Off Topic: My Origin Story

Caveat: Today’s subject is only tangentially about horses. For more non-equine subjects, see my other blog, Off Topic. Rodney’s Saga returns to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

I have a near-monthly gig interviewing folks about their jobs in the horse industry: good parts, bad parts, and how they got started [USDF Connection clips]. This led me to ponder how I ended up as a freelance writer specializing in equestrian journalism. It all stemmed from the World’s Greatest Rejection Letter.

I never had a calling to write. I never wanted to be a writer. I didn’t even know it possible. In grade school, a friend and I were playing a game that required us to pick a job. My friend said she would be a writer. My choice is lost in the mists of time, but I remember thinking, “A what?” Writing was something you did, like walking. It was not something you got paid for. I don’t know where I thought books, comics, and magazines came from.

In college, I never met an English professor who wasn’t eager to tell me how awful I was. I was put in a class for people with with “serious writing difficulties.” I was told that I “couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag.” and that I wrote “in a confused and torturous fashion” because that’s how I thought. There’s more, but I am too evolved to dwell on the past. Moving on.

After college, I volunteered as support for a 24-hour bicycle race. It was an unusual enough experience that I told the story repeatedly. I told it so often, I finally wrote it out avoid having to recount it again. (This was light-years before Facebook & blogs.) On a whim, I sent the result to a biking magazine. They couldn’t use it because it was about a qualifying race, not the main race. But they liked it very much. Very much indeed. If I had anything else on biking, would I please send it along? They were so taken with my participant/observer approach that they later used it to cover the main race.

Then I got married and was dragged moved to a small town. The local paper advertised for someone to cover Community News. I remembered the enthusiasm of the bike folks. Why not? Had I lived in New York or Washington DC, I never would have waltzed into the Times or the Post. A local, weekly paper did not hold the same intimidating gravitas. I applied. I interviewed. I stopped by to check in and smile at them. I made no secret about my complete lack of writing experience. No matter. They liked my enthusiasm.

Two reporters covered the serious news at the front of the paper. It was up to me to fill the back sections: Wedding, Schools, Religion, Organizations, and Community News. I had four to five half-pages to fill with whatever notices, articles, photos, or graphics I could generate. All with very little supervision. Editorial philosophy held that bylines looked better than retyped press releases. So, I wrote a lot of original stories. I took a lot of grip-and-grin photos. I aimed for one – very short – article and photo per section per week. I got over writer’s block. There’s no such thing when 20 inches of school board coverage are due as the paper goes to press. I also got over seeing my name in print. I much preferred to see my name on a check.

When I started freelancing, horses were the obvious place to start. I knew horses. I knew horse magazines. I was already going to the shows that I covered. Eventually, I wrote in other areas, but kept circling back to horses. At a non-horse magazine, I was a new kid and had to convince editors all over again each time. When I approached a new horse magazine, I could say, “I’ve written for x,y, & z.”

When the economy tanked, freelance budgets were the first to go. New assignments have conspicuously failed to clutter my inbox. (With the grateful exception of the USDF work, the presence of which allows me to continue to think of myself as a professional writer.) I suspect is it past time to reinvent my career. However, as I never expected to get to here, I can’t tell which way to go from here.

OT 5.5.14

Categories: Off Topic, Writing

4 replies »

  1. I have a niece who loves reading and writing and horses soooo much. I’m going to share this post with her. She writes better than most adults and I keep telling her to try to send in some articles. I’m a biased aunt, of course, but I’m also an English/history teacher (so I can detect quality). She’s talented and I think will find your story inspiring. Thank you! 🙂

  2. Start an online magazine of personal, everyday experiences with horses with photo and writing contests, horse-stuff collections page, first time on a horse, listings of horse-related events, etc.? People who sell horse stuff may advertise? Something with feeling that any horse lover would read. Also, to make use of your education, a higher brow literary journal featuring contests, writing, art, all horse-related, a once-a-year publication? You could maybe get a grant for the arts? Is there anything you could teach as related to horses, for $?

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