I’ve written end-of-year reviews of my creative work for the past three years. In keeping with tradition, below are my reflections on 2023 and my plans for 2024.
In sum, 2023 was a difficult year for me, creatively speaking. It taught me some valuable lessons, some of which I’ll break down below. As ever, things are changing around here. Read on to learn more.
Last year in numbers
- Book-shaped things published: 1 (The Hill of the Skull)
- Total words published: >37,0001
- Podcast episodes published: 12
- Videos made: 10
- Published The Hill of the Skull
- A few Prix de la Photographie Paris honorable mentions for my photography
- Published an essay on OffAssignment
The Hill of the Skull
A highlight of the year was finishing and publishing my new book The Hill of the Skull.
There aren’t too many books like it. A travel memoir and a photobook smushed into one. It isn’t perfect — no book is —, but I’m proud of it. Feedback from readers, writers, and critics has been positive, which fills me with joy because working on it was so difficult. It is inherently rewarding to see projects evolve and blossom into what they become.
A lowlight of the year was failing to crowdfund the book.
ICYMI: I tried to crowdfund a full-color, offset-printed, special-edition version of The Hill of the Skull on Kickstarter last October. At $12,000 USD, the funding goal was quite high. But that was the amount I needed to do it right using one of the major photobook printers in the EU.
Sixty-nine people helped push the campaign over $4,000 in a few days, which was amazing!
But the campaign stalled after that. This made me feel a bit foolish, as we would have met and exceeded the funding goal had I chosen to use one of the Chinese manufacturers I got quotes from. Several Chinese quotes were under $4,000, including freight to the USA.
I learned a hard business lesson here. I also gained some insight into my “audience.” I’ve unpacked these topics here.
Anyway, I decided to publish The Hill of the Skull in black-and-white using print-on-demand services. The vision I had for the book remains unrealized, but the at least book is published. The book is available now from my shop and, if you must, from Amazon here.
I’ve also decided to offer collectable, square prints on my shop.
I’m selling individual prints (and discounted sets) from The Hill of the Skull and from my travels in Italy.
They also look spectacular framed and on the wall.
I got the idea to sell square prints from Magnum’s annual square prints sale. My square prints are printed using the same archival materials as Magnum’s, and they’re the same size/dimensions.
They also designed to be affordable, because affordable art is good art. Whereas Magnum charges $110 a print, I am charging a reasonable $30.2
Artifact International members get an additional 40% off prints on top of that already-low price. Buying from creators directly is one of the best ways to support independent creators.
Next year will see the official launch of ARTIFACT INTERNATIONAL, my Patreon-like membership program. I have mentioned ARTIFACT INTERNATIONAL here and there, but I held off on formally announcing it because I had planned on doing a proper launch during The Hill of the Skull’s crowdfunding campaign. You all know what happened with that.
I’ve “soft launched” it already, which means I’ve written about it and the program is live, but I haven’t made a big fuss about it. I’ve plugged it on posts here and there. I haven’t really launched it because I’ve felt shameful, scared, and weird asking for direct support like this. Yet, despite this, people have found and joined. If you are one of the members — THANK YOU.
January 2024 will see the official launch of the thing. It will be visibly integrated into my public, online work. It will feel shameful and weird, but it may create a path forward.
I’m aiming for the unrealistic goal of 50 subscribers in 2024, or about 4 per month.
Learn more about ARTIFACT INTERNATIONAL.
Join now, and let's make artifacts together.
This year’s surprise was YouTube.
In May 2023, when I posted my first “real” video, I had less than 250 subscribers. These 250 subscribers came over the course of a few years of posting Travel Writing World episodes to the platform. I didn’t put too much time or energy into posting podcasts on YouTube, and I forgot to post many episodes because of the extra work.
Now at the end of 2023, after having posted a few YouTubey3 videos to my channel, I now have a little over 800 subscribers. The “subscriber count” doesn’t really matter; I’m pointing this out to illustrate the platform’s power and potential. Namely, YouTube videos have more “reach” potential than Instagram photographs/video.
YouTube’s barriers to entry are far greater than other platforms. A competent video is more difficult to make than a podcast episode, a blog post, or some “content” for Instagram or TikTok. But that’s also its great virtue. Because it is more difficult, the competition is lower, engagement is stronger, and the potential for growth is bigger.
Travel Writing World, farewell?
