“Every artist was first an amateur.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I had a favorite Asian restaurant when I was a teenager. It was a modest Chinese buffet in north Wichita, remodeled from several failed restaurants before, and stood in the shadow of a sad strip mall that lost its anchor store years before. The small asphalt parking lot was cracked and course. But what I remember most about this bastion of broccoli beef and crab cheese wontons was a wooden 8×10 picture frame hanging on the wall behind the cash register. It held a one dollar bill with the words “First Dollar Made” and the date handwritten below. I’m sure this dollar not only served as a sense of pride to the owners, but also a reminder to them that no matter how successful that restaurant would become (I’m not sure of its fate), that humble dollar would always be its beginning.
When I started on my journey to become a writer, my first major goal was to get published. I didn’t care how or where, I just wanted to see my name in print. I assume that’s every writer’s first aspiration. It probably provides the same feeling when musicians hear their song on the radio for the first time. Or when an artist sells their first painting to a gallery. It’s the moment when “shit gets real” as they say. I didn’t know how or when it was going to happen, but still I was surprised by the circumstances when it did. In May 2015, the following short article appeared in the community pages of the Denver Post:
The duties of my day job at the time were marketing and business development for a small construction company. I had prepared a press release detailing the company’s new project, and a few days later the editor of the Post called me to let me know they were using the release as a short article in their upcoming Thursday community section. When I got a copy of the newspaper, you would have thought my wife had given birth to our third child.
At barely over a hundred words, it’s not a piece to brag about, but I wouldn’t have wanted a different beginning. Writing is a line of work which is notoriously difficult to achieve any success—with Stephanie Meyer perhaps being the ultimate exception. She had never written anything professionally before her first Twilight book—no novels, no short stories, not even an article. The four books in the Twilight series together have sold over 100 million copies. But for every Stephanie Meyer there are hundreds of Emily Dickinsons or Jack Londons. Dickinson was largely ignored in her own lifetime, having only about 7 of her 1,800 poems published before her death in 1886. Today, she is one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Jack London’s first novel was rejected almost 600 times before it was finally published, and only then after he had made a name for himself producing short fiction for peanuts.
Should one of my future novels ever become a great commercial success, I’m glad this humble article paved the way. Otherwise, my sense of reality might have been hopelessly distorted. As a new writer, I know I have been–and for some time will continue to be–a dunce at certain things. I have much to learn, much to improve upon, and a great deal of my craft to explore. I can tighten up my writing, I can have better command of language, and I can use words more powerfully. I will do these things in time with practice, but being an instant success is not real and it’s not character building. I want to start small, I want to learn and make mistakes and be a dunce before I taste real success. I want to stay grounded and have the drive to constantly improve myself. These things will serve me well in the years ahead, where I believe anything is possible. Instant gratification is a cancer in our society, and in the business world the expectation of immediate results can discourage persistence and motivation.
Since I started working part time and devoting one day a week to freelancing, I’ve done less writing than I would have liked. But the time has still been well spent. Instead of just spewing out projects haphazardly, I’ve been researching and learning about freelancing. I’ve listened to close to a hundred podcasts and read a handful of books about writing and freelancing. I’ve been making connections with other writers, and watching and reading all they do. I want to learn about the mistakes others have made in hopes that I can avoid them in favor of new, original, and interesting mistakes. I believe I’m building a foundation for my writing career that will help me achieve real success in the future, and the Denver Post article helps me remember that the mountain top is only reached after thousands of simple steps. Taking a helicopter to the top is cheating.
Which is why I’ll soon hang that article in a picture frame on my wall. No matter how bold my dreams and how fantastic my successes, my first published article will always be a one hundred word blurb buried on page 19P of the newspaper’s community section. I believe there’s a reason that Asian restaurant didn’t frame a five or a ten or a twenty. It wouldn’t have had the same affect.
There’s a popular camping hack for creating a lantern using a headlamp and a gallon jug of water. The jug of water diffuses the headlamp’s bright, concentrated beam, and your tent or campsite is flooded with soft light. However, on a backpacking trip this hack becomes suddenly impractical thanks to the heavy jug of water. One of the best ideas in camp lighting I’ve seen in quite awhile, called the LuminAID, uses the idea behind diffused LED light and packs it into a small, lightweight package perfect for backpacking.
The LuminAID was invented in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake by Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta, then students at Columbia. The inventors recognized the product’s potential in the outdoor recreation industry and began marketing it there, initially through an Indiegogo campaign. In 2015, they appeared on an episode of the TV show Shark Tank, where they accepted a deal with Mark Cuban worth $200,000 for 15% of their company.
The light I tested, the PackLite 16, is solar-rechargeable and consists of a solar panel, rechargeable battery, and an LED light in a 2 1/4” x 4 3/4” x 1/2” housing, attached to a heavy duty inflatable plastic pouch by a waterproof membrane. When inflated, the light measures 8” x 9 1/2” x 4 1/2”. It has 3 brightness settings, the brightest of which puts out about 65 lumens of light, according to the LuminAID website, which is roughly equivalent to a 10 watt incandescent lightbulb. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s plenty of light inside most tents. On this brightest setting, the light lasted about 5 1/2 hours for me. The website says the light will last about 30 hours on its lowest setting. There is also a flash setting for emergency situations, which was a thoughtful addition on the manufacturer’s part. Weighing just 2.9 ounces, ultralight backpackers will find this to be one of their lightest light options (pun intended). The PackLite 16, and its little brother the PackLite 12, both retail for $19.99. If you purchase through the website, you also have the option to purchase and donate additional lights to outdoor charities, such as organizations helping to rebuild Nepal after its recent devastating earthquakes.
I’m a big fan of this product. The inventors seemed to have thought of everything. It’s solar powered so you never need to worry about packing replacement batteries. It’s waterproof so you can strap it on your pack during the day to recharge even in a rainstorm, and can stow it in your canoe or raft without worry. It’s lightweight. On one charge it will last at least an entire evening, and maybe much more depending on the brightness setting you use. The inflatable pouch includes a handle so it’s easy to carry around camp, and there’s a small loop to hang it from your pack during charging or from the inside of your tent at night. The only criticism I have is the slow recharge rate—7 to 10 hours on a bright sunny day for a full charge. Out on the trail, an overcast day could have a dramatic impact on how long the light lasts for you that evening. Overall, I recommend this product.
The Luminoodle is a ropelight approximately five feet long. Launched in September 2015 on Kickstarter, almost $400,000 was raised in about a month. Luminoodle is produced by another Shark Tank/Mark Cuban collaboration, Salt Lake City based Power Practical, which has been producing outdoor products since 2012. It retails for $19.
A rope light is an interesting concept for camping. Instead of a light concentrated in one space like that provided from a lantern, which can produce sharp shadows in a cramped tent, a rope light can better distribute light throughout a space. Its versatility is also a strong point. One night I had it draped around my neck at the campfire reading a book, which was more handy than having to find a spot to put a lantern, and it saved the battery on my headlamp. It’s waterproof, so on rainy nights it can be used outside if needed. It cranks out about 160 lumens of light, so it’s plenty bright.
The major drawback to the Luminoodle is that it requires an external battery. I have used a solar rechargeable external battery to power the Luminoodle, but this only increases the demands I place on the battery due to other electronic gadgets I use on trips. I would rather the Luminoodle have its own dedicated power source (a battery pack can be purchased with the Luminoodle for an additional $20). While I like how it distributes light, I find the concept more peculiar than truly practical. Luminoodle is lightweight, at just 2.5 ounces, but I remain unconvinced it demands a place in your pack.