Eulogy to the Peach Tree

We laid the peach tree to rest yesterday. Well, if by “lay to rest” you mean grab hold of the trunk, walking around it in circles to loosen it from the ground, bobbing up and down on it to further loosen it, and then finally yanking it out by the roots, with a small hand-held saw to help us. It was the only tree in the garden this spring not to have sprouted a single leaf or blossom, while the others were already bedecked with petals. The peach tree wasn’t a late bloomer; it was just time for it to go.

It’s funny how, when you’re a gardener, plants can become like pets. Each is a protagonist or minor character in your horticultural play, and there is an absence keenly felt when one exits, stage left. Everyone knows what it’s like to lose a pet, but there’s a certain kind of absurd grief that comes with losing a tree.

The peach tree was, it was pointed out, the most beautiful, the most delicate, and the most susceptible to disease. Funny how those things seem to come together, as beauty in the garden must often equate with fragility. Our rhubarb plants are quite hideous, oversized Jurassic things, although their stalks certainly taste delicious in cakes. The leaves on our squat, shrubby strawberry plants always turn a most obscene shade of reddish yellowish brown and shrivel over winters, but they dutifully grow white flowers with the yellow pads at the center you can already envision as strawberries. The peach tree’s blossoms were always a deep, ruddy pink, its fruits always small but perfect.

Those first few years with it were like a childhood dream come true – that first time you grow something in your very own garden that you have seen for sale all your life, it’s always like a small miracle. We picked the fuzzy, pink-salmon-yellow fruits and made jams and pies, we marveled at the fact that a tree like this was even possible in northern Germany.

But then it turns out it really wasn’t. Two years ago, disease hit. The normally delicate, long wispy green leaves turned gnarled, bulbous, red and bubbly with boils. The illness caught the leaves even as they emerged from their branches. And I thought, “how unfeeling, not even to allow the tree a moment to breathe, stretch, and glory in its loveliness.”

The tree fought on valiantly, like a hospital patient who knows he’s headed for hospice care, still squeezing out leaves, still – unbelievably – producing smaller and smaller fruits, which glowed even as everything else shriveled up around them. We asked more experienced neighbors for help, we cursed, we denied, and finally, this year, we mourned.

I’ve found there’s a certain predictability to telling people about Parstein. They ask how big it is, they ask if we have a garden and how big that is. When I start to list the fruit trees – apple, pear, plum – they nod silently, expectantly. It’s only when I get to “peach” that the nodding stops and you can see their eyes get wider – but just a bit, as if they’re trying to hide their wonder. There’s something particularly magical about having a peach tree – especially when you aren’t in Georgia or South Carolina. There’s a special kind of innocent decadence to the peach tree, a culmination of various picture book stories.

As I watched the tree come down sideways and the roots emerge, I realized that gardening is nothing like in the picture books; it’s muddy and messy and sometimes, not at all fun. You have to battle predators, large and small, winged or slimy, and sometimes, you have to battle the fact that you live in a country where it’s much too cold for peaches.

Let this, then, be a eulogy to the peaches that gave us so much joy, filled our stomachs and fueled our imaginations. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite films, “For a few years they were mine; that is enough.”

 

Will 2016 be the year we start talking about failure?

“As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good.” –Megan McArdle, Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators

A lot of writers I know and read have been talking about failure lately, and it’s not even a coincidence. The beginning of 2016 seems to have hit us particularly hard for some reason.

On February 1st, after a particularly unproductive month, I decided to revisit the conditions of what seemed to be 2015’s winning streak. Last January I took a class called 30 Days, 30 Queries, meant to fight the terror of the pitch by forcing each and every one of us to become an idea-generating, pitch-scribbling machine. If you punched them out quickly and cared less about each one, the theory went, you’d inure yourself to the soul-crushing cycle of hope and rejection that’s sent many a freelancer running back to an office job, and instead set yourself on a surefire path to productivity.

I had quite a bit of luck with this course, taught by a smart, kick-ass journalist who’d had more than her fair share of ups and downs and wasn’t afraid to talk about them. I netted some of my best clips, and was even taught the power of perseverance when an essay of mine was finally accepted by Talking Points Memo, after being rejected on spec by the Washington Post and every other outlet I contacted.

