John Burgman is a freelance writer who mainly reports on competition climbing for Climbing, Climbing Business Journal and Gym Climber. He is the author of three books, including the upcoming “High Drama” about the history of American competition climbing, coming out in March (2020). He is a former magazine editor, a Fulbright grant recipient, and a graduate of New York University’s MFA program. His work has appeared online and in print at Esquire, Trail Runner, Portland Review, Gym Climber, Boundary Waters Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is a frequent guest on the popular climbing podcast, Plastic Weekly.
In this episode we chat about John’s path towards becoming a full-time writer and what it was like to move to South Korea at the age of 29 when, seemingly, all his friends were moving back to the city, getting married, and having kids.
Climbing Outside the Lines is an interview series with people doing things a little differently, and who just happen to climb.
It is common for me to spend hours reviewing the past year and hours more planning the upcoming one. As you may recall from the year of blogging review a few weeks back, I wasn’t in a reflective mood then. Turns out I’m still not.
In some sense, I feel more content to take things as they come. It also feels a little like avoidance. Something to monitor.
Anyways, on today’s walk I spent a few minutes considering high level aims for 2020.*
1. 2.5x My Monthly Average Income From Writing
This might seem like a lot (and 250% growth in anything probably is), but when you’re starting from small-small numbers like I am, this isn’t much of a stretch.
(Think the difference of going from $5 to $10 vs. $200,000 to $400,000.)
Plus, I need to be able to make more money or seriously reconsider the plausibility of this career path.
A rough timeline from the past year for perspective:
Begin pitching stories to publications in January.
About a month later, start pitching to pubs that would pay actual-real-dollars (as opposed to, uhh “portfolio building” or gift cards).
Around July, begin having consistent work from several clients (a retailer, an app, an outdoors blog) with a smattering of one-off pieces from other sources.
In September, start making a (somewhat) regular income that could (somewhat) comfortably cover expenses in a country like, say, Mexico.
Let’s call it 8-9 months to make a barebones income.
Is the time to completion reasonable?:
Well, if it took 8 months to start making consistent revenue, maybe I can double the figure in another 8 months. Using the law of “everything takes longer than you expect,” let’s 2x it to 1.5 years.
(Obviously, this a super rough estimate).
Here are a few extra variables to consider:
So far, better paying gigs have a longer lifecycle (from pitch to final submission to pay). Let’s say they require 1.5-3x more time overall, which is about commensurate with the increase in pay. This seems silly now that I think about it. (Partly, I only have a small set of examples to work with which is skewing my understanding. I imagine at a certain level the increase in pay outstrips the increase in work required).
Per week, I manage ~20-25 hours of “productive” work. This figure primarily consists of actions that lead towards money-making (i.e., research, pitching, writing, etc.). Additional time is spent on maintenance things like email or social media management.
I have a little more capacity, but quickly encroach upon diminishing returns.
To rephrase: 25 hours = barebones income.
There isn’t a lot of wiggle room to increase working/billable hours because it becomes time/money inefficient. But, something to explore further.
Ultimately, in order to 2.5x my income, the easiest pathway is to obtain better paying jobs.
Maybe it’s reasonable that I’ll 2x my income by the end of the year, and it’s better to consider 2.5x a stretch goal.
Some additional notes and questions:
I need to spend more time pitching. Especially to publications that pay in the $1-$2/ word range.
I’m going to pitch more journalistic pieces. This is a genre that is enjoyable, interesting, and better paying (I think).
I will likely try to get a PT gig to help even out the volatility in monthly revenue.
To keep writing a weekly blog post or not?
Try to monetize the blog?
Is this career viable? What is my quit point?
2. Climb V9 Outdoors
This was the easiest target to decide on.
2019 was the first year that I climbed consistently, each month without fail. I started pursuing the sport more seriously in 2018, but there were several large gaps where I didn’t do any climbing.
I’ve found that progress requires consistency. In 2019, I was able to go from sending V2/V3 (outdoors) in one session to sending V6 in one-to-three sessions. My only V7 send went down in two sessions.