Not to bury the lede too deeply, Travel Writing World is going on an indefinite hiatus. Nobody cares about the reasons why I’m pulling the plug, so what follows is for me and posterity.
My podcasting slowdown in 2023 was part of a trend that began the year before. In 2023, I published only 12 episodes of the podcast. Three of this year’s episodes were specifically related to my book The Hill of the Skull, which means nine were actual interviews. In each of the years before, that number was around 24. The current slowdown began in the last quarter of 2022, when I left on sabbatical and began focusing on my own work. When I came back from my sabbatical, I didn’t rush into to recording new episodes. Why? Partly because I was focusing on my own work; partly because I was beginning to feel like the podcast was pulling me into a direction I didn’t want to go.
I have always been clear with my intentions: I started the podcast to learn more about the genre and build a network. The only podcasters that were talking about travel writing back in 2019 were talking about travel blogging, or they were talking about travel journalism. While there is some overlap, my main interests were in books and literature. But as the podcast grew in popularity, it began to feel like a chore, as if I was an appendage of the marketing/influencer machine.
But the most important reason for putting Travel Writing World on hiatus is the time and mental energy associated with producing the podcast. It all takes too much time: episode prep (reading entire books, researching, scheduling), recording the interview (technical setup, reviewing notes), editing (cutting, splicing, mastering), getting the episode scheduled (writing show notes, uploading, prepping files, creating cover images), etc.
Working on the podcast means that I’m spending less time on my own work. It also means that I’m reading books that are unrelated to my main research interests. Maybe it isn’t a problem for you, but I find it near impossible to constantly switch from one frame of reference to another. It is an interrupter. And, for me, too much interruption is the death of creativity.
I suppose I could interview writers without having read their books (reading the books takes up most of the time), but I respect the listener too much. Podcast listeners have a glut of options. And it is an honor when someone gives their time and attention to my podcast instead of another podcast. For that reason, I couldn’t disrespect the listener by giving them poorly researched, half-assed episodes. It’s not that I think my show is anywhere near the top of well-researched, literary podcasts. But I didn’t build the show with winging it in mind; that’s not what listeners expect or deserve.
I also don’t consider myself a particularly good interviewer. I’m not a good conversationalist. I thought the podcast would help me improve that aspect of myself, but it hasn’t. I had toyed with the idea of bringing on a co-host, but who? How?
Anyway, I think it is time to pull the plug, to move on.
What will become of the website and the podcast?
The website will continue to exist, its episodes available for as long as I am alive and able to pay the bill. And, while I am pulling the plug, I may stick it back into the outlet from time to time to make sure everything still works. But no promises.
That being said, I’m not sure I’m done with audio.
A new podcast?
I am toying with the idea of a new podcast, one that hinges on my creative journey. As such, it will take a lot less time and energy. It will feel (and perhaps look) a lot different than Travel Writing World. It will be more personal, more self-indulgent. It will be a creative journal of sorts. I will probably chat with other people, and about other people’s work, but it will have a completely different vibe than Travel Writing World.
If I go through with it, it will be tied to a new category on my website called “Creator’s Log,” which is just a place where I write about my week’s creative efforts. Its not for anyone else, really. It is just a place where I work with the garage door open, so to speak. It is a record I am writing for myself, and for anyone else who may be going through a similar creative journey. Weirdos like me can subscribe to my Creative Log via RSS or email.
Speaking of email, let’s talk about my newsletters.
As you may know, I have a two main newsletters: Genius Loci and Drifting. Newsletter growth has been slow, but steady. But holy cow! There are around 1900 folks out there in the world who subscribe to one of my newsletters! I know this is small change for some, but this number humbles me.
Many of these sign-ups are driven by the free PDF I offer on the Travel Writing World website. Reader magnets, as these things are sometimes called,4 help increase email sign-ups. A newsletter itself can be an end product, but sign-ups multiply when you sweeten the pot with something readers cannot get elsewhere like a free ebook, PDF, or a thingamajig.
My newsletters continue to evolve, and their formats will change slightly in 2024.
Genius Loci will still include a round-up of interesting links from around the interwebs. But the links will be fewer in number, while the conversation around them will dive deeper.
Drifting will still have permission to be experimental (i.e.: whatever I want it to be, weird). But it will lean more heavily into “literal and literary wandering,” with deeper discussions of books and ideas.
