A little late to this party, but those of you on Twitter might have seen this popular hashtag, where people share their first seven jobs.
It’s been really interesting to see all the odd and unlikely things people do to earn money…tank driver, fishmonger, clown, pipeline surveyor, funeral musician.
It was also interesting to see how many of the jobs were fairly low-level/low-wage until people hit a well-paid professional career, and it seemed like a longer, slower trajectory for the Americans who tweeted, maybe because so many go on to graduate school, maybe because some just didn’t need — or couldn’t get — a better position sooner.
Here are the first seven ways I tried to make money, (and you’ll quickly see a pattern!):
Made and sold home-made bead necklaces on a street corner in a chi-chi shopping area of Toronto. I was 12.
Made and sold home-made envelopes (magazine pages, with an address label). I was 15.
Lifeguard at various Toronto swimming pools, public and private. Ages 15 to 18.
Waitress (very briefly!)
Busgirl (even worse)
Sold my photos on the street. Age 19
Sold my articles to national magazines and newspaper. Age 19.
I soon learned that:
I like to sell
I like to talking to strangers
I’m not scared of selling or of speaking to strangers
I like seeing how people respond to my creativity
I like it even more when they pay me for it!
Lifeguarding is really, really, really, boring — until or unless (which never happened) someone is in serious trouble
Waitressing and bussing tables demands huge physical stamina, patience and a shit-ton of emotional labor
I prefer being paid to challenge and question authority (journalism) than kow-towing to bosses and customers (service work)
The world of work can appear terrifying, impenetrable, overwhelming. No matter how hard you work or whatever degree(s) you earn or your stellar marks/GPA, you can still hit a wall, or many.
There are many people out there insisting you follow your passion, without regard to — you know, money.
Just because you like making cupcakes/walking your dog/playing the banjo doesn’t mean you can earn a decent living from it.
The challenge for everyone, from first job to last, is finding steady work we enjoy, (at least much of the time), and that uses our skills and emotional intelligence.
Working for income is such a potent blend of drive, determination, talent, sheer get-this-shit-done-now, emotional labor, (i.e. sucking up, being nice to people even when — especially when — you’re being badly paid and treated like crap, as in retail and foodservice), management draaaaaaamas, finding smart/kind (if you’re lucky) co-workers, bosses and clients…
A job can look perfect on paper and then you start and….ohhhhh, shit…It’s not.
Or, yay! It really is.
I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist working freelance, i.e. without any paid sick days or paid vacation, without a boss or co-workers or raises or promotions or bonuses or commission. Whatever I earn has to come through my efforts and skills, and, when it works, the generosity of my networks who refer me on to their contacts.
Some years have been terrific, others much less so.
I do enjoy working in/with/on a team, as one does in a newsroom or magazine. I enjoy, and I miss, the camaraderie and the mix of smarts and energy.
But I also treasure autonomy, being able to plan and manage my own time, (and time off — Americans with staff jobs are terrified to ask for or use their skimpy vacation days) –and to pick and choose work that makes sense to me, intellectually if not always financially.
I’ve had three well-paid staff jobs at major daily newspapers, in Toronto at the Globe and Mail, (Canada’s best), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.
I loved the first, enjoyed aspects of the second and barely survived the third; daily American newspapers, now struggling mightily and shedding staff like autumn leaves, are highly specific cultures, some welcoming, some less so.
I’ve also worked as a senior editor and editor in chief of a few magazines, work I enjoyed less, as it was totally desk-bound.
What were some of your first jobs — and what did they teach you?
Here’s a powerful story about what it’s like to lose a job, and a career, that you love — and turn into someone who, like millions do in many places, just gets up every morning and does his best anyway:
First comes rage. The rage of impotence.
It’s not easy being nobody, especially when you used to be somebody. But times are tough; jobs are scarce. When you’re falling straight down the financial cliff face, you reach out to grab hold of anything available to stop your descent and there, just before you land in a homeless shelter or move in with your sister, is Uber….
I think of Uber as a modern-day version of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Thanks to Uber, I am not poor. I am just . . . nobody.
When I first started driving, I talked to every passenger. I engaged in conversation about the city, life and politics. I told them about my work as a reporter, and as a strip club manager. I felt the need to say, “I’m not really an Uber driver. I am someone too. Just like you!”
The writer, John Koopman, used to be a journalist at a major U.S. newspaper — a job, today, that has all the future growth potential of a Zeppelin operator.