I felt as though I’d challenged myself, forced myself to do the work, as the Megan McArdle article in the Atlantic had said, and come out with a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, opening up to further challenges and more self improvement as a writer. I was so pleased with myself, I even wrote down 10 lessons I’d learned about being a freelance writer, posting them online on consecutive days as if I had a captive audience, or really anyone who checked my blog regularly besides mom and dad. I was sure this was just the beginning of my long path towards success as a freelancer, so when I mentored younger versions of myself later in life, I could point to this class as the turning point.

Well, it turns out it’s not that easy. I've spent my first two weeks recreating 30 Days, 30 Queries in February 2016 sending out pitch after pitch, only to be met with rejection (1) or silence (14), forcing me to dwell on my failures, question the legitimacy of my small successes and wonder whether I’m at all cut out for the freelance writing lifestyle.

And in case there was any doubt, it is very much a lifestyle. I’m not talking about the ability to wake up late, take midday naps and prepare luxurious meals every night, all because you’re not spending your waking hours rushing to and from an office. I’m not talking about the ability to take a vacation or a day off at any time (something few freelancers are financially equipped to do, but which nevertheless earns us a reputation for being lazy and entitled). I’m talking about the uncertainty, not just financial and professional but psychological, that very few people my age seem to be able to handle. From that same Atlantic article:

Young people are uncomfortable with the unstructured world of work. No wonder so many elite students go into industries with clear boundaries, like finance and consulting.

It took me a while to realize that many of the smartest kids at my high school and college ended up going into finance or becoming lawyers. I could think of a few who’d gone in to more creative feels, but only after they’d added that self-satisfying and somehow worth-affirming MFA to their CVs. Very few had lit out for a career entirely of their own making, because when you build your ideal career from the ground up, there are no bosses, colleagues or mentors to help you along the way.

And that’s the fundamental thing about freelancing. There is no other freelancer out there with your background, your talent (or lack thereof), and your set of goals. If you’re successful, you can look at where you’ve been and feel like everything happened for a reason, everything clicked into place as it should have, and now you’re here and you feel great about it. If you’re unsuccessful, though, it’s very hard to look at the million mixed up pieces you’re juggling and pull out the ones that fit together to make that perfect puzzle image you want to be your life.

If you’re a lawyer and you make partner at a law firm, you have your excellent college grades and LSAT scores to thank for getting into one of the top law schools, once there, the stellar grades, connections and recommendations to thank for getting you into a top law firm and finally, a combination of hard work and luck to thank for getting to partner level. If you’re a doctor or in academia, it is much the same: a lot of where you end up has to do with a professional path that’s been laid out for you.

When you’re a freelancer, there is no map because there is no path.

 A couple of years ago, a successful writer told me, “years from now, you’ll look back on everything you did and you’ll see that it all made sense; it all got you to where you are now.” I thought to myself, “you’re only saying that because you’re successful.”

Indeed, I still can’t shake the feeling that for every successful writer out there claiming to look back on it all with clarity and confidence, there must be a hundred or even a thousand writers for whom it all ends up never making much sense. Much like we never hear about “the folks who believed in the mythical ‘N-rays,’ declared that human beings had forty-eight chromosomes, or saw imaginary canals on Mars,” as Ms. McArdle describes, we also never hear about those people who tried for years to sell a manuscript, applied to that fellowship or grant unsuccessfully, or in my case, sent out a pitch a day for 30 days and never got a yes on even one of them.

The narrative when you’re a freelancer is that everything has to happen for a reason, precisely because you’ve got no one around you to tell you what that reason is. This is why so many of us end up in badly paid content mills, begrudgingly sell an article for a pittance because we just need to publish it somewhere, or still accept “exposure” in lieu of payment. 

“Exposure” is the direct result of that little voice inside of you telling you this might be your big break, admonishing you to say yes at all costs, because you just might look back on your yes five years from now, as the royalty checks pour in and the New York Times and the New Yorker fight over your latest think-piece, and see that it all came down to that little article you wrote for no pay for that little website that could.

So failure to find the right kind of work for your bank account or reputation becomes failure to find the right kind of work to add a rung to your ladder to success. Call it freelancer FOMO, but it is the fear of missing out on that contact with an editor who (surprise!) moves on to a bigger and better publication, that set of eyes from an agent at a publishing house who thinks your piece would be just perfect as a memoir. We crank out more and more work as our quest for quality becomes a struggle for quantity, as we try to cover all our bases, to make sure our work appears everywhere – or at least everywhere our rivals' work has appeared.

