Friday, December 21, 2012

A Nightmare before Christmas 2012 – recapping the highlights of my year, the good, the bad and the great

The Good (in another life)

I was quite a talented kid. I was the best artist in my class in primary school. I was the best writer of English essays in high school. So much so, kids who wanted to go for A’s in English came to me for advice on essay writing. I was also both the fastest runner and fastest swimmer in my class. I achieved provincial colours in swimming, biathlon and later triathlon. I was in the top 5 academically; my highest average ever was 89%. I played football for the first team, and for Free State, and hockey – briefly – for the 2nd team. This also wasn’t some backyard school in the bundus, it was Grey College, one of the top schools in South Africa.

Alas, my reign as academic genius didn’t last, in fact matric turned out to be my worst year at school of all 12 years. But, at least I walked away with university exemption.

When I started triathlon, I quickly made it into the top 5 or 6 nationally. My companions told me I had the best proportioned bod, my dad called me ‘spiere’, some of the kids I swam with said I had a better body than Ryk Neethling. For my 21st birthday I invited about 100 kids. I had a lot of friends and girlfriends.  

The Goals

It is odd looking at the above paragraphs and comparing all that to the present. What have I achieved in 2012? Am I still fit? Am I still at the top of something? I went for a walk yesterday and felt a strong sense that I want to achieve something of significance again.
 I’ve identified these as:

1) Publishing a book (and make that a very well written, thoroughly researched, highly polished novel)
2) Proving that - at 41 years of age - I am still physically capable of performing at a very high level.

 I haven’t identified the goal here yet, but the sub 40 minute 10km is part of it, and taking a stab at world 70.3 (Half Ironman) champs is definitely a contender. We’ll look at these two goals again at the end of this post.

Right now, it’s worth examining how we measure the meaning or value of our time spent on earth. There’s only one fireproof measure for whether one has had a good day, a good week, a good year – even a good life. How much did you grow? Happiness seems to be correlated to learning, mastering and performing well. Happiness seems to be embedded in the experience of pursuing a goal, having a sense of mission, and slowly creeping up on that ambition and seeing it come to fruition. Growing also happens through our experience of friendship and love with our fellow human beings. When we hold grudges, or isolate, or alienate ourselves, we get stuck. When we find ways to connect and experience the world, we flourish again.

So in a sense 2012 has been one of my best years. I’ve realised this at various times, and in a variety of permutations. I’ve grown through a lot of diverse relationships – folks that I run with, my on again off again girlfriend Maria, a trip I did to Haksskeenpan and Namibia with someone I hardly know, and a bunch of new faces I’ve met via photography, Facebook and what not. I’ve also done some weird stuff this year just for the hell of it.

The Bad 

The oddest ‘growth experience’ was probably in September, when I took Brainstorm magazine, and its moody editor, Samantha Perry, to the CCMA.

 [If you’d like to skip this episode, jump to…]

Although I clearly lost in that encounter, and lost badly (two trips to Johannesburg and back, and I refused their offer of a R5000 upfront settlement) it was unexpected for me to have almost entirely forgotten such a malicious episode as early as a month later. I think the reason for this was that I realised writing for a magazine no one has even heard of, and committing almost all of my time, wasn’t aligned with the reason I took up freelancing in the first place. Let me spell out that reason quickly here.

In high school I started writing novels. That in turn came from a voracious appetite for reading. In fact I read so much that it often fell to me, if something voluminous needed to be read, to read to the class. That love for reading led to a deep-seated desire to write. It went beyond the simple act of writing I think, I think it came from a desire to be heard. I was a teenager at the time, after all, so it was something I was feeling less and less at home. Nothing came of those early attempts. The second attempt involved 2 years of work. I made later attempts at university to produce works of fiction, and then again whilst living in Bristol, England. But at the end of the day, I published nothing.

