advice: how to start my mid-life(ish) career

QUESTION FROM A GREEK TRAGEDY READER: I’m a soon-to-be graduate with a BA in journalism from one of the nation’s most prestigious journalism schools. I mention that only to reiterate how very hard I’ve worked for a degree that, even in the sad media climate, might be worth something. All of that to say–journalism is not my passion. Creative writing (non-fiction) is. I’m finding it hard to pit practicality against passion, but assuming I grow some balls and at least try to pursue writing, my many questions to you are:

How does one even begin a writing career? What’s the first step (and subsequent steps) in writing a book? Is it something I could/should do while holding a time-consuming, albeit paying, job in journalism? Should I pursue creative writing classes beyond those I took in undergrad, perhaps get a masters degree (even though I’m WAY in debt from this first degree)? How do I attract more traffic to my blog or gain exposure as a writer?

Although I’ve been stalking you through your blog the last five years, I’d be interested to know more details on how you arrived at success. I’d appreciate any guidance you could give me. Thanks for keepin’ it real all these years. You’re a delight to read, and I admire your honesty and talent. Can you help a sista out?

straight up advice

I believe in karma. I believe in helping other people follow their passions, so long as those passions aren’t punishable by law. Most people write to me concerned that they don’t know what their passions are. They know what they enjoy, sure, but something still feels like it’s missing. It’s a feeling of searching but not knowing what it is you’re even searching for. You’re not unhappy, not happy, just Charlie Beige.

For me, it’s the equivalent of opening the refrigerator when I’m not even hungry.

Others write in knowing what they don’t want: their current crapass job that makes their favorite colors seem drab. They want to know how to make the leap, how to risk, how to just up and switch without a portfolio, without experience. Without a set of love spuds. And I have an answer (see below).

So, now, onto you. Consider yourself blessed that you know what it is you want. I’ve written a bit about this “So you want to be a writer” topic before, but I’m happy to also answer your additional questions.

“Is it something I could/should do while holding a time-consuming, albeit paying, job in journalism?” Only you know you. I’m not being patronizing here, but if you were my son or daughter, I’d tell you, especially in this economy, to keep your paying job and find a way to make it work for you. That is, you work for someone else, make that work for you… for now. I worked in advertising, full-time, which was pretty much 10:30 or 11am to 7pm, with lunch at my desk, and I was still able to write a book proposal and a memoir while working full-time. I didn’t leave my job in advertising until the TV pilot writing started to creep onto my to-do list. I worked, kept a blog, dated, fed my dog, picked up his turds, and wrote a memoir, all at once. But I will say this: my job didn’t involve writing. At all. In fact, I was encouraged NOT to write. It wasn’t my job. I was hired to design sites, to strategize, to brainstorm creative concepts, but I wasn’t responsible for copy (sometimes I did it anyway). Oh, the irony. Not writing for a living freed me, though. Because now that I am working on several writing projects at once, I’ll say that it can be hard to manage. But again, I think it comes down to how your brain “gets off.”

My final word on the subject is that most writers keep a full-time job in addition to their research, their articles, their books. Many published authors work as editors, professors, teach online courses. You find time. If it’s your dream, you don’t talk about wanting it, you make it happen. Wishing takes the same amount of energy as planning, so start planning. Turn off your TV *except if it’s to watch LOST.

“Should I pursue creative writing classes beyond those I took in undergrad, perhaps get a masters degree (even though I’m WAY in debt from this first degree)?” Fcuk yeah, and fcuk no. I think classes are wonderful, in particular workshops. When I worked full-time, when I was writing Straight Up And Dirty, I did so while I was in a writing workshop. The class met only once a week, from 6-8 or some such slot. I loved it because it kept me writing, on task, kept things top of mind, with deadlines, but mostly I loved the feedback. Should you pay to get your MFA in creative writing? Only if someone else is paying for you to do so. That’s what all my writing professors at Columbia told me. If your company pays for it, they said, sure, go. But it’s not like law school, where it’s necessary to pursue the career. You can learn by reading, by studying on your own, by trusting your instincts. By doing, not talking about doing.

