Not A Writer, Not Yet Not A Writer

I’m trying this new thing where I’m being less neurotic about the things I write (which is like telling a bird not to shit and an M&M not to melt in your mouth) by introducing a few new, hopefully easier-to-write-than-an-essay columns.

Because I sometimes get letters from aspiring writers and creatives wondering how I’m doing all the writing and creating I’m supposedly doing, I, a writer of my stature (that is, none), think it’s high time I share my so-called wisdom with a recurring column called Questions & Answers(ish).

Instead of responding to one lucky asker via email, I’m now sharing my answers with the lucky readers of this blog—all five of you (seriously, good turnout this year).

Without further ado, I’m kicking things off with something light and fluffy: The Great Recession.

Enjoy.

 

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QUESTION:

Yo, yo, Karen. I hear you’ve been writing professionally since back in the days when Ja Rule wasn’t just a punchline associated with a festival named after what, for legal reasons, I’ll refer to only as an oxidizing chemical reaction, but rather a successful rapper who, based on his veritable hits with the legendary Bronx native J.Lo and the iconic Ashanti, well, quite literally ruled. Nonetheless, in the late aughts, you fell on hard times when the economy came crashing down. What was that like? What did you learn from it? Based on the recent HuffPo and BuzzFeed layoffs, history seems to be repeating itself. Is writing still a valid way to make a living or should I just give it all up now and go to med school, as is custom especially if you’re a practical, probably Asian human with demanding, probably also Asian human parents? Also, do you think med schools would count my Contemporary Flailing Called Dance* as a transfer credit?

Signed,
Not a Writer, Not Yet Not a Writer

 

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ANSWER:

Dear Not a Writer, Not Yet Not a Writer:

First of all, breathe.

Second of all, what’s your favorite Ja song? Mine’s probably “Put It On Me.” I mean, what would we do in a world without Ja? Not putting things on other things, that’s what.

Third, and sorry to suck the air out of the room, but for most people writing has never been a valid way to make a living. (Again, sorry.)

For every Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, there has been an untold number of writers in the history of Earth creating mostly unread rants on scrolls and self-published pamphlets and blogs (hi). Writers in the days of yore (that’s how you can tell they’re really old) often held down normal jobs to pay the bills. Other more idealistic and, not coincidentally, unemployable writers died poor AF.

So, unless you’re going the poor AF route, perhaps the validity of the writing profession isn’t quite the right question to ask.

The question should be: How do I make a living as a writer?

If you do go the way of med school (or insert some other lucrative, more stable profession here), you could still totally be a writer. Michael Crichton, author of a book of essays—many of which involved med school things—called “Travels,” did just that. He may have gone on to write more famous books, possibly about dinosaurs, but I’ve never read them so I can’t speak to them.

Point is, you don’t have to only write to be a writer, which is the really cool thing about it. It’s also the really frustrating thing about it. You could spend your whole life trying to figure out how to be good enough to get paid doing something else while making enough time to be good enough to get paid at the writing thing, too.

It’s a totally annoying balancing act, but dem’s the breaks.

If you’re like: Hey, Karen, I don’t have to balance shit because my parents are so totally loaded/I won a billion dollars in the Powerball/I’m Stephen King, then, that’s cool, bro. This column isn’t for you (more power to you, though).

If you’re like me—a writer who isn’t good enough at anything else to get paid for it and has made the terrible decision to put all your eggs in the writing basket, but doesn’t come from money and must overcome additional layers of complications outside of your writing ability, including but not limited to, issues of Other-ness, immigrant-ness, woman-ness, and short-ness—then you’re in the right place. And this place is dark.

But don’t fret.

I’m not about to give you bullshit advice by saying things like, just show up somewhere and do things for free, including taking out the trash and washing dishes, to show your true dedication and work ethic!

I could write a whole other column about that whole mess, but let’s just say that tactic works well for people whose main bias to overcome is whether or not they can write. Because, you know, what they lack in melanin they make up for in gumption that other people also have! That’s like High School Me saying, you too can get those Hershey’s Sundae Pies at Burger King for free because your brother also works there and he will also hook you upppppp.

You get the idea. And you’re right. High School Me was super hip.

Here’s what I did do: I wrote. I studied something writing-related in school. Then I wrote some more.

I decided I’d show up somewhere with the skills and qualifications to demand the same respect as more privileged writers. It was kind of delusional—I believed the world was a meritocracy. But it was the kind of delusion I needed to pursue this path. It helped me get my first paid writing jobs in the small towns of Virginia, sometimes for media conglomerates that had programs like “mainstreaming,” which required that each reporter talked to a person of color and logged it. Curiously, I was never told about this program by anyone in a position of power. Perhaps my existence was mainstreaming enough.