So the idea to write for magazines was not because I was particularly interested in journalism (please don't ever refer to me as a ‘journalist’, I am a writer and a photographer, though photojournalist I can live with). I wrote for magazines to pave the way for a novel. So that editors will have heard and seen my name. At the same time, it gave me a chance to practise, improve and refine my craft. And I’m not going to lie to you, I enjoy writing, so doing it as a job, and writing about things that interest me, seems like a decent way to make a living. You’ll never be rich, but your days will be richer than the average cubicle slaves. That was the thinking.

Surviving as a freelancer, especially at first, isn’t easy. But I found one niche magazine was able to provide me with a stable income, and that became a lifeline. With that I felt I was able to build and extend my portfolio. But eventually I realised, Brainstorm was failing in two vital areas. No one knew about the magazine, so it wasn’t going to enhance my reputation as writer to a prospective book publisher or editor. And secondly, I found both the magazine and the work I was doing for them increasingly lacklustre, in a word: boring. It felt like work, not fun. I was enjoying it less and less.

So when that relationship soured in May this year, and while I mourned the loss of about 6 articles (written, edited, submitted and ultimately written off because of an editor’s bad mood) and the huge amounts of my personal time and effort wasted (not to mention that I couldn’t afford to lose large amounts of income-for-rent like that), it wasn’t long before I realised the loss of what had been a vital income stream, was a blessing rather than a curse. In short shrift I identified other magazines that I wanted to contribute to, and oddly enough, some of the longest shots paid off. R18 000 or so did come as a big loss, certainly, and one of the articles I worked particularly hard on – interviews with some of SA’s top film directors – was particularly painful to lose. But I discovered I was easily able to replace my work for them for work elsewhere. It paid better, it was more interesting and best of all, it was at magazines people had actually heard of.

Odd Thing

 And a very odd thing happened while I was sitting at the table during the CCMA meeting. At one point Perry dropped her phone on the floor and it bounced close to my foot. She asked me to pick it up. I had a very strange sense, stooping under the table to pick up the phone for an editor who was fighting for the right not to pay me for work she asked me to do...I realised I was in the wrong place, dealing with the wrong people. That same sense hit me when I worked for AVUSA.  I suffered two years under an insufferable boss at the Sowetan, Juliet Saunders, a woman who insisted throughout the period when I worked for her that “Nick, you can not write!”  She said these words to me in no uncertain terms on my first day, and then repeated it again and again.  She stuck by her guns too, publishing only one story I wrote in the entire 2 years I spent working for her, and only because it was the most self-deprecating story I could think of [How to make up for blunders at work.]

But coming back to the CCMA, a little later in the discussion everyone (Perry, her counsel, even the CCMA commissioner herself) queried how I could be entirely dependent on one magazine for an income when I was earning often as little as R3000 per month, and usually no more than R6000. It’s even hard for me to believe that those tough times happened, and persisted for over a year, and that a few months on, they are well and truly behind me. Months spent subsisting uncomfortably with a stranger I hardly knew, paying a minimal rent or no rent at all. And still struggling. And just as I was making a breakthrough at another publishing house (Touchline Media’s Bicycling and Sports Illustrated) Ryk Neethling of all people basically went behind my back and pulled the plug on that opportunity, and it was back to square one. Yes, a very difficult and frustrating time. But one that floated to the surface when these three women were badgering me with questions, thinking I was dishonest when I said I had been almost entirely financially dependent on their magazine.


My circumstances have changed quite a bit since then. I’m now paying around R4000 rent per month, and have been for the past year and a half. If you consider that one article in a magazine is worth R2000 – R3000, then do the math – you need about 3-4 articles every month in order to survive financially. To get to that level means you have to be on top of your game. Your work always has to be on spec, delivered on time, editors must like and trust you, and the quality of your work must be consistent, and consistently topical.

