TweetsKeystrokeErrors @Hanna_Hindstrom Im a new freelancer in Mae Sot, & I want to be you when I grow up. Care to lend a sec for my blog http://t.co/FeXFAOnp0w?KeystrokeErrors Did an interview with a quilt shop. Now I kinda want to start quilting. Darn it, I promised myself I would't let this job change me...
Jon travels to the pygmy homelands at a tense time in the Congo…
Jon spends the night atop Nyiragongo, a mountain that, for all its beauty, remains an existential threat to…
Jon travels to the Tanzanian hinterlands in search of a man who claims to have cured millions through an elixir prescribed by God…
These are lines from the clips page of writer Jon Rosen. The first thing I told him when we spoke was that I think of him as Indiana Jones with a laptop.
“It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve been told I look like a young Harrison Ford,” he replied. “One friend still calls me Dr. Jones.”
I hadn’t actually known what he looked like before our Skype session, only that he was in Kigali, Rwanda, writing on topics from Kenyan marathoners to deadly volcanos, for the likes of Slate, Al Jazeera and, most recently, National Geographic covering the struggle against Continue reading
Those are what you think.
My Thai visa ran out today, which means instead of finishing the post on freelance journalist and badass Jon Rosen, I had travel from my current town, Maesot, 10 or so kilometers to the the border, venture into the town on the Myanmar side, and cross back for a fresh passport stamp.
But while I didn’t finish Jon’s write up, it was a successful day in the writing life. First, because tonight I had a fantastic interview with British writer Laura Barnett, responsible for The Telegraph’s reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey. Second, because I acquired two new cans of sardines for my collection (which my Thai pal carried back from a trip to Ghana), an antique opium pipe and a tiger fang.
I don’t support tiger death. But the tooth is very old – more a relic than a souvenir, and for Myawaddy, purchasing one in the locked back room of a dusty junk shop was like buying a an I heart NY tee shirt in Times Square. My town, Maesot, is a patchwork of smugglers, rebels, refugees, NGO’s and Chinese entrepreneurs. Myawaddy is somewhat less lively, but its underbelly is a different seedy. Like, old-school seedy.
Besides, I’ve been starting to worry my future nieces and nephews won’t believe any of this crap.
And anyway it’s not even the sketchiest thing I’ve got. (But the human skull is another story.)
If you caught the season finale of HBO’s all-time most popular show, you watched Jaime Lannister risk all to rescue his brother Tyrion from certain execution. The two share a quick hug before parting, a small spot of warmth in Tyrion’s devastated life.
We book-readers didn’t get that. In our version, Jamie touches the wrong nerve and Tyrion torches his last real friendship with the lie that he really did kill his son. One parting stab from Mr. Martin.
And you TV fans think you’ve got it bad.
Well, either way things don’t look good for Westeros. At this point the protagonists of the central plotline have been harried, hacked, backstabbed and exiled in turn. The Lannisters end up on top, yet most of them are poisoned, shot with arrows or fleeing for life before the end. Thus, the War of Five Kings reaches the bottom of its arc like the Hindenburg.
Yet we still have Continue reading
I’m back in Maesot, Thailand. Went over to Japan for the last three weeks, and though I brought my little drawing tablet, the only thing it accomplished was breaking it again. It still sort of works, bless its heart, but I experimented with honest-to-goodness paper and ink today, heaven help us. (It’s more of a blow to this project in development.)
Last night I had a killer interview with a freelancer named Jon Rosen, who writes from east Africa and is more or less Indiana Jones with a pen. Feature forthcoming, but for now, I’m suddenly all excited about writing about writing again.
So: I’ve decided to do something – maybe not a big, meaty feature, but something - at least once a week. Stay tuned.
And finally, I, in all seriousness, collect canned sardines. Wanna see my neeeew ones?
I have seen a dead body twice in India. Sorry, let me back up.
