15 years (and counting): a writing life in progress

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As a writer, I live in a perpetual state of professional emotional turmoil, and often that turmoil takes the form of speculating that other, successful, writers do not feel that way. When things are going well, I experience a happy little freakout of trying to keep up with various duties and deadlines and when not, I wonder if I need a new career. The worst is when I'm a dry spell and I start speculating about writers who are currently in the good spot. "That son of a bitch." I think. "I bet he has never had this type of worry or dry spell in his entire stupid miserable career."

I get this way, but then every now and then I realize that I have been getting paid to write, in some form or another, in or for some amount or another, for just about 15 years. Somehow, for those 15 years I've survived the ebbs and flows and even managed to evolve despite my fears that change=death. I frequently worry that I have not done a good job really defining who I am as a writer, unlike certain bloggers I know who are better at sticking with a few select topics or a steady tone. I sometimes feel like I'd be more successful, for instance, if I had managed to get into a certain type of mommy or healthy living groove. Sometimes I wonder why I didn't just pick a job where you show up and work hard and get paid a ton of money (you know, because that's so easy to do.)

But a few weeks ago I gave a talk on my career to date as a writer, which was a daunting exercise but fulfilling, because it made me realize that I've gone through a lot of different iterations through my writing life so far. It made me realize that age does not equal creative death (but it always seems like I was so full of ideas when I was younger!)  While I haven't figured out how to be that son of a bitch writer who has managed to perfect a flow and pick a style and stick with it and work consistently and smartly for all of eternity, it's reassuring to know that despite an inability to freeze a happy, productive era in time, I still manage to roll on without my entire career falling apart.

Here is my rough timeline so far:

4508943256_f14f76e7de_b.jpgEarly life: Discovered I enjoyed reading (thanks in no small part to my parents). This was huge.

Grade school: Discovered I liked writing (thanks to some great teachers, especially Mr. Onofrey in 7th and 8th grade, who was one of the toughest and best teachers I had in my life.) A highlight of my grade school writing life was writing a first-person essay from the perspective of an ice cream sundae. The nuts were so pointy!

High school: Kept up writing via four years of school newspapers and cool page-to-stage activities like Writers Showcase (where students submitted writing and actors interpreted the pieces onstage) and YAMO (basically like the live version of "Saturday Night Live".) When Mr. Siewerth, the overseer of YAMO, told the cast and crew that I was a "damn good" writer, it was one of the best compliments I ever received in my life. I cried when I didn't win the English Department award senior year that I fully thought I deserved. Another thing I did not win but still was formative was the Chicago Tribune Teen Movie Panel contest that I was a semifinalist in.

College: Thanks to my friend Claire Weingarden (who also didn't win the Teen Movie Panel contest) being smart and following up with journalistic contacts and being generous with said contacts, I was able to freelance for Tribune Media Services while in college, which helped give me a tiny journalistic baseline (which in turn helped me land internships at TMS, NewCity Chicago, and Dateline NBC). Sometimes I wrote fiction in class when I was bored, which was not totally unproductive: one of the things I wrote was a script that won an award for a one-act playwriting contest. The other was the beginnings of An Off Year. Once, for fun, I wrote a fake-Onion article titled "Georgetown Student Forgets Words to Dave Matthews Song," but without anyplace to publish it, I taped it up in my apartment bathroom, which I credit as the start of my humor writing career. I was also a columnist for the Hoya, the Georgetown paper, and wrote an essay at the start of senior year called "I Can't Believe We're Seniors!" During our first official night out on the town, other seniors would (lovingly, I like to think), yell "I can't believe we're seniors!" at me, but also one of them said "When I read that piece, I could totally hear it in your voice," which was also one of the best compliments I ever got.

Post-college: My dad had me meet a friend of a friend, Dave Reidy, because he was going to allegedly help me find a job and stuff. Yeah, right, whatever. Well, actually--he did tell me about a job opening that I ultimately ended up filling, but more importantly, he told me about places online to write. A lot of them are now defunct, sadly, but their spirit lives on in McSweeneys Internet Tendency and anyplace that publishes good writing online. I no longer had to print out and tape my funny pieces on the bathroom wall (which was good, because I was living at home at this time.) Also, through these sites, I met a lot of great people who are still friends of mine to this day, one of whom is my husband.

First job: The job that Dave was kind enough to help me get was at an advertising agency. I made $21,500 a year writing copy and letters for Majestic Star Casino. There wasn't always a ton of work for me to do every day, so, I'll just be honest and say that I did a lot of the website writing while I was at my desk (not-shockingly, I got laid off after a year and a half.) At this time I started the website you are currently reading. This was before the word "blog" was being thrown around as common parlance. I launched it as a place to keep all the links to the pieces I was writing online and figured it'd be fun to write a little something different on it every day, sort of like Boo Radley leaving that stuff in the tree for Scout to find. Here is the first entry:

February 25, 2002:

Did you wake up this morning feeling a certain anticipation, a little excitement, the hunch that today was special?

