How I Taught Myself to Write and Found a Career in the Literary World
In 2014, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. During my studies, I worked as a fundraiser for a political party and in the gift shop of a museum on campus. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place but found many of the avenues available to do so ineffectual. As a teenager, I loved writing but never dreamed I could make it a career. So often, we are told that pursuing the arts is not worth it, that we are destined to fail and will never make it. I wish I had been given different advice. I might have started considering a writing career sooner rather than later. Writing academic papers is much different than creative writing and journalism. Leaving university, my writing was formal and clunky.
After graduating, I traveled for a few months and when I came back, I spent several months miserably looking for meaningful work in Vancouver. I interviewed for a role at a huge nonprofit, one that paid little and required a lot of hard work. Fortunately, I didn’t get the job. Jaded, I decided to take a leap of faith and moved to Toronto alone at age 24. In a new city, with no distractions, I tried out several new things — coding, marketing, copywriting, customer success, among various other types of work.
“I loved writing but never dreamed I could make it a career. So often, we are told that pursuing the arts is not worth it, that we are destined to fail and will never make it. I wish I had been given different advice. I might have started considering a writing career sooner rather than later.”
I found myself drawn to writing and marketing. In 2016, I wrote a couple pieces for blogs for which I was not paid. My academic writing style was still present and I had a hard time shifting towards a more creative one. I learned of a network of Facebook groups for women and non-binary people called The Binders. I joined a whole bunch, ones covering topics such as travel, mental health, feminism and LGBTQ+ issues. I also signed up for Twitter. In both of these spaces, editors would routinely post calls for pitches and writers would share their stories of trial and error, failure and success.
With a couple simple bylines under my belt, I started learning how to craft pitches. I had a wealth of ideas in tow but no idea how to sell them let alone actually write them. Sometimes, people would post their own stories that had garnered success. An online community became an invaluable asset as I learned the ropes of freelancing. I became obsessed to the point that I would secretly write while working a job I hated. As time progressed, I figured out that I could not just write about my own experiences but I also had to interview others or report on events and people around the world.
In 2017, one year after publishing my first piece on a blog, I had stories published in Paste Magazine, Refinery29, Brooklyn Magazine, HelloGiggles, Narratively and The Cut. I wrote about my own experiences with trauma and mental illness. I interviewed the moderators of a Reddit community of Game of Thrones superfans who loved spoilers. I interviewed the artists adapting one of my favourite books, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, into a graphic novel. I realized that I could cover stories directly related to my passions for an audience and it was a thrilling experience each time a pitch was accepted.
“I realized that I could cover stories directly related to my passions”
While several of my pitches indeed became published pieces, many of them did not. At the beginning, this was gutting but I started to learn that rejection and failure are part of the process. In fact, I began to understand that a lot of the time you learn by doing. Each time I wrote a pitch, I was honing my craft and bettering my practice. The more pitches I sent off, the better I got at writing them.
Once, I posted in a Facebook group about an idea I had for an essay but I didn’t know how to break it down into a digestible narrative. As well, I had no idea where to place it. People commented and told me that the narrative actually made sense and listed off publications I could pitch it to. I sent off an email to The Cut and a month later, an editor commissioned the story for $800 USD. I was shocked.
Once the article was published, I shared it far and wide. I received a wonderful response. People emailed me to tell me that my story was moving and let them know they weren’t alone. Someone asked if I was writing a memoir, something I had never considered but once the idea crossed my mind, I saw a whole new world of possibility open up. Three years later, in 2020, five months after applying right before the deadline, I received a surprising email from an arts council. I had won a grant to write my book.
Looking back on the last six years of my writing career, I can see just how far I’ve come. I went on to be nominated for a National Magazine Award for my first cover story. When we allow others and ourselves to convince us that pursuing our dreams is not possible, it closes the door on opportunities to do what we love. The truth is: anything is possible. This is not to say that freelance writing is easy. In fact, it is often not for the faint of heart.
“When we allow others and ourselves to convince us that pursuing our dreams is not possible, it closes the door on opportunities to do what we love. The truth is: anything is possible.”
Many times, I have waited for more than six months to be paid for an article I have written and have barely made ends meet. It takes a lot of time and effort to work in such a precarious industry. There can be challenges for one’s mental health, especially those who have been notoriously left out of the writing world, including racialized, LGBTQ+ and disabled writers. Constant rejection can add up and make you feel like you’re not good enough. Some people make writing their full-time job while others do it part-time or as a hobby. But no matter your relationship with the art form, there is space for you.