Four years ago I was 27 and working at a marketing job that was okay. By “okay” I mean it gave me a salary that paid for my rent and my student loans and not much else. I graduated college with a degree in philosophy which I loved but which gave me low expectations about the working world and my place in it and I kind of thought that was the best I could hope for. Today my first poetry collection, We Are All Just A Collection Of Cords (it’s really good, you should buy it) came out and I want to talk about how I got from there to here the way I desperately wish more writers would talk about how they got from there to here.
The tl;dr version is going to be that I spent a lot of hours working on it and that I got lucky. One secret of being successful at writing is that it’s not really a secret how to be successful at writing.
Writing blog posts on bar napkins on (week) nights out:
The long version is that I was bored at my day job. My brain was bored. My best friend’s brain was bored at her job. We met in logic class four years earlier and had spent those years in the philosophy department getting close the way being women in a very male dominated program and questioners in a very religious school will force you to be. We each found a person that was supposed to help us through the dark and we got through the dark by writing truth tables about boys we liked and passing notes in class. This was the foundation we decided to build a project upon, something to make us not feel like our minds were wasting away now that we no longer had classes to go to and papers to write.
We started a blog about existentialism and dating and called it PhiLOLZophy because we wanted everyone to know that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. For the next few years we’d sit on her living room floor — macbooks open, unlidded plastic handle of vodka at the ready — and write funny intellectualized takes about everyday issues for two twenty-something girls: music, boys, going out, alcohol, and occasionally some trending topics like whether Aaron Sorkin was a philosophic nightmare for being vegan but having a leather couch or something. This was work we did after our full-time jobs (and to be clear, we were in our early 20’s so we each had a second full-time job, which was going out) and we produced a handful of posts a week. There’s two things I want to point out about this:
1. My co-blogger and I are now both at jobs we got because of the work we put into our website. She had professional experience that helped her land her fancy boutique agency job, but she made the contact through our site. I think the person who let her know of the opening cold emailed us to see if we’d be interested in partnering on an outside project and we all became friends when we met up for brunch. One of the best things in the world is being at a table eating a meal with a big group of creative people.
I was hired at Thought Catalog because I made friends with the managing editor Brandon Gorrell via the comments section and then he started syndicating our work, which is how I met the owner of the site and after awhile I became a freelancer and then he offered me a staff writer position without knowing me very well or asking for a resume or any normal HR thing. I think he just liked that I wrote about how I don’t like atheism but I do like dick. That’s range! Which leads me to:
2. You have to do your own thing. Some other people had done the “lol philosophy” thing, but not in a way that at all resonated with my friend and I. They were basic and safe takes and we just wanted to be our inappropriate, irreverent selves. We were a blue ocean.
This helped. It helped us seem “real” to our followers who felt a lot of ownership over the site. Tumblr took notice. They put us on their featured page as a “funny” blog which helped us get a lot of followers (350k), which helped us be noticed by other people. We talked to an agent at ICM about representing us and then eventually we did a book with Thought Catalog which became a kindle single.
A really frustrating thing I see constantly at my job is really talented writers who spend all their talent trying to be someone else. For every era of talented writers we have at TC, we have an era of contributors who (wrongly!!) think they need to be just like them in order to succeed. We hired Marisa and Rania because they had such a strong presence and made popular a type of writing we hadn’t seen a lot on the site before Brianna Wiest. Now we have endless second person inspirational/love essays. Which are GOOD when they are good, but generally the second person is a difficult way to draw people in. I miss zany first person essays. I’m hungry for anything voice-y on the site and when I see something I send it to the homepage immediately. I don’t want to disparage these articles at all, it just makes me sad that it seems like this is what everyone who wants to build a presence on the site feels like it’s what they have to do, when being themselves would stand out so much more.
I also want to be honest about what went into my own presence on the site.
I want to say very clearly that writers often do not have the enviable lives people perceive them to have. Most people I know don’t deal with the emotional highs and lows the really good writers I know do. If people are beautiful in their pain it is because they first have pain. My co-blogger and I had some traumatic experiences in college, and we weren’t popular. In the years we worked on our blog together, the tone was fun and playful but the posts were about boys who didn’t love us back and not fitting into our families the way we thought we were supposed to and the kind of existential insecurity that happens when you lose your religion and have to build all the structures in your life up from scratch. Plus, we were just sensitive girls with anxiety and A Lot of feelings about stuff.
Peep the floor of PhiLOLZophy HQ at any given time:
I meet a lot of people who want to quit their jobs to write which seems crazy to me. I had a full time job and I went out all the time and sometimes I also had a part-time job on top of that and I still wrote regularly because I got a lot of joy out of writing, which is what made it good. If it’s not fun to do as a hobby — it’s a skill based trade and the work you put into it is going to translate to something that’s not very fun to read. Creators are different, some people just can’t create something every day. That’s fine, but they shouldn’t take a job that relies on them having to be creative every day. (I’ve seen people take jobs that rely on them being creative everyday and then complain that no one should be expected to be creative everyday). Some people are more prolific than others. J.D. Salinger only gave us a few books, Agatha Christie gave us dozens. Everyone is trying to be someone else and the really successful people are trying to be as “them” as they can possibly be. I get worried people are wasting their talent trying to be someone else. Or trying to prove something.
You don’t have to write full-time to be a writer. A full-time writing job is not a magic bullet that will make you suddenly enjoy writing or have the ability to finish your novel if you don’t already have the drive to do those things. If you can’t write regularly with a full-time job, will you be able to write regularly when you quit? You might be able to write, but there’s also the question of whether you’ll be good. And if you’re good, there’s also the question of whether you’ll bring in enough readers to make money. In a lot of ways, not having to make money from your writing can be freeing.
When I started writing for money I was working constantly to learn how to bring in readers and often my poetry or my “real” writing still felt like a side project. I know a lot of freelancers feel this way!
I also think there is a lot of pressure to have success early on and be a prodigy, but there’s a relief to the way you notice yourself getting better through the years. I surroud myself with reading and writing and creating because I want to live and breathe those things and be the best at them that I can be. In the years I was writing poetry that would become We Are All Just A Collection Of Cords I was also hosting a poetry night with my friend Nicole where poets in our city would gather and read their own work along with lines from the greats. I was living and breathing the work I was creating. I think this is necessary because what I was doing felt original and I was in community with so many other creators. It helped me understand my style in contrast to everyone else’s. Here’s my friend Chris reading “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton:
As I grew my catalog of poetry, I was inspired and emboldened by this group. I knew I had my own style that was different from the other poets in the group:
I also had the unique privilege of being connected to the book publishing arm of Thought Catalog and knowing they would be ready to help me when I had something to publish. When I turned in a manuscript it had been over a decade since I took a poetry writing course in college and wrote my first poem. In that decade I worked a lot of non-writing full-time and part-time jobs, but I never stopped doing what I wanted to do even when I became lucky enough to do it for pay. The constant is that I wanted to write and that I disciplined myself to write. The constant is that I wrote.