Writing & speaking as a career.
Over the years, many readers have asked about my career as a writer, blogger + speaker. I think it's time I wrote a post answering the most frequently asked questions. Enjoy, sweet ones. I look forward to many more honest posts like this one.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Always. It was my grandmother who started telling me, when I was only 7 years old, that I was going to write books. She was going to see my name on bookshelves one day. The way she believed in me planted something inside of me and I started writing as much as I possibly could. I wrote novels. I would avoid going out to play with the neighborhood kids because I was too busy creating. I had a neighborhood newspaper every month where I would interview the neighbors, write articles, photo-copy it, and then deliver it to their door.
When the internet became a thing, I was a frontrunner as one of those original website creators. I think I was 12 or something. I would give hair and makeup advice to other teen girls. I taught a slew of pimple-faced teenagers how to kiss boys, even though I had never kissed a guy myself.
I didn’t write much in my teenage years but I was incredibly hardworking and motivated to create and I think that goes even farther being a good writer. Me being a good writer is a God thing. I never took a writing class or worked to develop my craft. What I always needed to keep developing (and still need to) is my character: the way I discipline myself, how I approach others, the balance I keep between work and life, the way I treat others. There’s no way I want to pin such a big chunk of my life to writing about humanity and then not be a good human at the end of the day. That would be a pure let-down.
So how do you become a better human?
I stick close to my bible. I apologize when it’s necessary. I try, daily, to swallow my pride. I do my best to learn people’s names. I push myself towards decreasing little by little every single day. I am not a perfect human by any means. I drink too much tequila sometimes (sorry mom) and I don’t know how to take care of a garden. I want to curse out Sallie Mae on a daily basis and I get hangry sometimes. All is practice, all is process.
I created my blog is November 2009 during my senior year of college. At the time I was the assistant editor for our college’s newspaper and I was writing a column called “As Simple as That” twice a month. My friends kept pushing me to start a blog as a spin-off of that column but I honestly had no interest in blogging.
In 2009, blogging was becoming the biggest trend out there. Everyone was convinced they could become a famous blogger and make a ton of money. I was told by numerous people that in order to “succeed” in the blogging world I would need to have a niche, whether that be fashion, fitness, food or something else. But I just wanted to write about life and heartbreak and how hard and beautiful this whole humanity thing could be.
I created a blog and started writing about my life and was honestly so repulsed by it. That blog page lay dormant for a few weeks because I just didn’t care to tell the world about my love for yogurt or college escapades. Blogging about my life felt self-absorbed. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of friends who really thrive with lifestyle blogs but I didn’t want to be a blogger at the end of the day-- I wanted to be a writer.
Making that distinction-- the one where I decided to whole-heartedly pour myself into using the blog for writing practice-- was the best launching pad for me and my writing career. It allowed me to snag bylines for magazines. It allowed me to guest blog all over the internet. It came me street cred and told future employers that I was both committed and dedicated to my little corner of the internet.
As for what I decided to write about? I got real and then I only wrote about the things I actually cared about. People. Life. Falling in love. Mainly my blog was, and continues to be, all my thoughts on growing up and getting through this “adult” passageway. It was supposed to fail miserably because there was no niche for my blog but luckily, in the last few years, there has been a surge in my kind of blog-- a blog that features vignettes and column-style posts. I like to think I was ahead of the trend on that one and it made all the difference.
No, that would be a myth. I can honestly say I don’t make any money off my blog. For a long time, and still today, it’s just never been a space for that. I could have chosen to go the route of advertising or sponsored posts but I have never wanted my life to be dictated by numbers, metrics, or the need to get comments.
Trust me, I played the blogging game hard when I first came on the scene. Blogger etiquette would be that if you visit someone’s blog and leave a comment then they come back and leave a comment on your blog. Check out some of my posts from 2010-- up until about August or September-- and you will see a massive amount of comments. That’s simply because I was building my readership by commenting on a lot of other people’s blogs.
This works. If you want a lot of comments, it works. But I don’t think that for my life it was a sustainable practice. I found myself being so consumed with readers and getting more comments that it sucked the joy of blogging away from me. From that summer on, I decided I never wanted to do anything to compromise the joy I got from my blog.
