Squeezed into a seat in row 34 on a crowded airplane, I’m flying back to Oregon from New York City. Yesterday I spoke on a panel at the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) annual writing conference about how to balance passion projects with big payouts.
It was tough time slot: right after lunch, competing with superstar panels. I hinted to my 5,000 Facebook friends and 1,400 followers that they should attend the social media panel instead of ours. After all, Dorri Olds, who interviewed me via Skype for this article, is fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to hear her speak? With postprandial somnolence and the competition, I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout. But our ASJA panel ended up with maybe 40 or 45 attendees, who were an engaged and enthusiastic audience. Included among them was my husband’s cousin, a successful financier who lives four blocks away and who came dressed fabulously in a dark pink coat and white-rimmed sunglasses, reminiscent of Ann Bancroft.
This ASJA conference was a two-day affair. Friday for members only. Saturday open to the public. I was meeting with a team at Ballantine on Friday and I have guiltily let my ASJA membership lapse, so I missed all the fabulous Friday sessions.
But here are the 16 lessons I learned from Saturday’s #ASJA2016 panels and beyond.
- New York is nuts. I saw more people in Times Square in two minutes than I see in two weeks in the small town in Oregon where I live. Half of them are crazy. The other half are tourists.
- It’s good to meet people IRL. I have a growing digital network. You can find me here and here on Facebook, here on LinkedIn, here on Twitter, and here on Pinterest. (I also have Instagram and YouTube, god help me, though I have yet to figure out how to use them.) Social media is great for story ideas, finding sources, and wasting time, sharing articles and news. But there’s no substitute for in-person networking.
- The most successful journalists and authors treat writing as a business. Yes, you’re creative (especially if you’re writing fiction or narrative nonfiction). Yes, you’re clever. But you’re also a business owner. Your writing is your product. If there was one main takeaway from ASJA 2016 that’s useful for beginners and veterans alike, it’s that you should be smart, strategic, and professional about your writing business.
- Invest in professional development. You can learn a lot of what you need to know by pounding the pavement and doing your time. As I’ve written about before, some of the most successful writers are entirely self-taught. But good training is always a good business investment (see #3). Reminder to self: attend more writing conferences.
- Twitter’s totally terrific. I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. And this alliteration is completely lame. And I can’t use Twitter on my phone unless I have wifi. But it was fun to tweet advice with the conference hashtag (#ASJA2016; my other favorite is #amwriting) and see what people who went to other sessions tweeted about them. My tweetfest probably drove every single one of my paltry number of followers crazy—since most of them are midwife types, health professionals, and medical freedom fighters (see #15). So now they’ve all UN-followed me. But I’m hoping the tweets made my writerly friends and the good folks at ASJA happy.
- Look beyond the conference. I arranged the meeting with my publisher to coincide with ASJA so I could attend this year. I also lined up meetings with an editor, a client, two colleagues, and three friends who live near the City, and attended a lecture about intersex rights at the New York Academy of Medicine by Alice Dreger (who is quoted in our forthcoming book. Stupidly, I didn’t introduce myself to her after the talk—see #2. I took a redeye and was too tired by then to form a coherent sentence). When you attend a conference in a city where you know people—or where there are editors, other writers, or professionals you’ve been wanting to meet—arrive a day or two early to network.
- Different paths lead to similar success. The panel on six-figure freelancing, moderated by Kelly James-Enger (author of the aptly titled book, Six-Figure Freelancing), was full of friendly dissent. Damon Brown is all about branding: he has one topic that he explores in a variety of media: how technology brings us closer together and fosters intimacy (doesn’t reading this makes you feel oh-so-close-to-yours-truly?). Jodi Helmer does no branding, has no main thesis that guides what she writes, and doesn’t give a hoot about per word rates. But she writes quickly and well and is, in her own words, “a damn good businesswoman.” It was fabulous (and hilarious) to hear the people on this panel speak about their completely different strategies for success.
- Even the most confident writers suffer from IS. IS = Imposter Syndrome. Help. I’m faking it. I actually suck at this. It’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes just how badly I suck. That was the subject of the panel, “You’ve Got It! Building Up Your Writer’s Confidence,” moderated by Sherry Amatenstein. Amy Ferris, Jesse Kornbluth, Michele Filgate, and Daniel Paisner shared their insecurities. Ferris confessed some days it’s all she can do to get up in the morning. Filgate talked about the ugly thoughts and mocking self-hate. I’m not sure I got any takeaways from that panel (see #10), but in a world full of posturing and luxury vacation photos of smiling children on Facebook, it was refreshing to hear writers admitting and exploring the self-doubt we all sometimes feel.
