Own Your Art. Yes, Art.

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This week I visited my grad school, Goucher College, as a panelist for an alumni roundtable discussion. I volunteered because I wanted to talk with my peers and see who else was writing online or self-publishing, but apparently I am one of a very small number. Instead of networking with fellow writers, I found myself in a position to share my experience of self-publishing with anyone interested (yay!) and to defend my choice to self-publish (awkward). In retrospect, there are a few points I would like to clarify but most importantly, this:

There’s more than one way to be a writer, and I’m tired of “professionals” who don’t get it. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I went to grad school with some highly accomplished writers, and was mentored by some of the top names in creative nonfiction. And I chose self-publishing anyway. Now I want to tell you why.

I see a lot of good writers struggling to get published in the traditional market — smart, passionate people who simply aren’t getting published. They are accomplished writers and reporters, and they care immensely about their work, but they can’t find an agent or publisher who thinks they can sell it.

I also see a lot of books published that are good but not necessarily better than those struggling writers. I see book stores filled with boring books. Often, they contain no big ideas but are just clever in a forgettable way.

I occasionally see extraordinarily good books in traditional publishing and equally good work from independent writers. I’m not saying no one in traditional publishing is doing a good job, but I’m saying getting published by Random House or Penguin or anyone else doesn’t make you a good writer. Just like choosing self-publishing doesn’t make you a bad writer.

Some of us have heard enough times that what we want to do will never sell, and we don’t want to waste our time trying to fit a mold that doesn’t suit us. When I decided to self-publish my manuscript, I wasn’t thinking about book sales (I assumed I would have very few), but I wanted to put this work out in the world because I was proud of it. I didn’t want to dedicate the next two years to getting the damned thing published, though, so I did it myself.

My feelings about traditional publishing are strikingly similar to my feelings about kids: “Not right now, thanks.” Right now, my honest-to-goodness most important work is teaching yoga and writing about what I believe in on my blog. Maybe in 10 years I will have done something interesting enough to write a book about and people will want to read that. At that point, I would consider selling that book to a publisher, but I’d also seriously consider publishing it myself. If I play my cards right, I could have a pretty sweet audience and not need the support of a publisher, so that’s my long-term plan. Alternatively, if I do build that kind of audience, a publisher might find it worthwhile to help me print an excellent book for them, so I’ll cross that bridge if I ever get to it.

Reality is that I don’t have a huge audience because I’m just starting out and still finding my way. I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of, and I’m damn sure it doesn’t make me any less intelligent or less capable a writer than my peers. I’m aware of some things I’m doing well and some things I need to improve. Every time I take those steps to improve, I see the benefit in terms of increased audience and class attendance, and I find that extremely satisfying. I don’t know for sure where I’ll be in terms of my writing and my audience in 10 years, but I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

The other two panelists on Saturday were highly accomplished men, one being a New York Times bestselling author, and the other being the author of several highly praised books. They were both also in their 50s while I’m 30, so the gap in our accomplishments may look like a lot, but I feel certain that I’m on track to be their equal or better. Although I have chosen the self-publishing route, I am not less of a serious writer than anyone else at Goucher. I have however chosen to work from the ground up rather than to “aim high and work your way down” as folks kept suggesting on Saturday night. Aim high, to this crowd, seems to mean getting an occasional pittance from a large print publication and spending months writing draft after draft of a book proposal. That is the writer’s life we were all told to expect. We’ve all heard about the boatloads of rejections received by our favorite authors. So, I guess if you don’t have a scrapbook of rejection letters or a room wallpapered with them you’re somehow cheating. Maybe it’s not fair that everyone else has to jump through all the hoops while I’ve simply chosen not to play that game.

One person who seemed compelled to defend me whether he agreed with me or not compared self-publishing to being in a garage band while pursuing traditional publishing is more like playing big arenas. I guess it’s worth mentioning that I don’t go to big arena concerts very often (they’re usually overpriced and not as fun as I’m hoping), and I do love a good small town punk show or free concert in the park. Anyway, there’s no right or wrong about it, but it’s my preference to start where I am, writing for myself, self-publishing my work, honing my voice, and building my audience a little bit at a time.

The choice to self-publish or not has nothing to do with legitimacy and everything to do with your goals as a writer. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you feel driven to write? Who do you want to reach? How do you want to be remembered? Right now, my entire focus is on doing work that I can be proud of. Some of that work is poetry, essays, blog posts, and even my current attempt at fiction. But I’m also really proud of the yoga classes I teach, the volunteer work I do, and the podcast I run. The decision to self-publish was part of a larger decision to take control of my work, my life, and my own creativity. Self-publishing is part of my intentional and yes even methodical process of building the life I want. It is not for everyone, but right now, it’s definitely right for me.