As for driving traffic to your blog, google that phrase, read what you will, go through the effort, but at a certain point, the content needs to be there, and you need to be passionate about whatever it is you’re writing. But, you know that. And it spikes and it wanes, and it doesn’t mean a whole lot of anything, really. It’s very similar to dating that way. While it’s flattering to be pursued and wooed, at the end of the day “you don’t need scores of suitors, just one, if he’s the right one.” Meaning, you don’t need to end up on the cover of the New York Times Styles section to be noticed. You’d be surprised how people can find you, and you’d be surprised by who’s secretly reading… and how that one studio executive can be moved to laugh, moved to cry, moved to contact you and ask you if you have representation. Who knows. So put yourself out there.

Also, as promised, to add to the above… another reader wrote in asking how do I take those first steps toward changing my career?
You’ll feel great relief in starting to plan. If I told you you HAD TO leave your job, you’d research what’s next. So research. Job search. That’s the first step in the process of change. You go about it strategically. You think about health care. You make a list of all your concerns. You prioritize. You figure out your MUSTS. Can’t live without health insurance. So you research independent health insurance for freelancers. You get prepared. Then you’re armed with answers. It’s less of a leap. You know what you’re getting into, at least somewhat. Life is too short to be as miserable as you say you are. Life leaps. Take one.
Know what you’re willing to give up. And honestly sometimes we assume it’s going to be a lot worse than it really is.
When I was working in advertising, I went to the bathroom and just started crying. This isn’t what I was put on this earth to do. I hadn’t gone in there to cry. Didn’t even see it coming. It just bubbled to the top. Know what I did? I didn’t just whine about it. I looked at the situation, said I wasn’t willing to get a roommate to afford rent, wasn’t willing to move. Wasn’t willing to go without paid vacation, and to have to pay way more for health insurance. So know what I did? I kept my high-paying job, looked into photography classes, filled out forms requesting the company pay for the classes, how it would be favorable for the company and our clients for me to do so, etc. And they did. They paid for my photography classes. AND I then took watercolor classes, and writing classes (which I paid for). The point is, I didn’t quit my job, I found my career, while staying at my “job” until I got to the point where necessity dictated that I quit one job to take another job… one that required me to stay in my jammies all day. I’m exaggerating. Nothing’s required. Even clothing’s optional.

If you have questions or need advice on anything from where to eat to how to get over the bastard, just email your question to my advice email address.





  1. Thank you!! I don’t even want to be a writer (exclusively) and that was spot on. I’ve had the same thought process on making my own transition. But, it’s affirming to have someone else reiterate the same logic. I’m anxious for my next life leap (couple ducks not yet lined up in the row) – despite the bouts of fear that go with it!

  2. I’ve been reading your blog for about 5 years now (5, wow) and this post is the reason that I believe I got drawn in in the first place. I love the passion that you have for writing and the incredible way that you construct sentences and paragraphs that can speak so directly to the emotions that so many of us feel. You give such great advice when it comes to following your dreams, advice that I’m using in my own life and steps I’m taking now to jump in and do what I’ve always wanted to do. Thank you for the inspiration.

  3. I think that having a full time job focused around writing would make it very hard for me to do my fiction and blog writing. I find writing so brain intensive and I would love if work used an entirely different part of my brain. Being a health care consultant, people might say that it does – but it absolutely doesn’t. It is a lot of brainstorming, writing, researching, analyzing. All the skills I use in my writing. For me, I found my balance by losing some of my income and going freelance. So I work part time essentially and I spend the rest of the time writing (which I also consider working).

  4. I disagree with you about a lotta stuff, but I gotta say I totally admire your focus and the way you go after what you want, it’s very inspirational.

  5. The plan and the way you went about becoming a writer was really smart. You avoided debt which is great on anyone’s books (i’m about go graduate from an MFA and am in debt), and you didn’t sacrifice your lifestyle per say for your dream. You used your company’s resources to your advantage and found a way to make it work until you achieved your dream. I think people dwell on the effects and transition of chasing a dream. If you plan, structure, and do, their will be very minimal effects.

    Great Post.

