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How to use the place you live to advance your writing career*

*even if you live in W. Lafayette, IN

I was getting really excited last night.

I was looking at some of my contacts on Twitter and checking out their profiles– so many of them are right here in New York! We could get together! Do coffee! Talk about projects we could collaborate on! I was SO LUCKY to live in the center of the universe!

And I am. There are incredible opportunities in NYC, but there are incredible opportunities everywhere.  Why didn’t I think about how I could help you learn to use the place you live–wherever it is–to advance your writing career?

Francisco poured me another drink and that’s what I did.

*

Maybe this all felt particularly relevant because earlier in the day I’d been reading “Sticking Around Lafayette, Indiana,” an article in Smithsonian Magazine written by novelist Patricia Henley. A friend of mine actually lives in Lafayette and pretty much thinks it’s a hole, so I was interested to read Henley’s defense of a town she expected to be “repressed and unimaginative,” but which she has found to be quite the opposite.

*

The take-away–and this shouldn’t be any surprise but I hope it helps you feel better when you wonder why you don’t live in the center of the universe (ahem)–is that you can be a writer anywhere. You can be an excellent writer anywhere. You can connect with people from anywhere. And you can use wherever you are as a means of advancing your writing career.

Let’s talk about a few ways to do just that:

1. Become a bona fide destination expert.

Maybe you think your little corner of [insert Podunk, Wherever name here] isn’t highly marketable. You may be right… for now. But more and more editors and publishers are looking for destinations they can market as “off-the-beaten-path,” and if you’ve made yourself the sole expert on your region, who better than you to write about it?

2. Become a champion and evangelist of where you live.

Do you know how many writers are tripping over one another to snatch up contracts to write about New York?

If you don’t have any competition, consider yourself lucky.  A few thousand writers would love to be in your shoes.

Develop a persona for yourself and for your place. If it’s authentic and if you can genuinely find reasons to be fired up about where you live, you’ll interest people in it.

3/4 of the attraction of anything is its story. Write that story.

Better yet, BE that story.

3. Create the network.

I think this is even more exciting than “networking” (and by the way, I don’t use this term in the self-interested sense)– creating the network. Don’t sit around and lament that you live in a creative wasteland, because I assure you that you don’t.

Take my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina as a superlative example.

When I was a teenager, I was pretty sure my hometown ranked low on the “World’s Hotbeds of Creativity” scale. There weren’t a lot of existing activities or resources for writers and artists, a fact that my friends and I complained about ceaselessly.

All that started to change in 1995 (too bad it was just as I was leaving Spartanburg to go to college in Atlanta), when a few local writers started to get together for morning coffee and found that their daily conversation was the lamentable lack of identity of my hometown. Rather than sip away, complain, sigh, and go about the rest of their day, they actually decided to do something about it. They founded the Hub City Writers’ Project, which has become a little empire of creativity.

In the past 15 years, they’ve managed to produce 36 books through their independent press. They rehabbed an old shoe store and turned it into a welcoming space that offers a residency program for artists and writers, as well as performance space for the community. One of the founders, John Lane, decided all that wasn’t enough, and so he raised the funds and got permission to rehab an old textile mill down by the river and turn it into a site for an environmental writing program offered by Wofford College, where he teaches. (You can read more about that project in my interview with John.). Right now, they’re in the process of setting up an independent bookstore in the old Masonic building downtown.

And that’s just the beginning. I could (and probably should) write a whole article about Hub City.

But I think you’re getting my point, which is this: Don’t sit around and complain. Or complain. But just for a minute. Then get off your ass and do something about it.

It’s so exciting to have a totally blank foundation upon which you can build anything. Take advantage of that opportunity.

Create the network.

4. Use expat status to your advantage.

I lived in Puerto Rico for 2.5 years and in Mexico City for 2 years. During that time, I was able to land a number of assignments because, quite simply, I was in a place where editors wanted an English-speaking writer.

Though there’s some luck in the timing, and proven experience with respect to my writing, being in these places was key to my getting two assignments for Gayot Guides, one writing a 72 hour guide to Mexico City and the other writing a business guide to Guadalajara, which I could easily go and check out because I was already “in-country.”

