Saturday, November 3, 2007

Why and How I Became a Nonfiction Writer

I thought I’d start out on this third day of November by telling anyone reading this blog why and how I became a nonfiction writer – in case you are interested.

I’ve been a nonfiction writer since I was about 16 years old, and (I hate to admit it) I’m now 47. Actually, I had dreams of being a novelist back in high school. That’s what I thought it meant to be a “writer.” I was an avid reader, and I had been writing (and illustrating) stories since I was in middle school (maybe earlier). I had a romantic notion of spending my time penning away fabulous stories like those written by Ayn Rand and Emily Bronte. Then my mother gave me a reality check. (Mom’s are good at that.”

“Only really good writers can make a living as novelists,” she said in her practical fashion.

I suppose, in retrospect, she was right. Although, sometimes I pick up a novel and read it and wonder… In any case, it wasn’t long after she spoke those words that I decided to take a high school journalism class that set me on my career path. Taught by a real letch (he slept with several students and married two…and, yes, was thrown out of teaching position) with a knack for inspiring kids to write, he showed me that I could write articles, that I could tell stories using nonfiction and that I could influence and help people with my writing. I was hooked.

I went on to revive the school’s defunct newspaper and to become a bi-weekly school news columnist for a local newspaper. I then spent my summers doing unpaid internships for other local papers in a quest for clippings and by lines to help build a portfolio that would get me into college. Accepted by two great journalism schools, Boston University and Syracuse University, I enrolled in Syracuse’s prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications as a magazine journalism major.

There I receive a truly excellent education that thoroughly prepared me for every journalism position I accepted after graduation…although I only accepted a few. I had dream of working in Manhattan for a glossy self-help magazine, such as Self, but a few calls and attempts at getting job interviews made it crystal clear to me that I wouldn’t be pursuing that path. I was told in no uncertain terms that to land an editorial job on any such magazine required agreeing to accept a job as a receptionist first and to then work my way up from there. There was no way after four years of working hard to be an editor and a writer that I was going to answer phones and get coffee. No way.

So, I gave up on that dream and started looking for jobs elsewhere. Within about two months of college graduation, I became the managing editor (minus the title) of a regional magazine in Westchester County, NY, with 15 different editions. I worked for a crazy woman who expected perfection from this newbie right out of college. I didn’t last there for more than a few months, if that. (I can’t even remember; it was an awful experience, except that I got some great editorial experience and some super by lines.) I then got a job as an associate editor on another regional publication, this one with two editions – one for Westchester County and one for Long Island, NY. I was only responsible for Westchester County. I again got some great experience editing and also writing. My clipping file grew, and about a year and half later I took a job in Manhattan – but not for a magazine. This time I went to work for a corporation; I became the associate editor of corporate communications for The Equitable Life Assurance Society of America. This was a total change of pace. Not only did my responsibilities expand beyond editing and writing to layout and photography, but I got to travel with the CEO to Washington, D.C. and to visit other Equitable offices and to interview top lawyers and executives in the company. I also put together the company’s first employee annual report.

From my fast-paced life in New York City, one and half years later I moved to – of all places – Bartlesville, OK, to work with a corporate communications consultant who was publishing four newsletters. I became his managing editor responsible for editing all copy, writing a good bit of copy, assigning artwork, and doing the entire layout on the then-new-technology called desktop publishing. (If you want to know how the heck I landed this job…well, that’s a long story. Suffice it to say, beware when your boss sends you off to a dude ranch for a corporate communications seminar. You never know what happens.) This job lasted only a year, since my boss turned out to be almost as crazy in terms of expectations as my first boss. So, I quit and later moved to Atlanta to begin working as a full-time freelance writer. I opened my business, CopyWright Communications, which I moved 10 years later to Batavia, IL, a far-western suburb of Chicago, and then to Los Gatos, CA, where I now live and work.

And that brings us up to date! I consider myself a nonfiction writer, although I did produce that novel during NaNoWriMo two years ago – a childhood dream that I will someday still fulfill (when I have the time and the money to hire myself a good fiction editor). I write nonfiction articles for a variety of magazines – mostly local, and I write nonfiction books of my own. I also edit nonfiction books and articles for other authors. I even teach some classes and teleseminars on writing for publication.

So…that’s it for today. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why I love nonfiction writing. And then I think I’ll tell you about my recent writer’s identity crisis.

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