Down From the High Castle


You know, one of the more interesting things about writing for so long and all at the same place is that, with enough time, you’ve got a platform with which to look back and really the longer arc of your own lifetime.

This website is not the first place that I ever published a text, but it’s the first time I can honestly say that it’s my writing home.

I actually began my writing career over 20 years ago when one of the many zany and colorful characters whom I’ve known over the years inadvisedly decided to open a newspaper called The Asylum. He absolutely loved the idea that, in English, the word asylum has two meanings – a place of safety/protection and a home for the mentally ill.

This was, of course, long before the days of the internet, so all traces of my original pieces for The Asylum are now long gone. Certainly, the newspaper itself only lasted a few years. And I can barely remember what I wrote about except for one topic – what’s the last song you’d listen to if you knew the world was going to be destroyed and you only had a few minutes to live?

After The Asylum ran out of money, a friend of mine offered to pay me to write a paper for her Women’s Studies class. I hadn’t read the textbook or attended the class, but I used her notes to cobble something together. She submitted it, got a decent grade, and is now working in a big, fancy American city doing smart people things. After that, my reputation spread, and I earned some coin over the years by writing academic papers for other people.

Still, though, the writing was always something I thought of as my “side job.” And then, one day I took a fateful trip to Bucharest. And as the oft-told story goes, I had a serendipitous conversation with a security guard that ended up changing my life. As a direct result of that conversation, I started this here website, and a whole new chapter of my life opened up, culminating in me becoming a minor yet much-beloved television celebrity in Romania :)

I also had the chance to write a guidebook about Romania, and it was one of the happiest and most rewarding experiences of my life. It took me four wonderful and fun-filled months to write it, and I’ve enjoyed years of hearing from people who said that they read it and that it was fun/useful to them and their journeys around Romania.

But it never did quite ever pay the bills.

Every Day Is a Winding Road

After political forces in Cluj-Napoca conspired to get me illegally kidnapped and ejected from Romania in 2014, I made my way over to the Republic of Moldova. I then got married about a year later, and we now live together with our three cats and one dog in Chisinau.

It’s always Moldova o’clock somewhere

Without trying to be dramatic, the year from mid-2014 to mid-2015 was traumatic. Beyond just all the stress of being forced to leave my home in Romania, I also suffered financially.

Only allowed to take with me the belongings that I could carry, I had almost nothing. I sold my computer just to survive for a couple of months, and money was extremely tight for a long time. At the same time, the woman who is now my wife also had managed to rack up a sizeable debt by the time we got together.

Long story short, I’ve spent the past four years digging us out of a hole. First, we both had to pay back the money we owed to various individuals, companies, and organizations. But we also had to work very hard to get our life together.

When you have one pair of shoes, two forks, and one bowl, it costs a surprisingly large amount of money to purchase all the things you (more or less) need to go through daily life.

I’m talking about basic things like towels, sheets, and silverware. Even pens, notebooks, playing cards, and clothes all had to be replaced. And we’re not even yet to the level of occasionally going out and enjoying a tea or meal in town.

Therefore, climbing out of the hole has been my singular mission for the past four years, one of the principle reasons why my writing has been much less frequent here on the blog.

Using my ancient iMac computer, I began writing for clients on a full-time basis in 2015, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since. But after writing for other people all week, I rarely have enough energy left over to write the things that I want to write.

A Hard Row to Hoe

At first, it was a scramble. I wrote about anything and everything for fractions of pennies per word. I wrote about unclogging your toilet, what a reverse mortgage is, and the best type of shocks you can buy for your ATV. I also wrote complex papers about macroeconomics and artificial intelligence. I wrote about things that I never imagined anyone would ever be interested in and about cool and interesting topics that taught me a lot.

Ultimately, however, it’s a bit of a fool’s game when you’re writing for someone else, especially if that “someone else” is dictating the length, keywords, and subject matter. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to get a serious case of the Bartlebies. But when you’re broke and in debt, you don’t have a choice. You sit down at your keyboard and you write whether you like it or not.

Simultaneously with paying off all of our debts and achieving a minimally acceptable way of life, my wife and I were also working on her career track.

My wife is an especially private person, so I shall leave it to her to tell the story of her life in her own extremely eloquent words, but I can say that in the past four years my wife has managed to learn a foreign language, become a radio DJ, write poems and articles, volunteer to help feed the homeless, graduate from university with the highest honors, and become the artistic director of a respected literary magazine.

Freedom Day

And a couple of months ago, the happy day finally happened. All of our debts were paid off in full! Yahoo!! Time for some champagne, most certainly. With my wife earning a salary and without the weight of all that debt dragging us down, we were finally able to fully enjoy the fruits of our labor.

The question then became – what to do next? Keep everything more or less the same and enjoy all the extra income for a while? Or take a risk and try doing something much more rewarding?

The Completely Fake Insider

Writing for this blog was always a lot of fun for me. And when I put together The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania book, it was a real thrill. I got to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, and it was a nice bonus when people enjoyed reading those stories.

But I never quite knew the value of those stories. Was I just (mostly) spinning my own wheels and having some fun? Or was there a deeper need being met, one far larger than just my own?

I ask because I’ve spent the past week deeply pondering these questions. It’s always a very weird moment when you realize that you, yes you, might actually be unique in some way.

From about mid-2015 until last week, I wrote about 3-4 times per week for one specific customer. He saw some of my commercial writing online and was impressed enough to ask me to write an article for him. Soon, I was writing several a day. And in total, I think I’ve written over 2,000 for him.

