- A. I want to be able to work for myself and not have anyone tell me what to do or when to do it.
B. I want to work for myself and hit the snooze until 10 every day.
C. I would like for someone else to pay for my trip to Cancun, airfare included!
D. I want to tell people what I do and for them to say “wow, that’s so cool,” making me feel very cool.
E. I really like to write.
If you chose A, B, or C, best to refine your Jeopardy skills a la Ken Jennings, or start buying lottery tickets. D might be a sort of valid reason for becoming a travel writer, but E is better. Travel writing is essentially a job and a lifestyle. I think two big misconceptions about it are that you get to just go off and travel vacation-style all the time on someone else’s dime, and that it’s a vacation at home too.
I think the other writers you’ve interviewed probably summed it up and I don’t need to add much, but in short, it’s a job with trade-offs like any other. You have to decide if the rewards are worth the trade-offs. You will likely travel solo a lot, you may spend long hours reporting on the ground and in front of the computer, you may not make a ton of money, and it might be stressful dealing with demanding editors, tight deadlines, late paychecks, and the natural ups and downs of a life of finite projects and deadlines. If you thrive on routine, this is not the job for you. On the flip side, you’ll get to write a ton, you’ll see wild and beautiful places, you’ll surely have adventures, and there will always be something new to learn.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Honestly, more than anything, I simply love to write. I still write pages and pages in my journal every day. I start stories I never finish. It’s one of the things I enjoy most. So being able to write for a living is an incredible blessing, not only because I get to do it all the time, but because that leads to getting better at it. Seeing your own improvement is a fantastic reward in and of itself.
Second, well, bylines are always nice. I get real satisfaction out of actually creating something somewhat tangible, if you can call your name in a magazine tangible. You can kind of fool yourself into thinking that you are doing something good by informing and entertaining your readers, but in my opinion, I enjoy what I do so much I find it wholly selfish.
Vanity aside, I think learning more about the world makes me more interested in the world. I find that some of my most blissful moments are when I realize there is more fascinating stuff in this world than I could possibly encompass in my own puny lifetime. It’s overwhelming, but fabulous. I find that I most often have these moments when I’m traveling and reporting and writing and absorbing inordinate amounts of information. I imagine my goals will change as my career progresses, and I can only hope I’ll continue to enjoy what I do.