Lessons learned from a DIY film & book tour

Sunrise over Yerevan and Mount Ararat

So I’m back in Yerevan, my Iranian visa application is filed, and I’ve a week to kill: a good opportunity to look back before the madness of travel descends. It’s been an eventful few weeks with much food for thought.

I’ve toured all over the UK and Ireland, attending 12 dates between the book launch in London a month ago and the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival last week.

I’ve travelled 2,627 miles by train (yes, I was bored enough to figure this out), taken 3 ferries, cycled a few hundred miles, and only encountered a single rail-replacement bus service.

I’ve stood on stage with a microphone in a 449-seat auditorium, and I’ve sat beside a pile of books in a café where only 2 people showed up.

I’ve slept in business hotels (nice, not-so-nice and truly abysmal), on the floor of student digs, and on deserted beaches in a bivvy bag.

The variety of experience has been fantastic, but the month has not been without its stumbling blocks. As with the annual review I conducted at the end of last year, there are two obvious questions:

What went well?

What didn’t go well?

(By the way, now’s a good time to grab a cup of tea.)

The Good

Touring, brilliantly, got me out of the house. This sounds silly, but let’s not forget that I spent almost six months in solitary confinement to get the book and DVD launched before starting the tour.

Island bivvy

Hitting the road was a breath of fresh air, the simple act of being in motion bringing some much-needed perspective to my endeavours — a reminder that regularly changing your environment and circumstances, even if only for a few hours or a single night, is just as important as getting your work done.

Meeting people was my main personal goal of the tour: to put faces to names and Twitter handles, to meet up with blog readers in person, and to get a flavour of what people are actually up to in this country.

And so I met cycle campaigners and activists, bicycle-tourers turned tour leaders, adventure bloggers and publishers, up-and-coming outdoor journalists, climbing nutters turned film festival organisers, charity fundraising specialists, university society committees, as well as other long-distance cyclists.

I was inspired by the good things that so many people are doing with their time. None of them were living lazy lives of comfort and opulence and ease. But then none of them held this as the end goal of civilised society, either. It’s easy to spend time in the virtual world, forgetting that the real one is much more interesting.

Conquering a fear of public speaking was another big motivator for touring. While I am still by no means comfortable when all eyes and ears are on me (I’m naturally shy and I wrote the book believing it would excuse me from doing talks!), I’ve hosted Q&A sessions with thousands of audience members now, and I’m as happy doing that as I’ll ever be.

Having procrastinated for years, this weakness — a challenge as valid as any other — is now well on the way to being tackled, simply by saying “yes” to events and committing to dealing with fear by having no choice but to do so. (I’m still working on the introductory chat, as I’m finding the cold start difficult.)

And I travelled to cities I was embarassed to admit I’d never visited — Newcastle, Glasgow, Sheffield, Dublin — and was thrilled by how vibrant and interesting and characterful they seemed to be. Was this the effect of having a bit more experience of travelling with open eyes and an open mind? Or had they always been big cultural hubs and I’d simply chosen to ignore them until now?

In the same spirit, I’ve just ordered a guidebook for my local area to see what else I’m choosing to ignore. Why not do the same?

Travelling also created opportunities for microadventures on home turf. Swimming to Peel Island and sleeping there was the most satisfying jaunt I’ve been on for months. And I can barely remember waking up to a morning as superb as the one I had on Arran.

Having an itinerary (a rarity for me) created openings of time into which I could slot enjoyable, adventurous little trips. I toured with a folding bike and a bivvy-bag alongside my money-tin, deodorant and spare underwear. The excursions required minimal planning, fitted easily around my schedule, and could therefore have been done by anyone.

Hence the very concept of the microadventure.

Finally, it was a very simple satisfaction to see this story’s effect upon the people who turned out to hear, watch and read it.

The greatest thing for me about writing — which I’m reminded of occasionally by thank-you emails from dissatisfied nine-to-fivers turned bicycle-mounted vagabonds — is its ability to exist independently once created, outgrowing the writer and having an effect of its own upon the world.

The same is true for filmmaking. By attending these events I was able to see this with my own eyes, and to participate in conversations that sprang from it was extremely fulfilling. It was a welcome reminder of the most fundamental reason I bothered publishing the book and releasing the film myself, rather than simply writing, uploading and moving on.

The Bad

In case anyone is under the impression that a book and film tour is all glamour, fame and fortune — it ain’t.

My hotel room in Gashena, Ethiopia

There’s nothing glamorous about being shipped off after an event to the worst kind of Travelodge, in which you can’t find anything that isn’t wrong with the room, and wish you were back in an Ethiopian village (really).

