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Life & Work with Shara Kay Johnson

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shara Kay Johnson.

Hi Shara Kay, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I love my home in Nederland but my passion is traveling. My one and only actual goal in life was to travel to all seven continents. In 2016 I reached my goal. I process my experiences through creative writing, photographing, and narrative travel blogging.

I like to find unique angles or special reasons for traveling. Several of my grandest adventures began with a volunteer stint abroad and subsequent travel in that country – sometimes solo and sometimes with my husband. I’ve participated in a variety of volunteer research projects. I walked through a Big 5 game park in South Africa collecting census data on the herbivores; I spent a month working with rescued chimpanzees in Uganda; I did some anthropological surveys in Brazil and spent a month living in a tiny peasant village in northern China documenting its traditions and culture; I worked at a refugee camp in Greece. But perhaps my most fulfilling achievement is facilitating a documentary film called “African Witchfinder” (available on Vimeo) about the harmful practices of witchcraft in Namibia. I recently wrote more about this in the online magazine, “Narratively.”

When my husband and I travel together, we almost always rent a car so we can wander randomly, down unmarked paths, in circles, whatever, and hit off-the-beaten-track sites.

I started writing creative nonfiction a couple of decades ago and it’s still my first love, where my soul really spirals through joys and mysteries, paradoxes and tragedies. My sort of signature style is to present nonfiction experiences within a framework or world that is fictional, even fantastical.

During a time when I was facing some spectacular disappointments with my writing, photography suddenly became a path to follow out of a deep depression. Photography really rescued me. I received some awards in juried art shows and landed some exhibits along the Front Range, which helped me feel justified in continuing the pursuit, upgrading my equipment, etc. For me, photography is not about the finished product but the process. It’s a form of meditation while I’m focused on an animal, camera raised, waiting for 20 minutes for it to look my way just right, or focused on an architectural element waiting for that moment when every other tourist is outside my frame.

My travel blog, SKJ Travel, began as an outgrowth of an email list I used to send dispatches to while traveling. Those dispatches started the year I traveled solo in China. (If I had known I’d keep the blog so long, I might have come up with a more creative name than just my initials!) Sadly, things have been slow over on the blog recently due to COVID. I’ve been more cautious than some people about exposure, but that has actually given me the motivation and opportunity to explore more of my own stunning state of Colorado. My husband’s and my primary summertime activity is exploring 4×4 trails (and staying ON the trails), old mining and forest service roads, and the ever-dwindling remains of our mining heritage tucked away in the forests and weathering on mountaintops. We take these adventures in our 1999 4Runner, Chewie, and our 1973 Pinzgauer with our Gambler 500 team name painted on the side, “Team Killer Rabbit.” So many people wave at us when we drive by in the Pinz, I’ve seriously contemplated keeping a bag of jolly ranchers in the car to throw out the window, as I often feel like we’re in a parade.

My goal now is to foster global empathy and compassion, this is the main point of my narrative travel blog. I don’t write it in the form of formal essays, just very casual writing, often completely off the cuff. It’s fun to share my photos and experiences, and I hope I can both entertain and inform others about parts of the world they may never see for themselves. But the one thing I want people to take away from spending any time on my blog is an appreciation for nature and other cultures that will result in valuing our natural world and empathizing with our cultural world.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Creative writing is seldom an easy path – it’s a life of interminable waiting for editor decisions and fielding rejections, even for pieces that go on to win accolades when finally accepted. Since my essays seldom fit into nice easy categories or genres, I think I suffer more of this than the average writer. I’ve started writing more straight-up narrative nonfiction which is a little easier to market but not my first love.

When I first started my travel blog, I thought I would get into monetizing it, but quickly realized that I am not a self-promoter and the amount of time I needed to spend on social media touting myself was not something I could comfortably do, therefore I was bad at it and started to hate the blog. I struggled to decide whether to keep it up as a labor of love. After receiving many comments on my posts and correspondence to my newsletters from readers expressing how much they value the material, I decided it was worth keeping. I realized I actually greatly like being a storyteller/documentarian and as I said earlier, I want to foster that empathy and compassion.

I’m not as emotionally invested in photography, so anytime I get a piece accepted to a show or journal or make a sale, I’m just pleased.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
In order for my creative pursuits to remain passions, I’ve concluded they will and should never make me a millionaire, so I earn my disposable income to fund travel and photography equipment by renting a space in our home on Airbnb. I was the first person in our town to start doing this back in 2011. I’m taking more of an interest in artist residencies, and I’d like to resurrect my Black Bear Writing Retreat some day. I can’t tell you how many people say to me they want to travel with me. So I suppose I should start being a travel guide!

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some of the changes you are expecting to see over the next five to ten years?
I don’t think I really have a relevant answer to this question. Not being an entrepreneur, I don’t have an industry to track or be a part of in any meaningful way. COVID is changing travel, and technology continually evolves photography, but I just roll with the scene.

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