I wish I could offer up some inspirational quote or wickedly clever aphorism to end this piece, but not knowing where it ends is, too, the nature of failure. We press on with our pitching and our hustling and our invoice writing and bank account checking in hopes that somehow we’ll have a breakthrough, either mental or professional, and it’ll suddenly all make sense. That someday we won’t have to congratulate people younger than we are or people we once offered advice to, then cry tears of rage and clench our fists with jealousy and fear—no, certainty—that it will never be our turn.

These are all the different kinds of failure no one wants to mention, but if 2016 is the year we finally start talking about them, then I’m ready.

I’ve certainly got enough material to fill a book.

We Are Here Now

The best moments […] are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
                                                ―  Alan Bennett, The History Boys

So, here we are a week later, and I still find myself with unexpectedly wet cheeks, unconscionably lumpen throat and ringing ears. I’ve heard every version of Major Tom, watched the International Space Station cover, watched Labyrinth and the Making Of, rejoiced in every snaggle-toothed smile, even as I welcomed the heartache. I questioned whether to write this at all.

I’m not much for celebrity worship. I never was. And yet here I am, here we are, and the pain is unbearable. A friend of mine said it best when he said, “as I sit here stunned by this morning's news, I realise I had genuinely believed that David Bowie was immortal.” And that’s really it. From the moment I first saw Labyrinth, followed closely by my dad presenting me with a CD with the same face on its cover, titled “Let’s Dance” and my realization that, “wait a minute, Jareth the Goblin King is a rock star!” David Bowie has felt less like a celebrity than a member of my family.

I remember presenting my new babysitter with my favorite new film to watch for the evening, and being shocked that she knew the person on the cover was a man, not a woman, even though he had long, sleek blond hair that, I thought, rightfully belonged to a woman. I can’t have been more than six (I always had imaginary friends and scenarios as a child) when I paced back and forth in my bedroom, voicing both sides of a conversation between a Labyrinth film tech guy and David Bowie, who in my mind was only Jareth, and unhappy about the direction the film was taking. He was in my head that early, and as I began to discover more and more of his music, he never let go.

What is it to feel the ache of the loss of something that has never truly been yours? Does mourning along with the rest of the world make it feel better or worse? I have this sense – as I feel sure every single one of his fans does – that I am somehow special because I listened to and appreciated his music. And in a way, isn’t that what we’re really doing when we listen to music? Perhaps that isn’t the whole story – after all, their must be something in the bassline and the beat and the melody and the story that grabs us – but when we’re all alone in a room, or walking alone in a city with the music, we are communing with this person that we will never know and yet know so closely. We feel we have been singled out for his message.

So many people attest to this sense of being an outsider, a misfit uncomfortable in our own skin when we were young. I had my own “David Bowie moment” so to speak, when I was around 16 or 17, and discovered the downtown music scene just beginning to burble over the surface in New York. Places like the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and the East Village, which I had barely ever set foot in although they were each a name and a history and an image for me, were suddenly illuminated, through and through. Backrooms of bars, music venues with stages inches off the floor, lofts and apartments, these become the tiny pinpricks of light that spread out to clarify my mind map. I became a creature of the night, even as I did my homework by day, and kept up my grades and looked towards college.

We were all the same odd people who congregated at the foot of these stages, all intent on sacrificing hours of our evenings just to make sure were in the front row, at arm’s length for the best pictures. There I met a fellow photographer, except he wasn’t a fellow at all because he was a professional. In one of our many meetings he let it be known that he had passes to photograph for the Today Show at Rockefeller Center. Did I know who was performing tomorrow at the Today Show?

I didn’t. The today show was the vulgar mainstream. I was a high school rebel rebel.

“David Bowie.”

And even better:

“If you’re willing to get yourself up very early in the morning and come down to Midtown meet me by 6:45, I can get you in. You can even bring a friend.”

