how to: be a PUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITER
“I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”
- Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
By Emerald LaFortune
You ask me, at the end of my keynote speech, “How do I become an outdoor writer?”
Wait no, you don’t ask. You say instead, “Well, I sort of write sometimes…” or, “I’ve been thinking about maybe trying to publish something?” all ellipses and question marks on your teeth.
But I know what you are asking, sister, and I know that the answer you want doesn’t involve vague platitudes about passion following, or a mysterious smile and the LinkedIn connections of a MFA program. You are asking if maybe there is a course, or a Google Search query, or a book titled, “Published in National Geographic At Last, A How To Manual”.
So sure, how to be an outdoor writer. I’ll tell you.
First, of course, you have to write. Maybe you are someone who has always found home in words. You are the one who kept obsessive journals as a child, won a writing contest or two in middle school, and felt calm every time you turned the page of your standardized test to the reading or vocabulary section.
Or maybe you’ve hated words, but you understand what Audre Lorde says when she insists, “It is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.” A need to express what hasn’t been said yet has brought you back to your words, little healing miracles in each sentence.
No matter, the point is you like being outside and you write, and you are sick when you don’t write or go outside. So you are an outdoor writer. But we both know being a writer and being a PUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITER are two different instagram handles. So I’ll continue with our guide.
You write. You write enough that at some point, either you suggest to a person or they suggest to you, that you should write as a professional. You agree, and are also struck by the fear of people actually reading what you right, while simultaneously wondering if it’s really possible to be paid to do something you really love. You will write for this person or brand, and mostly it will be exciting, because now you can officially call yourself a PUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITER and no it isn’t the glossy magazine you had dreamed of, but everyone starts somewhere, and you have read other writer’s vague manifestos about passion, and persistence, and being rejected 459,831 times before succeeding.
In the event that you aren’t proximal to someone who thinks you should be a PUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITER, you may begin by pitching your work. This is where the 459,831 times begins. Sometimes, you should send already written essays and articles. You can extrapolate editor e-mails from the advertising team’s e-mail format, or beg for contacts from your friends or Twitter followers.
Let me clarify now, of course, that this “you” is me too. That any advice, the best advice, comes from my own revelatory slog and embarrassing mistakes.
Sometimes, send one paragraph pitches, accompanied by your one paragraph author bio and website. Follow contributor guidelines if they exist. You could use your waitressing tips to buy a plane ticket to Denver for an Outdoor Retailer. You might brand yourself and make sure you smell good and smile at everyone you meet. You could let people say awful, racist and sexist things to you. You’ll then promise yourself you will write about it later and keep your mouth shut. It may feel like your network is all you’ve got. Consider business cards that snappily encompass everything you write about in a single phrase. Reconsider how you use Instagram.
When your work begins to catch on, you will mostly write in lists, about things you already know about, in order to sell outdoor gear or advertisements. You will also be encouraged to write about CONSERVATION, the topic that makes outdoor brands and media outlets feel very serious and smug.
Sometimes, for them, you will write something creative. You will attempt to pull apart your experiences and central questions. It will be received well - you’ll acquire both critics and fans. Yet when you break down the hours it took you to write your real experiences, compared to your paycheck, you will realize you are being paid $1.50 an hour. You may go back to writing lists. You will spend a lot of time on Instagram, not sure if it is a distraction or a necessary element of the little success you’ve found.
You will learn the difference between outdoor journalism and outdoor writing. You will want to decide at this point which you want to lean into. Do you want to report, without bias, on destinations, events, and accomplishments of others? Or do you want to examine your own events and accomplishments, in the hope that someone else can better understand their own dreams through your words?
You will begin to notice that editors are most excited when you want to write about someone else or when you write things that convince everyone that EVERYTHING IS FUNNY AND OKAY. When people feel like EVERYTHING IS FUNNY AND OKAY they will click-through to items nearby. They will develop “brand loyalty”. They will purchase. This is a fact of capitalism no one taught you, but your writing teaches you.