 

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In the years leading up to the recession, I chose to put my writing skills to practical use by majoring in journalism. And not just any journalism, but print journalism.

Ya done laughing now?

My program was so old school that one of my classes involved cutting handmade headlines by hand and gluing them onto a different piece of paper so you could photocopy them into something that looked like a printed newspaper.

If you’re scratching your head thinking, I knew you were old but not that old, you’d be right. Suffice it to say, the program was kind of behind on the times, which was not unlike the news industry itself. Instead of adapting to the internet, the news gods far and wide decided to stick their heads in the sand, cling to the millions of dollars they were still making, and hope it would all go away (spoiler: it did not).

While I’d been writing on the internets since I was about 13 years old, I wasn’t entrepreneurial or prescient enough to figure out how to make that work for me. I actually hid my writing voice in order to get hired by paying publications. Keep in mind that back in those days, objectivity in journalism was very much the thing. Expressing opinions in your writing, much less Twitter, was discouraged. If you were really square, you didn’t even vote (whoa).

Fun ancient practices aside, the important thing was that I was writing. I was writing memoir(ish) essays in my LiveJournal. I wrote for the school paper. I wrote in class. Every summer, I took paid internships and wrote for small daily newspapers in small towns in Virginia. After I graduated from undergrad, I got a job as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in a city about 40 minutes away from home. I was a professional writer.

Life was good.

A few years passed, and pretty soon it was 2009. The year of <dun dun dun> The Great Recession.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of how I got laid off and what I did after. I wrote about that at length here and here and here.

Long story short, it sucked, but was at times great, and I ended up figuring it all out. For a while. Then I pivoted again and went to grad school, then moved back to New York, and figured it out all over again.

Now here I am, on the 10th anniversary of my layoff (WOO), having just left my last stable writing gig, and figuring it out all over again.

Are you sensing a theme here?

I can’t give you specific steps for how to make a living as a writer, because I don’t know what the future of media and journalism and writing and intergalactic hieroglyphics will be in 10 years. All I know is that to stay in the game, you just have to, well, write. It’s as hard and as simple as that.

 

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You know how they say you are what you eat? The same is true for writing. You are what you eat when you’re writing. I mean. You are what you write.

You’re probably thinking, Oh no, Karen. I write coupons for a living. Does that mean I am a coupon? Also, if I read two of your blog posts, will I get the third one free?

The answer, my friend, is kind of. Plus, you’re in luck. My blog is currently running a Read Two or Three or a Million for FREE special. But hurry—this offer won’t last forever.

In an ideal world, one would get paid to write the kind of shit one loves to write. But one must also be ready to adapt to economic realities and take jobs that pay the bills. Sometimes that involves writing about intellectual property law, which was actually way more interesting than it sounds, or in your case, coupons. Ain’t no shame in making ends meet. Hopefully, though, one’s getting paid doing something that’s not all-consuming and so draining that it prevents one from writing the things one’s passionate about. And hopefully one’s building up one’s skills and portfolio so that one day one will snag that dream writing gig. Finally, one must stop saying one because one sounds stupid. One.

Ten years later, I’m doing OK.

Copywriting pays well enough that it’s allowed me to build an emergency fund I can use when I’m in between gigs. I get paid to write fun projects and not suppress my voice behind thinly veiled objectivity (because I’m square enough to care about that kind of thing).  I’ve written things I’m really proud of and things I’m not proud of (which you never, ever put in your portfolio, but think of fondly while you’re staring at the pink sky in some far-off destination because it paid for that amazing trip).

Outside of copywriting, I take writing classes. Sketch writing. Fiction writing. I make comics. I tweet. I Instagram. I write this blog for you five and hopefully one day, if I’m dreaming REALLY big, 10 whole people. One day I’m going to write a book.

I’ve come to expect discomfort and uncertainty. It will never get easier. When it does get easier, I know I should fucking cherish it because surprise—nothing lasts forever, suckaaaaaa. And that’s fine. Far more successful people have LIVED THE DREAM, only to return to Earth and have to make new dreams.

The thing I’m still learning, though, is being patient. I’m often too busy thinking about the next thing to celebrate the successes I’ve actually had. But just let me be impatient and forever unsatisfied, universe. You can’t have everything.

 

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Before I go, I’ll leave you with one last long-winded story.

During The Great Recession, amid the throes of unemployment, with the possibility of me moving to New York feeling damn near impossible, I wrote to a former student of my former journalism professor and lifelong mentor. She was a freelance writer in New York. I asked if she wanted to grab coffee someday.