The giddiness of that morning is well documented in a blogpost from the time, back when I was New York Doll and thought that name was just adorable:

When I accepted an invitation from a photographer friend of mine covering the Today Show in Rockefeller Center, I also had to accept an enormous amount of skepticism along with it. He actually gave me his cell phone number, just so I could call him when I woke up at 6:00 in the morning and decided that sleep was a lot more important than Bowie. He acted surprised and pleased when I showed up on time that Thursday morning, friend in tow, but his shock certainly could not match the amount of surprise and delight that would be mine when, after leading us around the back of the stage and past a velvet rope, he placed us in the VIP area and told us to wait. “Wait here?” We thought to ourselves, wondering where else there was to go besides this small barricaded area directly in front of the insane fans who had undoubtedly been camped out in their spots since the night before. “Does he mean we’re not staying here?” By the time he came back with photo passes for both of us, and led us to the ten feet of space in front of the stage that served as the photo pit, our eyes had glazed over with sheer disbelief. So what if he only played four songs? We were five feet away from Ziggy Stardust and a million miles from earth.

I don’t remember what songs he played, or even if he performed them well. I remember the few moments afterwards when he came down toward us, and began to greet that line of dedicated, all-nighter fans and sign autographs. I came up behind him, put my hand on his shoulder to try to get him to turn around. Felt my hand connect with warm denim over muscle, before I was gently but firmly pushed back by one of several bodyguards who surrounded him.

“Ma’am, you do not touch Bowie. You do not approach Bowie from behind.”

I could hardly have been shocked or even insulted; for a moment my pumping heart had drowned out the cheers from the crowd. “This,” I thought to myself, “might just be one one-hundredth of what it feels like to be a rockstar.”

In the ensuing years I would pull out those photographs from that morning to admire them, just as I pulled out that memory and marveled at the fact that all these strange details had come together to get me there. I never saw that photographer again, can’t even remember his name.

Over the years David Bowie and I lost each other, but he popped up now and again, perhaps most surprisingly, when I moved to Berlin and found that Berlin and Bowie had had a special relationship – one that anyone who chose this city above other more glamorous locales will recognize and appreciate. I must have passed Hauptstrasse 155 a hundred times without actively registering it; now I live 15 minutes away by foot, and the garden of flowers, notes and candles spilling out around the door made me feel all whirly inside, but also grateful. That same garden of flowers, notes and candles has been sprouting up all over this past week. It’s the same one that comes around after any death, any tragedy or terrorist act. Yet none of it registered with me the way this did. I briefly considered whether this might indicate a severe lack of empathy or skewed values on my part. If that’s the case, there is a problem with all of us.

In considering what Bowie meant to us, and what he didn’t, there is a tendency to resort to hyperbole. I was not a gay man in 1960s London, yearning for someone to show me it was okay to be different. I have never been an aspiring musician looking for a muse or inspiration. I can’t even really claim to have been the most dedicated David Bowie fan in the world.  But I can say that whenever I contemplated his presence on earth, it made me feel a little more joy and a little less sadness. When I listened to his music, it was as if a hand had come out and taken mine.

“You do not touch Bowie.”

And no one ever will.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #10

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’ve been sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #10.

The success of others doesn’t mean your failure; it can mean your success as well.

At this point, you may have noticed a theme here. I think as professional writers, all of us, even those who go around with those moony-eyed looks and dreamy, contented smiles, have experienced jealousy so fiery and bright it almost blinds us. When someone gets a book deal, our first reaction is to seethe before we write a begrudging “congratulations” and “happy for you” in an email or on a Facebook wall. If someone gets an article in the New York Times, it must have been for reasons other than talent/she isn’t that good anyway/that newspaper is going downhill and they’ll take anyone these days. I’m guilty of it; guilty of it all. And I’m sure you are too.

At a certain point, however, I realized that, not only was this line of thinking doing me absolutely no good, it was also keeping me from taking advantage of new and valuable sources of information, usually people fresh from the high of getting said book deal or writing for said influential newspaper who were more than happy to share the story of how they did it. When you were little, perhaps your parents assured you that they loved you and your siblings equally; that their love was not a pie with different sized slices cut out of it; you and your brother or sister each had a whole pie of your very own. Well, success is like that pie: just because someone else got an article published in the New Yorker or the Atlantic doesn’t mean you are any less likely to. The pie doesn’t grow smaller because a fellow writer you know took a piece out of it and you can only take what’s left. You have to bake your own pie (am I taking this metaphor too far?) with ingredients you already have in your own kitchen.