Don’t think being an expat pushes you out of the publishing game. In fact, it makes you all the more attractive.

**

These are just four ideas that occurred to me during a quick brainstorm. What suggestions would you add to the list?

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38 responses »

  1. Great post! Such a good point about how you can create your network no matter where you are.

    Reply
  2. Excellent advice!

    I think every writer can (and should) be an expert on where they live, even if it’s not what they regularly write about. But when they do, something that can help them write in a way that will help visitors see their hometown through the eyes of a local, is to try to first see their hometown through the eyes of a visitor.

    Get out and go frequent the places visitors stay – hotels, resorts, B&Bs, and look around those areas – what’s within walking distance? A short taxi ride? What would require a rental car to go see?

    One really needs to be willing to explore and experience their locale in ways they may not ordinarily do so in their daily life. It’s a challenge, but a fun one!

    Reply
    • Trisha-

      Absolutely! After pooh-poohing “The Christmas Thing” in New York as a touristy activity, Francisco and I finally gave in and visited Rockefeller Center and looked at all the department stores’ window displays a couple years ago. We were so glad we did- it was so much fun. And the displays lived up to their reputation.

      I really enjoyed this article by Laurie Pickard about getting to know the place you live as if you were a tourist: http://thetravelersnotebook.com/top-10-lists/7-steps-for-creating-an-in-town-vacation/
      Though she wrote it for travelers, it’s equally apt for travel writers.

      Reply
  3. I agree with all the things you’ve said here, except I live in an exceptionally touristy place (Las Vegas), and the market is absolutely saturated with writers who are “experts” on the city. I’ve introduced myself personally to some of the editors at the local rags, etc. to break in and get some Las Vegas-related clips there, but it’s a very clique-y publishing scene in this town. I’ve turned my attention to outside the city to get some work, but it’s hard to get any regional or national attention without having any actual Las Vegas-related clips beyond my travel blog. So, unfortunately, my local expertise seems – at this point in time – to be lost among many others who claim themselves to be the same.

    Reply
    • JoAnna-

      Thanks for your comment. Vegas makes for an interesting case study, and probably not an isolated one. I daresay your experiences are probably shared by writers in many other urban markets. My advice in this piece probably is much more relevant for people in rural locations.

      That being said, I’ll offer the following ideas, for what they’re worth (though, knowing you and your resourcefulness, you’ve probably explored them all!):

      1. Recast the narrative/angle. The majority of people writing about Vegas are probably writing about a specific aspect of Vegas. Yes, this means they’re getting the predictable pieces in the “coveted” publications, but I, for one, would love to read a hidden Vegas piece in a national publication. I’d also love to read “Vegas as a local” pieces in non-travel publications, like a women’s magazine. Why do you choose to live there? What stereotypes about Vegas are just not true?

      2. Take your Vegas stories and go abroad. What international airlines are flying into Vegas? Check out their in-flights. I ‘m pretty sure that a couple of Mexican airlines fly into Vegas and I know I’ve seen a Vegas article in at least one of their in flights. Eventually, they’ll run another Vegas piece- it’s one of a handful of US destinations. Same for Mexican newspapers’ travel sections (and hey, I happen to know someone who does Spanish translation… hint. We could collaborate).

      Reply
      • Hey Julie ~

        Thanks for your suggestions. I definitely pitch the local Vegas angle. Can you believe I actually had an editor tell me (for an in-flight mag, nonetheless) that they don’t like to cover the “other” Vegas. 🙂

        I keep reangling and repitching, though. One of these days something will break through. I know it will.

        I love the idea of a Spanish collaboration, though. I’ll drop you a line under separate cover on how to pitch multi-lingual mags, because that would definitely be new ground for me.

        Cheers,
        JoAnna

      • Oh, I believe it. I once had an editor tell me he didn’t want the “rum-sun-old cars” angle about Havana (which I don’t write about anyway), only to have him turn around and tell me that was exactly what he wanted once I turned in my piece. Sigh. I told him I wouldn’t rewrite it, we parted ways, and I published the piece on my own blog. The idea of you developing your Vegas portfolio through your own site is smart. I did that for Mexico City using my Planet Eye gig and it was important to have that single place I could direct editors toward to check out the writing I’d done about the city… even if I wasn’t generating massive traffic on Planet Eye. You’re right- this all ultimately comes down to belief in your own abilities and persistence. And a big dose of patience. (This last one is my big challenge!). Look forward to talking with you about the bilingual mags.