You will begin to notice the ratio of male bylines to female bylines. When an editor asks you for “the female experience” you will learn that they don’t actually want to hear what you are experiencing. They want to sell their new women’s apparel line of turquoise and purple sun hoodies. There will be a few exceptions - they will all be female editors. Some men in your professional context will try to get it, but will also lean heavy on you to lift their understanding up to yours. They have not yet used their own Google searchbar to understand, “Emotional labor”.
Largely, you will be invited to submit, then ignored. You will get no feedback from the editors who reject your essays. You will study the glossy magazines and their male meandering and crass narratives of fish and mountains and wonder what your own writing lacks against their example.
You’ll write another FUNNY AND OKAY list.
You will learn outdoor writing is not a meritocracy. You will spend too much time pondering if your last essay was rejected because you didn’t find the right words to describe guiding a cutthroat stream, or because you are writing for a party that never wanted you on the guest list to begin with.
Words and hustle, however, are a marketable skill. People will start to recognize this, and begin to pull your attention away your writing. You will set aside what Audre Lorde so correctly named, “Feelings and the honest exploration of them.”
For the first time, both keeping a dog and owning a mortgage feel important. You’ll step away from writing into a job - as teacher, as non-profit director, as organizer - that you are more welcomed in, that has more consistency. You will say, “Yes I was a writer - but I got tired and only tried 458,801 times, so I couldn’t make it work.” You will say that you wanted to live in your world, not merely report on it. You will stop reading the essays in outdoor magazines and on adventure websites. You will leave your camera at home when you go outside. You are burnt out, and maybe also a little bit mad.
You will notice the women that truly succeed at being OUTDOOR WRITERS are mostly white, mostly very beautiful, and likely smell good. This will make you profoundly sad, not for yourself (you could feasibly make yourself very beautiful and smell better) but for all the other voices more stuffed into corners than your own.
Am I answering your question? I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear - but I’m getting there. Don’t abandon me for your Google searchbar just yet.
The point is that you are a writer, and you never stop writing. If you were put in a windowless, empty room, you would keep writing. Words build in your mind and in your sleep.
But you might stop writing for a minute or two. You will start again, when you get sick enough. You will constantly fight against your “Is this good enough?” and imposter syndrome. I’m not sure there is a creative person, male or female or non-binary out there who doesn’t.
You will cringe at your past words. You’ll be your own worst critic. Your writing will hide in desktop folders and old journals. It’s not because you aren’t a good writer or don’t have the potential to become one. Creating anything is an unending slog against inner gremlins. You have to find the tools to overcome this, but that’s a different essay. You will have a start/stop relationship with your writing because in addition to writing beyond your own monsters, you also doubt that the editors and publishers really want to hear from you at all. Your creative monsters will sense this added doubt and eat you alive with your own mouth. You’ll open up your Instagram feed again.
But wait. Stay with me. If you want to be a PUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITER - like a true, Ed Abbey style outdoor writer, I need you to help me burn this down from the inside. Because we were never meant to show up to the door, let alone knock on it.
To be an outdoor writer you must, at all costs, protect the thing inside you that keeps you writing. I’m asking you to keep submitting your work to magazines that ignore you. I need you to use your connections that you make in your other careers to put your words in the face of people who matter. Embrace that there is no format and no standardized approach - just connections and nepotism and hustle. I hope you’ll take jobs as editors and publishers and promise you’ll do better than the people before you. I implore you to take care of yourself and take care of each other. Acknowledge that you need extra support to avoid burn out and anger. Create your own glossy magazines, where women and non-binary folx are allowed to write in humorous, poignant, enraged, un-thesis-like circles. Call in the ones more marginalized than you.
The truth is, you are already an outdoor writer. The only question is if, and how, you will continue.
Audre Lorde’s Essays, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” are quoted here and can be found in her compilation, “Sister Outsider” (1984).