All of these articles are about a country that isn’t Romania. In fact, it isn’t even in Europe. I won’t say the name to prevent Google from mistakenly sending someone here looking for information about the country, but it’s a small one that you’ve probably never heard of. It does, however, have a lot of great attractions for tourists, and it’s rapidly becoming a popular vacation destination.

So far, so good. But the wheels all fell off when I realized that he was getting me to write an Insider’s Guide to Country X! Keep in mind that I’ve never once visited this place. All I’ve done is write articles cobbled together from information on the internet. Yet this client, who grew up in Country X, got me to ghostwrite his book for him.

I still probably would’ve been fine with it if he hadn’t had the temerity to subtitle it An insider’s guide when it clearly isn’t. Hey, I know how much work it took to write my book, and my book was genuine. Stitching together what are effectively Wikipedia articles and charging people $25 to buy it as an “insider’s guide” felt like a complete betrayal.

Even worse, I hadn’t really even known that I was writing a book for him. After writing thousands of articles, you don’t really track on which websites they’re being published. You just cash your check and move onto the next one.

Legally, he owns everything I wrote for him, but it wasn’t until after “his” book was published that I read an excerpt and realized that my “articles” were just chapters and that I had written everything but the introduction.

Not even a single comma had been changed! Parts of me were flattered, but I mostly just felt dismayed and chagrined.

I wrote him a letter, explained how I felt and severed our business relationship.

Money Talks

Now, I am completely sure that I don’t want to go back to writing articles about insurance and mortgages. The question that remains, therefore, is when you as an individual have something worth offering that truly and sincerely, nobody else can do. Is the writing I do here something worth pursuing full-time? And how can I ever know?

In other words, should I attempt to write here for the website full-time or just keep it as a part-time hobby?

The answer depends on you.

As of right now, I have started a Patreon page. If you’re unfamiliar with Patreon, the way it works is that you (the reader) contribute $1 or more per month to support the author (i.e. me).

Just to be completely clear, I will NOT be “locking” any of my articles or hiding them behind a paywall. I know what it’s like to be poor or not have a bank card, and I am morally committed to never requiring payment in order to read what I’ve written.

If you support me on Patreon, the only thing you’ll “get” is the satisfaction of knowing you helped me and that your contributions will go towards making this website even better. And if it all works out well enough, I’ll also consider doing some more things like making a (proper) podcast, traveling, and conducting interviews.

I want to write. I want to tell the stories about Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Transnistria, Bucovina, and all of the other places where Romanian speakers are found. I want to share with you what they’re doing and who they are and what’s going on in their corner of the universe. And, of course, I want to keep doing real authentic journalistic work and digging up stories that no one else does.

Pounding the keyboard all day to sell air purifiers on Amazon leaves me feeling drained and exhausted. But writing here for all of you about the topics that intrigue me and anger me and puzzle me fills me with a tremendous spirit of energy and optimism.

But I can only do it with your help.

Duck, Duck, Goose

In the past few years, I’ve seen much of the internet devolve into “fake news” and other ginned up malarkey like clickbait articles and listicles.

Who wants to read that? Not me, that’s for sure. But authentic journalism is hard to come by. Most “real” journalists are tens of thousands of dollars in debt from getting a university degree and are thus locked into working for the handful of corporate or government clients that can pay the bills.

And then you’ve got to deal with censorship, either ordered from on high or in the form of self-censorship. You begin to blunt your edges in order not to offend your corporate sponsor, your advertisers, or the government. You stick to softer topics with broader appeal.

Not me. Despite numerous and sometimes hilarious accusations that I work(ed) for the Russian, the CIA, or some other shadowy government or organization, the truth is that I’ve always been fearlessly independent. And I’m really one of the few people doing so in this part of the world.

Walking Tall

I’ve offended people I “shouldn’t” have, stood up to corruption and lies, and never once backed down even when I suffered directly as a result. I stood up in the Cluj-Napoca mayor’s office and called the mayor a crook right to his face long before he was accused of corruption, and I was there at the courthouse, jeering him on as he made his first appearance.

I’ve angered and offended politicians, business people, and other powerful people. But I’m still here. And I want to keep on telling the stories that other people don’t want you to know.

With support from all of you, I can continue to do that. If you can spare $1 a month, that’s more than enough.

The last time I checked, this website now has over 4,500 email subscribers. That means that thousands of you went through the trouble of submitting your email address (form is at the bottom of the page if you want to sign up) so that you could get instantly alerted whenever I’ve written a new article.

Signing up as an email subscriber is a lot more than just giving a “like” on social media. It’s an invitation into your inbox, and I really do appreciate and honor that trust that you’ve extended to me.

WordPress (quite wisely) does not let me see who has signed up or their email addresses, so you’ll never have to worry about me selling on your information or spamming you with unwanted emails.

So, there you have it…. now let’s give this Patreon thing a try and see how it goes!

If it goes well, you’ll get richly rewarded with lots of new articles and stories about my crazy personal life and even some multimedia stuff like a podcast. If not, well, I’ll just go back to writing about reverse mortgages and HVAC equipment :)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Swithun Crowe says:

    Glad to help out. I really enjoy your writing, and want to read more about all things Romanian!

    Like

  2. darren marting says:

    id really like to support you and the writing , I (from Las Vegas, NV. sua) spent 2 months in Romania and want to go back to visit east and west Parts of the country as well as where Ive gone (central, southern) and would like to make a one time donation to your Blog financing effort…instead of a monthly way. Can I help? Paypal or something? peace, darren

    Like

  3. Darren Marting says:

    Thanks for an Insiders view into all things You, or, some anyway. I am american by birth and Romanian and German and French by blood. Your writing is very enjoyable and i would like to thank you again.

    Like

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