Category Archives: work

I’ve got you under my skin, New York.

There’s something happening with me and New York.  After about five or six visits, we are – dare I say it – developing a relationship.
To be honest, New York is the one city where I’ve always felt this sense of: “Should I?”  Past tense.  “Should I have moved here instead of California in my early 20s?”  “Instead of two years in grad school, should I have devoted two years to this city?  Paid my dues?  Made contacts?  Moved back home to Austin after a shiny Manhattan internship?”

There’s this teensy bit of longing I have to stifle every time I walk around that city.  

An office in the Flat Iron Building, from one of our book publisher clients.  Isn’t it haunting?

I think: I could live here.  I totally could.

New York is a city paved by ambition, and that’s the thing that makes it so exciting.

Paella at Sevilla in Greenwich Village. It has an organ quality in this picture, almost like a heart.

Terroir Wine Bar on E. 12th, with some of the most wonderful women.

Over wine a couple of nights ago, I talked to a friend who’d moved to New York from Austin a few years back.  We came to the conclusion that, for writers (which we fancy ourselves), New York seduces you with connections and access.  Filmmakers in the bars.  Magazine editors in the coffee shops.
Meanwhile, Austin seduces you with quality of life.  War-torn from bigger cities, people flee to Austin, and rest in the cradle of its easy warmth.  The most stressful job I’ve ever had here is nothing like that of my New York peers: Megan has a 23 year-old brother who works 16 hour days.
***
I remember being 24, and coming home at 3:30am one night during grad school.  This was in California.  I was student teaching, working at a magazine, and going to class myself.  I sleepily poured myself a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats, and stood in the fluorescent light of our kitchen to eat it.  I was so tired and numb.  I walked into the bathroom, still holding holding my bowl, and looked at myself in the mirror as I took a bite.  I laughed I looked so pathetic, like a baby, but an old baby, puffy-faced but hollow-eyed.  
I thought, “well, you asked for it.”  Took on so many obligations and so much work that it had come to this: standing in my bathroom exhausted, watching myself eat cereal for kicks.

That little memory is the reason I think I ended up in Austin.  New York appeals to everything inside of me that is Type A and workaholic, but Austin corrects this internal imbalance I have.  Left to my own devices, you see, I get all Puritan work ethic.  I know it may not seem that way by the looks of my blog, but inside this smiling redhead is a clenched Miranda Priestly saying things like, ARE YOU BLOGGING ENOUGH?  ARE YOU MAKING ENOUGH MONEY?  WHY, YOU’RE ALMOST 30 AND YOU’VE HARDLY DONE A THING!
However, Austin reminds me to relax and play and close thy laptop.  I’ve got such a crush on you, New York!  But seriously.  Thank God for you, Austin.   

Speaking of which, I’m back this week.  Let’s play, city.
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FIVE STEPS TO BECOMING A FREELANCE WRITER.

When I was in the first grade, our teacher made us all stand up and tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up.

“A fireman,” said the boy next to me, predictably.

“A marine biologist,” said the little overachiever in front, the one who always wore tight ponytails and tucked in her t-shirts.

“I would like to be Janet Jackson,” I told the class.

And it was true.  I grew up watching Star Search and listening to Rhythm Nation, so at age six, these influencers were as strong as any on my future vocation plans.

But what I didn’t know, was that my fanciful imagination — that I could become a pop star, that I could become a Jackson, that I could become black — was actually steering me down a different career  path.  Writing.

Now I’ve had a lot of jobs between my teens and now, but writing has always loomed in the background.  Pre-Internet, I hungered to see my name in print, in a story byline.  I freaked out when my very first column ran in the illustrious Hoof Print Weekly (published by Alamo Heights High School).  It was a story about a local car repair place, and how they had been in business since 1973.  Aren’t you dying to read it?

Twelve years since my hard-hitting mechanic profile piece, I have written for a variety of outlets.  Some of which you’ve heard of, some you definitely haven’t.  The most well-known are probably TreeHugger and Planet Green, both owned / operated by the Discovery Channel.  In 2009, I also had a brief stint writing for The Village Voice’s now-defunct feminist blog.  These days, I’m still freelance writing, and while it’s hardly enough for me to quit my day job, I’m still angling for bigger stories in bigger media outlets.  I’ve been rejected a lot, but I do feel like I’ve got the game down.  Since several friends and blog readers have asked me lately about freelance writing, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far on this textual journey.

Here are my five essential tips to becoming a freelance writer:

1. Decide what you want to write about.  Ok, this probably seems really obvious.  But seriously.  Take a moment and write down what three topics make you feel completely jazzed.  This is important, because it will help define your direction as a freelance writer.

