Paying it forward

In everyone’s life, there are generous souls who help us find our way. My mentors, past and present, made me believe I can change the world one little byte at a time.

So, whenever, I have the chance to pay it forward and help someone else, I try. A little like link love, going back to speak to students who study at the same university I attended, is just another way to say thanks.

Thursday, I was granted just such an opportunity. I was fortunate enough to speak to the Professional Writing Student Association at the College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma. These journalists are graduating in hard times. So, I wanted to give them hope and tell them it’s possible to still make a good living as a writer, whether you write fiction or nonfiction.  Looking at the poster, I think they came for the pizza, but many stayed for a discussion of what it means to be a writer in changing times.

I wanted to share some of our insights with you. So, we’ll set aside gardening for today. Instead, we’ll talk about that most joyous, but undermined of professions, writing.

According to The Daily Beast, your journalism degree is the most useless degree you can earn based on time, money, etc. In second place is Horticulture. Well, I work in both fields, and I’m doing fine. This piece irritated me. For those of us who work online, we can see it is simply stats placed with stock photos. It wasn’t even an article, but it grew legs because it was quoted and linked to by several news agencies online.

I think The Daily Beast is wrong. There will always be a need for good writers, and I know this unique program. You’ve received excellent instruction and can now write in many styles which should serve you well in your careers.

We are in the midst of a revolution. Just as the Gutenberg Bible basically put the monks out of a lucrative transcription business, online publishing is changing everything yet again.

So, embrace change. I was at a Garden Writer’s Association meeting last August, and one of the speakers, who was a tech guy working with a local nursery, stunned the audience with one click.

“Don’t like change?” the screen flashed.


“Get used to being irrelevant.”

There was a collective gasp throughout the room.

Media are in a state of flux, but I would assert to you that it’s a great time to be a writer. You have more control over your product than ever before. You can reach your audience directly, and you can self-publish pretty easily with little cash outlay. But, if you’re going to go that route make sure you have a worthy product. Readers are savvier than ever, and you only have a few seconds to capture their attention.

I’m a classic introvert which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy people. I do, but to recharge my batteries, I need a lot of time alone. I love my corner of the kitchen with my Mac and my inspiration board, my cubby holes above, and my paperweight which states, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

Ernest Hemingway. Note that he is working outside "in the field." Again, part of the mystique. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Still, your readers want to interact with you more than ever. Many of them wish to be writers too, and there has always been a certain mystique connected with the scribe. Seventy years ago, Ernest Hemingway understood this, and he played his part to the hilt. Before I found this photo, I already knew what he would look like. Picture him in your own minds. What do you see? There he is  at his battered, folding, Corona #3 typewriter, a pipe stuck firmly in his mouth, and a glass of bourbon at his side. His persona said, “I’m a man’s man. I’m in charge. I travel and do exciting things. Don’t you wish you were me?”

Readers still want to hear about the dream. So, though my blog is primarily about gardening, I lift the curtain and discuss the writing life once in awhile emphasizing its perks like:

  • After all, you can work from anywhere and wear whatever you want. I prefer yoga pants and stretchy, soft cotton tops myself. At speaking engagements, I dress up, but not when I’m at home. Creativity takes comfort.
  • You can travel, see new sights. As a garden writer, I travel quite a bit for inspiration and photography.
  • You meet new people, and even if you’re writing fiction, you interview people who have special knowledge about your subject.
  • Best of all, you get to use your imagination. It’s like getting a new set of Crayola crayons, or a new iPad2 coloring app every day.

Don’t be afraid. I graduated in 1985 with no job prospects. I’d written 1.5 novels during my time at OU, but had sold nothing. Nothing.

Still, I graduated with a solid humanities background with a strong emphasis in botany, economics and French along with some of the best writing classes ever. The economy was in a shambles. Penn Square Bank had fallenand had taken down many of the biggest oil companies with it. I worked throughout college, but I wasn’t happy with the job I was doing, so I went back to school to become a legal assistant. I needed a job which paid real, hard cash.

I then used my writing talents in the legal field for the next ten years, and for a long time, I loved every minute of it. The thrill of completing a large business deal, wearing high heels and smart suits. I had money to burn.

Then, I had children, and my heart changed forever. That’s anther story, but let’s say I quit the legal profession to stay home with my children because I only had them for a little while, and I didn’t want to miss a thing. I’ve never regretted it. I wrote during that time, but only journals. I was too busy for anything else.

Once my three children got bigger, I decided to write seriously again.

I wrote another novel and got close, but alas, no enchilada.