Again, the writers’ groups I belong to have been crucial here. When a writer happily posts an article she has written for The New York Times travel section, I don’t have to give her a half-hearted congratulations while trying to keep that simmer of frustration inside me from boiling over. Instead I can say, “congratulations; tell me how you did it” and she’ll be more than happy to oblige; no one will think the worse of me, or anyone else, for having asked that question, because we are all here to help each other.

We are all here to help each other. Sometimes I think if we were just to remember that phrase and follow it, freelance writers would face higher payment for their articles and more responsive and helpful editors when we pitch and write. If someone else is successful, that means you can be too. Be happy for them and seek to emulate them; it means you’re on your way.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #9

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’m sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #9.

Always ask for more money.

This one is tough. In fact, it’s something I’m still learning but trying to get better at. When you apply for a full-time job, or really any job at all, that pesky little moment comes around when you have to talk about money. Research shows that men are better at this than women, because women tend to second-guess themselves and their worth far more than men do. Unfortunately, if you’re a freelance writer, a mini version of this comes along about once every couple of weeks, or maybe several times a week if you’re really successful at pitching. You’ll pitch a story, an editor will get back to you intrigued, maybe with a few extra questions and directives, and then, before writing the story, you two will have to talk about money.

For most freelancers, sadly, this probably means one thing: the editor proposes a sum, and you say yes to it, too scared to lose the story and a potential client to try and argue for more. In 2014, after several successful attempts at raising my salary for corporate work, I decided I would ask for more money every chance I got. I had once been burned by a boss who practically laughed me out of the room when I tried to get more money from him, but that was six years ago and I was just beginning to understand my worth. If asked to name a price first, I’ll usually take whatever price I expect an editor to say yes to and add quite a bit on top of it, assuming that it may go down due to negotiating. If the editor names a price, I’ll outline how I got more from such-and-such an outlet for a similar piece, and see if he or she can negotiate.

Sometimes this is harder than it looks, as a lot of outlets, especially online ones, will have set-in-stone, low pricing you can either take or leave, along with that possible home for your story. Once in a while I’ll let myself down, panicking when I’m asked for a price and underselling myself, knowing that I’m doing it even as I hit the send button and wait for a reply. I’m trying to get better at this, but I’m encouraged by the fact that I already have. I just added up my finances for 2014 and I made more money than I ever have in a single year as a freelancer. I have to assume some of that came from my determination to always ask for more, and my resolve to give up this fear that doing so might mean losing a potential client. I hope to do even better in 2015.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #8

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’m sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #8.

If you are generous with your time, experience, and contacts, others will be too. But it probably won’t be a 1-to-1 transaction.

This has something to do with Rule 3, and certainly has a lot to do with forging meaningful relationships as a writer, but it is a bit more specific than that. If you had asked me in 2013 or earlier what frustrated me most about being a young and relatively inexperienced writer, I would have replied: the cliques. That was it: all the writing groups out there I wasn’t a part of; all the secret societies I hadn’t been invited to. I truly believed that there was a group of around 10 to 12 writers in Berlin who were getting every story in every major publication, and leaving the rest of us to roll around on the ground, looking for scraps. Why weren’t they giving freely of their help and contacts? How could I get them to? And most of all, how had they risen to that point in their lives where they had help and contacts to give? Who had seen fit, many years ago, to give freely to them? Why weren’t “they” me?

While it’s true that a fair number of very good writers live in Berlin (hey, Berlin still remains cheaper than New York, and even very good writers are hardly very well paid writers; we all need somewhere to live), many of them got to Berlin before it was !!!Berlin!!! and spent years gathering facts, reporting stories, and pitching articles on a city that few—or at least fewer—outlets were particularly interested in. They did their time before I arrived. I know many more of them now and you know what? They have been extremely kind and generous, giving freely of their time, expertise, and occasionally even contacts.

Meanwhile, I’ve stopped being afraid to ask for that help, and instead, have started to focus on my own sort of giving. You remember back in Rule 3, when I said that 2014 was the year I started thinking of myself as a legitimate writer, and stopped thinking of myself as a hopeless mooch who would never have anything to offer? 2014 was also the year I realized that giving generously could translate into receiving generously, but it would rarely be a one-to-one transaction. This means that you should answer questions when you can, direct other writers to editors if they’re looking for them, discuss and critique written work as you would wish others to discuss and critique your own, and be generous with your time if it means helping someone else take a step you once found daunting. It also means not expecting those exact people to repay you in those exact ways. It may be that someone you help will be hard to get in touch with when you need help in return, but someone else down the line will probably make up for it, popping up and giving you assistance at exactly the right time, astonishing you with his or her generosity.

