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How I got started as a Travel Writer

by Philip Greenspun,


I owe everything to my parents.

Winter. Harvard Yard. It was a dark cold Boston winter in 1989. I was struggling to keep alive a high-tech company that I had foolishly started. One day a letter arrived from Bethesda, Maryland, where I was reared, describing my life in glowing terms. For the first time, my parents had taken it upon themselves to write one of those New Year's "letters to the world" talking about how great the family was doing.

My pathetic start-up companies (I started five of which two are still around as of January 1, 1995) sounded like wonderful investments and huge successes. My brother wasn't just in medical school, he was slated to be the next Surgeon General. My sister's and parents' lives were picture perfect as well.

At first I recoiled in horror. Were we Greenspuns really the kind of people narcissistic enough to write about our lives and then exercise a Xerox machine and the U.S. Postal Service?

After the shock wore off, though, I thought "What if someone told the truth in one of those New Year's letters?" The idea was so thrilling that I immediately started PageMaker and sat at the Mac for a few hours until I had produced Narcissism Today, February 1990. [I apologize for only making this available in PostScript, but HTML is such an impoverished language that the work would lose most of its humor and meaning if translated into HTML.]

I had the opus typeset on a Linotronic at 2400 dpi and made 100 copies to send to all the friends I hadn't talked to in months. A week later, I was flooded with phone calls. People loved Narcissism Today. I even got calls from strangers who'd heard about it and wanted copies.

When 1991 came around, I did Narcissism Today, February 1991, but after a staggering loss in June, 1991, I couldn't bring myself to write anything humorous for 1992.

Sitting on a balcony in Hawaii one day with a huge stack of postcards, I asked myself "Why does anyone write these?" I had just gotten off the phone with a friend in Boston and was delighted to hear that the weather there was cold and nasty. I had an epiphany: it felt great to learn that folks back home were freezing because it made me feel like a genius for escaping, but my mood was even better when I reminded folks back home how much of a genius I was by sending them a postcard. Gloating didn't seem the most attractive human trait, but I decided I might as well accept it in myself.

Having been on Internet since 1976, when it was still called ARPAnet, it didn't take me long to realize that I could make the power of computers work for me here. Was it really sensible to fill 25 postcards with illegible banal scribbling ("weather is here, wish you were nice")? What if I wrote one decent message and sent it to a mailing list at MIT for redistribution to all my friends in a few seconds?

My first experiment with spamming my friends was New Zealand, January 1993 and it was a big success. Instead of complaints about junk email, I got accolades and even thoughtful replies. Best of all, I was making new friends without even trying; my friends were forwarding the messages. I even got a date with a beautiful California blonde. A college friend had sent her my messages and she decided that I was interesting enough to be worth the drive from Pasadena to LAX during my 9-hour layover.

In New Zealand, I'd become very friendly with two German guys, Klaus and Stefan. They invited me to visit them in the Black Forest, which I did in April, 1993, after which I proceeded to Berlin and Prague. On the plane home, I wrote up the now-famous Berlin and Prague: Nazis, Jews, stamp collectors, and beautiful women.

The New Zealand story was 22,853 bytes of text. Berlin/Prague was 81,834. Clearly it was time to do something truly massive and thus a few months later I began sending out the email that turned into Travels with Samantha, over 500,000 bytes of text.

Note that aside from a few furtive postings on rec.travel, thus far I was writing only for my friends. That all changed the day I typed "mosaic" at my UNIX box. I'd written lots of magazine articles in the past, but I'd always been frustrated by the need to write everything short and breezy. When I saw that I could combine my text and pictures (my photographic career would be a whole story in itself, but suffice it to say that I was a camera nerd before I became a computer nerd) and distribute them from some of the fastest servers on the Internet, I felt that I had finally found my medium. "Upon this Web I will build my stories."

And I just never stopped.

September 1997 Update

Alex at 18 months OK, I sort of stopped. The big Web boom hit and I ended up spending a huge chunk of time architecting Web services instead of traveling around with a camera and a laptop. I still write about my experience, but it is my experience of sitting at a desk or my experience spending my consulting checks. I think I need to grab Alex and stuff him into a motorhome and hit the road!



Readers' Comments


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Jack Walker , June 28, 1997; 05:51 P.M.