By the end of the year, if I specifically train for a V9 project that fits my style (and on top of general training) I think it’s reasonable to get a send. Additionally, I’ve only just started to hangboard, which already has, and should continue to have, dramatic returns (before tapering out as the year advances).
The progression will follow something like:
Climb 20 V6s
If I work a handful of projects per month, this seems reasonable over the course of a year.
Some additional notes and questions:
Increase time spent climbing outdoors. Aim for 2-3 days per week on real rock.
Refine my health and nutrition. For example, I’d like test dry fasting for 48 hours, return to intermittent fasting consistently, track energy levels and recovery.
Develop specific project training/periodization regimens in order to target weaknesses or increase strengths required for particular projects.
Experiment with losing weight to see how it affects my ability to climb hard.
I woke up this morning and realized that I’ve been blogging on a weekly basis for over a year.
When the notion struck, and after my first Nescafe, I started to think about lessons learned (as one does). Very quickly, I distracted myself with other things because a reflection piece was not of interest to me today.
But I have a streak to keep in tact. It’s Thursday after all.
Read on for lessons learned. (Scroll down for a while if you’re eager for the takeaways).
First: A long-winded intro that circles back to the theme eventually. Per usual.
The idea of pursuing writing or of becoming “a writer” has been brewing for several years.
Last February, I began to put pen to paper while in Budapest. This was the second leg of my Eastern European Trip, Pt. 1 (Act 2): The Prelude, and I had determined that a month in Hungary’s capital city would be the perfect place for a “writing” sojourn. The vision in my head was myopically poetic.
I imagined frantic notebook scrawling in cafes during the morning and long soaks in thermal baths in the evening. There would be walks in between and plenty of goulash sampled on my traipsing through the city (or whatever it is they ate in Hungary). I also kind of hoped I’d become an alcoholic, because that seems to be a thing good writers have in common.
The script didn’t go as theoretically conceived (for one, the beer wasn’t very good there). But, I did write (poems and essays mostly), and more importantly, I began to believe it was possible.
Life progressed and the idea of giving a go at “writing” niggled it’s way irreparably into the depths of my brain. Like a parasite that couldn’t be satiated.
(Which is probably necessary because writers don’t make a whole lot–outside of the power-law-few anyways–and you likely need to be slightly delusional / intrinsically motivated to pursue such a fool’s errand. But hey, at least I’m not a poet.)
Come November (2018), I committed to posting at least one article per week on this blog.
There were several reasons for this:
The main aim was simple: To write more.
I needed to start somewhere, and you only get better at writing through the act of writing.
It was a schedule that I could stick to, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could be dedicated to a craft.
So I began, and the weekly streak is alive. Onto the lessons learned.
You never really know what’s going to catch fire.
This goes for what you like to write about, and for what gets page views. If I’m being honest, I was banging my head against a wall for a longtime trying to figure out what I wanted to write.
I actually enjoy creating poetry, but that wasn’t going to further the cause of becoming a writer. My early essays and observational travel pieces felt a bit flat to me then, and read that way to me now. Upon reflection, I know that it’s because they lacked a certain essence or deep-rooted interest for me (poet alert!: He said, “essence”).
For whatever the hell reason, climbing has been the muse that’s really launched things in a new direction: It’s personally intriguing to me, I see plenty of potential to tell different kinds of stories, and I actually get paid to write about it.
The takeaway here is: You need to start writing, try a bunch of shit, and hope to God you come across something that tickles your pickle.
As for page views…
Give the people what they want. (Sort of).
No one really cares about my broken heart.
So I’ve been told on a few occasions. But they love climbing related shit. Like The Coolest Climbing Festivals in Europe that has been far and away the most popular post, and continues to brings in consistent organic traffic each month.
Additionally, distribution matters a lot more than the content.
Every post that’s brought in high volumes of traffic (note: It’s all small-small numbers) has been shared by others through social media.