There was a time when I got self-righteously annoyed with how helpful I was being; pissed off that this person or that person seemed to have taken my advice, run with it, and not bothered to thank me. Then I remembered that I once did that as an inexperienced writer and was rightfully called out on it. I also remembered the numerous people I barely knew at the time, who have since become good friends and reliable confidantes, who proved their goodness early on by giving me direction without my even asking for it. Their advice resulted in paid articles or good clips, in an unforgettable experience or a much-need confidence boost. Keep these people close; their generosity was and is advance payment for your own future generosity.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #7

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’m sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #7.

Learn how to make yourself take time off.

This one, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, was the hardest for me. In a way, I think it’s the hardest for all freelancers—one of the things we may actually envy our full-time office job friends for; friends who go out to the movies in the evenings, have brunch on weekends, and take two-week vacations that are actually vacations. To put it simply, we freelance writers don’t know how to take a day off, because our job depends on finding story ideas, sources, and outlets everywhere we turn.

The fact that we can work from anywhere turns into a curse instead of a blessing. Maybe we’re in Lisbon as I was last February, looking for undiscovered hole-in-the-wall restaurants as fodder for a “Top Ten” list rather than for our own culinary enjoyment. Maybe we’re in Taiwan as I was last March, or minds racing with possible outlets that would be interested in a story about a fascinating but comparatively little-known country. Maybe we’re just at home, trolling the Internet for interesting current events stories we could write responses to. Whatever our goals, whatever our reasons, we can’t sit still, because choosing to sit still now might mean that a month from now we’ll be sitting still not by choice, but because we don’t have any work at all.

What’s more, if we want to take a planned vacation, we have to estimate when to stop pitching and when to close the office, so that the assignments stop coming in at exactly the week we want them to. The way magazine publishing works, you can easily be writing a story in January that you won’t see in print until June. In much the same way, you can easily be pitching stories this month only to have editors get back to you in two months’ time—exactly when you had hoped to take a weeklong vacation.

Around November of this year, however, just as I was flying home from a two-week vacation in New York that was hardly a vacation at all (I worked all the way through it), I realized that if I was going to maintain my sanity, I was going to have to take a break. Luckily, Germany was about to take a two-week break as well, and I noticed that most of my regular clients were winding down for the end of the year. I also realized, with some relief, that I didn’t have to send out any new pitches if I didn’t want to. That might mean I would awake on January 1 and I find I had no writing gigs ahead of me, but that would free me up to do other work: take a 30-day online course on querying like I’m doing now, rethink my website, which I plan to do in the next week, and reorganize my desktop for the new year.

I’m writing this after a two-week break during which I did almost no work at all, and by the end of it (we’re talking January 1st, exactly) I couldn’t wait to start gearing up for another year full of freelance writing surprises and accomplishments.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #6

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’m sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #6.

There is no big break – just hard work

I used to think every successful writer I knew of had gotten some big break. I fantasized about how he or she had probably once been exactly as I was, laboring over small, trivial articles for little pay before – bingo! – he or she met the right person, slept with the right person, unknowingly did a favor for the right person, and was instantly propelled to a higher plane of existence; one I could not fathom, but just had to believe existed. This could also work, I reasoned, if a Very Important Editor of a Very Important Magazine™ just happened to be slumming it in the primordial ooze of popular websites and low-brow inflight magazines, saw your article, thought for some reason you were brilliant, and invited you to write for Very Important Magazine™. Suddenly everyone recognized your great talent, and you were inundated with invitations to write for: The New York Times! The New Yorker! Vanity Fair! Vogue!

Now, mostly thanks to the aforementioned online writing groups I am privileged to be a part of, I’ve realized that even the most successful writers still have to do the grunt work of finding new clients, going out into the world and making connections, pitching stories, worrying about deadlines and payment. Big breaks do come for the lucky few, but the rest of us, regardless of how talented, driven, and connected we are, have to learn to slog on through as well.