  4. Great article, Julie.

    I hadn’t actually thought too much about using my hometown, Wilmington, North Carolina to advance my writing career. Despite it being a small (150k) city, there are some great things going on here. I’ve always felt lucky to grow up in a place that supported the arts and still had a friendly, slow pace.

    You’ve inspired me to check into writing for some of the weeklies around here.

    Any ideas on going about creating a network? I’ve recently began dreaming about creating a ‘mastermind group’ that wasn’t specifically limited to writers, but open to all creative people to exchange ideas and support.

    As I said, this post really has my wheels turning. Since we’re moving to a smaller town in Virginia (Blacksburg) in May, I’m going to take these ideas there too. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hey Nancy ~

      I’m definitely interested in hearing Julie’s ideas on this, but here are a few ideas I thought of:

      There are a few groups on LinkedIn and in Ning communities that might be what you’re looking for in terms of networking.

      In person, you might want to check out local groups – writer’s groups, volunteering groups, etc. – that could open your eyes to new opportunities. And if you want to start your own, you only need a few people committed to the group. Together, you can all brainstorm what you hope to accomplish and recruit other, like-minded people.

      Cheers,
      JoAnna

      Reply
      • Thanks for the advice JoAnna! Do I remember correctly that you’re in a writing group? How is that experience?

      • @Nancy ~ Unfortunately, the writer’s group I was in for 2+ years disbanded at the beginning of this year, but I can tell that I definitely learned some things from the group. My goal was in line with the other people’s goals, but none of them were doing anything to reach those goals whereas I was very focused on achieving mine. It became very disheartening for me, so it works out okay that it was disbanded. Since then, I’ve found another writing group with very well established and published writers who can actually offer me insight into the industry and provide constructive feedback. I think it’s really important to find a group that provides you with the feedback your writing needs. Don’t feel stuck – move around until you find a group that works for you.

    • Nancy-

      I know Wilmington and feel like it’s one of those places that’s definitely going to be “discovered” soon. I could also see it included in round-up type pieces (“America’s Best Small Cities for Artists”??).

      As for creating a network, I have a few ideas. I’m going to operate on the assumption that you mean an off-line network; you’re already hip to ning and online communities (Matador, TBEX, etc.), and I think you’re talking about creating a hyper-local community.

      I like working from your idea about a multi-disciplinary group of artists/writers/photographers/creatives. Your power to collaborate on a few specific efforts will be more likely to produce projects that will benefit all of you and draw more attention to your community. You probably already know people who you’d like to invite into a collaborative effort, but if not, I’d recommend using http://www.meetup.com to see if you could find some like-minded creative folks in Wilmington (and, in May, in Blacksburg). Invite them to get together for coffee or tea to talk about the local “state of the arts.” See what develops organically from that conversation.

      Though I think it’s important for your community to form and take a direction organically, it might be useful to have a kick-off project around which you could focus your energies. Could you organize and host a one night multi-disciplinary exhibition with the sponsorship of a local business and/or the Chamber of Commerce or local tourist board? Wilmington is precisely the kind of place I had in mind when I wrote this piece– local tourist boards and chambers of commerce are itching to get attention and are likely to be easy, accessible partners.

      Eventually, you might want to consider something more ambitious, on the scale of the Hub City Project (which, I forgot to mention, has inspired a number of spin offs in other small or mid-size cities). A small, hyper-local press? An exchange program with writers/creatives from other similarly sized cities?

      And Blacksburg– get excited! If I’m not mistaken, Blacksburg isn’t too far from Lynchburg, which is home to Sweet Briar College- lots of creative energy there!

      Hope this is helpful!

      Reply
      • Wow, Julie-

        AMAZING advice. Thanks so much. Lots of things I hadn’t thought of before.