More than 30,000 of us, (I was laid off from the New York Daily News in 2006), have in recent years lost well-paid staff jobs at places we liked, doing work we enjoyed with people we respected. Our industry is in chaos, and well-paid newspaper jobs are being replaced with fewer digital ones, often paying far less.
Many career journalists also make a trade-off, settling for what’s called “psychic income.”
No, not clairvoyance!
We accept a lower salary — much less than you might think — because we actually enjoy(ed) our daily work. It’s a great way for publishers to get highly educated staffers cheaply and, with few unions left to fight for better wages and conditions, ask them for the moon.
The problem with invisible income is, especially after years or decades of it, that it doesn’t add up to shit — no retirement, no paid-off-mortgage, no fuck-you fund for when (not if) you finally get fired or laid off. Very few people now have a defined-benefit pension, so all that “psychic income” didn’t fill a 401(k) either.
And (surprise!) many of the journalists, like me, who are losing their jobs — some paying $80,000-120,000 year or more — are in their 50s or beyond, and now deemed “too expensive” for anyone else to hire.
So, no new J-job for you, missy!
Back to college to start a shiny new career at 50 or 55 or 60? Not likely.
So, for Koopman, it’s Uber.
For me, it’s freelance, and nowhere near the full-time income I earned 11 years ago, despite all the usual accomplishments.
When you lose your job, and your title, and your Big Name Affiliation — no longer able to say “we” about your coworkers and employer — who the hell are you?
In the fall of 2007, a year out of the News job, I was scared to death and couldn’t gin up enough freelance work.
I took a part-time job at $11/hour as a retail sales associate in an upscale suburban mall near our home. I worked for The North Face, an enormous company that has since bought Timberland.
We sold $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, Connecticut — and never got a penny in commission for the biggest of sales.
I stayed until December 18, 2009, by then grateful to be earning $450/month for blogging, twice my store wages, and finally able to flee.
My feet were killing me — and my soul was dying.
You can only be underestimated for so long.
I had been “someone”, (a writer, an author, i.e. a person whose work elicited envy), for decades, since college.
Now, like Koopman, I was deemed a peon, in humbled service to shoppers, many of whom assumed I must be uneducated (untrue), stupid (ditto) and had never traveled further than the mall parking lot (38 countries, for work and pleasure, in better years.)
When I opened my mouth to help a customer in French or Spanish, they looked at me like the dog had started singing Aida.
This is where Koopman is now.
This is why Koopman — and it’s such deceptive insanity to define your worth by your job title — feels like he’s nothing and nobody.
But in a country relentlessly focused on income, status, work, more income…a low-wage, low-status job marks you as someone with a big fat L for loser on your forehead.
It’s ugly and it’s demeaning and it’s really demoralizing.
Jose and I have a glory wall, I’m both embarrassed and proud to admit. We were very lucky, because we both had well-paid staff jobs at major newspapers for years, he for 31 at the New York Times.
The glory wall is the pile of laminated press credentials you get, and proudly collect, when you cover the biggest stories — political conventions and inaugurations, the Olympics (he did two, as a photographer), Presidents (he covered three).
I met Queen Elizabeth and covered a Papal visit as well.
Those glossy credentials publicly and visibly define you as someone with a good job and challenging, coveted assignments.
When you no longer have a lanyard or press pass or credential…you’re persona non grata. You can’t just cross police lines anymore, (as you can with an official city-issued press pass.) You’re not of the Times or with the News.
This has been a rough year, (and many other writers I know), so much so that I suffered persistent stomach pain for weeks and went for a check-up.
The pains have, fortunately, subsided, no doubt caused by work-related stress.
My doctor reminded me, kindly, what I already knew — you can’t assign your value, and your mental and physical health in this world to worldly success, a job, a title, a salary, an income.
OK, laugh…but I do, occasionally, read self-help books, especially those focused on business.
I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2005, and have done so several times in my career. Which means I have no boss or manager to, ideally, train and guide me, or mentor me or help me get better at what I do.
And being a freelance writer is — very rarely — about the quality of your actual writing, but about your ability to sell, close deals, hustle, to create and sustain profitable new relationships.
So I need to seek, and to find, people and ways to help me stay fresh, smart and sharp.
A classic of the business self-help genre is Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, originally published on August 15, 1989, which I read and enjoyed.
Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Making social and meaningful connections with others
Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service
As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you.
Those of you who read this blog regularly know how deeply I believe in and evangelize for a life filled with joy and connection and rest, not just a hard charge from cradle to grave.
In that spirit, I’m heading to D.C. this weekend for a firehose of data on writing about retirement. I’ve been writing often for Reuters Money on a variety of personal finance topics, from taxes to how to establish a scholarship. This three-day D.C. fellowship, offered to 20 journalists from across the country, will, I hope, better prepare me to pitch and write smart, incisive stories.