This is because the readership on the blog is somewhat contained (mostly friends and family–thanks for reading!–and people who subscribe). The only way for articles to spread to the wider world is when I beta spray and post them around, or other people do.
For people to share, it has to be of value to them. Things like informational pieces, destination guides, how to’s, etc. lend themselves more to spraying.
Growing the readership and “creating a brand” haven’t been the priority so far as I just wanted to focus on “writing” and “finding my voice.” I’m not sure if I’ll try to do more with this blog, I kind of like the liberty to talk about whatever.
It’s fun. It’s creative. It makes people more likely to talk to you.
By far the coolest part of this is that people are open to chatting with you.
It’s like getting a license to reach out to whomever and ask all sorts of questions you would normally be too modest to ask of your friends.
As a result, you get to help share stories about people who aren’t typically covered. Oftentimes these folk are inspiring, relatable, kind… and doing really cool shit!
Through this process I’ve flexed my journalism muscles (which I’ve found I quite like), experimented with markety-type content, bared my heart (take that, haters!), and played with a variety of other forms of writing.
It’s changed my life.
Not to be dramatic about it…
If you had asked me last year if I thought I would be able to make a living through writing in 2019, my answer would be emphatically, “No way, dude!” Quickly followed by, “But like, that’d be really cool!”
And now here I am in Queretaro, Mexico getting paid to put words into 1’s and 0’s across the interwebs.
A lot can happen in a year, apparently. Such as it is.
To be clear, it wasn’t the blog all on its own. Rather, it’s been the process of writing, learning that this is something I can do, and then going out and doing it (plus some luck). Still, the blog has played an important role.
There you have it, some begrudging lessons learned from this past year.
“Onwards and upwards!,” as one of my former bosses liked to say.
The sweat was mounting on Ryan Wichelns’ brow. His breath was labored, his hands tiring, his vision narrowed. Like his summit push to Mt. Brooks in Denali National Park in whiteout conditions, what lay ahead was unknown.
He talks calmly about it now, but he probably gulped a few times before sending. It being an email to the editors of Backpacker Magazine containing his first ever story pitch. He says he dashed the submission off for fun, an inconsequential story idea that he didn’t expect much of.
As happens with unexpected pursuits, that throwaway email changed the direction of his life.
I don’t buy his telling though. Ryan seems like the kind of meticulous person that would carefully analyze each word to make it sound just right; that plans week-long excursions to Alaska to undertake a “technical first that links five peaks in a remote part of Denali National Park.” He strikes me as a planner with an affinity for spreadsheets.
Either way, as with many of his climbs, he’d end up scaling this new trajectory with quick progression: He’s the editor of Eastern Mountain Sport’s goEast blog, has written for Outside Magazine, Backpacker, and Alpinist, and he’s fully supported himself through writing for over a year.
That’s not a normal course for a young freelancer.
It started with a trip to Arcadia… Rhode Island.
“Arcadia is probably the only place you can backpack in the state,” he chuckles. Rhode Island being all of 37 miles wide by 48 miles long.
Backpacker bit. Ryan was now a writer.
“It taught me a valuable lesson, that you should focus on a niche. Certainly, not a lot of people were writing about obscure trips in RI.” His idea stood out and they took a chance on him.
One small trip, one small act, one big life-altering outcome.
Ryan is at the dawn of his writing career but is already one of the rare species to make a full-time living off it.
As my editor at goEast, I was curious to learn more about his own path, and to see what advice I may be able to glean from someone a few years ahead of me on this journey. In our call he shared some tips for breaking into freelance writing.
Advice on How to Become a Freelance Writer
Find a niche:
“This might be the most important thing,” Ryan declares. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not easy to dive in if you’re pitching yourself as just another writer,” he says.
Anyone can be just another writer. What makes you stand out? What can you write about better than most others? What special angle can you provide? Find your expertise and make yourself valuable with it.