As for money, all my income comes from speaking engagements, being a spokesperson for various brands, writing books, and taking on freelance copywriting and consulting projects. I buy my coffee every morning because of these budget sheets.
The readers. Absolutely the readers. I love responding to emails and getting big chunks of human hearts in my inbox. It’s my favorite thing ever. Humans are so freaking cool and I am just honored to be the person that people think to send an email to after a first Tinder date, a friendship break-up, a diagnosis, or a big loss. Going through life with people-- whether I’ll ever meet them beyond a screen or not-- is what I was made for.
People can be insecure. And rude. And mean. And they manage to take it on you. For a while, I had one individual who went so far as to create a blog site for how much he/she hated me. It was really nasty writing and it made me want to quit.
You have to have thick skin to be a writer. You have to get over yourself and be willing to take the good hits and the nasty punches. They will come for you at every angle. I don’t think any writer comes out of the ring without bruises from the critics.
Platform is your presence on the internet. There really is no way of getting around it. While I don’t think you should give your whole life to growing a platform, it’s important that you give people a way to follow you as you grow.
Personally, I hate the term “followers.” It’s amazing to me that I even manage to have 1 followers because I really am not a person who deserves to be followed. I’ve abolished that word though and I would prefer to call anyone along for this ride with me a “reader” or “someone who is willing to show up at 2am at a sketchy diner and eat pancakes with me.” can’t tell you the last time I checked on my blog metrics or email list. It’s not that I don’t care about who is reading, I just don’t need to pat myself on the back for growth. God will do what he will do. He has taught me in the last years that it’s not about the big numbers, it’s about being faithful with whoever he brings to me.
My biggest pet peeve is when people go to follow me on a social media platform and they immediately make a comment about my number of followers. It’s not about that and if you want to make a big stink about how “big” your following is growing then you aren’t in for the right reasons probably. Wanting to have a lot of eyes on you is a slippery slope. I think it was Beth Moore who said that people crave a human worth worshipping and it’s wise of us not to deliver. That’s why we see catastrophes in the news like the Duggar debacle and the Mark Driscoll scandal-- I think we invest too much energy in worshipping our own man-made altars and we forget that humans are always and often going to fail us.
Last thing I will say about platforms: just be real. We need real people. We need to know what your heart actually thinks and feels. Don’t imitate. If you find yourself comparing too much to other blogs and accounts then stop reading and following. Save your soul.
Speaking was an absolute miracle/accident from the very beginning. I never would have been able to tell you that I was going to speak. But I think I held it inside of my heart for a really long time and I was too afraid to tell anyone that I wanted to write and speak because I thought they might think I was stupid and naive to want that path.
I remember standing in a church one night, nearly a year after I moved away from New York City, and I finally gave it up to God. I whispered into the air, “Okay, I want it. I want to write and I want to speak. I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” It’s not that God can’t honor our prayers without us even muttering them but I think he might take great delight when we finally get honest and just admit that we’ve wanted something all along.
Several days later, I got an email from TED.com. I was a finalist for their Global Talent Search. I’d sent in a 60-second video to them months earlier and completely let go of the dream when I clicked the “send” button. Turns out, they wanted me in New York City about a month later.
I practiced. I stuttered. I stole a mail crate to bring on stage with me. I nearly vomited as they were mic’ing me up and I honestly don’t think anyone in that audience who worked for TED believed I was actually going to pull it off. I was a nervous mess and had to rewrite half of my talk the night before the audition.
Executing that talk as perfectly as I believe I could have done it at that stage in my life is one of the biggest accomplishments I hold up to God and give him credit for. I came off the stage and one of the TED producers grabbed me. She was crying. I was crying. It was absolutely the best night of my life and that had nothing to do with giving a TED talk, it had to do with overcoming a fear I’d let grip me for far too long.
Unexpectedly TED took my audition and put it on their website in November 2012 as a TED Talk of the day. I was absolutely floored and there was no time to brace myself for the changes that were about to come my way-- an agent, a book deal, and speaking engagements all around the country.
Thanks to TED, I was propelled into the speaker circuit. I am by no means an expert, I am simply figuring it out as I go. I travel several times a month to colleges, universities, conferences and events. I tell my story and speak on the power of presence, intention, and being real and rooted in the digital age.