While in Washington, I’m also meeting editors at two major publications and hoping for new work from each of them.
I’ll take three days to rest, recharge and enjoy the city, which I’ve visited many times; favorite spots include the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Sackler Museum, the elegant, serene Asian art wing of the Smithsonian.
I’ll get home, have a day to unpack and repack, then fly to Toronto, my hometown, to attend the wedding reception and brunch of one of my dearest and oldest friends, a woman marrying after decades of independence and financial success running her own business.
I’m super excited for her and her fiance, a distinguished author and professor, and thrilled to be there to share their joy; she spoke at my second wedding, in September 2011 in a small church on an island in the Toronto harbor.
She has known me, and nurtured me, from the very start of my journalism career, when I — a wildly ambitious writer in Toronto — apparently (!?) pestered her for free tickets to the ballet, which she represented for years as their press officer.
We quickly became good friends, and she has welcomed me into her home many, many times. I later wrote several times about the National Ballet, and had some great adventures as a result; I was honored to write an essay for their 35th anniversary souvenir program as well.
She is more family to me than anyone to whom I’m related.
It’s also been a busy spring with no out-of-state travel since early January, so I’m really ready for a break, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.
I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.
It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.
These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.
You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.
Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.
There’s no other way to tell these stories well.
Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.
Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.
Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.
There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?
I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.
It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.
It’s called a press pack for a reason…
I hope, as you consume serious, smart journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.
Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.
As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.
It’s a real loss.
We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.
We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.
And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.
Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.
The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.
After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.
The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.
Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.
I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.
We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.
On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.
Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)
Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!
A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.
That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.
It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.
We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.
The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.
You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.
But here’s the thing.
I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.
The economy has changed.
Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.
Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.
So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.
A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!
Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.
I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.
Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.
Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.
Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.
They might not even have a “job” anymore!
Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!)— pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.
Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.
Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.
We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.
Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.
No one owes you this!
And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.
I loved this recent post by a friend and colleague, a Toronto-based travel writer, Heather Greenwood-Davis, who has seen much of the world, and even took her two young sons and husband globe-trotting with her for a year.
Heather trained as a lawyer and did well, but…
My marriage suffered. My friendships suffered. My health suffered. I began to shut out the world and as a result the very people I thought I was suffering for.
It made no sense.
What was the point of a full bank account if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it with them?
And so I downsized my career and upsized my happiness. I followed my passions and though there was an immediate hit financially, the life I’ve been able to craft with my family has more than made up for it. The happier I became, the more I earned.
As long-time readers of Broadside know, this is really one of my obsessions and an issue I care very deeply about.
Do you know this book — written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter? — The Two-Income Trap? It argues that chasing the American Dream might be a fool’s errand.
If you’ve never read this classic book “Your Money or Your Life”, it’s an eye-opener. It makes clear, in plain and unvarnished language, the very real choice we make — we spend our lives focused on making (more and more and more) money, grow old and die.
That’s normal life for 99% of us.
But should it be?
Do we all really need the biggest, fastest, shiniest, latest, 3.0 version of everything?
The tiny house movement addresses this longing as well, as some people choose to live in homes of 200 to 300 square feet, giving them the financial freedom to make less punishing choices than staying in a job they loathe to…pay the bills.
And so many students are graduating college with staggering debt and having very little luck finding a good job, the kind they hoped that college degree would help them attain.
Whatever loyalty many people once felt to a job, employer or industry….Today? Not so much.
Every year, surveys show that a staggering portion — like 75 percent — of Americans are “disengaged” at work.
They arrive late, take sick days, dick around when they’re supposed to be working. They hate their jobs or, at best, feel bored, stifled, under-challenged.
This is brutal.
This is heartbreaking.
We only get one life — and it goes by very very fast.
I so admire Heather for making a decision that goes against every sociocultural imperative: get (and cling to) a fancy job, make tons of money, make more, buy tons of stuff, buy more.
We’re urged by everyone — friends, teachers, parents, bosses — to keep climbing the ladder of material success and professional glory, no matter what it costs you emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
I live in the same one bedroom apartment I moved into in June 1989.
If you had told me this would become my life, I would have laughed. I moved around a lot, and liked it.
I’d never before lived in any one domicile more than four years — and that was back in high school, with my father.
But my chosen life in New York also threw me a bunch of curveballs: three recessions in 20 years, a brief first marriage, an industry — journalism — that fired 24,000 people in 2008 and is in serious chaos today.