A niche can often be identified by thinking creatively. Start by considering what you already possess, such as local knowledge (which tends to be overlooked), a combination of distinct perspectives (maybe via your upbringing or education), or a particular interest you have.
“For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat forced. My niche was in the Northeast. Backpacker didn’t have a ton of people writing about that, but they needed the content,” Ryan offers.
Know the publication you’re pitching to: You need to understand the publication in order to appeal to the editor.
How does the story you want to pitch fit into what they publish? What is the format or structure of their stories? Are there any gaps in their content? Familiarize yourself with their articles, try to understand the reader, and think like an editor.
Write about what interests you: Ryan studied journalism in college and was the editor of the school paper, yet it wasn’t until he started writing for Backpacker that he saw a future in the pursuit: “The thing is, I never enjoyed writing all through high school… and while it was rewarding to work on an investigative piece [at university], I had more fun writing about the outdoors,” he shares.
Now when he considers potential articles, he evaluates whether it is interesting to him personally. If he’s excited by an idea, it will likely come through in the pitch and the piece.
Relationships matter: “My first editor at Backpacker took a chance on me. I give her credit for a lot of my success,” Ryan says from the onset.
“After awhile she was giving me assignments, put me up for a job with the [Outdoor Retailer (OR)] Daily. She recommended me for all sorts of press trips.”
The relationship they developed, the trust, and Ryan’s ability to deliver led to an abundance of future opportunities.
Network. Or, go where the people are: In a digital world, face time (not the app) matters.
“Going to OR and working for the Daily was the best thing I did for my outdoor industry freelance career,” Ryan notes.
Outdoor Retailer is a beacon for the industry in the U.S., attracting gear companies, athletes, media, and others involved in the space. As a reporter for the daily paper that runs during the duration of the show, Ryan was able to meet editors and writers at other publications, gain leads for stories or pick up products to test, and receive invitations for press trips.
Pitching: The bread and butter of getting in the door of a publication is the pitch, an “elevator style” presentation of a story idea with the hopes that it intrigues an editor.
The aim for a first story is just that, get a story. Any story. Ryan suggests pitching something more formulaic, such as a a round up or a short interview—in a magazine, look to the beginning sections (often known as the “Departments”) and shy away from pitching a feature.
From an editor’s perspective, it’s easier to take a chance on a new writer with something simple. It’s uncommon for editors to accept a big feature idea from a new writer without a demonstrated history.
“Once I see someone can do [a simpler piece], it becomes far easier to take the reigns off and let them do something more from their own judgement,” Ryan shares. After you have established a relationship with the editor, try pitching a slightly larger idea, then build from there.
I’ve found Tim Neville’s, The Art of Travel Writing ebook from World Nomads, to be a wonderfully helpful beginner guide that features a detailed “how to pitch” section.
A long and bumpy road: Of course, a word of caution: This path takes time.
From most accounts I’ve read, years of dedication are required before freelance writers are able to fully support themselves from writing alone. Often this path begins as a part-time thing, they have savings, or there is a very supportive spouse.
But if you can make it work, you can achieve creative flexibility, get paid to go on trips, and work from wherever you have internet access (at least intermittently).
Ryan has earned his career, step by step, much like his increasingly technical climbs after years of training.
And where one person goes, another is likely to follow; seeing an example acts like a green light for others. If you are pursuing a freelance writing career, or thinking about it, good luck–and consider doing what Ryan did, just keep moving forward.
You can learn more about Ryan Wichelns and read his work at ryanclimbs.com.
Feature photo of Ryan on Mount Rainier, from his website.
The lens cap wouldn’t go back on. I was fumbling by the greyscale schist, turning ‘round the plastic piece like a steering wheel.
“Uhh, what the fuck,” I mumbled, confusedly, to myself. The circular pissant had started on the lens, I was sure of that, those two pinchy prongs, when squeezed, clearly released the cover from the concave portal. Then why won’t it go back in? I tried jamming it, clomp, clomp, clack, into the hole.
Turns out the camera needed to be powered off in order for the lens to recede and the cap to fit in place.