  6. I don’t know. I think getting my MFA was the best thing I ever did. I don’t know any MFA students who didn’t teach their way through grad school either. We all did it for the tuition waiver and because of that, I learned that I absolutely love teaching writing. Now that I’ve graduated, I have a job teaching college English. The schedule is great, the job is fun and I have plenty of time left for writing, whereas at another kind of job I might not. I’m even encouraged to write by my peers. I also find that when I say I have an MFA, people take me more seriously when I say I’m a writer. I guess grad school’s not for everyone, but for me and my fellow grad students, the MFA program was a wonderful decision. I would recommend it. And no I have no debt whatsoever. I actually made a profit on my education from the teaching. As for the blog thing, well, I don’t think anyone is secretly reading and I’m still waiting to be discovered, but I’m having fun in the meantime.

    Good luck to your reader who asked the question.

  7. I was in your workshop and can attest to the fact that you are one hard-working and talented lady. Your advice is great and very responsible. With today’s economy, the saying, “Don’t quite your day job” is responsible and do-able.

    1. Hi Victoria,

      Fellow workshop participant, here. It is, I think, the best and most rigorous workshop in NYC. I continue to hear and follow the sound advice found in the strong critiques that happened there. I couldn’t find a better teacher, or group of people.

      For anyone who lives too far from New York to take any classes, or is contemplating an MFA, you can get both through a book put out by the New York Writer’s Workshop: Portable MFA in Creative Writing.


      My main reason for commenting, though, is to reiterate what you said, in regard to how hard-working Stephanie is: the respect for the writing Craft is apparent in each of these posts. No matter if it’s just an, ahem-clearing of the throat, the care for the craft is why I keep coming back.

  8. I think you’re absolutely right in advising not to give up one’s job until one’s writing career isn’t launched. I am also passionate about writing (though in my native language), and I was worried that having a full time job would distract me from it… I don’t remember who said that when you’ve got to write, you write, no matter the excuses of work and time: you just make it happen. And it is true. I also found that joining a group of people interested in creative writing helped me to keep on writing and progressing. It’s like with sport: you never really feel like doing it when you are on your own, but then if you have friends around, it becomes a group thing and creates bonds. So my advice is to try to join a creative writing group, it made my life far more fulfilling.

  9. I think its so great that you are willing to give advice and offer your experience about getting into the field of writing. I was skimming some blogs a few weeks back and I’m not going to mention any names, but the woman was making fun of a reader’s email she had received about this same topic. While the email was a little bit out there, publicly mocking someone and being a bitch is just so rude. Way to go Stephanie – major karma points for sure :)

  10. I am so blessed to have a job that I love, but a lot of your post resonates with me as well. For those of us in business, it always about “how do you start your own business” and I think your ideas around writing are spot on for business as well.

  11. I know exactly who Caroline is talking about too and that post made me really sad. I think it’s awful to discourage and make fun of someone just starting out and I’m glad Stephanie would never do that. Stephanie’s advice is great.

  12. this reminds me of a great poem by Charles Reznikoff that I look to for inspiration:

    After I had worked all day at what I earn my living
    I was tired. Now my own work has lost another day,
    I thought, but began slowly,
    and slowly my strength came back to me.
    Surely, the tide comes in twice a day.
    -Charles Reznikoff

  13. Pingback: Passion Of Life « What Is Angela Doing?

  14. Great post, thanks for being so candid!
    I would love to write something professionally someday, but I doubt I would quit whatever else I was doing to do so — personally it would make the pressure too much on the writing for me to still enjoy it. Glad to hear how you did the same (both at once), logically even for a “dreamer” and made it all work.
    Have I told you lately that you inspire me?

  15. Wow. That was really good advice. I love “Know what you’re willing to give up. And honestly sometimes we assume it’s going to be a lot worse than it really is.”

  16. Great post! Being a health care consultant, people might say that it does – but it absolutely doesn’t. It is a lot of brainstorming, writing, researching, analyzing. All the skills I use in my writing. For me, I found my balance by losing some of my income and going freelance. Thank you!

  17. I always wanted to be a writer, but it is more important to be a successful person. What means it? Why I wanted to be a Writer…
    why not a Garments Manufacturer? Why we all wanted to be unique… I am thinking mid way of my life.

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