Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Becoming a Certified Outdoor Writer?

Are bloggers, by definition, writers? If so, should they align professionally with other writers?  It's a complex question, and I asked it of myself about seven years and 600+ blog posts ago, when I began to put River Mud together as the organic thing that it is today.  I quickly found out that according to some, I was not a writer.  

At the time, I was working as a wetland restoration biologist for Ducks Unlimited.  Our regional communications director at the time - a bona fide professional writer - was one of the most spectacularly poor communicators I have ever known in the conservation industry, and I have known many.  I used to make myself laugh by thinking about how hard it was for her to write (or even type) coherently.  Did she have a giant massage chair with some kind of metal, electrified "thinking cap"?  Did she do yoga on her head to concentrate?  Flash cards with fancy words? The punch line was always the same - it didn't work! Still can't write!  

 I'd laugh less when, sitting, tired, briar-torn and mud-baked in a hotel room hundreds of miles from home, I'd receive 11:30pm emails like, "We need to hit the media in North Jersey.  Write me a story about our conservation efforts in North Jersey. Something about hunting heritage blah blah blah.  By tomorrow, 8am CST."   In a twist that was surprising to no one, the resulting articles would be published in her name, usually with an obligatory quote from the lowly field biologist who had written the entire article. I eventually quit complying with her requests by sending dismissive "nothing to report!" emails, a fact that was duly noted in my performance review.   She was fired a few months later for something or other, and I didn't think about her again until today when I read about OWAA's re-definition of "outdoor writer,"which was a relief to see after so many years.

When all that work-related stupidity was going on, this blog was just a few months old, and I thought it would be outstanding to get involved in one of these Outdoor Writer Thingies, because I could meet some folks who could inspire me or disabuse me of any bad ideas I had (I had, and have, many).  Maybe, through networking, fellowship, hard work, and luck, an organization like the Outdoor Writers Association of America could help me become a better outdoors writer.  Seemed like a good reason to invest in a membership of an organization, even one that claimed my former Comm. Director as a member.  So I looked it up.

That's when I met The Rules.  

(paraphrased, with snark)
1.  You have to pay a (not insignificant) annual fee to be called an outdoors writer
2.  You are not a writer unless writing is your full time job
3.  You are not a writer unless someone pays you cold hard cash for each writing task.  Preferably, gold pirate dubloons, or alternately, Confederate dollars in a burlap sack with "$$$" printed on the outside.

Ah.  A setback.  It seemed weird, because writing about the outdoors has been, and continues to be, central to my success as a field biologist.  High quality writing for magazines, newsletters, technical reports, grant applications, and permits has always been a basic requirement of work.  For a decade and a half. Not counting this blog or the many other I've contributed articles toward.   But the Outdoor Writers Association of America sure seemed to disagree.  I didn't meet the Writer requirements of The Rules.  And that was that. 

So, I had mixed feelings today when I read about OWAA's recent decision to allow some outdoor bloggers to join the ranks of their membership.  Dues are still $150, or about a dozen of the best custom duck decoys that money can buy. Or the price of a nice rod and reel combo.  Or the price of a few tanks of gas to share some days afield with old and new friends.  

My bottom line is that seven years ago, I craved and needed the support of an OWAA or something similar.  I found no such support, because unlike every camo-clad 21-year old Pro Staff communications intern for Mossy Oak, I somehow didn't qualify as A Writer.  Now, I'm nearly 40 years old.  My writing is still improving, but I've been at it for quite a while now.  My mind is still growing, but I am growing more stubborn as the calendar continues to turn.  I don't know if I have a place in my mind or my schedule for some of the people I've met who quixotically refer to themselves as outdoor writers - those who arguably care about neither the outdoors or writing as a profession.  That hurts, because I've dedicated my life and my career to both, a passion that can't be captured in a published article like, "Top 10 Shotguns Under $25,000!"  

I'm glad that OWAA is now accepting membership applications from some outdoor bloggers.  But "accepting applications" does not inspire the type of fellowship, critique, and professional enhancement that I've been seeking all this time.  Perhaps as the first cadre of outdoor bloggers enters into the fold at OWAA, that will change.  I sense that OWAA believes that's the case, and seems to accept it, which makes them a rarity among organizations.  Credit is due on that account. 

