Mariellen Ward is a Canadian travel writer and digital storyteller who runs the award-winning blog, Breathedreamgo.com. She has a BA in Journalism, and has been published in online and offline publications around the globe, and splits her time between Delhi and Toronto. Ward is an advocate of female solo travel and responsible travel. Though Canadian by birth, she considers India to be her “soul culture” and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture.
Follow her @Breathedreamgo
What does a typical day look like for you?
Well, typical is a word and lifestyle I try to avoid!
Having said that, my year is divided in half. In the winter, I travel – mostly in India, but other places too, like Britain, Ireland, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. In the summer, I love to stay home in Canada. When I’m home, I catch up on a lot of the boring stuff, like taxes, site upgrades, freelance work, and making money.
I try to take at least one or two trips in Canada during the summer. Canada in the summertime is the place to be, if you ask me. I love travelling here when the weather is warm, and I love promoting the natural beauty of Canada online.
The one constant is Breathedreamgo, my blog and social media network. I work on it every day, so it’s safe to say that a large percentage of each day that I’m not travelling is spent attached to a device (MacBook Pro or iPhone).
You’ve addressed some controversial topics on your blog, like cultural sensitivity and women’s freedom to travel alone. When writing about these topics, do you find that you rely more on your personal judgement or your background in journalism?
Great question! I am a trained journalist – my BA is from Ryerson University in Toronto – but I never followed a traditional media route. My genre is personal narrative, or creative non-fiction – in other words, I write from my subjective experience of life and travel. This is a very deliberate choice because I don’t really believe in objectivity – everything is filtered through our perception of life, and sometimes a media outlet’s agenda or bias as well. So-called objective journalism is necessary, but to me it’s boring.
So, I would say that both my training and personal judgement are always working together. I do of course follow basic journalism ethics – things like respecting copyright, ensuring accuracy, etc. However, it’s my passion, personal experience, and sense of values that informs and directs my writing more than anything else. Bloggers are bloggers because we have opinions and a worldview we want to share.
For example, I responded to the concerns over travel safety for women in India with this post, India Travel: My top tips for women. There was a media frenzy after the Delhi Gang Rape in late 2012, and I felt the best response was to offer my best travel tips. I don’t agree that women should be made to feel afraid, and told to stay home. I feel they should be encouraged to travel and also armed with good information and advice for travelling as safely as possible.
As a travel writer, I try to hit that sweet spot of writing about the place, and hopefully imparting a real sense of what it’s like to be there, while at the same time honouring and including my personal experience. It’s not an easy spot to hit, good travel writing is much, much harder than it looks.
How do you balance popularity across two different national audiences?
In many ways, Canada and India are about as different as two countries can be! I definitely live a bi-cultural life, and I appreciate both sides. Canada is such a calm, efficient, orderly, and pristine place. I can get a lot done here, and I love the great outdoors in summer. I’m very, very proud to be Canadian, especially these days. We are a beacon of hope and humanity to the world in so many ways.
But India … well, India recharges, excites, and inspires me. India is my creative muse. Plus, I feel an uncanny sense of affinity with Indian people and culture. When I am in India, I feel fully alive; I feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m very proud that my work has been so well accepted in India. In fact, that’s probably the thing I am most proud of. The other is that I overcame a lot of resistance, fear, and insecurity to put my thoughts, words, and experiences out in the world.
You can find out how I feel about India in this post on my India travel blog.
How does social media factor into your work?
Social media has become a much bigger factor in the last five years or so. Before that, I mostly used it just to drive traffic to my blog or for personal reasons. But more recently, the social media channels themselves have become destinations and platforms. So, for example, someone might be considered a “travel influencer” because they have a large following on Instagram, but no other presence. That’s very different than when I started.
I am usually very busy on social media when I’m travelling, so people can actually follow my journey in real time. And then I am also busy on social media when I am promoting blog posts. Otherwise, I use it to chat and, also, for professional development. There are a LOT of Facebook groups for travel writers, travel bloggers, and travellers. It’s exhausting trying to keep up.
You’ve recently started to receive funding through Canadian Government publishing initiatives. How is that going?
I received a Business Innovation Grant from the Canadian Department of Heritage, in one lump sum and I’m using it now to completely re-vamp my site. Most of the grant is to pay my web designer, with a bit left for developing a business plan and some editorial content. I am paying writers $50 a blog post, which I know is not much – but it’s the same rate as Teen Vogue!
The main purpose of the grant I received is to transform Breathedreamgo from a blog into a “multi-contributor digital periodical.”
What kind of relationships do you have with brands, PR and marketing professionals?
I’m very careful about the brands I work with. They really need to be a good fit with my site’s editorial mandate, and they need to resonate with my audience – I want every partnership to be successful. I also ensure that PR and marketing professionals will not interfere with my voice or my relationship to my readers and followers.
It’s unfortunate that very few agencies really know how to work with “influencers,” though I think this is changing. I make sure they understand that my editorial voice and opinions are not for sale; I don’t do advertorials. I now write it into contracts and agreements that no editorial interference is allowed.
The new version of Breathedreamgo, which I am currently launching, will be less of a blog and more of a travel site, with more content marketing possibilities. So I can foresee in future that I will be working a lot more with PR and marketing professionals.
What’s your number one tip for PR people?
Value people who have spent many years of blood, sweat, and tears building an online platform. Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea the amount of time, energy, talent, and skills it takes.
Value our time, our expertise, and knowledge of our audience. This means offering reasonable compensation for the deliverables you are expecting. Lastly, don’t interfere with our editorial mandate, voice, or relationship with our audience – these things are sacrosanct.
If only you could see my inbox. I will never cease to be amazed by those who think I will happily use my platform to promote their for-profit brand for free. Or those who think I would be willing to risk alienating my audience and “kill the golden goose” to achieve their marketing messaging.
Please understand it’s my sovereignty over my work and my editorial voice that people trust and follow. It takes years to gain credibility and trust, and it can be lost in an instant. Value that, and work with me to preserve it – for both our benefits.
When a brand or sponsor puts a logo on an athlete’s jersey, they don’t expect the athlete to do anything other than what she does best: her sport. I wish all PR and marketing professional treated us this way. Let me do what I do best; tell my travel stories. Trust me, and pay me properly.
First website you load in the morning?
Facebook. I like to see what’s going on with my friends and colleagues, who are scattered all over the world. It’s an addiction … Twitter is next, then Instagram.
Besides your own blog, which blog or blogs do you read the most?
I’m all over the map, I love surfing and discovering blogs and sites. Sometimes, I like to laugh at Bored Panda, and sometimes I like a much more thoughtful read like Brain Pickings. There are some terrific travel blogs. My favourite is The Shooting Star, published by India’s top travel blogger Shivya Nath. And Uncornered Market by Dan and Audrey has been a long time favourite. Bloggers like these inspire me as they keep raising the bar. For travel sites, I like BBC Travel, Roads & Kingdoms, and National Geographic Traveller.
Beverage of choice?
Masala chai. Haha, what did you expect when you ask a travel writer / blogger who lives half the year in India?