“I don’t know what to do,” I wrote in weepy fashion. “My parents say I should do something more practical. My friends are worried about me moving to New York to ‘freelance,’ whatever the hell that is. I hear it’s the fast track to poverty.”

“Should I go to law school?”

She soon wrote me back, detailing the woes of the freelance writer’s life in New York City. It sounded awful.

She closed with this:

Do NOT go to law school. Exclamation point. Exclamation point. Exclamation point.

I never did meet up with her for coffee. I guess that was all I needed to hear.

Now I’m going to repeat it here for you.

If you can envision yourself being a great lawyer/doctor/whatever and really enjoying it, then go do that. There are far worse ways to make a living. Write on the side and maybe you’ll find you’re awesome at writing AND lawyering. Like John Grisham. That fucker.

If you can’t envision any of the above, and you’re kind of hopeless because writing is literally your one and only useless, semi-marketable skill, then hi. Welcome to one of the most frustrating, horrible and seriously fulfilling things you’ll ever do.

Sucker.

Sincerely,

Karen

*P.S.  I’m not well-versed in college transcripts so you’d really have to ask your prospective schools about whether you can transfer your Contemporary Flailing Called Dance credit. My gut tells me no, but I also didn’t go to one of those schools where you, like, make up your own major and, like, get a degree in it.

My bad.  

Got a question? Leave it in the comments/email me at karenbolipata (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it between you, me, and my five readers. 

A Mosh Pit Full of Fist Pumps Episode II

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2015 was such a whirlwind. A blur. A ride. An adventure. A spectacle. A blast. A rollercoaster. A peanut.

Crap, I lost it. Let’s just say, a lot of stuff happened.

In many ways it felt like I was wandering aimlessly on this new writing path. Last I wrote about it, I oh so dramatically outlined my reasons for peace-ing out on journalism (On a scale of 1-10 in breakups, I’d give it a 55. Necessary, sure, but awful as fuck. I enjoyed writing for newspapers for a time but didn’t quite have the temperament for the daily 300-word regurgitation of things you can Google elsewhere. Even as a reader, I much prefer longer narratives and pieces that take months and months to write. But I’d do it all over again, layoff and financial destitution and all. It was like being in a time capsule—a writing bootcamp that future generations won’t get to experience. Suck it, babies).

Unlike the well-worn and fading path of daily newspapering, this new one is much more nebulous.

And in 2015, it showed.

I was all over the place.

Chronologically,

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JAN:

I left a contract job in NYC so I could intern at a cool ad agency in Minneapolis for a couple months. Steeped in great copywriting tradition, this place was like rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of the greats and the rockstars of the current. I also got to see what an agency’s like when it debuts an ad baby on the night of the Holy Grail of admaking—the Super Bowl.

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MARCH:

I got back to New York, probably more unsure than ever of where to go next. Instead of immediately lining up an ad gig, I decided to use my savings to hole up and start drawing. And I kept drawing (more on that later).

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JUNE:

With a couple dozen comic strips under my belt and a revamped portfolio incorporating my doodles, it was time to look for another gig. I soon was faced with two choices: a stable position in Manhattan calling for a very specific skillset or a contract one in Jersey calling for anything and everything that was 1.5 hours by train and train and bus. I took the one in Jersey.

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SEPT:

Franco and I moved into our own space. One word: liberating. Hence, this current spate of posts.

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OCT:

When summer ended, so did the Jersey gig. Days into yet another stretch of holing up and drawing, I got a call for a monthlong project in Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh, by the way, is an awesome town. In another lifetime in another universe, I would have loved it.)

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NOV/DEC:

Back in NYC, I closed out the year with another contract job in Manhattan. Because. Bookends.

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Looking back now, I see there was one constant: experimentation.

Different ads and clients and cities and agencies and people—I wanted to try them all.

All throughout, I still wrote side projects for myself. Not in this space, because for a while I felt like everything I wanted to share didn’t belong here. They were meant to be short stories, maybe, or diary comics, or shitty tumblr posts or some other form I don’t really know yet.

I’ve grown more patient with them.

2015 made my writing goals much clearer. I’d share what they are but this space is much better in hindsight.

Because

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But I can speak in generalities.

I’ve found that to grow as a writer, you  have to grow as a human. That may include admitting things about yourself you may not like, purging a lot of things that are bad for you, and not being afraid of the changes you need to make to get to where you want to be. Just like anything in life, things may be crap for a while but time has a way of ironing things out.

I’ve found that just because you’re growing in a certain direction doesn’t mean the people you know are going to go with you. And that’s OK. Some people are right for us in spurts, not eternity.

