I biked across Canada in the summer of 2017.
I had just finished my master’s degree, which was a very challenging experience—and not in a good way.
As I was finishing my thesis, I decided I needed to do something to recover. I wanted to do something difficult, but not in an intellectual or academic way. I didn’t want to rely on other people for my success. I wanted to get out of my head and into my body.
So I bought a bike and started pedaling.
Between June and September, I cycled 7,400 kilometers (about 4,600 miles) from Victoria, British Columbia to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Then, about a year ago, I started a freelance writing business. Riding 7,400 kilometers across the country seems like a very different endeavor than creating a sustainable freelance writing business, but a lot of the things I learned from my journey have helped me with my writing business.
I hope these lessons can help you, too.
The two months I spent on that bike were the most creative two months I’ve ever had. It was a free flow, idea after idea, for five hours a day.
There’s lots of research to support the idea that exercising helps us be more creative. But I didn’t realize how powerful exercise really was. As soon as I was on the bike, I found myself solving problems, making connections, and having ideas.
I use this practice all the time now with my writing. When I’m stuck with something, I go for a walk, go to the gym, or even do housework. (I actually had the idea for this article while I was washing dishes.) It’s productive and it helps ignite creativity.
Your best ideas may come when you’re exercising, but they will also disappear if you don’t capture them.
I learned about disappearing ideas the hard way. Everyone asked me if I was keeping a blog for my trip. I sort of did, but I was very haphazard about it. Now that I write blogs for a living, I’m kicking myself for not taking it more seriously.
I took notes occasionally, but not nearly as many as I should have. After cycling all day, setting up camp, making dinner, and washing my clothes, I just wanted to lie down. I felt too tired and told myself I would do it tomorrow.
But then, I would be busy in the mornings making breakfast, packing up, and trying to get an early start. And then I biked all day. There never seemed to be time.
I forgot most of those ideas that I had while I was biking. When I look back, I see that I wasted so much of the creative opportunity that I had simply by not taking notes.
So the lesson for me was to journal regularly. Now I keep a journal by my bed and a file in the notes app on my phone for random ideas. I also have a proper journal where I usually try to write an anecdote or two about my day. And I’m disciplined about it—even when I’m tired, I try to write at least a short anecdote. I know the five minutes I spend jotting down my ideas will absolutely be worth it later.
There’s a whole culture around biking equipment. When I started, I had no idea what was important and what wasn’t. People give different advice: Some say disc brakes are essential because they stop the fastest; others say you want V-breaks because they can be fixed anywhere. Some people say you need to have front panniers to balance the weight on your bike properly; others say they make your bike too heavy. Virtually everyone will tell you that you need cycling shorts.
I didn’t have a lot of money, so I opted for a minimalist version of all that. I used V-breaks because that’s what my bike had. I didn’t buy front panniers; I packed everything on the back and held it on with bungee cords. I just wore regular basketball shorts.
Over time, I learned what was essential and what wasn’t. V-brakes are fine, as long as they work—but make sure they work. You don’t need front panniers. But it turns out those sleek cycling shorts aren’t just for making your butt look great—they are actually designed to prevent saddle sores. (Ask me how I know.) They’re essential.
The lesson I took from my experience with biking gear was to find a basic system that worked, and then to focus on cycling. Tweak as needed.
I’ve applied this strategy to my writing business, as well.
There are lots of people selling courses or giving advice on how to cold call potential clients, how to write blog posts that rank on Google, whether you need a website, and which grammar app you should use.
I still don’t have a lot of money, so I applied the same strategy that I did with biking: Start with something basic, focus on writing, and then adapt. I’ve been fine without expensive online courses, but a couple of SEO courses on Coursera were really useful. A website was essential. The free version of Grammarly is fine for me.
Find a system that works for you and then focus on writing. Tweak as you go.
They’re so helpful. Strangers gave me information about the best bike routes, the best places to camp, and how to avoid bears. They gave me food and water. They gave me places to sleep. At a beautiful beach in Marathon, Ontario, this lady from New York and her Aussie boyfriend made me a meal on a fire and then left me with a bag of mushrooms. At a Tim Hortons in New Brunswick, a stranger came up and gave me $50 (I’m pretty sure he felt sorry for me).
Cycling taught me that most people, most of the time, are really great. They will help you.
Writing is the same. I only relatively recently decided to try to connect with other writers. I started with reddit and I’m still getting into Medium, where I’ve found hearing from other writers to be really useful. Writers have great advice. They share connections. They pass on leads. Joining a writing community has been highly beneficial for me.
Cycling is a solo sport, and yet it’s way easier with support. Writing is the same: It’s a solo activity, but it’s way easier to do as part of a community.
Cycling a really long way seems like it would be hard. But it isn’t really. To successfully cycle a really long way, you just have to consistently get on the bike and pedal. You do that over and over and over and, eventually, you’ll find that you have gone a really long way.
The cycling part is easy. But it’s an endurance sport—the hard part is doing it for a long time, over and over.
Writing is a lot harder than cycling. You can do it badly. (You can’t really do cycling badly.) So it’s not quite the same.