So, while attending an Oklahoma Writers Federation conference, I met a woman writing for magazines. Patsy Bell Hobson, who also has a blog called Oh Grow Up! She said she liked receiving checks in the mail. After spending a year writing  a novel which didn’t sell, I decided receiving checks sounded good. First, I wrote for newspapers and got published with recent clips. Some of these I did for free to gain experience. The almighty “clip” is your pass card into our profession, and since we now write for print and online, it’s important to have both.

The same friend suggested I join the Garden Writer’s Association. The dues seemed like so much money. and I didn’t have any extra to waste. Still, I did it. There I met wonderful, generous people, who have helped with me since. Contacts are essential in any business including writing.

I hope you can see that everything I’ve done in my life has led to other jobs or helped me gain experience.

My children taught me empathy. Staying home with them I met wonderful women who became my friends, and who now support me by getting the word out about my articles. Also, the more people I met from different parts of society made my work better.

My legal background gave me insight into contracts and trademarks both of which I’ve needed in my writing career. My blog is trademarked and everything in it is copyrighted for my protection.

Botany gave me credibility for writing about plants. I’ve gardened extensively since I was 20 or so. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t know how to help people now.

So think of your education as not just a degree, but simply the beginning in lifelong learning. Keep your eyes open. Stay curious. As Coach John Keilty from my kids’ high school says, “Dream big dreams.” There is no reason why you can’t be the next great American novelist. Hard work, experience and dedication to the craft, along with branding and great relationships with your colleagues are what’s required.

Read good books, both novels and nonfiction. Right now, I’m reading Steve Jobs, partly because I’m fascinated with people, and partly because I love tech.

Read the news–note I said read it, not watch it–but try to look beyond the headlines and pay attention to bias, even that of the of the writer and the publication he or she works for. Also, if you’re liberal, read the conservative side and vice versa. It is good to see both sides of any issue, and besides, you’ll know what your enemy is thinking.

Some helpful sites:

Shelf Awareness for professionals is a wonderful resource for writers.

Another is the blog,Write in Color.  Melody Godfred is very bright and interesting. Also, read Steven Pressfield. He’s a great writer,and his book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles,
is one of the best for motivation. It’s a kick in the seat of the pants.

If you’re worried about queries, try The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock: The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Selling More Work Faster (The Renegade Writer’s Freelance Writing series).

On tech . . . I love tech, but don’t be a slave to it or be afraid of it. Use it for your own purposes. Let it make your life easier. Also, watch out for the web. You can really get hung up stumbling on StumbleUpon or pinning on Pinterest.

Apple’s iPad is good for short stuff and notes. I wrote this talk on it for example, but the iPad won’t replace a laptop yet. I love my iPhone. I have the 4s, and I dig Siri, but earlier versions of the phone will work with a great little app, Dragon Dictation.”



  1. Les says:

    Thank you for your insight, it is timely for me. I just submitted my first paid piece to State-by-State Gardening magazine and have two more in the contract. I will heed your advice.

  2. Cynthia L. H. says:

    Dee, Thank you again for speaking for OU/PWSA. It was a pleasure and an honor to have you share with us. I am so glad that you posted your outline here, because now I can be inspired all over again. ;^) It’s also great to have those links.
    Thank you and all the best to you!

  3. Dee this is wonderful and what I have been discovering on my recent journey…thx for the inspiration!!

  4. Jean says:

    Great read Dee and inspirational. I think I needed that.

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Dee, this is so encouraging. I know the students you spoke to were up lifted and looking forward to the many challenges they will face. I will check out the links you mentioned.

  6. I’m glad I read this. I would like to be a ‘proper’ writer too and your post is encouraging. I may not ‘get there’ till I’m a hundred . . . but I have until I’m a hundred to enjoy trying. (At one hundred, I may take up knitting again instead.)

  7. Gail says:

    Dee, What a encouraging essay. I am going to pop over to check out all the links you’ve shared. Write in Color looks like a good place to start. gail

  8. Great article! I was an old grad in 2006 when I earned my degree in journalism. It was a starting place. A degree does give you some credibility. I started writing for a senior home builder and fell in love with interviewing seniors. I went back to college and got my degree in gerontology. It still has not made me rich, but I do what I love. I now pair my love of gardening with my passion for seniors. I’m making a living – however humble that may be. But I get to enjoy my two acre garden, my grandkids and write about the thing I love. The words I write mean more than a paycheck. It’s an outlet for my deep thoughts. I hope I am leaving the part of me than means something – in words. It still thrills me to know that someone has read my words and found pleasure or knowledge there. Thanks for the wonderful, encouraging article!

  9. Liz says:

    Thanks for this article. As an aspiring writer it gives me a lot of hope for the future of it and great tips as well.

  10. Carol says:

    Very inspiring. Good recommendations, too, especially The War of Art which I recently listened to. I think I’ll listen to it again this weekend.

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