Don’t Give in to the Temptation to Give Up

It’s tempting as a journalist to give up and just find some other job. Something more stable, predictable and that feeds a steady paycheck into the bank account. There is also the in-between realm of working a “day job” that pays the bills and doing journalism on the side in one’s spare time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills, but I can speak from experience on this one–working a day job and being a journalist on the side is an incredibly slow way to get the experience you need and want. There are cases of those who are incredibly focused and get themselves into a niche and ride it all the way to quitting their day job and becoming a full-time journalist. But if you add much of a personal life in there–spouse or kids, for example–you are probably looking at several years of dragging along and not making much progress.

Then there is the temptation to just find “other people’s projects” and tag yourself on to them. In other words, “get hired” for other jobs. There again, you are going to have to spend precious time working at finding work. All time that you will not be spending working as a journalist.

I had an epiphany recently about the structure that makes the most sense for a freelance journalist who wants to be their own man. Or woman. My theory is not tested yet, but in my head it makes a lot of sense, and it is measured against 7 years of experience as a freelancer.

It goes something like this:

1. BE CREATIVE. Designate at least 1-2 projects you are working on that have no current market or audience, but that you feel strongly about. This could be a book or short story or essay you are working on.

2. BE PRODUCTIVE. Spend some time every day writing. Try to make it the same time or time frame. Test different times and see what makes the most sense for you. Put aside everything else during that time, including hiding your cell phone and email accounts. Writing emails does NOT count.

3. BE IN CONTROL. Realize that you are the one who is in control of what you work on. Don’t let yourself get pushed and pulled into doing things that have nothing to do with your work as a journalist. If that means you have to take your camera with you when you take your kid for a walk so you can practice photography, then just do it. Integrate your craft into your life–don’t try to manipulate your life to fit what you imagine your career is.

4. STAY IN THE LOOP. Be in touch frequently with other journalists. Meet them in person, connect through social media, send emails. Whatever you need to do. When you know what other journalists are doing with their time, it will inspire and push you to do more, do better, and quite simply–just do.

5. MANAGE YOURSELF. If your goal is to try to make a living as a freelance journalist, you are your most valuable resource. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to write, report, photograph, interview, research, find good stories. Despite the current market’s general disrespect for journalists (in terms of pay), realize that this is a highly valuable skill set. Market your skills with that in mind, and don’t take any wooden nickels.

6. MIX PROJECTS. Use a mixture of projects to advance your experience and credibility and livelihood as a journalist. Take on some projects that are just because you want to do them, some that are paid but have little to do with your real passions, and some that might develop into something better. You will know what works based on your financial needs. Don’t do only projects that are your dream projects, nor all jobs that are just to pay the bills.

Any other points to add to this list, let me know. I’d love to hear them.

Don’t Write in Spite of Your Life

Yesterday I saw an article on the Internet about a list of the ten jobs with the highest rate of depression. Of course, writers/artists/creative careers was on the list (all lumped together). I have also heard many different talks and seminars in which the speaker discusses how to work around your life to be a writer.

It seems like there’s a message going around that nearly everyone is buying into: if you want your creative life to be your career, you have to deny your current life to “make it.”

This train of thought bothers me. To begin with, I’d venture to guess that every creative person works partially from their life experiences. For me personally, I wouldn’t have the life I have as a writer and journalist if it weren’t for the part of my life that pays (all of) the bills, provides stability, and gives me a robust environment to interact with other people.

Most creative types probably end up feeling frustrated because they want to put 100 percent of their time and energy into their craft. I have had those moments more than once. But on second thought, I am extremely grateful for the life I have, which allows me to also have a life as a writer. The two are in harmony, not in competition. And if someday I “make it,” whatever that means, maybe I will be able to devote my time to this craft full-time. But the moment I am in now is so rich and full of possibilities, I’d be crazy not to savor and appreciate it.

The Infinite Demands of the Written Word

The longer you write, the better you become at it. That is simply because what our grandparents and parents used to tell us has a lot of truth to it: practice makes perfect. Aiming to achieve perfection might be a bit high and mighty, but maybe that’s not what our elders were trying to say. I’ve thought about this pursuit of perfection. I think they were trying to tell us to practice at what we set our hearts to, and we would always improve.

Over the last few years of working at becoming a good writer, I’ve learned repeatedly that it is not a destination to someday magically arrive at. Becoming a good writer is all about answering to the demands that the craft imposes on you. It’s a bit like a relationship. At first everything is exciting and new. But over time you have more expectations of your writing, and it has more of you. If you stick with it, there is a point when you find yourself asking, “Do I want out of this, or am I in it for the long haul?”

I heard the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert, talk about this a few weeks ago in New York City when she gave a talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Gilbert said at the young age of 15, she knew she wanted to give her life to writing and to live with it, and even held a private ceremony in her teenage bedroom to make her vow to the craft official.

Gilbert might be an unusual example, but I think that’s because most people never realize the when they either commit to writing, or leave it behind forever.

My relationship with writing has been rocky at times, but never once have I thought about doing something else. I have wondered how it’s all going to work out and whether I have the energy to keep going. But then there are those magic moments when something–or someone–inspires me to continue.

Beyond practicing (physically sitting down and writing on a daily or near-daily basis), a good can appreciate the written word when it comes from others. They value a well-written book like a treasure. They deeply admire authors who have mastered the craft of their genre. They know what is worthwhile to read and what is not.

So, lesson number one in becoming well-written: be well-read. But don’t read just anything, and don’t force yourself if you know you’re reading something that was poorly done or worse–is self-serving. There have been many times that I skipped huge sections of a book I was reading because the self-aggrandizing vibe coming off every page overwhelmed the story the author was trying to tell.

My personal favorites, particularly for journalists, include Solomon Northrup’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” anything by Frederick Douglass, Dexter Filkins’s “The Forever War,” and anything by Khalil Gibran.

Just remember, though, whatever you read or write, whether it is amazing or very poorly done, can elicit lessons. I recently read a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which is considered the greatest murder mystery of all time (according to the book’s back cover). It was my first ever reading of a Sherlock Holmes story.

The greatest lesson I learned from Doyle’s writing style is that he was a master of structure and suspense. I wouldn’t study the story for lessons about character development, because he never made me care deeply about any of the characters. But he made me want to know what would happen next.

That, in a nutshell, is why the demands of the written word are infinite. Once you truly devote yourself to the craft of becoming a great writer, you will never arrive at port. You’ll sail upon the high seas in an endless, and sometimes turbulent, voyage. But I believe, as I always have, that it’s every bit worth the ride.