I owe much to my writing.  It has expanded my great professional reputation over a pretty nice geographical region, and has helped me explain some controversial outdoor issues I've been involved with over the years.  It has helped me sort my own thoughts and theories out in private, and in some cases, it has spared me very public embarrassment.   I would love for my writing to have a more spacious home one day, but for right now, its home is here, where the OWAA said - until today - that it belongs.   I look forward to seeing OWAA grow and seeing how their acceptance of the blog format as "writing" impacts their larger body of members, and their idea of what outdoor writing is supposed to be, and supposed to do.


The Reverend Fowl ™ said...

My opinion of clubs and associations is that these should have had the foresight or wisdom to offer special hardship memberships during severe economic recession.

BrookfieldAngler said...

Well golly very nice of them. I suppose I should be honored by the OWAA's graciousness to accept some of us outdoor bloggers.

After all, my entire goal in blogging was to receive swarms of attention and acclimation from snooty clubs that make me feel like I am privileged to be allowed to give away $150 a year to.

I am so honored and will stay awake at night while I await the results of my application with baited breath and check in hand.


Kirk Mantay said...

Rev - I agree. My favorite hotdog stand in NYC has a "Recession Special" and it's wonderful and appreciated.

Nick - that is awesome...I think I'm more neutral on it. I see the positive potential but I too sense that the OWAA believes they are doing bloggers a huge favor by even considering to allow our presence among their ranks. Maybe I misread the attitude, but it was pretty perceptible. And not appreciated.

Andy @ Bow Hunting Maryland said...

I am glad to hear it. Like you my end goal/dream would be to have something written that was published in a bigger home. I have only been at this for a couple years, so in a way I encouraged by you River Mud as you are still at it and it gives us all hope. Like you, I will continue to keep writing in hopes that one day their will be a place, maybe for all of us outdoor bloggers. I think in time outdoor bloggers will be accepted, but I think currently there are too many blogs that write 5 - 10 posts a year, and call that blogging. I think for those that actively blog and are half successful as we are should have a place in the world of outdoor writing just the same as those guys a Mossy Oak prostaff you spoke of.

What do they have that we don't?

Thanks for the post!

BrookfieldAngler said...

BTW.....I did some research and found out that I qualify. I can now die a happy man

Peter Patenaude said...

What is their reasoning behind the change of attitude?
$150.00 is a steep price, but I suppose if you are getting paid for everything that you write it might not seem so bad.
I really enjoyed your article on this.

Kirk Mantay said...

Peter - thanks! I think the story answering your question would be even more fascinating. In short, I'd bet the answer is twofold:

1. increased relevancy
2. cross-pollination of high quality writers who don't regularly write for fee, but provide timely information on which readers depend.

About 3 years ago, newspaper readership surveys started to show that people were more likely to get their "information" from a blog, FB, or Twitter than a newspaper - even an online newspaper. This, as newspapers and magazines are going belly up all over the world because a 4-day old report on a bombing in Syria, splashed across the front page, is not exactly breaking news.

That reality goes to my #1 and #2 above....

Peter Patenaude said...

I could not agree with you more.

I have a hard time understanding the previous logic- it would be like a car club not accepting your membership because you are not a paid mechanic.

Kirk Mantay said...

Well again, I think the most interesting thing is the "difficult" organizational psychology, which by its nature was probably never spoken.

1. You are only a real writer once you get paid to write.

2. If you don't get paid to write, you are not really a writer, and by definition, probably do not know how to write.

Again, I'd be willing to believe that they've moved away from that thought process, but I haven't seen anything yet that really highlights such a shift.

Peter Patenaude said...

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Chris said...

I can certainly appreciate the sentiment--that bloggers have long been marginalized by "professionals" in the outdoor writing genre...

BUT... let me be the first to assuage your concerns that OWAA is "doing you a favor." Far from it. By joining OWAA, both parties gain. Bloggers are earning legitimacy, and I've worked for two years now to see that OWAA recognizes that bloggers are, indeed, bona fide outdoor communicators. By expanding its membership, OWAA is embracing digital communicators who truly do offer something to their readers and, quite frankly, to the organization.