The Great

 No one is more surprised than I am, that despite losing my prime source of income when the relationship with Brainstorm came to an abrupt end, I simply continued to pitch to other magazines, just adding a few new ones out of the hat, and was able to function from then on almost unaffected. It shows me how far I have come as a photojournalist.  There was a time, after all, when you'd send 20 pitch emails without a single response.  Or you'd get a single commission in a month and count yourself lucky.  Now, I expect almost every pitch I send to be worthy of work, but at the same time, if it isn't, you move on unaffected.

The highlight of this exercise (writing for other publication besides Boredstorm) is undoubtedly that my work has appeared for the first time in the one magazine that I set my sights on when I first started writing – GQ. Twice this year, actually, with two more pieces due out early next year. I also added a slew of additional magazines to my portfolio, and to cap it off, won a photography contract commissioned by the SKA. It is perhaps the largest photography commission in SA, and involves probably the world’s largest and most sophisticated scientific project (and I haven’t forgotten the LHC in Switzerland). The jackpot prize with that commission, of course, is that I also use the opportunity to liaise and write about groundbreaking scientific and technological developments and advances.

In 2012 I’ve written for the following publications:

Leisure Wheels
Your Family
Marie Claire
Blue Train
Fitness for Men
Fitness for Women
Mercedes Benz
Country Life
Sunday Independent
iMag (published by City Press)
Tour De France magazine
Ironman Magazine

Right now a short piece I wrote for MyNews is currently the most commented article on South Africa's most popular news website.
 You can read it here: 3 Questions Christians never ask (or try to answer)

Other highlights of the year included doing the Cherry Run (23km over a mountain), the purchase of another new camera, this blog hitting the 1 000 000 page impression mark, running a sub 49 minutes in the first 10km of the Glen half marathon, staying overnight on the edge of the Fish River Canyon, and believe it or not, the ongoing thrill of writing BLOODLINE, currently at 111 000 words and just a

 few weeks from completion. It feels like I have physically BEEN to all those places.

My favourite films this year were: 

1. The Hobbit
2. Prometheus
3. Brave
4. Skyfall
5. Die Wonderwerker
6. The Dark Knight Rises
7. The Avengers
8. Total Recall
9. The Hunger Games
10. Snow White and the Huntsman

Interestingly, elements of all these movies feature in my book, Bloodline. The swords and sandals, and abundance of nature from the Hobbit, the mix of existential angst and survival instincts of Prometheus, the setting of Brave and Skyfall, the tragic expertise (and animal husbandry) of Eugene Marais, the dystopia of the Dark Knight Rises, Total Recall and Hunger Games, and the sheer heroism and spectacle of The Avengers. Although Snow White was, to me, not a great success, I find it stimulating that fairy tales can be interpreted with such dark relevance to these times. The setting of Snow White, if not the story itself, is perhaps the closest match visually for what I have in mind for Bloodline.

 It should be obvious that I am very interested in the impact of STORY. It can educate and inspire us, and that’s what I aim to do. The challenge is whilst writing a story that means something, to simultaneously live a life of substance. I’m not sure if I always achieve that, but I am growing, and if my legs can carry me, 2013, 2014 or 2015 should see 1) and 2) singed into real time.

 Before I bid you adieu with a big slap on the back, I need to make a few final (slightly cryptic) points.  Just as Bilbo in the Hobbit says 'I may not have told you all of it' I have not either.  There are a few pertinent points I choose not to reveal, although these may be uppermost in my mind.  It may be a relationship I'm in, or a particular dilemma I had at a border crossing and someone called Serena Crosby, or problems I seem to be having with my hips.  I'm also not going to pretend 2012 was perfect.  Although I've made a good many new friends, my relationships with my closest family still isn't great.  I'm not on speaking terms with my sister, and I hardly ever see my father and brother.  But overall, it's been one of the best years since 2000.  Stable, steady, and growing in many respects.  Much of the stability has been due to great living arrangements, and a man's best friend, all of which make me feel very grateful.

 If you’ve read this far, thank you for sharing in my journey, and I’m guessing if you've shared in mine, your journey now and next year is worth sharing too. I’d love to hear it!

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