Ten Gifts For The Would-Be Journo/Non-Fiction Writer; Good Luck, Grads — You'll Need It

Cover of "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions...
Cover via Amazon

I never studied journalism, but have taught it many times since; I was an English major at the University of Toronto. But I knew from the age of 12 this was what I wanted to do — and the only thing I wanted to do.

I also knew it would be, as it is and continues to be, damn hard. This industry is filled with rich, connected kids — of all ages — bringing social capital, huge confidence and parental financing that allows them to work for nothing. They, and thousands of others, are your competition.

Today’s fresh grads — good luck! — are clambering into the leaky, sinking lifeboats of our profession. It’s tempting to beat them off with our shredded oars, so few and so precious are the remaining seats.

From The Times of London, in a very long (but very wisely written) piece on why journalism and why it’s so damn hard:

Indeed, Justin Lewis, head of the school of journalism at Cardiff University, says that part of his role is to temper the high expectations of students.

“Some of them do come here with very idealistic notions of what being a journalist is all about,” says Lewis. “We don’t want to hammer that out of them, but we need to be realistic about what those opportunities are. Research we’ve done within the school has shown that each journalist produces three times as much copy today as they did 20 years ago. So it’s tougher. It’s tougher to get a job, and it’s tougher when they’re in a job, and we need to be clear about that.” Lewis, one expects, also tells his students that journalism is often wonderful. Return to the class of 2008, and you see young reporters enjoying extraordinary experiences. Kate Mansey, for example, was sent to Afghanistan in 2007 for a month, where she wrote a memorable story about a family of heroin addicts on the outskirts of Kabul. The youngest addict was a nine-year-old girl.

Jerome Taylor, meanwhile, has talked through the night with asylum seekers in Calais. Claire Newell went undercover to tease prominent MPs into admitting their role in the cash-for-honours scandal and the cash-for-influence scandal which sank Stephen Byers. Helen Pidd spent a day being rude to people in Perth, after it was voted Britain’s most polite town. The list goes on.

There will be those who could think of nothing worse than meeting poor Afghanis, or hoodwinking politicians, or testing the patience of Scotsmen. Fair enough — sell cars. But there will also be those for whom the idea of such encounters is intoxicating, and the prospect of reporting such experiences more thrilling still. These people, if they are lucky and tenacious enough, become journalists.

Yet several of my favorite young journos are doing just fine: one at a website; one at a small newspaper, one as a business writer at the Los Angeles Times and one as a staff shooter for the Denver Post, his first job. Woohoo! So there are jobs and these bright, talented young ‘uns are getting them.

What gifts might I offer a fresh ambitious grad hoping to enter our insane, lovely, terrifying, brutal industry?

1) A really good, comfortable chair you’ll be happy sitting in for hours and hours and hours. At home, alone, in silence. Not sitting in a cafe with with your laptop being groovy and listening to tunes or chatting with your peeps via webcam. Working. Writing is not easily or well done with a ton of noisy people all around you. It is not meant to be something people watch you do and admire you doing. It’s not the Olympics.

2) A bicycle or a good pair of walking shoes. You need to get outdoors often. Fresh air, exercise and sunshine on your face will remind you there is a world outside your apartment or car. Pay attention. Take notes, always.

3) A fountain pen. Writing is still a sensual activity. And being able to inscribe your beautiful signature will be so useful when you’re signing autographs and books.

4) Thick, lovely stationery, or a gift certificate for personalized cards and envelopes; try Papersource.com. When it’s time — and it often is — to write a thank-you note, or an attaboy, using good stationery offers an elegant, immediate point of difference from your many competitors when your recipient gets a lovely real letter, sent within a day or two of your meeting. Email, schme-mail.

5) Great business cards. Thick stock, letterpress, with your name, website(s) and phone numbers. Not: cheap, shiny, cheesy. You don’t need a job to have a card. You don’t need someone else to decide you’re a writer. Networking will open many, many doors and part of your lasting first impression is having a card and having a memorably stylish one. Just don’t call yourself a “wordsmith.” Ever.

6) A gym membership. You need to stretch, run, sweat and tap into some endorphins un-related to staring into a computer. Some of your best ideas will come when you are least focused on your work.

7) A gift certificate to a terrific bookstore, preferably a great local indie like Posman in Manhattan or Munro’s in Victoria, B.C. or The Tattered Cover in Denver. Make it as big as you can, so the pile will include reference books, a good dictionary, thesaurus and at least a dozen books of inspiration, whether Follow The Story, by James Stewart, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Random Family, by Adrian Nicole Leblanc.

8) The offer, when it seems right, to send your young writer to the conference of his/her choice. That’s where they’ll meet agents, editors, fellow writers of all levels. It might cost $1,000 if they have to fly/stay in a hotel and pay conference fees. Yes, a string of pearls or a handsome watch are more traditional choices, but this is one (costly) thing s/he really needs.

9) A passport and plane ticket to somewhere more than a six-hour flight off the continental United States: Mexico, Central or Latin America, Asia, the midEast, India. Anywhere but Paris/London/Prague/Berlin. They’ll get there on their own. When you’re young and (somewhat) fearless is the best time to try something new and scary. No mortgage, no kids, no spouse. Go!

10) A really good atlas. My favorite reading. Helps to know where you’re going and gives you places to dream of visiting or living in or working in. Reminds you the world is a large, complicated place.

Plus: a Teflon soul, the utter determination to get it right, compassion, a sturdy and unshakable sense of humor, a good set of fall-back skills (carpentry, languages, a teaching certificate, anything!), some money in the bank, the ability to discern a story from corporate BS. Here’s my list of “what it takes”.

What would you give? What, writers, have you gotten that you loved?

I loved this list of 10 gifts for the budding novelist by Margaret Atwood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s