While some of us daydream about a spread in Glamour, others are shooting for a column on Politico.com or in The Wall Street Journal.  Do you want to ask people in positions of power the hard questions?  Or do you want to test-drive recipes with chefs?  Forecast Spring 2012 runway trends?  It changes for me all the time, but right now, my top three story topics are:

  • Interviews with writers and visual artists
  • Food, both restaurant reviews and chef profiles
  • Essays on becoming a grown-up

I admit that last one is pretty open-ended.  But the thing I want to point out here is that in addition to topic, think about format.  Do interviews make you excited, or make you cringe?  Do you actually like reviewing restaurants?  Or would it be annoying to stop in between bites and take notes on what you just ate?  Ross gets irritated with me all the time when our food comes out, tantalizing and piping hot, and as he’s reaching for his fork I slap his hand away so I can take a picture of his plate.  So think about that too — how the shape of certain pieces affect your research process, before you ever sit down to type.

2. Consider an internship.  I got my first magazine internship when I was well out of college.  I was in graduate school in California, and I was 24 years old.  It was at a new, local city magazine in Sacramento, and my editors came from Money Magazine and In Style.  I worked for free and, due to the miniscule staff and multiple overnighters spent at the office, I pulled my hair out a lot.  But in exchange, I got this awesome, New York school education in magazine journalism.  I learned about all the boring aspects of freelance writing, like fact-checking and copy-editing (if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time then you can tell I still need lessons on copy-editing), and I also collected all these splashy, well-designed clips.  When I came back home to Austin and was trying to get my freelance writer thing happening, I scanned my clips into PDF’s:

 My first food writing column, courtesy of my Sactown internship

So what I’m saying is, think about a part-time internship.  For those of us who work full-time, that may seem unrealistic, and I hear you.  But if you do have 10 hours a week to spare, interning at a media outlet will give you some freelance writer street cred.  Mostly though, it will give you a spread of nice clips, and that’s really what I’m driving at here: Trading your time, for free, to get your name in the byline of an established media outlet.

3. Write for free at first.  Not just because it’s a down economy.  But again, when you’re starting out, you just want to build up your clips.

When I first moved back to Austin, I got in touch with the editor (now my buddy) Matt Swinney at the late Rare Magazine, and sent him my clips.  He said ok, I could write for them, as long as it was cool that they didn’t pay me?

I said that was fine, and proceeded to write for them for two years — four stories per monthly issue.

I also asked Austinist if I could write for them, and eventually, they said yes.  That wasn’t paid either, but I wrote a cocktail column and got compensated handsomely in complimentary spirits tastings and boxes of liquor mailed to my home.

My column at Austinist, The Informed Drinker

(Now that I think about it, why did I ever give that column up?)

When my old editor at Rare moved to Launch787, I blogged for them for a while.  Also for free.  In the end, it was only after I clocked in two years of free writing that I started getting offers for paid work.  I linked to that very column above when I applied to Planet Green, my first paying writing job.

So the next time a new website (or a magazine) launches, contact the editors.  Ask if they’re looking for contributors.  Be up front with them, let them know you’re trying to build up your clips and would be willing to trade your free time writing for them in exchange for some bylines.

4. Blog and networkThe Village Voice blog editor found me via my blog.  So if you’re blogging now, keep it up — and start chatting with other writer bloggers.  (I say “writer bloggers” since not all bloggers aspire to be freelance writers.)  Use Twitter, and don’t just chat with writers — chat with publicists.  They’re eager to turn you into a media contact, so they can eventually pitch their clients to you.  I’m a publicist too, so I can state that with authority!

Let me give you another example.  Years ago, I became friends with one of Austin’s most beloved social queens, Rose Reyes.  She works at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and has always been a big supporter of my blog.  When SheKnows contacted ACVB looking for local Austin writers, her team recommended me — and voila!  That’s how I got that new gig I mentioned on Friday.

(And, PS, Rose and I met through absolutely normal, non-fabulous circumstances: I babysat her kids.  If any of you know Rose in real life, you’ll be pleased to know that she had incredible shoe taste back then, too — seven years ago).

5. Pitch ideas appropriately (and name your price).  This is the stage I am at now: Approaching outlets who have never run my work, and pitching them story ideas.  Sometimes it works (like with Austin Monthlya few months back), and sometimes it doesn’t.  Meaning, a LOT of the time it doesn’t.  But I’m still going for it.  I’m still Googling editor’s names and email addresses, and sometimes I’m shamelessly calling the website / magazine office and straight up asking to speak to somebody about a story idea.  You have to have balls in this line of work.

It also helps if you’ve first made friends with one of the outlet’s existing writers, who may kindly offer to introduce you to their editor.  Again, this is where Twitter can be your friend!  Find writers whose work you admire — and whose writing homes you admire — and make nice.

***

That’s it!  Ye writerly wisdom from a humble foot soldier.  Some freelance writers have amazing connections, like a sibling or parent at a media company; for the rest of us, freelance writing involves a slow, patient execution of the steps above — and lots of free labor.

One more thing.  Beyond the thrill of seeing one’s name in print, I can honestly say that I’ve met some of the most interesting people through interviews, and a few who turned out to be my very good friends — designer Rene Geneva, vintage princess Sarah Jessica Dean.  So when you’re not getting paid in ch-ching, at the very least, you’re probably getting paid in intriguing company.

Good luck!

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The time I showed Madison Avenue my lady bits.

So.

You know how, when you’re about to have an important meeting with someone — professional or otherwise — you deliberate over what to wear?