But here’s what they have in common: The trick to being successful is just doing it. You get on the computer, and you type for a long time, and when you do that enough, you find that you have written something. It’s not glamorous or magical; it’s grunt work.
Writing, like cycling, is an endurance sport.
There’s a strange kind of identity that comes with cycling. I never really thought of myself as an athlete, and certainly not as a cyclist. I’d never done much cycling at all, except as a way to get to school or work. I knew nothing about bikes themselves, the equipment, or cycling culture. (The first time someone asked me what kind of bike I had, my answer was, “a black one.”)
But once you’re on the bike, you’re a cyclist.
It’s the same for writing. If you are making money from writing—any money at all—you’re a writer. It helps to remember that when you’re finding it difficult and you don’t feel like a real writer.
Have you written something? Did you make money from it? Then you are a writer. Don’t worry about whether you’re a real writer. You are.
Everyone who saw the bundle of gear attached to my bike asked me where I was going. And it seemed like each of them knew someone who had biked across Canada better than me.
One person knew someone who did it in 50 days, which was 30 days faster than me. Someone prepared for a whole year before they did it. One couple didn’t prepare at all; they just bought a bike spur-of-the-moment and got going. Another person knew someone who rode 400 kilometers in one day, in a storm with the wind at their back. Someone spent almost nothing on the trip. Someone else had no gear; he just carried a credit card and stayed in hotels. Some people I met were doing this for their second or third or 12th time. Literally everyone knew more about bikes, the geography, the route, or the weather than me. There was always someone doing it better.
But in the end, I still got there just like they did.
Writing is the same. It seems like everyone is publishing articles about how they made six figures in their first year, or how to write a $500 article in 40 minutes.
There are lots of people who are funnier, smarter, and more interesting than me. Lots of people have written more. Lots of people publish in fancy places. They’re doing it better.
But I am writing for a living. I am certainly not making six figures, but I’m sustainable. I’m getting there.
The lesson is not to worry about whether you’re the best. You’re not. But you’re good enough. Keep pedaling.
I met lots of people on the same journey as me. There was the new doctor on his sprint bike eating nothing but power bars. There was Mike with his sturdy bike packed with 200 pounds of gear, slowly trudging away using peanut M&Ms for fuel. There was the vegetarian cyclist couple who were 17 years old and doing 250 kilometers per day, but who had one of their dads following behind them, carrying their camping gear in his truck. There was the 88-year-old woman doing it for the 12th time. There was Grace, the pole dancer, who mostly rode but sometimes hitchhiked (“Whatever. It’s my trip.”) and who determined her route in part based on Tragically Hip songs.
Each of these people had their own style and were on their own journey. Each one succeeded.
This can also be applied to writing. I’ve known people who were on many different journeys: Some became professional writers after a career in journalism; others started writing after they quit their sales career. I have a friend who was a musician before specializing in product descriptions. My background was in academia and government where I wrote about research and its implications for policy.
People can help and give you advice, but each person’s writing journey is different. It’s a bit scary, but it’s empowering, too. Do your own thing.
One of the most common questions I got leading up to the trip was what I was doing to prepare for it. I told people I was riding a lot, but actually I wasn’t. I rode the stationary bike at the gym for 20 minutes. I did that three times, total. That’s it.
The truth is that I didn’t prepare. I had read a blog post (thank you affiliate marketing!) that said that the best way to prepare to cycle long distances was to cycle long distances. You could train as you go. Just don’t go too hard too fast and you’d be fine.
That was my strategy. The first couple of weeks were difficult, but I got through them. And then it was easier. To be fair, the first couple of weeks also had three mountain ranges, one of which was the Rockies. So.
The point is that the most important thing was to just start.
I’ve found that a writing business is the same. You can learn it as you go. Sure, it helps if you have some experience writing professionally and some knowledge of grammar rules. There are probably things you can do to prepare for starting a writing business—getting a legit website set up, doing some research, picking a niche, building a network. Maybe taking one of the many expensive courses that are out there.
But really, the idea that you need to be “qualified” to be a writer is a myth. You can learn to write as you’re writing. You just need to get started.
At first glance, cycling across Canada doesn’t appear to have a lot in common with starting a freelance writing business. But here’s what they share: They are both big undertakings that can feel impossible at the start. And there are lots of different ways to actually do them.
Lots of expert writers will give you specific tools, tips, and tricks that can help you write professionally. That’s really helpful. But what I learned from my trip, and what I’ve applied to my writing business, is that there are lots of “right” ways to be successful. Use other people’s advice, sure, but don’t get overwhelmed trying to be a writer the right way. You can do it your way.
You’ve got what it takes. Take the guidance that’s useful to you, leave what isn’t. Try things out and experiment. And then work really hard at writing. After a while, you’ll get there. The most important thing is just to get started.
All photos courtesy of Ramsay Lewis
Ramsay Lewis is a researcher, educator, and freelance writer currently located in Brazil. He's interested in technology, culture, and self-improvement. When he's not learning something new, you can find him on his bike or trying to samba. He writes for Crisp Text. You can also find him on Medium.