Getting four hours sleep a night — if you’re lucky — isn’t glamorous. Nor is apologising to the front row of your audience for reeking of wood smoke (though it is slightly amusing). Nor is walking on stage hoping nobody will notice you’ve been wearing the same unwashed clothes at 11 of your 12 gigs!

And there’s nothing glamorous about spending several hours a day on a rail network where it takes longer to get from one side of Britain to another than to fly to Asia.

(I rejoiced when I discovered that first-class advance tickets are sometimes the cheapest. At this point my level of glamour was elevated to being served a toasted cheese sandwich at my seat.)

Even travelling was not without its caveats. I left too many cities still exhausted, wishing I’d allowed an extra day or two to explore instead of running events back-to-back for several nights in a row. (For the Dublin event I spent more time travelling there and back than I did in the city itself.)

The lesson here, perhaps, is to make sure I’m not missing out on the present whilst attempting to negotiate the future; to slow the pace and leave space for reflection and exploration. (I believe it is currently fashionable to refer to this as ‘mindfulness’.)

Now, I reckon that the definition of becoming famous (even at the pitifully small scale of a self-published author on a DIY tour) is the moment when people begin to forget that you’re still just a person. Little by little, you become unapproachable, misunderstood, idolised, or a combination of all three.

Although I made the events as personable, relaxed and anti-hero-worship-oriented as possible, there were still a few encounters that hinted at this strange disconnect. Mostly they went like this:

At the end of the night I would be approached by someone who had loitered nearby until the very last minute. They would leap forth for a special, personal audience, as I began to pack up my books, and launch into a tirade of information about themselves, the project they were working on, the thing they’d done that had some small connection to what I’d done, their website address and brand name, and that I should check it out because it was definitely the next big thing. Then they would thank me for listening and leave. They would not buy a book.

This person wouldn’t seem to realise that I knew neither their name nor the first thing about them, and that I would immediately forget everything they’d said because I’d already chatted to fifty other people that night who deserved equal attention and was emotionally exhausted from doing so.

I have done this kind of thing myself in the past. Most of us have. I cringe at the recollections.

The lesson? I’m not sure. It only happened occasionally, and I suppose it’s understandable and even to be expected. Perhaps it’s a nod towards what might be in store if I let things upscale. So I’ll continue keeping events as personable, relaxed and anti-hero-worship-oriented as possible in the future!

Glamour… fame… fortune? Well…

I’ve had congratulatory comments from people who assume that because there’s a bit of buzz around this Janapar thing and I’ve published a new book and shifted about a thousand DVDs, it must mean I’m literally raking it in.

I guess this is because it’s still ingrained that we associate success with having loads of money. I don’t make this association, which means I can happily consider Janapar a success, and know simultaneously that — in terms of income — it’s resulted in diddly squat!

What was earned by doing the events and selling books paid for the costs of the tour (which was my hope), but little else. The DVDs I’ve sold have contributed solely to balancing the film’s existing budget. The last six months have provided me with an average weekly income of £40 (meaning someone on minimum wage earned over five times more than I did).

I’m really, really pleased with the response to the tour, and I’m looking forward to doing more later in the year. But it would have been nice to put something aside for when I return from Iran. It’s clear that in the future I’ll need to work on this side of things (perhaps taking some of Amanda Palmer’s thoughts on board), don the uncomfortable ‘business’ hat again, and acknowledge that making a living by doing what you love usually has to involve earning money too.

But perhaps the biggest downer of the whole endeavour has been a deep feeling of burnout. I’m only now recovering from this.

It is difficult to explain how emotionally draining it is not only to go through a long and challenging period of time on the road, and then to spend two years dissecting and reassembling it into a vicarious experience for others — but then to have to relive it over and over again in bursts just a couple of hours long; to stick your neck out and invite people to ask questions that will force yet more re-evaluation of the same historical events as they grow more and more distant. Six years is a bloody long time.

As I look at hosting more events in the summer, I’ve got to remember that too much of a good thing isn’t good at all. If I’m going to continue enjoying sharing stories, the experience of doing so needs to remain fresh.

Part of that will be about starting new projects (such as the trip I’m leaving on next week, and the ideas I’ve got for the rest of the year), making Janapar part of a broader variety.

And part of it will be considering how events in the future can be improved as a result of what I’ve shared in this post today.

Arran sunrise panorama

Now where’s that bloody Iranian visa…?

I’ve set things up so that Janapar orders will still be sent out while I’m in Iran. Unfortunately the DVD is almost sold out, but there are still a few copies left. (The HD download is always available.)

The paperback is also available from Amazon.co.uk with free UK delivery, though by ordering from janapar.com you’ll be supporting my work directly.

And if you’re a Kindle user, you can start reading the ebook edition in less than one minute (and sample it for free).