Realizing that success and my perceived lack of it had less to do with luck and much more to do with hard work was somehow liberating. Now I no longer had to sit there, stewing in my own resentment of the things that Other Writers were getting that I was not. There was a reason for it, and it was entirely under my control: the more pitches I sent out, the more networking I did, the more actual writing I did, the more likely I would be to get another kind of big break—one based entirely on my own goals and entirely of my own making.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #5

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’m sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #5.

Have something else you love to do that does not involve sitting in front of the computer.

If you’re a writer of any sort, no doubt most of your time is spend hunched over something. In the olden days it was a piece of parchment with ink and quill, a candle stub quietly burning out next to you, a pot on the floor to catch the drips in your unrepaired ceiling. Then it was a typewriter. Thank goodness we have computers now, and most of us don’t live in Dickensian conditions. Still, if you’re like me, you probably have constant back, neck, and shoulder pain from sitting in chairs that are not meant to support hours of typing, lying in bed propped up on three or four pillows, or sitting on a living room sofa with my feet up on a chair. I should really get one of those ergonomic chairs, but I hate the way they look.

So it’s a good thing I’ve cultivated a number of hobbies that give my back a rest along with my eyes. If whatever I’m working on gets to be too much for me, there’s a good chance you’ll find me putting on my running shoes, downloading a new episode of Radiolab, This American Life, or lately, Serial, and going on a 30-minute run. What’s more, I usually have my best ideas when I’m in the shower afterwards.

If it’s around lunch or dinnertime, I’m just as thrilled to get my mind off my writing by going food shopping, planning a meal, or simply baking something frivolous. I’ve found that working with my hands is a thrill I can always afford: when writing down my list of ingredients for a new roast chicken recipe or stirring together a batch of granola, I can give my brain the kind of rest it simply does not get from anything else. Perhaps it’s the combination of hand-eye coordination with another level of planning and timing that gets my mind entirely out of writing and onto another task at hand, but it’s crucial mental time off that makes me twice as ready to go back to my ideas when I have to sit down at the computer again.

What I Learned About Being a Writer in 2014 - Tip #4

I learned a lot about being a writer in 2014, and over these ten days, I’m sharing some of my tips. Here is Tip #4.

You don’t have to publish a certain amount of articles per week/month/year to call yourself a writer.

I used to think writers had to publish a certain number of times per week or month or year to be considered legitimate. I would look at writers’ personal websites, a long list of glowing publication credentials in their portfolios, and I would wonder what I was doing wrong. After all, even if I got an editor to take notice of me long enough to write one article, I could hardly ever get him or her to care enough again. How did I become a repeat contributor to certain publications? What’s more, how did they?

This year I realized that writing doesn’t have to be a numbers game, and indeed probably shouldn’t be. If a writer has written dozens of articles in a very short amount of time, take a closer look: those articles probably consist of clickbait, top ten lists, and lots of topics that will win the website a lot of hits but probably didn’t earn the writer a lot of money. I write for some of those now, and I’m fine with them because they’re fun, easy, offer an outlet for my playful side without involving lots of time and multiple rounds of edits, and pay just enough that they seem worth it.

The key to being a writer—and indeed any kind of freelancer—is having a steady flow of work, sure, but equally crucial is being discerning, picky, and above all else, patient. If you have steady gigs that pay the bills, whether they are at all creative or journalistic or just plain corporate, you can afford to focus more on your ideas and the publications that might take them, regardless of how well those pay (and let’s face it: most of them pay pretty badly). You can also afford to take some time off once in a while, and as you’ll see further ahead, that’s also on our list.

I know that not everyone can operate this way, and I’m very lucky that I can. Over the past two years I’ve built up relationships and very often self-made positions with local clients here in Berlin that pay me enough to sustain a lifestyle some would consider luxurious in what remains one of Europe’s cheapest cities. I couldn’t afford New York on the money I make, but I can afford to live nicely here in the German Hauptstadt.

I also know that not every writer can thrive in these exact parameters: some writers really are spewing out new ideas a mile a minute; enough to pitch fifty new outlets a month and get positive responses from ten of them, enough to keep churning out the clickbait and watching those small amounts of money trickle in to add up to larger ones. For me, and I suspect for a lot of writers, the smart decision is not to rely on open-ended pitches to faceless editors with slow response times on the other side of a computer screen to pay the bills. You should spend as much time building up the boring work that will finance the work you really want to be doing.