Finally, there’s one specific comment I want to address. One of the panelists announced on Saturday, “No one in this room is an artist,” just as I finished explaining that self-publishing is all about owning your art. His point was that writers do not produce great work in total solitude. We need editors. We need beta readers. We need designers. We need publicists. This is all true, and it applies to traditional and self-published authors alike. However, if you do not write like an artist … well, now you know why I’m not reading your books.

You go find your audience and I’ll go find mine. In 500 years if anyone remembers either of us, it’ll be a miracle. Meanwhile, I plan on enjoying what I came here to do.

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the front lines of humanity

journalists at play
The internet is chock full of people dolling out advice about SEO techniques, technology for creative types, and the best ways to sell yourself as an artist or writer.

At the risk of remaining an unknown literary soldier for the rest of my life, I choose to ignore all of that. The truth is, I’m just not interested in that kind of self promotion. I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t feel good. It makes creativity feel like a burden instead of a source of joy.

People would call me naive if they knew who I was enough to have an opinion. But they don’t know me, and they don’t care, and I’m happy with that.

You hear people saying all the time that if you are your authentic self, if you are honest, if you are sincere, your tribe will find you and rally around you and hold up your work in celebration. I would like it very much if that were true. It might be true. Maybe it is. Maybe those of us who follow that advice belong to a very small, very happy tribe.

Yesterday, I went to the Newseum, which was cooler than I expected. It reminded me that I am indeed a journalist in my own way. I no longer write for other people’s newspapers or magazines. I do not take assignments. I refuse to write anything I don’t love. It is completely rad to be able to say that. I am so exceptionally happy with this arrangement.

I am a journalist of the personal, the intimate, the beautiful, the tragic. I live my life as an immersion reporter, soaking in the gorgeousness of humanity on the front lines and reporting back, “Hey, humanity, remember this? This is you.”

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Why I’m Not a Journalist

Today, I’ve been catching up on my reading over at The Nervous Breakdown, and I have to tell you, I love these folks. There are a lot of great pieces up lately, so go check them out.

The one that prompted me to post today, though, is “On Selling Out” by Victoria Patterson. She shares her feelings about having once contributed to one of the endless series of Chicken Soup books in order to break a dry spell, much like the way so many of us have gone home with a coworker or a classmate for pretty much the same purpose … only to find that the water cooler conversation in the following days is particularly awkward.

Anyway, her piece prompted me to write the following in a comment:

On an ever-so-slightly related note, I once did a freelance piece that involved attending a tattoo show and taking some pictures of people’s tattoos. As I mingled with the crowd looking for people to talk with, I had the good fortune to chat with one of the featured tattoo artists, a 40-something woman with a lot of ink and a great reputation for her work. I included her in the story thinking it was a great find. The editor, however, chastised me for it. She said I shouldn’t talk to people “outside our demographic.” Apparently the demographic was 20-something private university hipsters with ironic tattoos. I didn’t work for that publication for very long …

At the risk of burning any and all bridges to freelance journalism, I must say that the above story pretty much encapsulates my reasons for not pursuing journalism any further. I am simply not interested in working for publications that consider a 40-something, well-known, well-respected local tattoo artist “outside our demographic.” Nor am I interested in requests such as “can you make it sound more positive?” regarding a situation that honestly just isn’t that positive.

Now, it’s true that I may not be exactly cut out for journalism, but I do rather like it. When writing about local businesses, I enjoy visiting the business people, getting to know what they do, taking photos, and finding ways to bring more interesting and useful information into the story for my readers. I’m also pretty happy doing PR and promotional work, and I’m currently enjoying the PR experiments I’m doing for a side project. However, what I cannot stand is PR that masquerades as journalism. And what’s worse is that when exposed for what it is, it offers excuses. Well, yeah, it’s PR, but we’re trying to promote our city… No. No, you’re not promoting the city. If you were promoting the city, you would promote that tattoo artist, not just cater to the hipsters who will buy whatever advertisement runs next to your shitty little story that not only doesn’t involve any real reporting but according to your policies, really shouldn’t involve too much actual information because it might have a negative spin.

You know, honesty is bad for sales and all that.

P.S.

Have you seen my latest piece on TNB? Yep, I’m all about the honesty: Some Kind of Love Letter

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That answers that question, don’t it?

So, the other day, a friend sent me an e-mail, which I’ve edited a bit for her privacy and posted here:

Hi Mary!

How are you doing lady?! Hey, writing really quick to ask you a couple questions about freelance writing. I know I’ve asked you questions about it before, but it’s been awhile and I wasn’t really ready at the time to start actually doing freelance work. At this point, I am ready and have been looking for positions online. I figured that since you have done some on your own, you are one of the best people to get tips from. [Blogger’s Note: She is really being entirely too kind as I am no expert by a long shot, however, I feel compelled to give information whenever I’m asked because it makes me feel good, and I like to be helpful where possible.]

