I spent my time—that year and many times over in the following years—telling stories. I co-wrote books with a childhood best friend about a cat who had nine lives and a girl who got bullied. I kept a notebook full of my own solo stories about talking apple trees who were in love with garbage trucks. And when I was 14, I discovered the newish world of online publishing and started testing my ideas on the world, keeping one website about travel opportunities for teenagers, another about my thoughts on religion, and a third for my fiction and poetry.
When I think about my childhood, I think about writing.
Yet, still, by the time I graduated college (with a B.A. in writing, against my parents’ wishes), I had been convinced that it was impractical to try and make a living as a creative writer.
Compromising on the Dream
I couldn’t give up my writing dreams altogether, but I had somehow watered them down. If I couldn’t make a living writing books and stories, then I would fight tooth and nail to get into the advertising industry and make my living as a copywriter.
Of course, just out of college and moving to New York City, where I was a very small fish in what might just be the world’s biggest pond, I took what I could get. I started my career in sales for a luxury furnishings retailer out of London with a small showroom in New York.
Over that first year in that first job, I snuck my way into writing experience and advertising experience wherever I could get it. I re-wrote the UK sales letters in more audience appropriate American English. I took on as many marketing and event responsibilities as I could.
After a year in that first job, I had a little more experience under my belt.
The Price of Compromise
Unfortunately, I was also incredibly discouraged. I was tired of selling luxury couches for people’s third home in the Hamptons. I was appalled by the way customers would sometimes treat me—calling to scream at me because the shipment from London, over which I had no control, had gotten stuck in customs for an extra week. Overall, I just didn’t feel like I was where I needed to be.
So I quit. I quit my sales job and I went to Europe. I traveled through Italy for almost six weeks and then I came back to New York, gathered up my things, and moved to Colorado.
This time—gosh-darn-it—I was going to get a writing job if it killed me.
It took almost six months and I emailed every single agency in Denver (and some outside it) before I landed a copywriting job.
The thing about the ad industry is that you have to have experience to get experience. No one wants to take a shot on an unproven kid—even one who is willing to work her butt off.
The Reward of Perseverance
I eventually did find a place willing to give me a shot, it was a tough one. They gave me three months, barely any money, no title, and the HR guy (charmer that he was) said they weren’t even sure they wanted me there.
Three years later, I was their lead copywriter and content strategist. I’d created two departments. And I’d asked for senior-level vacation time and a 35% raise—and gotten them.
But just as this story starts to sound triumphant, I realized that this wasn’t the life or the career I wanted.
80-hour workweeks. Formatting brochures at 9 p.m. Neglecting friends and never dating.
Was this the price I had to pay to be a successful, paid, full-time writer?
I decided that it wasn’t and, so, again, I quit.
Setting Out on My Own
This time, I started a freelance copywriting and content strategy business. Because writing was still the one thing I wanted to do with my life. I just didn’t want to do it 80 hours a week. I didn’t want to do it to the exclusion of every other thing I loved. And I damn well didn’t want to do it to make someone else filthy rich while my health and happiness faded away.
I started a business with the sole beautiful goal of having more flexibility in my life.
I wanted simple things—to be able to take a hot bath in the middle of a stressful day, to be able to visit family and friends without taking precious vacation time, to travel more, to have my time be my own.
My first year, I broke even. I took those hot baths in the middle of the day. I sometimes took a random day off just to read the next Harry Potter book.
I was more relaxed. Life was a little bit better.
The Dream Persists
But still something wasn’t quite right.
I felt stuck and lonely and struggled with depression. I saw my therapist regularly. I kept quietly asking myself “is this all there is?”
Until one day I started thinking about leaving everything behind—packing up my life and traveling the world full-time with my business and my dog.
Suddenly, the tiredness and loneliness gave way to hope and maybe even a little excitement.
Chasing the Dream
It was the best I’d felt in years—and I knew I had to chase that feeling. So within a year I was on the road. I’d sold my things and let my lease expire. I’d stored a couple boxes in a friend’s basement. I’d gotten my dog micro-chipped and outfitted for travel. And then me and my business and my little dog had taken a one-way flight to Scotland to start what would quickly become a long-term adventure.
People often say that travel changed their lives—but the phrase seems almost inadequate to describe what happened for me. Travel, in this case, didn’t just change my life. It saved my life. It gave me back my spark.
And as that spark came back, with it came an old, dusty desire I’d shelved so long ago.
I wanted to be a travel writer and I wanted to be published in a magazine.
And so I started quietly submitting stories and having success that I hadn’t anticipated. I wrote a spec piece for International Living about how to take your dog to Europe. They snatched it up and asked me for more.
I submitted an unpaid story about the unexpected benefits of traveling with a dog to Dogster Magazine. They loved it and added me to their paid writing team.
And I started to think that maybe what I’d been told when I was a child was wrong. Maybe it was possible to make a living as a creative writer. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have settle for my back-up dream.
So, after a year and a half of travel, while I was taking a month off from my business to hike and think in the Swiss Alps, I asked myself a simple—but vitally important—question:
If I put all my time and energy into it, could I make a living as a freelance travel writer?
When I asked the question, my heart and body expanded with joy and relief. This is all I want to do.
And so, of course, whatever the answer ended up being, I had to try.
Building toward the Dream
Which is why one year ago—in October 2013—I “quit” my freelance copywriting and content strategy business. Grateful to that career for what it taught me about marketing, brevity, headlines, and writing itself, but ready to circle all the way back to the young, creative girl who just wanted to write books and stories.
In the last year, I’ve published four travel guides with a concept I can’t find anywhere else in the book marketplace. Sales are slowly growing every day—from an 80-book sales month during my first launch in June to almost double that in September. And the next book is in the works.
I’ve also published and published and published and, as a result of all that publishing, I’ve recently become an official correspondent with my favorite magazine client.
In some ways, this first year of doing the thing I truly always wanted to do has been rocky. I took a couple copywriting projects to make ends meet while I was working long days on my book manuscripts. I struggled, as we all do, with self-doubt and had mini meltdowns about finances or lost opportunities along the way.
But here’s the really important thing: through all that uncertainty and hard work and change, I am still 100% certain that this is what I want to do.
The way I feel when I’m working on magazine articles, interviewing interesting people, writing my books…that’s the way I want to feel about my work and about my life.
And so, when I sat down last month to look at the year I’d devoted to my dream, I asked myself a simple question again:
Can you make this into your full-time living?
I still think the answer is yes, even though I haven’t quite got there yet. So sitting in my sunny Swiss Alps apartment, where I’ve been based for the last year, I quietly gave myself permission to give another year to my dream. To devote a little more savings, a little more energy, a little more time to thing that matters to me.
As soon as I did that, by the way, my correspondent role (which had been up in the air) came through, my book sales jumped, and my heart and body relaxed, happy to have another year of contentment.
I’m going to take that all as a good sign.
Gigi Griffis is a world-traveling entrepreneur and writer with a special love for inspiring stories, new places, and living in the moment. In May 2012, she sold her stuff and took to the road with a growing business and a pint-sized pooch.
These days, she’s traveling around Europe, working on her next book (100 Locals Switzerland!), and promoting her newly launched, unconventional 100-Locals travel guides for Italy, Paris, Prague, and Barcelona.
Gigi and her work have been featured at The New York Times, Married With Luggage, Miss Minimalist, International Living, Transitions Abroad, Tiny Buddha, and more. And her new travel guides are already hitting top-100 and top-10 lists on sites like Amazon.com.
Get your weekly dose of travel, humor, how-tos, and inspiration at gigigriffis.com.