Michelle fled the cube in 1992, never to look back, We met n the early aughts. She flattered me beyond belief with an invitation to participate in a NW Bookfest panel about writing for anthologies. Not so long after, she e-mailed saying she was forming a group for freelancers to meet monthly, shoot a few beers—I had tea—and provide the water-cooler element lacking in our pajama-wearing, rejection-rife, always-hunting-the-next-gig lives. Michelle has an easy-seeming gift for community made all the more genuine by her grounding in the financial realities of making a living as a writer. She proves daily her axiom, “You don’t need a trust fund to do this.” In less than a decade, Michelle has:

  • scored a weekly career column for ABCNews.com/;
  • become a paid blogger for The Seattle Times/NWjobs.com: Nine to Thrive;
  • won a 2006 Residency to Hedgebrook;
  • Other publications: NYTimes.com, CNN.com, Salon,Entrepreneur, AOL, BUST, B*tch, The Bark, Yahoo! HotJobs, PayScale, and several anthologies, including P.S. What I Didn’t Say: Unsent Letters to Our Female Friends (Seal Press, 2009).

Make the commitment

What did you learn most, in the process of building toward then publishing your first book?

Platform is everything. If you work toward building an audience for your published short work (fiction or non) or by blogging, teaching, or speaking, you’ll have a far easier time convincing a book publisher to give you a contract, especially in this ever-tightening market. You’ll also have an easier time selling copies to readers. Also, it kind of makes you feel like a superhero to know you can write, edit, and polish 70K words in a matter of months. It makes going back and tackling your short pieces after the fact that much easier.

Given your current success, what was your tipping point?

This changes every couple years. I felt like I was onto something when I got my first big clip in 2000 or 2001, in Salon. I felt the same way a year or so later when I got my first contribution to an anthology published, and again in another year or so when I got my first feature story in a national magazine I’d long admired. Ditto for landing a book deal and writing residency in 2006. And another book and a national column in 2007. And a NY Times clip in 2008.

I’m not trying to brag. It feels like I still have a ways to go to get my writing career to where I want it to be. I’m trying to do what makes me happy (and not always succeeding). Each year I set new goals, always factoring in what I can afford financially, which often limits how much time I have to do the Writing I Really Want To Do. Some years I meet my goals, some years I don’t. But I’m still striving for a lot and don’t think that will ever stop. It’s what keeps me reaching.

I suspect the conventional answer to your question is that coming out with my first book opened a lot of doors for me: more invites to speak at events (some even paid), more national assignments, a couple of columns, more steady freelance gigs, more experience to share with students/classes I’ve taught, more people knowing who I am (though I’m not the sort who gets off on this). The book wasa big resume boost, and a big writing-confidence boost.

One thing I would like to note is that doing these two books has not brought me more time or money or serenity, and that has been a big challenge. I knew what I was signing up for (people don’t write books to boost their income. If you had a decent income before, signing up to be an author is almost always a big pay cut, unless you write your books on top of doing other paid work, as I did). But the juggling act has all but burned me out. So when people say, What book are you writing this year? I tell them that I’m not. Just writing short pieces. And thrilled to not have any 70K word deadlines hanging over my head.

How many pieces do you have out for consideration at any given time?

Since I started The Anti 9-to-5 Guide in 06, it’s been one to none. One, if I’d had a piece out to anthology editor I knew (which did pay off in 07, with Single State of the Union). The books I wrote during 06, 07, and 08 took up much of my writing time. The book promotion and article assignments/copywriting work to pay for it all took up the rest. I’d like to spend 09 getting back to a place where I can write new short creative nonfiction to submit, though my schedule looks bleak till March. Sometimes, though, when you already have an editor’s ear, all that’s required to land an essay slot is a story pitch. So I suspect this year will be a combo of pitches and submissions. And my regular column/client gigs, which already keep me busy busy. {Ed note: this interview took place early in 2009.}

When you started writing, what were your top three DREAM PUBLICATIONS?

I think when I first started writing and dreaming of being a writer I was in the sixth grade. I’m kind of a late bloomer. Not sure I had a publication in mind, other than A Book. When I first started taking my freelancing and writing career seriously in my late 20s (oh so many years ago), my list was probably Salon, New York Times, and Story magazine. So I did Salon, which is something I’d like to do again now that I don’t have a book deadline (or Nerve or Slate or some such). I recently wrote a fun piece about freelancing for the New York Times online edition (given the way newspapers are going and the way people read them — online only—I count that as a credit, though I now have my sights set on a couple more clips from them). Sadly, Story magazine folded before I hit 30.

Next on “How I Got That Story”: Michael Czyzniejewski, Editor-in-Chief of Mid-American Review and author of:

Pronounced: Chews-news-ki
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