I had a terrible high school education. Despite getting straight A’s at an award-winning high school in a wealthy suburb of Washington D.C., my classes weren’t rigorous and I didn’t develop a lot of basic skills. The school was large and there was a lot of cheating. I was well-behaved. I turned in all of my homework and spent most of my energy trying to blend into the background, like a gecko. I was very adept at it and so, without anyone noticing my lack of skill, I graduated in 1993 at the top of my class having never written a paper longer than a single page.
Throughout my childhood my mother was a freelance writer and reporter for the Washington Post and our local paper. She worked from home while we were at school. Seeing her byline in the paper made me proud and hearing her describe with incredible passion the stories she was working on was intriguing, but I never aspired to be a writer. I had no idea how to structure a story or write a lead, and no desire to figure it out.
Freshman at Johns Hopkins were required to take Practical Composition and in my first week on campus I was assigned to write a three page essay on a piece of writing by Thoreau. In a panic I walked down the hall and knocked on the door of a guy named Justin whom I’d heard was writing a sports column for the college paper. “You must know how to write,” I said. “Can you help me?” He was kind enough to look over my drafts and then became my boyfriend for the next three years.
This crisis of confidence aside, I think I’ve always been a writer. Junior year I wrote two articles for the college paper (and not just because my boyfriend had become editor-in-chief). One piece was about a student who’d had a baby the summer before college began and was living in the dorms as single mom. The other was about the two women enrolled in the otherwise all-male army ROTC program on campus. I was interested in the idea of fair access.
After college I enrolled in Teach For America and moved to a town of 2,200 nestled in the middle of industrial cotton fields where the poverty of my students was extreme and the racism around me overt and equally extreme. I was writing articles for our monthly newsletter, The Delta Dirt, about policy changes I felt Teach For America needed to make. I don’t remember exactly what those policy changes were, but I know that my pieces caused enough of a stir that someone from the national organization in New York felt the need to to call me to talk them over.
And then we all got the internet. A blog is a wonderful place to write. With total freedom to explore what I think is interesting and important, this space has given me a decade worth of practice expressing what I know, a place to seek what I wanted to I find out, and an audience interested in reading what I have to say (at least sometimes). The blog is my tiny media outlet and it’s a fantastic thing to have.
Last week I went out for coffee with the editor of Artist and Maker’s magazine, an Interweave publication with offices here in the Boston area. We talked about Etsy and Aurifil and how much fabric designers earn and halfway through our conversation she said to me, “You’re such a good writer, Abby.”
Although I never expected to say so, I am a writer. And I’m so happy about that. I have a writer life on top of, or maybe next to, a designer life.
Writing as a career is something I don’t know much about. To help me figure it out, I’ve now listened to every episode of the Longform podcast where writers explain how they find sources and pitch stories. That’s been a good beginning. And now, when I see something that should be a story, I think about it in a new way. Where should this story live? Where would it find the right readers?
I’m currently working on or have written articles over the past few months for Generation Q, the Studio Art Quilts Associates print journal, Crafter’s Market, the Spoonflower blog, FabShop Network’s print journal, and Artists and Makers magazine. I have five freelance articles due by the end of May. I pitched one of these, and the others came to me because of my writing here.
None of these gigs pays a ton. Magazine work in crafts pays about the same, whether it’s an article you’re writing or a pattern you’re designing. One thing I’ve discovered is that when you’re working for an established publication people take your calls which is amazing. When you’re calling as a reporter for Gen Q it’s totally different than calling as a person who writes a blog.
I’m building a portfolio of published writing, one that lives outside of my blog. In the process I’m proving to myself that I can do this. I can be a designer and a teacher and a writer. I even put it on my business card.