In the same vein, pursuing your own path, especially one that doesn’t quite jibe with the status quo, can be quite lonely. It’s why surrounding yourself with awesome people isn’t just important—it’s pretty damn necessary. And because forging real bonds takes a lot of time and energy, we must be very cognizant of who we give that time and energy to.

Finally, #LIVINGTHEDREAM can change as you change. This time 10 years ago, I was a senior journalism major gearing up for a summer internship at a daily newspaper; was editing the college paper and would soon be running it by fall; and leaving it all behind by spring to live in Spain for a couple months. Shit. I was way cooler 10 years ago.

And that’s OK.

Because I didn’t know then what I know now.

That is, #LIVINGTHEDREAM may at times look a lot like wandering aimlessly, making questionable career moves, waking up in the middle of the night going: What the fuck am I doing? It’s talking to people about your dreams about writing and being flat out told: HA. So you want to be a writer? Not if you don’t write in a certain manner at this kind of place, slaving away every night and weekend FOR ALL OF ETERNITY you won’t!

In spite of it all, no, in the face of it all, you keep writing. Not just writing, mind you, but writing in the kind of way that excites you and sounds like you.

Because weirdly enough, this nonlinear path actually gets you much closer to #LIVINGTHEDREAM than the one that came with all the cool, fancy titles.

In my old writing life, I put my work with the capital W ahead of everything. That was necessary for that point in my life, but now… fuck. That. I’m convinced my best writing self comes from being the best human me.

Which means being in the city I love.

With the people I love.

To do the kind of writing I love.

It took a while to get here, but man am I glad I did.

Happy New Year, friends.

karenbolipata.com is up & running

You can find this smoker & possibly some non-smokers at karenbolipata.com

You might have noticed I’ve been absent. If you haven’t, then fine. I don’t need you anyway…

(Come back.)

For those of you who have been religiously refreshing my blog in hopes of seeing a new entry — thanks, Dad! — I apologize for the nothingness. I had planned a few entries for the week (and now they’ll hopefully be written this week), but then something amazing happened. Well, two things:

(1) I discovered delicious tiramisu at Trader Joe’s.
(2) I found a job as a writer/researcher for a great company on Union Square, which coincidentally is where Trader Joe’s is located, which means I will have daily access to this delicious tiramisu if I so desired.

The stars have aligned!

Because a full-time job will force me to manage my time a lot more efficiently, I knew I had to get my online portfolio up and running before my first day. I’ve spent the last week doing just that. It’s funny I finally finished it, considering I started working on it before I even moved to New York. It might also have been before my temp job at a law firm, which was back in July. I was that slow.

It wasn’t that anything about the portfolio itself was intricate. In fact, I wanted something so simple that even a beginning HTML-er could construct it. Black text on white? Check. That was my one requirement.

The thing that held me back, however, was the idea of having an online portfolio. I know it’s weird to say this, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of bragging about myself. Yes, I promote myself through blogs (which is fun) and list my work history on Facebook, which used to be is fun, but an online portfolio is basically a collection of your best work, your supposed successes, and a chance to tell the world, “Hey, look at me! I am awesome!”

There are the lucky few who don’t really need a portfolio to tell the world that. I, unfortunately, do. I’m a writer, yes, and my byline has appeared in hundreds of articles. The byline, of course, is the author’s name in tiny, tiny font at the top of the article. Most people don’t even look at it. It’s a way to stamp your work without drawing attention to yourself. I’m perfectly comfortable drawing attention to my writing (though some articles have given me night sweats and insomnia in anticipation of publishing something potentially controversial), but unless I’m being funny (at least in my head) or doing a cool jig, I’m not comfortable drawing attention to myself as “Karen Bolipata, the writer of awesome things.”

With that said, I know that marketing is a major part of freelancing. So, I had to get over it. Here I am, getting over it. Please check out my portfolio. Feedback is much appreciated.

And oh, if you need writing services, hire me.

Conversations with Strangers

Albert was in his 50s, or given Asians’ tendency to look perpetually young, maybe even older.

He sat next to me on the plane, and as I’d gotten very little sleep before my flight (I’d spent the morning running errands and 30 minutes of it  packing), I was in no mood for small talk. I pulled out a book, turned on my ipod and hoped the plane would lull me to sleep.

But Albert was persistent. I can’t remember how the conversation started or what in my “I’m busy” demeanor gave him the indication that I welcomed conversation, but almost instantly the questions began. And they didn’t stop for much of our 12-hour flight.