I still don't understand how people who spend hundreds and thousands of hours creating material for the internet pay their bills. What is the secret? I sit with thousands of recent slides of Russia and Germany. There are hundreds of pages of notes. I have a web site. Yet, if I devote time to putting all this on the web, who is going to go to work for me? Obviously, an hyperbolic question, but real as well. As we drove past the last relic of the Berlin Wall last summer, my Russian friend burst into tears. "Are you all right?" I asked quietly. It was dead night, about 3 a.m. The next morning we were returning to St. Petersburg. She answered: "I suddenly understood. That wall came down. But I also have that wall in my head, and I can't get outside it. I don't know what to do." She continued to cry for about twenty minutes, and we didn't talk. An hour later the incident was forgotten. She was back behind her wall, pleasant and chatty, and I was trying to find the detour that would get us back to the pension. Six months later, I go back to my senseless job, I put my slides in boxes, and I don't even care if somebody in Kansas would laugh at my argument with the ticket taker at the cemetary or the fight on the train between the porter and the monkey. So how does one make a living in the real world and at the same time zestfully devote a separate life time to filling up the web?

Rodney A. Thompson , September 26, 1997; 06:01 P.M.

I wondered for a while about how Greenspun managed to do this as well, and then quit worrying about. I just enjoy coming back to the site to see what's new. Greenspun achieves what many of us wish for-- web pages with substance, simple navigation, entertaining, and informative. Besides, I figure Greenspun is independently wealthy.

Philip Greenspun , September 26, 1997; 06:54 P.M.

I'm not independently wealthy. I just don't have a family to support or anything so I can live on a modest amount of money AND I can work until 2 a.m. every night. It turns out that I could get high consulting rates in the mid-1980s programming Lisp Machines and then again in the mid-1990s architecting database-backed Web services (see http://webtools.wtr/wtr/dead-trees/). Plus I get the occasional bit of money from a magazine or a corporation that needs photography. Finally, I get Hewlett-Packard to give me hardware and MIT to give me a nice network connection. That saves me from having to disfigure my pages with banner ads and other commercial atrocities.

Thomas Hundt , September 28, 2000; 02:07 P.M.

Re: "How Philip does this," don't forget that he'd written the text (for at least some of the sections) in smallish chunks -- an e-mail at a time, say -- and (later) schlepped his Powerbook around with him (writing rough copy as he went). Then, later, he revised it. This is a lot less overwhelming than producing entirely from scratch. Plus, and this should not be overlooked, he's got talent! Philip clearly enjoys what he's doing, finds it rewarding, and is willing to spend the time.

backpack diary , October 07, 2000; 06:30 A.M.

There are a million travelwriting sites out there on the web. Out of the 1,000,000 personal travel sites, about 80,000 of them are not designed with font/background colors that hurt your eyes, or come with meaningless Java scripts and embedded music to cause your browser to act schizophrenic. Out of that 80,000, about 5,000 of them actually have wit and do not make you feel like the author travelled with a single brain cell. Now we're getting to the really good travel sites. From those 5,000 great sites, about 700 of them would have beautiful photos, properly sized and treated, to add to the stories.

Now, these 700 are the travel warriors on the internet. 600 of them don't know how to program and therefore do not offer the interactive features of photo.net. The remaining 100 techno-and-full-of-wit-and-brain-cells travelwriters on the web, 90 of them would be so tight with their stories and photographs as to bombard you 5 times a page on how everything's copyrighted and must never NEVER be reproduced in any manner, including verbally mentioned to your friends.

Now I hope I've just perfectly described what a great contribution Phillip Greenspun has made to the web :)

Chris Porter , June 14, 2001; 09:56 P.M.

I have a similar story. Having trained in IT at a young age, I have found the wonderful freedom which comes with traveling around and contracting. I hope to be doing this more in the future, as I have pretty much just started. I do most of my traveling through backpacking around, and as such I get a vastly differente experience to what Philip probably gets.

I also travel with a laptop although I tend to work out of a base in a foreign city or travel between semesters (Im still a student).

I am currently writing this at 4am enjoying the sunrise (which I just photographed) in a friends dormitory in Uppsala, Sweden.

Ahh the wonders of highspeed inet.

Hopefully I will be able to contribute more to this site once I get back to London


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