Ditching social media
In one of his blog posts from January 2023, Rolf Potts discussed weening himself off social media and his desire to break the cycle of “continuous partial attention” (CPA). Linda Stone, who coined the phrase, noted that CPA is different from multitasking in that it is linked to “a desire to be a live node on the network.” Our continual checking-in — our social-media fomo; our scrolling, scanning, engaging — is an unproductive act that (in addition to its many other issues) kills creativity and our connection with our real lives.
With that being said, I’m following in Rolf’s footsteps. I’m removing all social media apps from my phone. I’ll still keep my accounts, and post on them from time to time through my computer. For example, my social media engagement on Threads may look something like: sharing URLs to my work, sharing and cross-promoting my friends’ work, and posting interesting quotes. But the apps are off my phone, once and for all. This is done with the intention of creating more of the work I want to create, and being more present the life I want to live.
An unhappy return
After a rewarding sabbatical in the autumn of 2022, I returned to full-time teaching in January. Exactly a year ago, just before I returned to the classroom, I wrote
(At my institution), 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.
My return to the classroom in January has reaffirmed this sentiment. I feel an urgency to focus on my own work. This urgency has been aggravated by an acute sense of diminishing time/energy that comes with… day jobs? life? aging?
As Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in the first book of My Struggle
Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I… do what?
The answer: anything but the work he craves and feels called to do.
My current situation — teaching at an increasingly bureaucratic community college — is not conducive to the life I crave to live, or with my creative goals. It is quite different than the life I thought I was creating for myself. It is not that I don’t like teaching. I like to help others achieve their dreams, but not at the expense of my own.
Teaching has never been my calling; it has never been my vocation. I always saw it as a means to an end, as a way to live a creative life. It puts food on my table, but it doesn’t nourish my soul. If teaching at a community college is a means to an end, it is a dead end: revolving committees, a deluge of pointless emails and meetings, middle managers justifying their jobs by inventing unnecessary busywork, no time to live your life. The actual teaching has bright spots, but they’re about as bright and as numerous as the stars over Times Square — you know there out there, somewhere, but you rarely see them.
Something has got to give.
This problem is one economic in nature. My current economic realities — a family, a mortgage — complicate my next move. Just ripping off the bandage? I’ve thought about it. But it isn’t sensible. In a word, I’m stuck.
How does one redesign a life? How does one jump out of a speeding car? How does one mitigate hell’s flames? How does one redefine our relationship with the inevitable event — death? These are the same questions. These are the questions I’ve been busy with this past year.
In one of my classes last semester, at least half of my students used artificial intelligence to generate their term papers. I’ll save my rant on artificial intelligence in higher education for another time and place. But allow me to say some words on artificial intelligence’s potential impact on culture.
As I wrote in an unpublished essay that draws parallels between photography’s relationship to painting and AI’s relationship to writing:
Photography didn’t kill art. It helped revolutionize it. In other words, new technologies don’t necessarily destroy established industries. But that’s not to say that they don’t change them.
The rise of photography was an inflection point in the history of art, and it coincided with (caused?) the explosion of artistic abstraction and experimentation we now call modernism. The takeaway is that new technologies help birth new formal approaches to old, established modes of creativity.
How might artificial intelligence give rise to novel formal approaches?
It remains to be seen. But my hunch is that the creative class will take a tighter turn toward the human, the subjective, the personal, the experiential, the real, the flawed, the abstract, the interstitial, the obscure, the difficult, the slow, the poetic. The creative avant-garde will find and exploit new modes of expression as a means of resistance. With AI, what is objective will become fast and easy, what is fast and easy will become perfect, and what is perfect will become devalued and cheap. The coming creative renaissance might be anything but easy, perfect, and cheap.
Principles for 2024
Create a lot more, consume a lot less. Your own creative work should take precedence over that of others. If it comes at the cost of your own creativity, stop reviewing and consuming the work of others. Question and reconsider everything unnecessary that stands between you and your work.
Double down on project-based creativity and start working on projects… even if you don’t finish them. Create artifacts.
Create a little bit, every single day. A challenge: write at least 200 words, and make at least one photograph each day.
Only share occasional notes, external links to your work, and the work of others on social media. Otherwise, stay off social media.
When you share, share more of yourself, more of your personality, more of your humanity, more of your work. Perfection is not a virtue.