Me speaking on a stage every week is proof that God exists and he plans to use the ones he knows won’t have a choice but to give him all the credit. I can’t take credit for being able to speak-- an anxious girl like me should never be capable of that. But he does immeasurably more with our weaknesses than we could ever imagine.
I was in the field of Human Rights. I really thought I would give my whole life to that. I worked as the New York representative for a NGO at the United Nations my first year out of college. On the side, I was a preschool teacher in the Bronx, a freelancer for New York Moves Magazine, a fitness blogger for several platforms, and a researcher for my favorite nonprofit She’s the First.
I’ve never not known how to have my hands so completely full with lots of jobs.
After the UN, I took a job on the PR Team at Save the Children. I moved to Connecticut and started writing press releases, working with the news, doing interviews, and managing our team of interns in both Connecticut and Washington D.C.
It was during that time at Save the Children that More Love Letters started and then blew up. It was nothing I planned for. After being at STC for a year, it started to become evident that I needed to look for a freelance position. I was 24 years old and I had this company getting larger and larger everyday. It was the time in my life for me to leap.
I went self-employed in July 2012 and worked as a content manager for Danielle LaPorte as a I gained traction. During my time of working for Danielle, I built up my speaking resume and signed with a literary agency in New York City. I only worked for Danielle for about 6 months but I learned unreal amounts of wisdom from her. She was the jumpstart for my journey and so I try to pay it forward and be the jumpstart for others.
People have this misconception that all people who are self-employed do is sit in coffee shops and cry over feelings and eventually evolve into coffee snobs. That’s not true.
I go to an office every single day. I pay the rent to be there. I am the farthest thing from a coffee snob and would prefer the stuff they sell at the gas station over anything. I cry a lot, sure, but I am extremely diligent and I work far more than I probably should. I have struggled with a lot of balance issues and, if it was possible, I would absolutely date my work. I would make out with my work. I would marry my work.
But I realized about a year ago that I was an extremely uninteresting human when you finally got me into a date setting and I needed to get some hobbies. In order to make room for hobbies, I had to start setting boundaries and more balanced work hours.
When you are self-employed, you are your own boss. You make the rules. That can be a blessing but also a curse. You have to figure out all that health insurance stuff and retirement things on your own. I still don’t know a thing about any of those things beyond the fact that I picked Geico for my car insurance because that dumb, little lizard won me over.
She actually found me! On the day my TED talk went online! And boy, did she pursue me. We met up in coffee shops and had hot chocolate dates and she wrote me sweet notes and gave me books. She was everything I hoped and prayed for in a literary agent-- someone who would work with me, protect me, cheer for me, but also someone who could be a friend to me. Mackenzie is all of those things. I honestly cannot imagine my life or my career without her.
What was the process of writing a book like?
Painful? Excruciating? Agonizing? The best experience ever? All of the above?
The four months I was given by my publisher to write my first book were an absolute whirlwind. When I wasn’t speaking at some college or conference, I was holed up in a hotel room or my office writing words until long after the sun went down.
Writing that book was like enduring an all-day workout every single day. It was painful and it demanded much of me but it made me a different human. It pumped me full with life. It helped me shed off a lot of weight I was carrying about my past and I was thankful for the process in the end. I can’t wait to do it again soon.
Yes, absolutely. But I am taking the time to live as well. When you write a book, everything in your direct radius gets arrested by that work-- your relationships, your health, your time, your resources. I am mentally and physically preparing myself at this time to go into the long-haul for book number two.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers out there?
Just start. Don’t wait. Don’t wait for the moment when you feel inspired or ready. You will be waiting forever if you are looking for that “ready” feeling. I really have no mercy in this area.
Commit to the craft. Whether it’s 15 minutes a day or three hours a week, commit to the craft and let it know that you are planning to take it seriously. There a million and one people out there who can claim they are writers but a writer is simply someone who writes. Consistently. Against the odds. Even when they don’t feel like it.
Writing is not, and never will be, a sexy dream job. It barely pays the bills. It demands all the emotions. It hurdles you into awkward conversations. It makes it terribly hard for you to date people because they will constantly be thinking of how you plan to write about them. It leaves you with dirty hair and a brain that forgot to shower for the last week. It’s overwhelming and it’s brutal but it will make you feel so damn alive. From that first byline to that first glimpse of your name on a spine, it’s all the alive you’ll probably ever need.