“Ah, just first day blunders, it’ll all be easy sailing from here!,” I reassured myself.
I was recently commissioned to write about climbing at Rumney in New Hampshire, for—humbly—what is my first paid article, inreal dollars… potentially… because the check hasn’t been cut yet.
In order to complete the research and take photographs for the piece, I spent a few days on location. This article is about lessons learned, and mostly the mishaps, from my first climbing trip “on assignment.”
Rumney is the mecca of sport climbing in New England, a destination crag for rock scalers within a 5-hour drive radius. Québécoise? Sure thing. New Yorkers? No problem. Bostononians? Of course.
On good weather weekends the parking lots are stacked before the first Regular cup of Dunks and “crawlah” has been washed down by BPD.
Luckily, weekdays see lighter attendance, and less people to witness my flailing with the flagellating camera around my neck.
Lesson 1: Know How Your Equipment Works
No amount of editing was going to fix the blurred images.
Sitting at home the photo previewer showed one out of focus shot after another: A close up of rock here, faded climber in the background there; Censored cliff and a verdant tree wearing a liberal application of green blush; Oh this shot of my boot and dirt is crystal!
Eventually I figured out the settings and how to target the focus. I also learned plenty of settings not to use!
Lesson 2: Get off the Ground
The most interesting shots were ones from non-traditional vantage points, like “soloing” a slab slate to grab some setting sun or tying in to a first bolt on an adjacent route in order to capture a climber up close.
The difficulty in framing climbing shots, aside from knowing how to use the camera, came down to not losing the climber in the frame. A fellow photographer I met there remarked on how easy it is for the climber to get lost, whether from the scale of the wall, the muted colors they are wearing, or from poor lighting. Getting closer and properly structuring the shot made a world of difference.
Lesson 3: Plan out the Shoot and Know What You Want to Capture
The next day my thighs felt leaden. I haven’t done much hiking lately, but in reality I scaled a few thousand feet of vertical over those days, often on steep inclines heading up and down to the different cliffs along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some areas are more than half an hour from the parking lot.
Simply traveling to each locale took a few hours of the day, and time away from photographing.
At the wall, climbers can take a surprising amount of time “hanging out” on the cliff waiting for their next burn. While I took a few of these convalescent frames, they weren’t the epitome of an action shot. Add up travel time, stop and wheeze time, photographing (waiting around) and this became an all day excursion.
I planned the types of shots I needed—action shots, lifestyle, and ambiance—and I knew generally the order with which I would go to each location. This helped keep me on target and set a route for the day.
Lesson 4: Pretend to Be Friendly and Nice so People Talk to You and Let You Take Photos of Them
Photos of big hunks of rock can be quite boring, lack scale, and generally leave one uninspired if you don’t showcase people demonstrating what’s possible (on them).
So, I had to try talking to people *groans* to see if I could photograph them while they did interesting things on these big hunks of rock. In the end this was less awkward than sitting there taking pictures and leaving without a word.
Lesson 5: Don’t Listen to Someone When They Say Not to Pay for Parking
This one is self-explanatory. Support the local park.
Lesson 6: Shooting Is One Half the Battle, Editing Makes a World of Difference
Do you need to amplify the purple longsleeve of the climber to make her pop out against the wall? Coming right up, alongside the bleaching backlighting!
The editing process, thanks to a free online program, was instructive and useful. Turns out you can do quite a bit to manipulate a pic, from tinting people’s skin color to look like the Hulk to sandpapering away all the details to leave an image akin to squinting your eyes.
On the other hand, editing made too dark pictures turn out vibrantly, and things like cropping or manipulating contrast did wonders for highlighting the subject of the image.
Lesson 7: Beats Working in a Coffee Shop, or Library, or at Home
The main challenge was wanting to climb more, which is really a difficulty I have most days.
It was only due to my herculean grit and vast reservoirs of restraint that I was able to complete the assignment relatively on time. And with that, my first paid piece and on assignment trip are officially in the books with maybe a check in the mail as my reward.