You were right! Today debuts Zulkey.com, the most comprehensive (some might say the only) site dedicated to the writings of Claire Zulkey.

Please browse around and see what's new and what's not. This space will change day to day, although I'm not sure with what, but it will for sure be entertaining, insightful, or simply full of different words.

Do you like how the site looks? Please direct your compliments to the talented and dashing Matt Herlihy, site designer and best-known as editor of Sweet Fancy Moses, but also an all-around great guy. Also, many thanks to the delightful folks at Dezmin (especially the hunky Dave Reidy) and the new great white hope, Todd Zuniga and the other geniuses (genii?) at Opium Magazine.If it weren't for any of these guys, Zulkey.com would not be, and what kind of world would that be? Not one worth living in, for sure.
I also don't mean to brag, but my biography page has been graced by the words of none other than Nathan Rabin. Can it get any better than this? Unlikely, but I'll try.

Welcome and enjoy!

I also figured that interviews posted on Fridays would be a nice way to include content and foolishly thought they would be easy, since other people would be providing the meat of the entries. They are a lot more work than that but I'm proud of them. I was especially thrilled to get Antonia Fraser in there, as well as Louis CK before he was thee Louis CK. It was also exciting to interview Dave Barry because even though I don't think I knew it at the time, when I used to read him as a young person, I was secretly thinking that I wanted to do what he did for a living.

parishiltonvid.jpgI also started learning how to promote my site more. I feel like a watershed moment for me in terms of traffic (but not necessarily one of my finest moments ever as a blogger) was the parody Paris Hilton video. When her sex tape came out, I told my then-boyfriend Steve that we needed to do a parody of it, quickly, before anyone else did. He made a really dumb video that I sent to Gawker and they ran it and my traffic spiked. I don't think I've ever done a post like that that got me that much attention. Which is kind of sad. But anyway, that's a good example of how I tried to get my site/name out there.

claire2ac.jpgSecond job: I got laid off from the advertising job and spent a little bit of time unemployed, which was my first taste of realizing that while I like a couple of days to myself, I need some structure in my workday life (IE one of the reasons why I am not a full-time freelancer.) I got my second full-time job, which was not very much related to writing, which was a bit dispiriting. But I was lucky to have a job and even luckier to have my own office and lots of privacy to work on other projects (secretly) when I had time. During this period I started taking writing classes at the Second City, which I recommend to any writer, not just those interested in humor. Things picked up a lot with Zulkey.com, too. In no particular order, my interview with James Frey was cited in the Smoking Gun report on A Million Little Pieces, which was awkward for me personally because I like/d James and certainly wasn't out to bust him. But at the same time, I enjoyed traffic from the report and also accepted an offer to come on "Anderson Cooper 360" to give my two cents on Frey's apologetic appearance on Oprah's show. I felt completely unqualified to do this but it felt silly to turn down the opportunity, plus, Anderson Cooper. (I never watched my clip but my friend Liz said I looked cute; my mom lamented the shirt I wore.) My name was also mentioned in a New Yorker piece about bloggers-turned-book-authors (possibly the only time my name will ever be in the New Yorker) and so a few agents came my way to see if there was, indeed, an easy book that could be pried from Zulkey.com's content (long story short: there was not. But eventually I published my young adult novel. More on that in a bit.)

Through the blog and my freelancing I became known for being a writer with a voice, and so several cool assignments came my way (I am terrible at pitching and very little of my published work is the result of me cold-pitching publications. A lot of my work comes from editors approaching me, although I have also had the embarrassing experience of someone asking me to write for them and then them hating all my ideas.) My favorite opportunities including writing a piece about the Chicago White Sox for the Wall Street Journal right before they won the World Series; shadowing a high school girl for ElleGirl magazine; and getting a free trip to a private island and then getting paid to write about it for a bridal magazine (interestingly, the last two publications I just mentioned no longer exist.) I was also contacted by publications like the LA Times and the AV Club (which was a thrill, because I originally wrote Nathan Rabin, a stranger to me at the time, a fan email right after I got after college, and ostensibly we became colleagues later on) to do television and pop culture writing, which was a dream come true (except when it was stressful and time-consuming and the commenters were mean as hell. Seriously, nobody is meaner online than somebody who doesn't like your take on an episode of a television show they like.)