Life, if we are lucky, is a series of choices that reflect our deepest values, principles and priorities.
I didn’t want to change careers or leave New York, still the center of journalism and publishing.
I had no wish to assume enormous student debt to return to college to retrain for an entirely different line of work.
I didn’t want to move far upstate, or out of state, where I could live more cheaply, and possibly face serious social isolation, which I’d hated in New Hampshire.
My stubbornness created its own challenges!
I don’t have children, so did not have those serious financial responsibilities to consider.
I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained health insurance and good health (even with four orthopedic surgeries in a decade.)
My priority, always, has been to create the freedom to travel and to retire, (and we have) and to work on issues and stories that make sense to me.
It means making, and spending, less money.
We’re outliers, in some key ways:
We drive a 15 year old Subaru with 166,000 miles on it.
We don’t buy a lot of clothes and shoes and electronics; our splurges are meals out and travel.
We’re not close to our families, emotionally or physically, so we don’t spend thousands of dollars each year on travel to see them, gifts for them or their children.
I realized — after working at three major daily newspapers and a few magazines — work is just work. Like many others, I’ve also been bullied in a few workplaces and terminated from a few as well.
That left some bruises.
I enjoy writing. I love telling stories.
But it’s only one part of my life.
I have many interests and passions, not just the desire to work, make money and become rich, famous, admired.
I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer.
I’ve been able to help care for my parents through health crises because I didn’t have to beg an employer for time off.
I’ve been able to help friends as well, like taking a recent day off to get a friend home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after day surgery.
Now that my husband is also full-time freelance, we can take a day or two during the week and just have a long lunch or go for a walk or catch a daytime film.
Jose and I really enjoy one another’s company.
I’d much rather have a day with him, just chatting and hanging out, than making an additional $1,000 to buy…something.
We met and married later in life, and we have both had terrific, satisfying careers in journalism.
His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.
For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.
Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.
Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.
There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.
There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.
There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.
Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:
It takes talent
Yes, it does.
Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.
Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.
It takes training
You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.
They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.
They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.
The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.
It takes practice
I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.
They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.
We all crave success and admiration.
It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.
It takes social skills aka charm
Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.
Charm is an under-rated skill.
Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.
Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.
Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.
It takes skills
If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.
You are not An Artist here.
You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.
You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.
We’re hired help.
Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.
Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.
For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.
You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.
If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.
I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.
This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…
It takes studying the greats
“You can’t write without reading.”
If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.
Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.
It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source
It doesn’t matter what the work is.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.
J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.
If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.
Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.
It takes patience
No one writes a perfect first draft.
It means being edited
If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.
Just don’t even bother.
Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.
A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.
A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.
How badly do you want to improve?
It means being read
That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.
You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.
A thick skin is key.
It means being — publicly –critiqued
Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:
Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.
The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.
(Several other reviews were much kinder.)
It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair
Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.
It means being lucky — or not
This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.
It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.
Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.
It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.
(See a pattern here?)
It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.
Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.
The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.
Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.
If there is an obsession I really hate, it’s “being (more) productive”, i.e. making sure that every minute of our every day is spent doing something, preferably as quickly and efficiently as possible.
No, do even more. Better!
I live near New York City, a place where if you’re not working reallyhardallthetime — gobbling lunch at your desk with no break in your day — you’re seen as some witless, gormless slacker.
It’s hardly a point of view confined to New York, but it does feel very American, with a deep-rooted and long-established cultural emphasis on making lots and lots and lots of money and never wasting time because…you could be making more money!
All of which strikes me as sad and weird.
This mania for measurement began, as some of you know, with Taylorism and Fordism, ways of manufacturing, (to profit corporate owners and their shareholders), more quickly and efficiently, named for the men who created these systems.
Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.
The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.
I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.
The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.
Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.
And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.
By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.
Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:
Someone gets an idea
It happens in a variety of ways.
It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.
It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.
It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.
It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.
Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.
Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.
Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.
A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:
a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?
The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.
Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.
Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.
I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.
What’s the story — and who cares?
Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.
We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)
As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?
Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?
Does it reflect a trend?
What expertise or insight can you bring to it?
Is it even really worth doing?
Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.
We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client
Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.
But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?
If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.
What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.
Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.
What’s the best way to tell this story?
One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?
The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
How soon do we need to jump on it?
In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.
What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?
Who do we need to include to tell this story?
This is where so much journalism remains weak — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few women and/or people of color, as this story points out.
I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.
Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.
There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.
How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?
This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.
It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.
Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.
Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.
If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.
What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!
I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.
How much time before you’re done?
I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.
The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.
Does it make sense?
This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.
It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!