In the end, it was fun, and it was work, and I’d like to do more of it.
Sidetracked is UK-based and features first person narrative with gorgeous photography.
What I’m Reading
On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue
Joan Didion is lyrical, a weaver of narrative, and offers critical insight into the human psyche.
To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
Kilian Jornet. Mountain poetry
Kilian talks about what drives him to the mountains, and what he seeks out there and within himself. Also, why it is important to strive to be heroes in the everyday:
What we should contemplate is that it shouldn’t be considered heroic but the natural thing inside all of us… They’ve shown us that the heroic should be the normal human thing to do, and in our individualistic and self-centered days, this is important and admirable.
How a one-handed champion is reinventing rock climbing
I mean, shit. She’s one-handed and climbing 5.12s.
“Hey guys, I’m missing my left arm below the elbow, so I chopped off the end of a Trango ice tool, put a screw in it, and attached it to the socket of my prosthetic. Wondering if this would be okay to climb with?”
The boundary between 30 and 31 came to pass, and nothing perceptible really happened. I was flooded with a sense of sadness upon waking, got caught up in comparisons to a vague sense of where I thought I ought to be, rollicked in joy at all the years I (hopefully) have in front of me, and grappled with day-to-day existence type shit, like where to go for lunch and “I should really respond to that email.”
Brendan Leonard is one of my favorite outdoor writers as he combines humor, vulnerability, and an adventurous spirit. This workshop offers 6 days on the Salmon River, covering 90 miles and what it takes to craft a compelling story.
What I’m Reading (& Watching)
Murmurations are an aerial ballet
The mysterious flights of the Common Starling are known as a “murmuration” and it is still unknown how the thousands of birds are able to fly in such dense swarms without colliding. This is from the same director as last week’s video.
We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us.
I am constantly working to figure out how to make you acknowledge me as American, too. I refuse to be seen as poor and powerless, and I attempt to approach each day with a boldness and vulnerability that leaves an imprint on somebody. I continue to penetrate spaces where I’m not expected to be.
What narratives have you been told? How are they shaping your perception of yourself and what is possible?
Climbing Doesn’t Change You
The backlash to one of Kathy’s earlier posts (of which this is a rebuttal piece) is surprising. Since when could you not express the outdoors/ climbing/ your passion in romantic, sentimental language?
Failure gives you depth. It gives you mental tenacity. It shatters the expectations we often feel trapped within, the expectations that our perceptions of ourselves create. Exposing our failures lets us fearlessly show the world that we are human…. Nobody walks up the mountain to the top with a smile on their face the entire time, or without shedding a few tears, a little blood.”
I realized why I had shared it in the first place: to cultivate empathy and understanding not only for myself, but for others who might have had an experience
It was then that choosing vulnerability became an act of courage.
Art Is Commensurate with the Human Spirit
Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.
Why do you create art? What impression are you hoping to make?
Longform Podcast #256: David Gessner
Great interview with an intelligent, open, and self-effacing writer.
The ambition got in my way at first. Because I wanted my stuff to be great, and it froze me up. But later on it was really helpful. I’m startled by the way people don’t, you know, admit [they care] … it seems unlikely people wouldn’t want to be immortal.
Claire took the band and rolled it between her fingers and thought, What if someday this is all I have left?
The Writing Life
Lessons from Eight Years of Writing an Adventure Blog
Buckle in, this might take awhile:
In my second year of pitching stories, I made $75 from one article. I moved to Denver to work at a small newspaper—but on the side, I kept pitching any outdoor publication I thought might pay. Almost all of them sent me rejections. In late 2006, John Fayhee at the Mountain Gazette liked a story I sent him enough to publish it and pay me $100. In mid-2007, I got a part-time job writing funny 100-word blogs for an outdoors website, at 15 cents a word, two to three blogs per week.
After almost six years of trying, I started getting magazine assignments, starting in early 2011 with a story I’d been pitching and had written for Climbing magazine.