- Tell us about your ups AND your downs. See #8. Though I appreciated all the panels and panelists and I’ll never get invited back if I criticize ASJA (Randy and Alex, stop reading this right now), some presenters were so eager to share their own success that they forgot to mention when and how they stumbled along the way. We want to hear about the soul-crushing defeats as well as all the accomplishments. Without any mention of overcoming obstacles, you run the risk of alienating your audience and coming across as a braggart. Some presenters also forgot the all important storytelling advice that you need to show not tell, add a bit of description, create a strong character or two, and be raw and real. (P.s. I can re-wallpaper my house with all the rejection letters and failed book ideas I’ve had over the years…)
- A few concrete takeaways help too. While the 8:00 a.m. keynote speaker, Atlanta-based journalist Josh Levs, was charming, funny, and energetic, his talk seemed out of context. What were we supposed to glean about writing from the back and forth about fatherhood? Then there were the panelists who claimed they wrote five books in three years, all of which were bestsellers, while caring full-time for triplets (I’m making this up but you get the idea). Whoa, cool, wow, really? But how the fuck am I supposed to apply that ASJA advice to my business? The best presentations were those that combined good storytelling (see #9) with solid advice and concrete implementation strategies.
- There are many ways to fund a project. There are lots of different funding sources that writers can tap into these days, which was the subject of a Friday panel that I wasn’t able to attend. But I’ve had several grants to support my work, including a Fulbright. If you have a compelling story and a magazine, newspaper, on-line site, or radio station that wants to publish it but can’t give you enough remuneration to make it feasible, or doesn’t have a budget for travel, transcription, and other expenses, look for outside funding: The Fund for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism, Alicia Patterson Foundation. Most journalists don’t realize that writers are also eligible for overseas Fulbright fellowships from the U.S. government. A good list of other funding sources (most post-publication) can be found here.
- Writers sit too much. Some health professionals think sitting is the new smoking. I have a treadmill desk, so I stand or walk most of the day. But I spent too much time sitting down during the conference. Note to self: you could have been standing.
- Use health insights to increase your productivity. In our panel, moderated by Chicago-based journalist and ASJA-member Dawn Reiss, Megy Karydes shared that she creates a detailed schedule for each day, blocking off time for each writing assignment, client account (she has a marketing background and also does public relations in addition to freelancing), and other projects. She even schedules her family time. In the Q&A an audience member asked Karydes how she switches her brain from one subject to another. This is a difficulty writers with different income streams—and anyone working on more than one project at a time—invariably face. I’ve found that scheduling a 20-minute walk before switching gears, or doing seven minutes of calisthenics helps signal my brain to switch gears. Panelist Christine Giordano, a freelancer based on Long Island, said that eating fish, avocados, and other high quality foods helps her brain when she needs to concentrate. Giordano also said that sugar and sweet treats—though they give her a temporary buzz—make it harder to sustain her focus.
- Sree knows his stuff. It was standing-room only (see #12) at Sree Sreenivasan’s ASJA technology talk. Who knew you can create a poll on Twitter (see #5), that every social media post is an opportunity for people to un-like and un-follow you, and that there’s an app for every problem you knew you had and those you aren’t aware of. His tips were so insightful, and he was so gracious and smart and funny, that I’d like to attend one of his all-day trainings (see #4).
- As far as groups of people go, writers are among the most awesome. We all write about different subjects, have different political leanings, and different opinions about hot button topics, but writers, especially writers who attends ASJA, are cool. Nerdy, nearsighted, often introverted, definitely neurotic, distracted, and prone to self doubt (see #8) and envy (see #10). But awesome. (My other favorite group of people are birth advocates, especially midwives, see #5. Oh, and I also like professional basketball players. Too bad I don’t know any in real life…)
- Don’t wear white jeans in New York City. Last time I was in town I literally slipped on a banana peel while crossing the street at Columbus Circle. Who does that happen to, besides Groucho Marx? And, yes, I was wearing WHITE pants. You’d think I would have learned. But, no. I brought white jeans this time too. Um, hello? They got filthy (of course) and I mailed them home to myself.
ASJA’s Atlanta chapter is hosting a one-day conference on November 5, 2016. The date for next year’s ASJA conference has already been set: May 5th and 6th, 2017. You can find ASJA upcoming events here. See you there!