And then, you’re all proud of yourself for selecting your outfit?  It’s sharp, it’s comfortable, it’s hip but it’s not trying too hard?

Let’s say you take your cute outfit out to breakfast, and you’re feeling good.  You’re about to have a meeting with oh, say, a national television producer.  Let’s say you finish up breakfast, march out to Madison Avenue in New York, and now, you are on your way.  Your Confidence Outfit and you.

Let’s say people start looking you up and down.

You walk a block.  Two blocks.  Five.  It seems that everywhere you go, people can’t stop gawking at you.

“Wow,” you think.  “I knew this ensemble was a winner, but apparently I’ve outdone myself.”

Let’s say you walk into the building of your meeting, and because it is a New York tower, you must check in with security at the lobby.  The security guard, he also can’t help but notice your clothing.

At this point you’re beginning to feel a little funny, what with all this ogling, but hey.  You signed up for the attention.  You’re looking pretty fly, girl.

Let’s say you walk into a crowded elevator, and by now, you’ve simply gotten used to the stares.  You graciously nod back.  But then the elevator door opens, and right before your meeting, you decide: “I’m going to hit the ladies’ room, just to make sure there’s nothing in my teeth.”

You walk in.

There is a mirror.

The image back reveals something far more disconcerting than food in the teeth.

Instead, the ENTIRE FRONT OF YOUR DRESS IS TUCKED UP INTO YOUR PANTY HOSE.

You are face-to-face with your underwear, tiny, “summertime” underwear.  The hose are sheer.  There’s little left to the imagination.

You start back in horror, because Madison Avenue just saw your vagina.

***

This is how I began my day on Thursday, while on a work trip to New York.  But it’s ok, because I had these pictures to come home to — and the following are how I shall remember my visit.  Rather than displaying my crotch for the world.

Bryant Park.

Times Square!  Did you know there’s a huge, luxury Applebee’s on Times Square?  Random!

The New York Public Library.  We were there for its 100 year anniversary.

The New York Anthropologie inside the Chelsea Market Building, a series of shops and offices nestled inside the old Bisquick factory.

Doesn’t is seem that no matter the city, Anthropologie is the most meticulously designed store, ever?  My sister-in-law is a window and store designer for Anthropologie, and I was honestly slack-jawed when I visited her store in Dallas.

This curvy wall leads you out of the Chelsea Market Building, onto the bustling street outside.

My work buddy Stephanie and I had drinks inside the Maritime Hotel.  We decided to take advantage of the good lighting for an impromptu photo shoot.

Rockefeller Tower.  Staring up at this made my neck hurt.

Me on The Highline, a raised train track in Chelsea that’s been converted into an elevated stretch of garden, covering several city blocks.  Stephanie and I took a walk there in between meetings, and I was charmed by all those colorful buildings in the background.

This was a random art installation inside Anthropologie (yes, we’re back to Anthropologie), and at first, when I looked down from the top floor, I thought it was just a big mess:

I thought, my my!  Or rather, tsk tsk — this is certainly out of character for Anthropologie!  
Then I realized what I was looking at, and then I stood there in the middle of the store and proceeded to take a billion pictures of Valentin‘s cool work.
I think I would probably donate one of my limbs in exchange for this tile.

Ok ok!  We finally left Anthropologie.  Here are two more shots from two New York bakeries, Fat Witch and Elsie’s.

You are just so charming, New York.  You’re rough and sleek, gritty and elegant, dirty and pristine.  Each year I love coming back home to Austin, but I feel like a bit of you rubs off on me with every visit.
Only, help a girl out, and tell me the next time you can see my lady bits.  Deal?

UPDATE (6/2/11): The original title of this post used a … different word for “lady bits.”  Not a profane word.  The anatomical word.

But then, I woke in the middle of the night having a nightmare that I got fired for posting that word on my blog, so I changed it.  Harumph.

I’m a little sad to see it go.  I got stopped on the street after that post, just for using the v-word!  It made me want to go audition for the nearest Vagina Monologues performance and vent about it.  Oh well.  

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New York Noir.

The past week I’ve been walking around New York, snapping shots like a shameless tourist.  
We come here every year for work, but still.  The wide-eyed wonder never wears off!

There are two things in New York that delight me to no end.  People’s enthusiasm over books, and people’s enthusiasm over food.  
When it comes to the latter, I’ve instituted a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy — don’t ask me how many times (or in what amounts) I’ve eaten cheese, chocolate, and truffle oil, and I won’t tell you. 
However, at Bryant Park Grill, I have something exciting to report.  With my meal, I thought I was reaching for black beans with my fork, then realized it was rice coated in black cream.  Or to be more specific, squid ink risotto.
I think my culinary sophistication levels multiplied by approximately 1,000.

Those are my friends and colleagues, Elaine and Stephanie, on the subway with me, as well as me displaying my special CBS News badge.  We pitched them a  few authors this morning, and fortunately, I managed not to tuck my dress into the front of my tights for this meeting (like I did for yesterday’s TV meeting).  That’s called progress.
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