I’m not a cussing man. That is, I try not to make a habit of it. I don’t have anything against expletives, only that when I do use them I want it to be on purpose. Some words are too exquisitely nasty to keep in the same plastic cooler as the craps, hells and shoots. You hear about the writer’s tool kit, but slang is more like spices. My spice rack looks like this:
These can be tricky to wield in your writing, though not in a dangerous way – some keep their venom, like certain racial slurs, but most just lose their flavor with repeated use. Psychologist Stephen Pinker points out that while no-no words are as human as language itself, the particulars always shift around. A writer who uses a lot of our four-letter friends gives his style an overall edge, but keep them in reserve and a well-placed F-bomb can light up a paragraph like a thunderbolt.
This is where the corpse comes in.
I found it on a trip to Gokarna, India. It had washed up on the beach after three days at sea, and its skin was so white I thought it was a rescue dummy until it was actually at my feet. The moment held a cocktail of rare emotions. The initial animal revulsion. The sudden panic of the modern mind coming face-to-face with the state of nature. The question of the soul and this vacant husk that would never think, never know again.
What I said was
Before the Disney Pinocchio the expression was a tame stand-in for Jesus Christ, and it shows up more often than you might think. I know because I can no longer hear the phrase without thinking of a dead person on the sand. I can’t actually use it (unless I land an assignment for Insectphobics Quarterly or something), but it remains a little existential landmine buried in Snow White and Happy Days. Gilligan shouts it, and for a small moment I wonder if whatever amusing flotsam he’s found this time isn’t the remains of a fellow castaway who took the coward’s way off the island.
I suppose the moral here is to keep your spices in order but be sure to stock your causal patois with a few good-old-fashioned fuckwords. Those are the ones that’ll show up for a fight, and you want to know who’s gonna be there when it all hits the fan.
Or rather, the beach.
I have a lameness complex. I think it came around because most of the amateur writing I encountered in school was a conga line of impalatable metafiction, self-indulgent personal narratives and 800-page manuscripts that were “kind of like Twilight, only darker.” So I kept my dreams of literary derring-do secret, assuming people will only take a writer seriously if he is
a) already famous
b) doing something that would only be interesting in Dilbert.
Even in Asia, I still can’t shake the feeling that being a cool and exciting writer isn’t something regular schmucks do. I hinted at that in my conversation with Gigi. She said it was crap.
In fact we went through three of my hang-ups, and each one was more crap than the last.
Myth 1: You should have a killer portfolio before you put it online
I always get to know a girl before I let her see me shirtless because, while I’ve got a lot going for me, you might not catch it if you’re distracted by the unbaked Dominos pizza I call a torso. That’s sort of why I resisted having a professional page. My credentials are somewhat deeper than they are wide, and I thought it better to win editors with a strong pitch and a few impressive clips before they see everything splayed out online and realize the rest of the iceberg isn’t much bigger than the PDF’s at the tip.
Why it’s BS: “You can’t wait and say, ‘Oh, when I’ve got X-number or from X-number of different publications, then it’s legit, then I can go ahead with my website,’” Gigi said. “No, people want to see that you’re out there, and what you’re doing.”
As my former editor Carla Jean Whitley pointed out, your public offering may be stronger than you think. I asked Gigi if I should tote a blog whose niche is, basically, defacing its own writer. She said pimp it. In fact, pimp anything you got. “They just want to get a sense of who you are as a writer,” she explained.
And anyway, having no online presence is more of a red flag than a weak one. Fortunately: “You could have somebody who’s been doing it for fifteen, twenty years and writes like shit. They really are looking at quality. The more you can give them to go on the better, especially if it’s somebody you’ve never worked with before.”
Myth 2: Major publications ignore new writers
Last time I spoke with Rick Bragg I told him about a story idea for India. “You know who you should send that to?” he said. “Smithsonian magazine.” I agreed; Smithsonian would like it, especially if I was a bestselling pulitzer winner. But whenever I thought about cold-pitching Smithsonian myself, I saw my email getting drowned in an editorial inbox with a few hundred what-I-did-this-summer essays by stoned bohemians.