ClaireatSigning.jpgAlso, in 2004 I started Funny Ha-Ha with John Green because we agreed that the best part of every reading was the person who got up and told a funny story and I've continued to host/produce it a few times a year since then. We're celebrating our ten-year anniversary with a reunion show in September.  I also possibly/probably would not be a published author without John. Up until around 2006 I had published a small book with a small indie now-defunct press and was struggling to sell An Off Year, which was originally not YA. One editor looked at it and never got back to me, and then John suggested I send it right to his editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel. In 2006 she looked at it and gave me some very thoughtful notes that could be summarized as "This is maybe interesting but I can't even think about it seriously until you address these many problems." I took some time to work on it, and almost a year to the day after she gave me her feedback, sent the manuscript back to her, and she made me an offer a week later. The editing process was very difficult (but rewarding), and the book was published in 2009, which was basically one of my life's dreams, realized. Another aspect of publishing that was difficult was promoting the book. I did the best I could, but it became pretty clear to me from the outset that the book was not going to be a runaway success, sales-wise, so it was hard to motivate to get out of the house and do readings and bookstore visits when I felt like they wouldn't net me much, but it felt more foolish not to avoid these opportunities as well. But man, it is dispiriting to do a reading and have none-to-very-few people show up. But it's a good character-builder, I suppose.

In 2011 I was offered the chance to run Zulkey.com over at WBEZ, Chicago's NPR affiliate website, which was great because I went from making zero dollars per month writing the blog to making $900, plus, I was invited to make radio appearances on the station, which were fun and easy and made me feel famous whenever someone said they heard me on-air (after each appearance, my mom would send me an email that said something like "You sounded happy" or "You sounded cute" or "You sounded pregnant.") Oh yes, I was also pregnant at this time, which started infiltrating my writing. In 2012 I had my son, Paul, and blogged about parenthood a pretty good amount because that was what was going on in my life. It was a real kick in the head and since I was at home on maternity leave but still blogging, it was easiest for me to try to articulate and work through the particular type of brain damage that comes with being a first-time parent. I worried that I would alienate readers by branching into this territory but it was pretty much all I could do. I write about my life and that was my life.

13383175835_8c4459870c_b.jpgCurrent job: My position at the non-writing job, which I held for almost ten years, was ultimately eliminated shortly after I had Paul, and luckily I landed a new position at a place that was willing to pay me money to write, which is a huge blessing; I no longer have to feel like my dayjob and my freelance life are two separate things. My annual reviews actually involve being a better writer and reporter and so I'm grateful for that, especially since after having Paul I've readjusted how I write and work. With this job, I cannot close my door and work on things that are unrelated to my job, even though I am happy I can be pretty transparent about the fact that I have a writing life outside of the office. And with Paul, I am unwilling to come home after work and do more work: I come home and want to see my husband and play with the baby and after the baby goes to bed, I'm pretty much shot, which rules out television reviewing (which I don't really miss. It's really nice just to watch a show and just watch it and be allowed to read a catalog while I do so.) For awhile I taught blogging for mediabistro but it was exhausting to review students' work and do weekly webinars with them so I'm taking a breather on that. I have to be selective both about time and money when it comes to projects I take on, because I don't have a ton of time each day to write and I try not to write on the weekends, either, unless I'm suddenly inspired and just need to get something down (which doesn't happen as much as I would like.) Fortunately, good things still come my way. I got the chance to write a middle grade book that's one in a series that is coming out in April from Harper Collins. I've gotten the opportunity to write about parenting stuff for money. Meanwhile, I'm working on a new, adult novel but trying to take it very easy because one downside I think to the way An Off Year came about was that I think I came into book writing a bit backwards: an agent came to me, I was put directly in touch with a great editor, and so on. I've written three full novels since then that went nowhere so I'm trying to at least enjoy the process and not get ahead of myself and think "Well, if I wrote it, it will get published." And I'm just trying to keep the brain-fires stoked and try to be awake and alert when an idea for a new essay or story flies by.

Like I said at the beginning of this very long mini-memoir of my writing life, some weeks I feel like I'm firing on all professional cylinders: that I'm doing well at work, that this blog is stocked with interesting or funny or weird content that I feel good about sharing with people, that I have work that has been or is about to be published in another place that might garner me a new audience, and I'm even making progress on my current book project. And on other days I feel completely uninspired; that I am just getting old and irrelevant and that the Internet is a much sloppier, crueler, dumber place than it used to be; that I should really have a backup career in mind. But I've gone through these cycles every day and week and month and year since I started this whole career, so I think the most useful thing I can do is step back and see that it has worked out, despite the various alterations and successes and setbacks, and that it should, if I am lucky (lucky in ideas, lucky in life, lucky in wonderfully supportive colleagues), continue to do so.