This is a story about freelancing, a wild chance, nostalgia, looking back in order to go forward, friends with blogs, and a little luck.
A few months ago, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship (in the category of Nonfiction Article Writing) by the Education Foundation of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), to attend ASJA's annual three-day conference in Manhattan.
I knew I would gather plenty of terrific advice, tips and knowledge from the panels and seminars, and I looked forward to spending a few days around fellow freelancers, exchanging inside info and trading (a few) horror stories. But the real reason I wanted to go to the ASJA conference was that I hadn't been to one in about 20 years. Before that, attending the ASJA event had been an annual outing for me, beginning with my first, the year after graduating from college with a journalism degree.
At the time, I was struggling to support myself as a freelance writer, and saw the conference fee as a necessary investment. I was right – from that first conference, I made important contacts with editors who sent work my way for many years. After that first attendance, I made the ASJA meeting a fixture on my calendar, even after I began working in public relations a few years later (another story!).
The conference slid off my annual agenda at some point. Until this past winter, when I got the idea in my head that, living just across the river, and wanting to expand the freelance journalism arm of my career, I really had no excuse not to attend again. Except of course, the fee. I visited the ASJA site a half-dozen times, filled out the registration form, and then let it languish. That money, I kept telling myself, would be better spent on my son's tuition. Or the other son's cello lessons. Or groceries.
One late winter morning this year, I was doing one of the online things I do every day – reading my friend Erika Dreifus's great blog, Practicing Writing. That day, she reminded readers that the deadline for the ASJA Education Foundation scholarships was that very afternoon. I thought for a moment about applying, but immediately dismissed the notion; I figured the selectors were probably looking for someone either (take your pick): younger, with less (or more) publishing credits, in worse financial circumstances, with less (or more) experience.
Then I remembered something I'd read a while back on another great blog, where novelist Tayari Jones wrote a post meant to encourage young writers to think big and be a bit reckless in seeking out opportunities. Tayari passed along advice she was once given (and I'm paraphrasing here): Every day in the writing world, someone is awarded something for which he or she may not seem especially qualified. The trick is to keep applying for things, because one day, why can't it be you?
The ASJA application, including links to published articles, a CV, and cover letter explaining why the scholarship was being sought, was due in a few hours.
Why can't it be me? I hit send.
Here's what was so interesting to me, sitting in on ASJA discussions again, some 30 years after having attended my first conference: How much has not changed, and how much has. On the one hand, everyone was discussing the very same things that we worried about in 1982 – the best way to query editors, how to attract an agent's attention, negotiating rights and fees, interviewing difficult people, keeping clips organized and presentable. But that was fine, because in the intervening years, everything else had changed, and so doing all of those basic things that propel a freelance career, now requires an entirely different set of skills, tools, technology.
Back in 1982, I recall wide-eyed, eye-rolling, grudging reactions in some sessions to certain ideas of changing up the way one does business. In 1982, a panelist suggested that five years hence, everyone in the room would own at least one computer on which we'd all be writing our articles. Having seen computers being installed in the journalism classrooms at Syracuse University just before I graduated the year before, I believed it, but I noticed quite a few crossed arms and shakes of the head around the room.
It was a similar scene several years later, when in those same ASJA sessions I heard another speaker declare that in just a few years, we would no longer be printing out word-processed articles and stuffing them into envelopes to send off to editors. At another ASJA I attended, probably around 1990 or so, I remember someone said the words electronic communication and web page. Some people seemed excited, but others clearly were not happy to contemplate the coming changes.
Fast forward to this past April, when there was a lot of talk about online activities -- creating a great website and blog, building a Twitter following, knowing how (and how not) to use Facebook and other social media, writing for online venues, SEO skills, developing e-newsletter lists, building an online portfolio of clips. Mostly, audience members welcomed information on these topics. But then in some sessions, where the conversation veered to video blogging, podcasts, writing for phone apps, formatting ebooks, and other issues, I could sense some reluctance (could some of that have been coming from moi?), and suddenly it felt just like old times: Can all this newness really be coming our way, be here already? Yes, and how wonderful. Yes, and oh no!
One way the conference also felt familiar, for me at least, was in the way these gatherings are good for one's career, and the soul of the work-at-home freelancer. I got to talk, in the flesh, with other writers – some with more experience than I, whose tips I appreciated, some with less experience, whose questions I was happy to answer. I met editors face-to-face and gathered useful intel on what might get an assignment nod. I was able to listen to others ask the questions I was either too hesitant to ask, or would never have thought of – and heard the answers in real time. I shared a meal, a drink, a coffee, with people I might not have sought out – a design blogger, a pet columnist, an education writer -- but whose company, and insights, I enjoyed.
And, I got to write this blog post – which I hope will encourage other writers to go ahead and ask for that scholarship, apply for that residency, enter that contest, go after that job. Why can't it be your turn next?