So, basically, one of the main positions that keeps popping up is for [Popular Online Thing]. It’s an online news site where anyone who gets hired by the company can write articles on their specified topic. Like, let’s say I was the Arts examiner for [town], I would find local art events, go to them and write and take photos and publish them to the website. From what I’ve read so far, you are allowed to post the articles in more than one place, as the [publication] doesn’t keep all your content. In looking up info online from people writing, one woman said she is averaging about $10 per every 1,000 page views.

Basically, what I’m trying to figure out is what is legitimate, so I don’t end up wasting my time…Can you help?

Thank you so much!

I love this question, and it came at an interesting time for me because I’m in the midst of reorganizing my own priorities and approach to writing. I’ve given this particular question a lot of thought lately, and I’m happy to have a chance to share my opinions. So, here we go.

Short answer: You can’t lose anything by trying. [added after I wrote a long ass rambling e-mail… ok, now here’s the extended “director’s cut” answer]

Well, [Popular Online Thing] is a legitimate publication, and it’s one of many right now that are trying this new model of paying writers per page view. I can’t really tell you if it’s a waste of time or not since I haven’t tried it, but it seems to be popular with a lot of writers. It seems you really have to write a LOT of articles and/or spend a lot of time on self promotion to make any notable amount of money on it, so it’s a question of whether you find that work worthwhile.

You may find that the writing you’re doing isn’t really want you were hoping for… say, not as interesting, meaningful, or newsworthy as you would like… I could be wrong. See, I’ve been frustrated lately because I thought I was going into freelance journalism, but it turns out the main publications hiring lately are PR/advertising driven. If you turn in a story with a source saying anything critical of local government of businesses (anything that might hurt ad sales, perhaps?), you may be asked to try and give it a positive spin, which is fine if you planned on working in PR but not so much if you are trying to be a journalist.

I don’t want to be a downer about this, but I’ve gotten quite a reality check lately. Journalism as a whole is in bad shape. It’s in the middle of reinventing itself, and if you have the tenacity to be in the middle of it and see it through, I think there’s something amazing on the other side of this, but in the mean while? One of my close friends from grad school is a long-time writer for [Long-Standing, Highly Respected Publication]. She has been worked to the bone lately, damn near having a nervous breakdown, and she tells me that even at her newsroom, reporters are asked to file two stories a day. Look, when you are working at the level they work at, you really can’t produce quality at that rate. It’s clear that publishers have completely lost sight of actual journalism while trying to save their bank accounts, and the crazy thing is that the approach they’re taking is actually driving them further in the hole because they’re producing BAD WORK.

Ok, I’m ranting, so I apologize for that. I am really not trying to discourage you from trying freelance work but just sharing the things I’ve had to hash out recently. So… realistically, here’s what I advise:

Try the [Popular Online Thing], but only if they have something open that you are interested in and knowledgeable about. It’s not likely to pay tons right off the bat, although I know people who say they make decent money doing it. So, pick something you’ll enjoy working on and make it worth your while.

Meanwhile, ask yourself where you want to go with writing. It seems like you are really multi-talented, so is writing something you feel driven to do as a career, or is it something you just want to try out? Are you hoping to use the [Popular Online Thing] as a step toward working at bigger publications? I think that’s possible if you’re writing about what you want to write about for the long term. So, if you start writing about style and health, it may be a route toward writing in magazines on that topic later. In my case, I realized none of the stuff anyone wanted to pay me to write about was of much interest to me. I started writing for very different reasons, and people don’t pay for poetry, so I’m cutting the freelance thing a bit in order to focus on the aesthetic writing that I really love doing. There is headway to be made in journalism, and if anyone can do it, it’d be someone like you. I lack the drive of a reporter, and I’ve decided that the best thing for my writing is to cultivate what I love.

Hmm… Ok I am seriously going on now, so I’ll just reiterate my point one last time:
-Decide what your goal is with writing
-Cultivate the aspects of writing that you love
-Kick ass, take names, repeat.

Of course, there is another set of advice that I’ve neglected. If you do want to work in journalism, there is one tactic I know works for getting freelance gigs:

Apply for everything. Even if you might be slightly under-qualified, apply. If they like your resume and like your work, you can get a freelance gig out of applying for an editorial position. You just never know what’s out there, so test the water and see what you’ll find. And if you try it out and love it, fantastic. If you hate it, well, that answers that question, don’t it?

Well, team, what do you think? I know at least a handful of my readers and friends here are writers also. How are you handling the changes in journalism? What advice would you give to someone who wants to try freelancing?

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