The year is 1981. Ronald Reagan is in the White House and Barack Obama is in college across the Hudson, at Columbia. Me, I’m at Ramapo, at orientation, and I find that you need to have something called a “major.” I’m clueless. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. So my mother chimes in: “You’ve always been a good writer, and you like to read. Why don’t you become a literature major?” This, to her (a professional dancer) and my father (a professional actor and singer), was probably a solid career move. Me, I just didn’t know, but I signed on the dotted line anyway and spent four years studying American, Irish, and Russian literature with legends like Denis Murphy, Pavle Batinic, and Tony Padavano. It was fun. It was inspiring. It opened up whole new worlds. And then, on graduation day 1985, they opened the door, put a boot on my rear, and kicked me out into the real world — still completely clueless about how I was supposed to make my way.
So of course, I went to graduate school.
Fast-forward a few years. Graduate school had been fun, but essentially a bust since I had no interest in teaching — and that’s pretty much what people who have advanced liberal arts degrees do: Ask your professors. It’s now the early ’90s. Bill Clinton has just been inaugurated to his first term, and I’m talking to a friend who has contacts at a small publishing company in New York. It’s like an episode of The Sopranos: “So, uh, did you talk to them about me? You tell them. Tell them I’m a good earner. They’ll see.” And he did, and I got an interview. At which point I ran out to a bookstore, bought a slim volume called The Fine Art of Copyediting, and memorized it over the course of a long weekend.
Short story: I got the job, and entered a truly surreal world — not book publishing exactly, but “subsidy publishing,” which is a fancy way of saying the authors pay to have their own books printed. To our credit, we really tried to make those memoirs, political tracts, and lunatic ramblings coherent and readable, but it was like walking point on a fire mission. I had to deal with every level of writing skill, every possible topic (“You have demons in your icebox? That sounds fascinating”), and every possible tic of the English language — and within 18 months I’d learned more than any entry-level editor at a mainstream publisher ever would.
But 18 months was enough. Soon, I learned of a temp opening at a major publisher, filling in for a production editor on maternity leave. The gamble was that if they liked me, I might wind up with a permanent position — and the gamble paid off. After two years I made the unusual move from production to editorial, starting as an associate editor at the company’s travel books imprint.
I worked. I scrambled. I planned new books, worked with veteran authors, hired new authors, fired authors, edited and rewrote books, lost most of my hair, and drank lots of coffee. Within four years I was promoted to senior editor and also began writing freelance travel articles for various newspapers and magazines. At that point, the time felt right for another leap, so I left to work at a promising Internet start-up — which failed within ten months, crashing with a giant thud just before 9/11.
But here’s the good part: For seven year I’d been amassing a large address book of coworkers who’d moved on to new companies. Five minutes after I got my pink slip, I was e-mailing every one of them, telling them I was available for freelance writing and editorial work. Within 30 minutes I’d lined up enough work to keep me busy for a month. Within a month, I’d lined up enough for a year. Within a year, I realized there was no end in sight. It turned out freelancing is the most stable job there is.
In the years since, I’ve rarely been without work for more than a few days. Often, I have more than I know what to do with. For the first few years, I stuck mostly with what I knew: travel writing. I authored half a dozen travel guidebooks and thousands of articles, and traveled from Siberia to the Venetian Lagoon researching stories. I also kept my hand in the editorial world, doing the full range from rewrite and top-level editing to detail-oriented copyediting, and my client list included most of the big book publishers and several UN agencies, plus major non-profits and political candidates. Over time, my focus shifted. I accepted a one-off assignment from a colleague to edit a thought leadership whitepaper for a major business consulting firm. That one-off turned into a regular editorial gig, and a few years later that editorial gig morphed into a writing gig. Today, I spend most of my time writing about risk management, regulatory compliance, data security, and other business issues, with the occasional travel piece thrown in to keep things lively.
So what’s the moral of the story? I guess there are a few: (1) Don’t be afraid to start small and weird — you can learn a lot that way. (2) Don’t be afraid to make a leap, even if you’re not sure where you’ll land. (3) Work like a demon, learn every job you can in your field, and make sure people know how well you can do them.
Oh, and if someone asks if you have a particular skill, say “yes.” Even if you don’t, you can probably fake your way until you have time to learn it.
Finally: Trust your mother — or at least mine. That lit major thing worked out in the end.
See more about Matt’s writing and music: http://www.matthannafin.com/