Why it’s BS: “If that’s the case, then nobody would ever break into a new publication or media outlet ever,” Gigi said. “You’d be constantly working with the people you’ve always worked with forever, and that’s it.”
I guess that has a certain logic, though there’s a difference between finding an established journalist for an assignment and taking a chance on some college schmuck. You need to at least be, like, on the radar, right? Gigi admitted maybe USA Today isn’t going to get its best interns fact checking your idea, but odds are good someone will at least see it. “That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a response. That doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get your first fifteen pitches to them accepted; you might get big, fat rejections. But they’re not out of reach or out of range at all.”
Myth 3: The market for international stories is lousy
The problem with travel writing is that, like writing novels, literally 100% of millennials want to do it. As for non-travel international features, I figured precious few publications were buying them (compared to the reservoir of local papers and city magazines), and my pitches would be competing with writers from Iceland to Papua New Guinea. Writers professional enough to have little sunshades on their camera lenses.
Why it’s BS: Gigi claimed that media companies are relying less on their foreign bureaus and more on freelancers and stringers. In fact, she said her first big break as a freelancer was with PRI’s “The World” with a story from Egypt. Again, it takes patience and persistence to build a rapport with editors and eventually find assignments, but these are just obstacles of starting out, whether in Tallahassee or sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2006 Gigi Douban quit her newspaper job to raise her two kids as a full-time freelancer, which at the time involved waiting for emails in coffee shops and digging into her savings. Eight years later her clip file sports Bloomberg, The New York Times, NPR and a fistful of other heavy-hitters across several platforms. She was kind enough to speak with me on the phone about starting out as a pen-for-hire.
To sum up: “It was rough. It was really, really rough. It was really rough.”
The deck is almost perfectly stacked against the new freelancer, Gigi said. Where company folk take workplace routine for granted, a freelancer has to carve one out from scratch and then muster the discipline to stick to it. Lulls are as frequent as they are long, rejection is constant (if you get a response at all) and the pressure is higher when you do find work because editors have no reason cut you any slack – or hire you again if you screw up. “You can’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m working on this story for the Birmingham News and for Bloomberg, so, NPR, could you, you know, back off a little bit and give me another month?’”
But there is hope for the rookie with one, simple trick: Tough it the hell out. If nothing else, the writing life rewards persistence. Gigi talks about the first days like boot camp, weeding out the ones who don’t have the stuff to make it. “It takes time. And I think only the most patient and persistent people are the ones who are going to find success,” she said. “When there are those lulls, editors are not calling you back, emails going unreturned, you cannot be discouraged by that.”
It teaches newbies to keep track of several things at once, stay calm during the dry spells and get rejected day after day without losing morale, because – here’s the twist – those problems don’t ever really go away, even for someone who uses Bloomberg and NPR in her hypotheticals. In the end, it isn’t the biz that changes, it’s the writer.
Fortunately, Gigi did leave me with some survival tips for the early stage:
Set out with a bunch of cash. If you’re broke, start putting a little away in savings, because unless you’ve already made it big, you almost certainly won’t be able to support yourself with your writing for a while.
Nail organization early. The tangle of ideas, pitches, editors and sources will only get worse once you start picking up assignments. Gigi recommends a good organization software, like Evernote.
Make use of the idle periods. Just because you aren’t getting paid doesn’t mean you can’t be productive, so make a bowl of ramen noodles and then use the opportunity to, say, learn video editing or update your site.
Put your clips online. Even a basic WordPress or Blogspot site makes things easier for editors. And even if your clip file is thin, Gigi said a weak online presence looks better than none at all. (More on this in part II.)
Consider joining a professional organization. These include groups like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Association of Independents in Radio, and are good places to seek advice from people in the biz.
Keep track of your cash. Your earnings will be a mosaic of contracts and checks, and it can be tricky to track who owes you what and when, so get good accounting and tax softwares.
Don’t forget to have friends. “…to talk you off the ledge. Sometimes you forget how much you socialize in an office, not just professionally.”