        You’re right about Wilmington and Blacksburg. Blacksburg should be an interesting place. The town has as many residents as college students at Virginia Tech, making it an open, intellectual community.

        I had never heard of Sweet Briar before, but just went on their website. Cool place!

        Thanks again for the advice.

      • You’re welcome! Keep us posted.

  5. Great article, Julie. With regards to your commentary about expats, I’m currently discovering the merits of living in one market and having others within reach of my keyboard. In a strange sort of juxtaposition I am actually enjoying reconnecting with the US after being an expat for 20 years through writing. I’ve realised that my knowledge of American thinking and humour (not that we’re all the same, mind you!) from living my childhood in the US puts me in a nice position for writing about NZ within the American market. I’m still expanding my knowledge on how to better exploit this.

    I hope it’s OK to say something to JoHanna here too. My Mum, who lives in L.A., often goes to Las Vegas with my father on business. Her and the other “company wives” all go round looking for things to do that are not gambling related. I understand you are having problems convincing editors that the “other Vegas” angle is needed, but anyway, I thought that might be of interest to you somehow. Have you tried inhouse mags of companies who do trips to Vegas? Good luck!

    Reply
    • Hey Marie ~

      I know there are pubs out there for my stuff about LV. I just haven’t found the right ones for the right articles yet. If you have specific suggestions that I might try, I would definitely be interested in hearing.

      Thanks!
      JoAnna

      Reply
    • Marie-

      So glad that your expat experience is similar. The other benefits of expat life are that you develop a set of contacts and a whole range of publications in both places!

      And thanks for offering advice to JoAnna, too. As you said on Twitter, I love that Cuaderno Inedito is becoming a salon where we can all share experiences. That’s the intent!

      Reply
  6. Totally digging this post.

    One I’ll definitely be referencing as I *finally* settle in Stockholm.

    One thing I recently did was connect with the Swedish Lapland tourism board via twitter and sent them links to articles I’d written (or photo essays) that specifically covered their region.

    Now, they’ve started republishing and re-tweeting those pieces as well, and I’m looking forward to collaborating a lot more with them in the future.

    Linking in with local tourism boards is an excellent way of slowly integrating yourself. Many publications frequently contact tourism boards for information and once the boards know you, they can also act as facilitators too.

    Reply
    • Lola-

      Wow- I love the idea of giving some new life to your previously published articles by collaborating with the tourism boards via Twitter! (You know what’s going on my to-do list!).

      Reply
  7. Oooh Julie, this entry makes me so happy. It’s a lonely little world as a travel blogger over here in NL. But the island’s all mine.

    Reply
    • You know, Candice, I wanted to give you a special shout out in this piece but wasn’t sure if I’d be showing my American ignorance of all things Canadian (yet again). Maybe Newfoundland was more happening than I thought, and I didn’t want to seem like a bozo.

      But here was the point I would have made: you are totally creating the network, totally telling the story. I just wrote Ross and David today and told them how impressed I was to see your blog and your Twitter presence blow up in such a short amount of time. You have an engaging, authentic persona with a story and it’s clear that that is very attractive to people. I’m really excited for you!

      Reply
      • Awww Julie, that might have been one of the nicest things anyone’s said to me! Thank you! And I love that you guys still keep tabs on me. I still feel very much like a fumbling, ridiculous student. And don’t worry about expressing your Canadian ignorance, hah, Newfoundland is VERY much off the radar for most people. Thinking about getting in contact with some NL Tourism folks to see if they’d like to work with me. They’re doing incredible things.

        Thanks!!

  8. I found your post very interesting. By the way, I’m curious about your experience when writting the 72 hours guide to Mexico City, I’m mexican so I know what it is to be moving around D.F.
    How was it? Was it easy for you to live in such a crazy city?

    Reply
    • Hi, Ramiro-

      Bienvenido a Cuaderno Inedito! Me gustaria saber como encontrastes el sitio.

      I LOVED living in DF and wish we still lived there (that’s another story, and a very long one that does involve freelancing. The short version is this: Our residency visas weren’t renewed).