He was curious about the dozens of college students on the same flight to Spain and perhaps he could sense my apprehension. At 22, I’d traveled little, as my parents could barely afford to send my siblings and me to college, let alone plan overseas excursions outside of going to the homeland to attend funerals (and for all those trips my mom went solo). I’d held jobs in high school and college, having to rely on those paltry earnings to fund my own excursions (which in college translated to beer, food, gas and more beer).

Though it was my first time alone on a plane, I’d always been independent. My parents didn’t like that. In fact, they discouraged anything I wanted to do that didn’t involve staying home until I was whisked away by a suitor, preferably Filipino, in some respectable profession. They especially couldn’t fathom how their youngest daughter could survive four months in a huge city like Barcelona.

“You have good parents,” Albert told me, “for letting you do this.”

And just like that, he put things in perspective.

When we landed we said our goodbyes, and I watched him disappear into the crowd.

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Though journalism is in a downward spiral, I haven’t regretted pursuing it. Through it, I’ve grown accustomed to talking to strangers and developing an insight into all sorts of people. Albert was different because I didn’t need a story from him, and he actually taught me a thing or two about traveling (Lesson 1: Conversations with strangers en route might actually be quite meaningful).

I’ve applied that to everyday life. I can’t say I make friends with everyone I meet or that I haphazardly go to bars to talk to strangers, but when the situation presents itself I consider it an opportunity to potentially learn from someone. That’s not to say I don’t take necessary precautions or stay aware of my surroundings.

Naturally, it’s drawn some criticism from friends who don’t share the same view. Often they tell me horror stories of kidnappings and murders, with the implication I will meet the same fate unless I bring a weapon or bodyguard. But journalists are always on their own, I tell them. Though they write for news organizations and may be accompanied by a crew, journalists do much of the reporting alone before the cameras roll. It’s probably in their best interests not to venture to war-torn countries, but how else will these stories get told?

I haven’t been anywhere close to that kind of danger, but I’ve gone to strangers’ houses, been verbally threatened, taken rides with sources and have driven through desolate country roads to even more desolate spots past midnight with only a map in hand, vague directions and no phone service.

I’ve survived unscathed, I tell them.

“But you’re in New York,” they say, as if all the crazy people in the world congregated in this city and nowhere else (though city crime rankings seem to think it’s pretty safe here). They think of the crack epidemic that plagued New York in years past, not the current gentrified  Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that have displaced the very people who are actually from New York.

I find it funny that my encounters are met with such cynicism amid our culture of oversharing on Facebook and the heyday of Craigslist, with people willing to live with total strangers. I stand by my belief that crazy things happen everywhere, whether you’re in New York or in a small unheard of town.

Sure, I can choose to hide in my illusion of safety and keep a closed off, cynical view of the world, never allowing myself to experience anything I can’t directly control. Or I can be smart about things and still revel in the unknown.

I choose to be the latter.

Farewell to the old school newsroom

Photo by luc_legay

This piece by the American Journalism Review is dedicated to newsrooms of years past. Back in the days when white men from blue-collar backgrounds got reporting jobs without journalism degrees, sometimes because they failed at everything else. They played pranks on each other, cursed each other and even physically fought each other. When computers, corporations and women arrived, things got a bit sanitized. They were a little neater, a little more proper. Money troubles made things worse.

I can’t quite identify with being a white man in a male-dominated newsroom of the ’70s, but I can relate to the passion, the sense of duty, the cynicism and idealism of it all. The work attracts interesting people, for sure. We are misfits, stubborn, daring, foolish. When an ambulance wails in the streets, it piques our senses, but probably not for the reasons it does for others. It’s something that many did and continue to do despite the low pay; it’s something many do for free.

At a time when newspapers and media professionals are at a crossroads, it’s hard to tell whether such an environment can ever be replicated. For one thing, morale is low in many newsrooms; people are expected to do more with less. Further, many of us are jobless or heading in a new direction. I can’t tell you how often I’ve spoken with young journalists, all so talented and passionate, who question the paths they’ve taken. They suggest that perhaps they should go back to school to do something less unstable.

For all the newsosaurs’ romanticizing and nostalgia for the past, at least they had the fortune of having one. By the time I got to a real newsroom, I knew my days were numbered. The closest I got to such revelry was in college.

I mean, not that I participated in any misdeeds in college. Or know of any for that matter.

There was one particular morning, though, when the newspaper halls’ dented walls and tire-marked wooden floors left the staff wondering what had happened the previous night. Coincidentally, it was the morning after we produced the paper’s last issue of the school year. Even the business department wasn’t immune. Their chairs bore the scratches likely acquired from whatever happened in the hallway.

The newsroom’s chairs, meanwhile, miraculously survived unscathed.