Friday, November 9, 2012

Letter to An Aspiring Writer

Every writer takes his own course for getting where he is. Some have stumbled across a professional writing career in mid life, when their cumulative experiences catapulted into a book. Others of us have tried to define our whole lives by writing. This is my story:

I always knew I wanted to be a writer from early on, when I would write poetry, songs and short stories. My first books were made at about age 5 - the only time I could illustrate as well and my pictures be thought  of as "cute." My mom bought these blank white books that you could color in and compose stories. I loved it.

So when I graduated high school, deciding to major in English: Writing at a four-year college was as easy as tying my shoe laces. There wasn't a doubt this was the path I wanted to pursue. I just didn't know what kinds of fields you could work in as a writer.

For three years now, I've been a freelance writer for a company that publishes upscale neighborhood magazines across Milwaukee suburbs. Every month I am in charge of several magazines, writing feature articles on the local people, organizing community calendars and writing about community organizations, businesses or events. The fun part is getting to see one's work in print every month and getting responses from my readers. It's not always a writer/editor can correspond so closely with his readers.

In addition to my role for this company, I have also written feature articles for newspapers and national magazines - some religious, some secular - by initiating relationships with editors and then offering to write for them on an assignment basis. The principle usually is that once they see your quality work, they'll come back and ask for more. I have also been hired to do grant writing and fundraising direct mail letters for a nonprofit organization. As a freelance writer, I am constantly managing multiple projects for different clients and working on deadline.

I've done feature articles, website content, newsletters, editing and lots and lots and LOTS of interviews.

As a junior in college, I spent a summer as a public relations intern (an unpaid position) at a local nursing home, which led to a job senior year as a media writer for my university's public relations department. Both were vital experiences for me, giving me the hands-on skills I needed to learn how to write press releases and practice interviewing people for information (which none of my college classes had prepared me to do). In fact, I don't recall being told that good interviewing skills are essential for a professional writer. I guess if I had majored in communications or journalism, I would have heard this, but nonetheless, I do not regret majoring in the broader English and literature studies. They taught me how to probe human character for the motives behind people's actions. And after all, that's what interviewing is all about.

After I graduated, I volunteered to write my church's newsletter while I was job searching. I used the newsletter as a writing sample for getting my first job.

What I've learned is to follow my dreams. Being a freelancer has been tough but also very rewarding. The first step is getting published clips, so you have samples to show potential employers. If you have to write for free to get those clips, do so. If you can write a nonprofit organization's newsletter or help someone write a brochure or build a website, do that. I love this advice by Mark Twain, which is humorous but true:

"Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."

Most of all, do what you love. "The important thing is this: to be able to at any moment sacrifice who we are for what we could become" (Charles DuBois). Don't be afraid to try something new. Never make excuses but give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them. Then you will have found the joy of being a writer.

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