      I think DF is the most intriguing, exciting city in the world because it contains so many contradictions and they all co-exist rather peacefully. I love that tradition and modernity are squeezed up against each other and that there’s room for both. Don’t get me started- I could wax on and on about DF for days. 🙂

      Where do you live now? Thanks for visiting- y no seas extranjero, guey.

      Reply
      • Q onda! Me da gusto saber que hablas otro idioma!! La mayoría de americanos que ha conocido sólo hablan inglés…

        Llegué a tu sitio explorando los blogs desde el buscador de WordPress. Me parece interesante tu experiencia en el DF.

        Yo soy fotógrafo y reportero freelance, he trabajado para algunos medios en mi ciudad natal: Guadalajara.

        Espero que sigamos en contacto.

        Chau

      • Ramiro-

        Que bueno! Fui a Guadalajara durante la marcha de paz de 2008 y me gusto muchisimo. Tu tienes un blog o un sitio donde puedo leer tus escritos o ver tus fotos?

  9. thanks for the great advice! I have been thinking for sometime to capitalize the city I am in right now for my writing… thanks a lot!

    Reply
    • Hi, Xpat!
      Thanks for visiting; I’m glad the article was useful to you. I just clicked through to your blog and saw that you are in Abu Dhabi. Though she’s primarily based in Dubai, I’d recommend following Lara Dunston’s blog, Cool Travel Guide (www.cooltravelguide.blogspot.com), and checking out some of her links and publication credits. Lara is a travel writer with extensive guidebook experience and I feel like you might learn something useful from her blog.

      Reply
  10. Julie, I’ve been digging your recent posts.

    For a long time (before Matador U), I wrote in complete isolation. And as you can imagine, I was totally lost. I tried to find answers on writing websites and blogs. But a majority just give out the same vague information. It actually adds to the frustration. The things you write about on the other hand are so, so, so perfect for writers who are starting out, or are looking for direction. These are exactly the kind of posts I was looking for.

    Some of the idea you’ve put forth are simple and effective, but till I saw the words, I hadn’t even considered the option. Also thank you for linking up to your work. It is absolutely fantastic to be able to go through these clips, and consider your own work and if it’s headed in the right direction.

    I also absolutely loved Lola’s suggestion of connection with the local tourist board. I’ve had it on my mind, now I’m going to put in action.

    Reply
    • Neha-

      Simple & effective. I hope so! Anytime I read any how-to book or article or listen to a how-to type of lecture, I usually walk away thinking, “Well, that was underwhelming.” But that’s most often because the advice is so obvious… yet I’d just not thought of it consciously yet in quite the same way. That’s what good advice and support should do, I think… give you a “Well, I kinda knew that!” moment, but solidifying that knowledge in a new and actionable way.

      I do hope that’s what Cuaderno Inedito is! 🙂

      Reply
      • Oh definitely, and much more! The thing with simple and effective is that they aren’t that easy to come by. Not until you actually come across the ideas and have oh, but! moment.

        Usually at such times I just get more hassled, but here I feel like maybe there’s a way to figure all of this out. Huge help!

  11. I’ll admit I was a bit put off when I read about my new hometown as “glum and dreary” in a New England guidebook. This post has re-inspired me to get out there and find things about the city that give it character and to try to connect with other creative people.

    Reply
    • Heather-

      Indeed. One day I’ll write at greater length about this, but keep in mind that guidebook writers (when they visit a place at all) often cruise through quickly–especially the little towns–and never really get the sense of a place. So if they happen to drive through on a day when it’s “glum and dreary,” the town becomes “glum and dreary” in the guide, which is misleading, of course, and may even be damaging.

      Reply
  12. Great post! I recently spent a year in Korea and will be going back for another in a week or so.

    I found that culture shock at the beginning of my trip really knocked me off my feet creatively. I had a difficult time feeling confident in what I was writing while I was there, but your article has inspired me to take a different approach to things. Hopefully, I’ll be writing for the monthly local magazine when I get back.

    Thank you for such a great article!

    Reply
    • Marion-

      I’m glad I could instill some needed confidence! I’d love to read some of your writing- do you maintain a blog as well? If so, please share the address.

      Reply
  13. I used to think New York was the center of the universe.

    Reply

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