All Write Now: writing during the pandemic
By STEPH AUTERI
For Montclair Local
Steph Auteri is a full-time freelance writer and editor who has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE and other publications. Her memoir, “A Dirty Word,” was released in October 2018. She is a member of Montclair’s The Write Group. For more info, visit stephauteri.com.
The last time I appeared in these pages, I shared a glimpse of my writing life, which included frantic pacing about the house, a chatty child, and an eternal grappling with word count. Little did I know that a global pandemic was on the horizon, and that these things would soon be the least of my worries.
In March, over the span of just a few short weeks, new projects were suddenly pushed back, already-filed articles were postponed and, most disruptive of all, our school district instituted distance learning. Still, after a rough first week of social distancing in which I only just barely resisted the urge to murder my entire family, things began to turn around.
Here’s how: I looked for new angles. The instant that social-distancing directives were instituted, publications stopped wanting anything that wasn’t coronavirus-related. I understood. I, too, was hungry for stories that helped me make sense of what was happening in the world. But I also felt as if my writing experience wasn’t well-suited to the needs of most editors in this moment, and that scared me.
Then a friend pointed out that my niche (sex) was still essential, especially at a time when people were feeling isolated and craving intimacy. So I retooled a recent writing pitch, making its relevance to social-distancing measures even more overt, and immediately landed an assignment. I’m now looking back at old story pitches that didn’t land the first time around and giving them an overhaul.
I reached out to people from my past. After landing the aforementioned assignment, I reached out to a woman I’d worked with in the past to ask for an interview. Several days after that interview, she reached out to me. A company she collaborated with was looking for writers, and it occurred to her that I might be perfect for the job.
Lesson learned? It might be a good idea to reach out to former editors and writing clients and ask if they could use your skills at this time. Because while some organizations are tightening their belts, others are finding that they need writers more than ever.
I continued stalking editors online. I’ve mentioned in the past that I follow the Twitter feeds of editors from my favorite publications. At a time when many publications are laying off staffers or pressing pause on new freelance commissions or focusing only on coronavirus content, it can be helpful to use social media as a means of seeing who’s still handing out assignments, and what they’re looking for.
In fact, when the lockdowns first began, I responded to a Twitter thread from an editor at a major publication who was looking to connect with more health journalists. Two weeks later, he reached out to me with a quick turnaround assignment that landed me my very first byline with the publication.
I cut myself some slack. As a person who craves structure (and personal space, for that matter), it’s been difficult for me to accept that, for an undetermined period of time, things are going to be different.
Complete chaos, even.
When that editor reached out to me with that assignment, I suddenly had to be okay with conducting interviews from my front stoop while also watching my daughter do chalk art in the driveway as she waited for her teacher’s pre-scheduled drive-by.
But my editor understood. My sources understood. And embracing the chaos in order to get it all done was worth it.
I embraced new ways of doing things. I’ve been working from home for the past 13 years, so I'm used to remote communication. Still, it’s been a bummer to see events like the Montclair Literary Festival and the Halfway There Reading Series and Free Comic Book Day be postponed.
Out of necessity, however, many places are finding new ways to bring their services to the public. The Montclair Write Group, for example, has been conducting many of its meetings via Zoom. The folks at East Side Mags have been hosting games and art classes online. And when literary magazine Under the Gum Tree asked me to participate in an Instagram Live reading series, I pushed aside my anxiety about the entire internet seeing my quarantine hair and did the thing.
All this being said, it’s okay to not be okay at this time. It’s okay to feel unmotivated or uninspired or anxious or depressed.
But if you’re desperate to write and are worried that there are no opportunities out there? I hope this can convince you otherwise.
People will always need writers. You just have to know where to look.