2022 was one of the most rewarding, creative, and productive periods of my life in recent years.
I’ve written end-of-year reviews of my creative work for the past few years. In keeping with tradition, below are my reflections on 2022 and my plans for 2023.
Reflections & plans
After two years of delays, I finally had a semester-long sabbatical from teaching. My sabbatical took me to Bolivia and Peru for 30 days, where I did research for my ongoing mountains project and took photos for a photobook project I’m working on.
“Sabbatical work” might at first seem to be an oxymoron, give that a sabbath is associated with an abstinence of work, but academics usually go on sabbaticals to focus on research projects while free from teaching/administrative duties. In the academy, sabbaticals are necessary and synonymous with the time and space to do work, once every seven years.
I am a professor at a “teaching” institution, which means the administration gives a low (zero?) priority on academic research. Here, in what is perhaps a tacit acknowledgment of how overworked we all are, sabbaticals are for “rest” and “rejuvenation." They are supposed to get professors excited to return to the classroom, but I fear it has had the opposite effect. I’ve realized how important and integral creative work, research, and writing is to me. I’ve realized that this is the life I want to live; this is the life I cannot live without.
What a joy it is to be unmoored from the “urgent” demands of other people, from pointless emails, unstructured meetings, and dreary obligations; what a joy it is to float on a vast sea of possibility, propelled by one’s own whims and guided by the Polaris-like beacon of a creative pursuit.
When one questions the meaning of life, creative work is often close to the answer. I’ve written a bit more about sabbaticals here.
In short, my sabbatical has helped me see clearly. It has helped me see that my own work is a priority. So, 2023 will see some changes, which are outlined below.
Travel Writing World
I also took a sabbatical from Travel Writing World podcast, which has been nice. Despite how much I love reading travel narratives and interviewing authors, each episode takes a lot of time and energy to schedule, prepare, record, and edit. And it was great to not feel any pressure to read books, do research, and publish new episodes.
Yet, in terms of statistics, the Travel Writing World website almost reached 100k views in 2022. And the podcast continues to grow; we had 1.5x more downloads in 2022 than we had in 2021, and this number includes a few months without new episodes while I was on sabbatical. Thanks to everyone who visited the website or listened one or more of the 23 episodes we published in 2022!
The new year will bring some changes to the podcast. For the past four years, I’ve published a new episode every two weeks, like clockwork. But the sabbatical has taught me that having the time and space to focus on my own creative work — instead of, or in addition to, the creative work of others — is important to me.
No, I’m not shutting down Travel Writing World. But I’m going to give myself permission to publish less frequently. This hurts, as I want to help call attention to the genre, but my own work (and my mental health and time) must be prioritized.
In January 2021, I started writing a monthly newsletter called Genius Loci. In December 2022, the newsletter now has around 1,500 subscribers! I know this is small change for some newsletterers, but it is a big deal to me. It is especially big as we’ve essentially bootstrapped the newsletter using RSS and eschewing services like Substack. Thank you all for subscribing!
The best part of Genius Loci is learning about and sharing the creative, travel/place/nature-related work everyone is doing. But, in 2023, I’ll trim the fat off of Genius Loci and start delivering a leaner, better roundup. Part of this decision has to do with delivering a better product. Part of it also has to do with cultivating a better signal-to-noise ratio of what “content” I consume and help bring attention to.
In August 2022, I ran a pop-up style photography newsletter I called 30 Days in the Andes, which was a lot of fun and a forcing-function for productivity. And in September, after one year, I shut down my Postcards newsletter because it didn’t feel right anymore.
Because Genius Loci has evolved into a roundup-style newsletter, I have started another newsletter in which I can be more experimental, more meandering, more creative. I’m calling this one Drifting, and you can subscribe here. Like Genius Loci, Drifting will go out once a month and will always be free. You can sign up here.
Travel Book of the Year judging
In late 2021, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award organizers invited me to be a judge on the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year panel. I accepted and, in March, I flew to London to celebrate with the nominees and winners at the awards ceremony. During my stay in London, I also interviewed Colin Thubron, Monisha Rajesh, and Tharik Hussain live at Stanfords Covent Garden bookstore. I have interviewed these authors in the past, individually, but spending time with them in person was a highlight of the year. I also had lunch with Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring, publishers of Eland Books, in London.
I’ve been buried in my photobook, which I will try to Kickstart it in the spring of 2023. I’m waffling on the title, which will either be Urkupiña or The Hill of the Skull. As the project evolves, Urkupiña feels better…
Man, making a photobook with words is harder than it looks. But I’m happy with how it is shaping up. The book will have under 100 photos and a short essay. I’m cutting words and images as the days go by. At its peak, the manuscript had some 15,000 words. The current draft is at about 6,500 words and 70 images. I’m still working at it, so more later.
I had a productive chat with a photographer in Spain about my images and my sequencing, which has given the work a shot in the arm. And I hope to give a draft of the essay to a few more readers who I trust will give me critical advice to cut the crap.
If you want to get notified when my book’s Kickstarter goes live, please join this email list (I’ll delete your emails after the launch notifications).
In January 2022, I did a “soft-launch” of a patronage/membership program ARTIFACT INTERNATIONAL. The membership program was designed to support my work and the creation of special edition books, like the one I’m about to Kickstart. But, without a book or a “product” to offer, I learned that the launch was premature.
Now that I am gearing up to Kickstart my photobook, the ARTIFACT INTERNATIONAL website is again live. Let’s call it a “soft launch 2.0.” Its proper launch will be tied to the Kickstarter campaign, so 2.0 also feels premature. But, why not?
During my sabbatical, my Wordpress-hosted site collapsed when a plugin updated. Sick of Wordpress, I set out to find a new system. I saw that a few other creative folks I admire use Hugo and began learning it. I don’t recommend that anyone learn Hugo or deploy their sites using it because it is far too techie for a vast majority of the population. I’d say it is a bit too techie for me, but the time I spent drinking Mountain Dew, eating Doritos, and building websites in the 1990s came in handy when learning how Hugo works.
And it works like a dream. What was a 4 GB Wordpress website became a 30 MB Hugo-generated website. Let that sink in. My Wordpress site was a few orders of magnitude larger than the same site using Hugo. Most of a Wordpress install is bloat, cruft, GUI code, etc. Plus, there is an environmental argument to make in terms of reducing server space, so I’m quite happy all around. Hugo is fast, lightweight, and brings me back to the exciting headaches I had working with html in the 1990s. But I also still don’t recommend it for most people as the barrier-to-entry is too high.
In June, I went on a research trip to South Dakota and Wyoming, where I visited the Black Hills — a space sacred for Native Americans — and other notable sites. Namely, I visited Bear Butte, Black Elk Peak, Devils Tower, Pine Ridge, Mt. Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Memorial. This trip was for an ongoing project about mountains I’m working on (slowly). I also interviewed Richard Zettler, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology and Curator of the Near Eastern Section of the PENN Museum.
I hope to do more work on my mountains project in 2023.
Sabbaticals are highly recommend, 10 out of 10 experiences, not least for the permission it gives you to step away from something that isn’t nourishing than for its gift of distraction-free work and focus.
I’m trying to carry the sabbatical energy with me to my post-sabbatical life. To do so, I need to set boundaries. I’ve deleted distracting apps from my phone like social media, and even those wicked work apps like email and the “digital classroom” apps. More boundaries will be set, the word “no” will be uttered more frequently, and it will be glorious.
2023 promises to be a big year, especially if we can successfully crowdfund the photobook, so let’s say peace-out to 2022 and welcome all the goodness and positivity 2023 will bring.