I always knew I wanted to become writer. I kept a journal from the time I was eight. I wrote my first horsey “novel” when I was 12, scrolled in longhand in three spiral notebooks. It’s still pending publication.
My first paid writing assignments were for equestrian magazines when I was 18. Since I was 9, I have competed in horse shows. So it was a natural for me to begin interview and writing profiles of well-known professional horsemen and women who I met at the competitions–and then selling those profiles to horse specialty magazines, such as The Chronicle of The Horse, Spur and On Course, for anywhere from $75 to $125 a piece.
During my senior year at Duke University, I was an intern withWashingtonian Magazine in Washington, DC, as part of a Washington Journalism semester. When I graduated in 1982, that internship opened the door to a job writing for Pittsburgh Magazine in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
I was lucky enough to be assigned to cover nightlife for the monthly publication, writing profiles of jazz musicians, pianists and comedians, for example, each month and then listing where to go in Pittsburgh for that entertainment.
Talk about a dream job for a 22-year-old.
Brick by brick, I added local business newspapers, and then was hired as a regional correspondent for Advertising Age and Business Week. I wrote a dance column for an alternative newspaper in town. I wrote about anything anyone would assign me to cover from small businesses to local school board meetings to Heinz Ketchup advertising campaigns and ballerinas.
Before I knew it, I had enough clips to score an interview with Forbesmagazine, a publication that I had a hankering to write for, mostly because my father was a subscriber and a huge fan of Malcolm Forbes. That interview was landed via chutzpah and by cold-calling the editor who hired reporters and saying that I would be in New York City and asking her if I could I come by to meet her.
Remarkably, she said yes, and I flew to New York. I didn’t get a job that day. But six months later, she called and offered me a full-time position as a reporter. Over the next few years, I was promoted to staff writer and editor in the New York office.
After five terrific years at Forbes, I accepted a writing and editing position at Money, followed a few years later by a move to US News & World Report, and then USA Today. Books fell into place as I gained expertise and experience. I now have seven published books. And 12 years ago, I started my own freelance writing business. In addition, I’m now a career transition consultant, mostly for Baby Boomers eyeing career transitions.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). In a random order–my freshman high school teacher Richard Gregory at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, TimeMagazine editor James Atwater, Anne Lamott, Money magazine editor Richard Eisenberg (now at PBS Next Avenue), Randy Rieland, my editor atPittsburgh magazine,Forbes Magazine editor Steve Lawrence, Diane Harris, my editor at Working Womanmagazine and at Money magazine, John Wiley & Sons editor Debra Englander and Joanna Krotz, one of my editors at Money magazine.
When and where do you write? I generally write between 5:30 am and 1 pm. Have laptop (MacBook Pro), will travel. I write wherever I happen to be, every day. I write on a couch, at a desk, on a plane, on a train, in a car (if I am a passenger), in bed, on a deck overlooking the ocean. You name it. I can get comfortable and focused practically anywhere. My personal favorite spot is on a porch, or in a comfortable chair, gazing out at Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
What are you working on now? I’m revising and updating my book What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job for the paperback edition, which will be published by The Berkley division of Penguin Group in the spring of 2014. I just finished writing a new book proposal and it is ready to be sent out by my agent in the next week or so. In addition, I write a weekly column for PBS Next Avenue for boomer women focused on personal finance issues. I write a weekly column for Forbes.com on career transitions for workers over 50. I write a monthly column for AARP, where I am the resident Jobs Expert.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? You bet, but it never lasts too long. I just have to wait it out, do something else until the moment strikes, and off I go, lost in the words. For me, it’s the creative spark of deciding where to start the narrative that pushes me off the mark. Once I have a lede, I’m gone into the zone. I don’t look back.
What’s your advice to new writers? Write every day. Take assignments that push you outside your comfort zone. Be curious. Stretch to learn new subjects.
Meet people in person for interviews whenever you can. Phone and email lose something in translation.
Don’t worry too much about the pay, if possible. It’s the discipline, practice and experience that you’re working for in those early stages. Seek out a variety of editors to work with who can help you hone your craft.
Importantly, when it comes to the actual writing process, just write that first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even close to it. Just do it. The next step-editing and smoothing is simple mechanics. Your heart is in that first draft no matter how bad it is. That’s the joy of writing.
Trust that it’s all there…and then bring out the paring knife and step away. You have to be heartless now, but the personal piece is behind you. Now you’re the reader, not the writer.