I've been to several conferences, and I'm happy to report that the "snooty" factor is at a minimum, and that everyone who attends is embraced with open arms and granted the exact same opportunities through the organization, regardless of their medium or their chosen outdoor topic.

Don't poo-poo this opportunity, and it IS an opportunity. Every year at conference, OWAA ensures that members have access to the best resources to improve their craft, from blogging advice to "how to get published" advice, including the opportunity to meet one-on-one with editors--if you want to get published, there's nothing like getting 20 minutes of advice from the editor of The Drake or TROUT Magazine (along with a free beer).

Couple that with the benefits that come with membership--access to the Outdoor Market, where editor ASK for submissions and story queries, and the monthly online and physical copies of Outdoors Unlimited (the org's newsletter that is chock-full of advice and "how to" information), and that steep price of $150 doesn't seem so steep any longer.

I urge you, before you make up your mind on this, to do a little investigating. Hell... at least FIVE members of OWAA's board of directors blog frequently, both professionally and (like me) for personal enrichment. This isn't a blue-blood, tweedy group of outdoor writing snobs (do you think I would have survived eight years as a member if that were the case?). This is a group of people who dearly love the outdoors and work to communicate some of the best writing, video, audio and photography about dozens of topics to the world.

Do your homework, and feel free to ask me any questions about it... I am an OWAA member and I urge you to consider becoming a member. You'll be a better blogger, and OWAA will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the digital world.

Trust me... the benefits are mutual.

Kirk Mantay said...

Chris, thanks for reaching out with such attention to the comments posted above.

If anything, I, perhaps like others, just lament the timing. I wish I'd had such a resource 5 or 10 years ago. I'm curious from an academic standpoint of how the shift happened (and I would love to hear that story from you, and perhaps tell it here), but ultimately, like most things in history, it DID happen, so "why" becomes less important.

Now, in my particular case, I'm being confronted with whether I am bold enough to learn new ways to do things, and whether I can keep it together if my search for "bigger and better writing" can still be stewarded by other folks in the field. I've been doing it "the hard way" for so long that it's become comfortable. I think I can say that. I will definitely drop you a line.


Kirk @ River Mud

Chris said...

Kirk... I'd love to chat about this... I'm certainly not the only one affiliated with OWAA who pushed for full blogger membership, but I know I was one of the more vocal advocates...

As for timing, well... it is what it is, right? I guess late is better than never.

And, frankly, OWAA is like a lot of professional organizations that looked up one day and found themselves woefully behind the times when it comes to communicating online and digitally. If it is to remain relevant and helpful to the profession, it must evolve and offer its services to the next generation of communicators in a way that makes those communicators better at their craft.

I totally get the "hard way" notion--I left newspapers almost a decade ago (you could say I "escaped" just in time, frankly) and came to work for TU, where I discovered the value of having established outdoor communicators take up our causes for us, or at least report on them and shine some light on important issues.

Over the years, I've started my own blog and I blog regularly at TU, as well, so I understand the notion of content and how to reach an audience (and it's all about content, isn't it?) A few years ago, I attended a session at OWAA where the speaker--a well-known midwestern hunting and fishing writer--actually encouraged members to start a blog and develop a following.

What I've found over the years was that my own blogging kept my writing sharp (that's debatable, of course), and allowed me to reach readers who appreciated what I had to say within the fly fishing world. I didn't think much of it until I saw OWAA's membership rolls flagging--its most-esteemed members were appearing in OU in obituaries, rather than in self-authored pieces about craft improvement. I think that's when it became evident to me and a few others that OWAA needed to adapt to a changing landscape.

I'm hopeful that offering full membership to bloggers--and I honestly believe that the more bloggers who join, the more the group will evolve to serve the genre--will help OWAA grow instead of retract, and change instead of steadfastly remaining static.

I'm happy to chat... any time. Thank for the great post--I think just communicating about the issue is positive, even if some of your readers opt not to become a part of OWAA.

That said, if any bloggers meet the criteria (and they're pretty modest honestly), I'm happy to be a sponsor or recommend a sponsor. Thanks for letting me be something of an evangelist... I'm grateful for the opportunity.

Kirk Mantay said...

Chris, thanks for another outstanding response that explains a lot about this process. I'll be shooting you an email.

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