I wrote my first piece when I was 20 and got my first useful lesson in professional writing a couple of weeks later: I received a letter from the publication saying that the article had been accepted. It contained no information about when they planned to publish it and pay me. Over the years I’ve learned that getting a publication date is hard and getting an editor to tell you the exact date the check was sent is well nigh impossible.
I remember wanting very badly to advance my career and even buying an excellent Gene Perret book on the topic, but not actually working at anything. I certainly sent out plenty of queries, and even got some idea acceptances (in fact, at one point, I had ten articles going at once) but nothing ended up getting published. Writing is work, and it is solitary work, and mostly what I did was party all night, sleep all day, and hang down with a REALLY bad crowd. The articles don’t write themselves! I never really had the nerve to throw everyone out of my tiny apartment once and for all and buckle down and have at it. What ended up happening was that out of ten accepted ideas, I blew every single one of them. Lesson learned, and learned well: If you want to have a career, YOU alone are responsible for making it happen. Your friends, wonderful though they may be-and some, I’m sure, not so wonderful-are not responsible and generally speaking are not interested. They have their own agendas, especially if they are not writers or artists and in fact have no work, no nine to five of their own.
It doesn’t happen by magic. Some people stay comfortable, but that doesn’t expand your professional horizons. If you want to write about model rocket launches in the Nevada desert or the intricacies of municipal waste management or growing vegetables and herbs for fun and profit, then YOU have to do that. YOU have to take the chance. YOU have to get out to Nevada, locate government and scientific literature on waste management, grow a garden. YOU have to be creative in solving your own problems. No land to grow a garden? Maybe your landlord will let you have a barrel planter or two in the back lot. Maybe you can talk to a local farmer or landowner and rent land from him, or sharecrop–now THAT would be a great story. The trick is to not assume, to not make up the answers before you ask the questions. If I teach new writers nothing else, it’s creative problem solving. Learning to not just think like a writer, but to think like a writer in the moment, on your feet, in medias res (in the middle of things), so when something happens, you are already writing the story in your mind.
And you don’t need what Stephen King called “a rabbi in the business,” either. I certainly did not have one. Until very recently what I mostly had were naysayers–some people were very supportive but they were few and far between. I am told this is not uncommon. If you want people’s respect, YOU must earn their respect and create the impression that YOU are a professional.
Fast forward now to my little home on the Jersey Shore. I have ten plus years of experience. Things are going well. Discovered writersweekly.com–in my opinion, the greatest online community for real writing professionals in existence. Planning to continue to do new things, and write about them in my semi-Gonzo, semi-anthropological style. Lesson learned: Having professional connections, and a professional family, who understands what you go through and the specific problems you deal with in your trade–that’s the second greatest thing next to cashing the check. Having people to celebrate your successes, help you up when you fall, give advice when you are stuck…that’s the second greatest thing to cashing the check.
David Berlin is a 31-year-old writer who lives on the Jersey Shore. He was paid the princely sum of $65 for his first piece when he was twenty, which kept him in breakfasts at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter, and has been writing for money ever since. He’ll travel anywhere and write anything for anyone if the price is right; he’s written for Antiqueweek, the Well Water Journal, Weatherwise, and a whole host of others. When not at his desk he can be found mooching around his adopted town; eating at the diner and keeping his ears open. You can find him on the web at http://www.groovydaveonline.com and you can look at his Starving Artist’s Survival Guide Blog and Starving Artist Tip Of The Day at .