Tuesday, May 30, 2006

 

Renegade Writer Q&A: Stephanie Dickison

Stephanie has published over 400 non-fiction pieces, including articles, interviews, essays, columns, profiles, features, and reviews.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your writing career? How (and when) did you get started as a freelance writer?

A. I have been a freelance writer for about a decade now. I started out doing book reviews because at that time, I was reading about 10 a month and wanted the opportunity to tell people about the great stuff that I was reading. I had also noticed that there were a lot of poorly written reviews and wanted a chance to try and engage and invigorate people about books again. I was working two jobs at the time, but always found time to write, which I knew meant that this was significant.

I then moved onto feature writing for magazines and newspapers. It was here where I found my calling. I was still reviewing books and enjoying that process, but writing about people, places and events was a dream come true. My first published feature article was for Fitness Business Canada. It was fantastic -- a page long and they printed it word for word. It was an unusual piece for them because it was funny and not at all the usual business-to-business pieces -- I was thrilled, though I quickly learned that all assignments would not be so easy-breezy.

I have always been curious about the world around me, but it never occurred to me that writing would be a viable career for that. I was still working a full and part-time job, but would stay up late working on a piece. This was excellent training for working to deadline and on quick turnaround.

I was enjoying the writing process so much that I went to night school and took courses on writing for magazines, editing and creative writing. While it was exhausting, it was further proof that this was something I wanted to invest my time, energy and money in.

I continued writing for magazines and newspapers and still reviewed books, but was making so little money that I continued to work full-time in offices. It paid the rent and afforded me not only groceries, but time in the evenings to query and write as much as time allowed.

I compare this time when you first meet someone and begin dating. All of a sudden, you have the energy to stay up late, and though you are completely exhausted all of the time, you are also exhilarated.

Q. What's the best piece of writing advice you've gotten? The worst?

A. Reading about writing is the best education you can get, along with going to classes to further your knowledge -- but considering time and money, books, magazines and the internet are probably the most practical.

I read what writers think, read and practice and then take what I think aligns with my beliefs and give it a whirl. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but you won't know unless you try, so I usually try it. I tried Julia Cameron's Morning Pages, writing before bed, writing 5 pages and a million other things until I found something that worked -- Carol See's 1000 words a day. This works for me and I almost always exceed it, but it is a number that I'm comfortable with. Writers have particular habits and not everything works for all of us -- my fiancé loves writing in cafes and I like the comfort of my desk, as I am often referencing papers and books as I go along.

I think that we end up writing like our heroes, either in subject matter or style. My contemporary writing heroes are Susan Orlean, Steve Martin and Joan Didion. Chuck Klosterman for music writing and Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath as all-time greats. I write solely non-fiction so these people loom large in my daily life.

The fantastic books I've read over the years also have made an impression and while I cannot remember all of the advice I have picked up, it has remained, I'm certain.

I read something once that said that no one cares whether you write or not. I realized that this is true, but what is more important is that I care whether I do or not. And I do. More than anything.

Q. What's the most renegade thing you've done in your career, and how did it pan out?

A. I became a specialist in various areas quickly, so that I could query magazines and newspapers with confidence. I chose areas that were of interest and then wrote about nothing but for as long as I could muster -- books, music, food, popular culture, design, the arts. This is how I managed to publish over 400 non-fiction pieces, including articles, interviews, essays, columns, profiles, features, and reviews in a considerably short time.

I have written numerous articles for magazines and newspapers, including The Toronto Star, Toronto Life, The Writer, Numb, The Dalhousie Review, New England Theatre Review, Hypergraphia, Surface & Symbol, Paste, Washington Asia Press Newspaper, Ascent and RicePaper.

The other crazy thing I did was contribute to books, most of which are coming out this year. I had never done anything this big before, so I didn't know what to expect and I certainly didn't feel completely qualified, but I was passionate and I believe this made up for my inexperience. I have contributed essays to many books, including Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence (September 2006) and Cannibal (2006), along with entries in the upcoming academic reference books, Facts on File Companion to the American Novel (April 2006), Compendium of 20th Century Novelists and Novels (2007) and Dictionary of Literary Biography (2006).

And lastly, I wrote a book about popular music that no one has ever done before. I am still awaiting an agent and publisher, but I believe that it is a great idea and that it will find a good home. It took five years from start to finish and I had to quit my job to complete it, which was scary, but I had to do it, and that's how I think writers get through the incredibly tough times. We just have to, and somehow we find a way.

Q. I see you do music writing. I think a lot of our subscribers would like to break into that area. How does one get started?

A. Like most people trying to get a foot in the door, I started writing CD reviews and doing interviews for small publications. I think it is extremely difficult to make it big in this arena because there are so many outlets for music writing and so many people that want to write about it. I wrote a book about music but don't write about it much anymore because it's hard to get on staff or do more than one piece for a magazine. I still dream of working with SPIN, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, but these days I'm usually writing about writing or food. However, it is almost always with my earphones on, rockin' out on my office chair.

Q. If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?

A. I wouldn't change a thing. The path I took is how I got to where I am today, and I am grateful for my life. To get to write every day? This is the life people spend all day in their cubicle trying to plan an escape for. I left working a day job in December to complete my book and to be able to take on bigger assignments and markets and while some days are busier than I could have ever imagined, I am thrilled to be making my way in this world typing my thoughts and observations. I am also lucky to have the love and support of my friends, family and the sexy man I love and live with.

Q. What are your favorite resources for writers (online or off)?

A. I started reviewing for The Writer magazine because I was a fan. It is a fantastic read and resource. There is a reason they have lasted since 1887!!

I read a lot of writing books. My favourites won't necessarily be yours, but I promise that if you delve into the writing section at your library and local bookstore, you will find something (and someone!) that speaks to you. Of course, if you haven't read Renegade Writers, please do. I read it when it first came out and have recommended it a number of times.

I sign up for a lot of writing newsletters because I don't use the internet for much outside of research, so this is the way that I keep up. I like Moira Allen's Writing World, but there are tons out there. Just type in "Writing Newsletter" to Google and you'll find yourself missing dinner, your favourite TV show and blowing off a night out before you know it. Tee hee. It is time-consuming, for sure.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A. Thank you for this opportunity to share my experience with your readers. I hope that my words show that the passion for writing can be enough. That, and sitting and writing each and every day.

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