My entrance into culture writing was as a cantankerous shoe-scuffing teenage ingénue with an encyclopedic knowledge of Indie Rock bands, arthouse movies (read: Submarine, 500 Days of Summer) and a ‘nobody understands me’ complex. I was an unstable mixture of disparaging self-loathing and cultural opinions, and in a moment of bored intrigue, I decided to try and piece together my own album review in the manner of my teen bible, the NME. I eventually joined my school’s Journalism club where I wrote my first proper review (Laura Marling’s A Creature I Don’t Know) with the fortitude of my friend Cecilia and my left-field English teacher, Ms. Griffiths. On my final day of year 11, Ms. Griffiths encouragingly signed my blouse with “See you in the NME!”. I rolled my eyes, tugged on my sleeves and secretly, desperately, wanted nothing more.
I continued writing through college, joining their Journalism Academy where I wrote an ambitious feature for the local newspaper on pop aesthetics (bad) and alternative music (good), entitled ‘The Look vs. The Hook’. After ‘interviewing’ the band JAWS (read: firing a tirade of questions related to Miley Cyrus) in the broom cupboard of Exeter’s Cavern Club, I contacted a mid-range music magazine who agreed to let me cover Open’er festival in exchange for a preview and review.
Wearing an oversized David Byrne-esque blazer, I blagged my entrance using DIY business cards and spent the entire festival ignoring the friends I’d purchased tickets to attend with. Every moment that wasn’t sleeping was spent in the press tent scribbling nonsense into a notebook, necking pints of Heineken from the open bar and plainly ogling the NME journalist opposite me, paralysed with excitement and the potential realisation of my teen dreams. The adrenaline finally wore off, reality set in and self-doubting anxiety brought me back down to earth. Through fear of failure, I never sent the review off. It sat on my desktop half-written, collecting digital dust.
Without spinning you some self-help nonsense, we all know that the road to a successful career as a culture writer is full of diversions, blockades and intersections. From chasing late payments, to navigating rude employers, unpaid work, ignored emails and monotonous admin; there are many unglamorous aspects to the life of a culture writer. However, as Sara Ahmed suggests, uncomfortable experiences are essential components of our writing.
In her book Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed discusses the idea of ‘sweaty’ concepts and the bodily labours surrounding descriptive writing. In her own words, these are “Generated by the practical experience of coming up against a world, or, the practical experience of trying to transform a world.” Ahmed argues that we needn’t eradicate this difficulty from the writing, but rather, these difficult ‘sweaty’ experiences truthfully constitute our texts despite academics preference for ‘tidied’ texts which fail to “reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere.”
So, what is success? Is it seeing your work go forth into the world? Is it procuring money, or, happiness? In my adult life as a freelance writer, day to day life is far less exhilarating than when I was eye-to-eye with my NME idol, because quite frankly, it’s a job. The difference being, writing is a job which makes my heart sing like no other retail, hospitality or service job I’ve ever had. It’s the euphoria of having your first paid article published and having your friends quoting back your work to you. Sometimes it feels like you’re shouting into a vacuum, but the act of shouting comes from a place which needs to speak and which aches to write.
I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but if you’d like to try your hand at culture writing, the first step is calling yourself thus. In the same what that Rhonda Byrne condones gratitude and visualisation in her (badly kept) The Secret, you must identify yourself as a writer in order to become one. Whether or not you have the experience to match it doesn’t really matter, bite your tongue and put it on your LinkedIn profile. You may choose to compose a website, and/or design yourself a logo identifying you as such. Give yourself a formal email signature with a stylish font with your new website italicised beneath it, racing past the recipient’s screen like a high-speed lorry. Business cards may also follow. Remember: personalised stationery is tacky.
Once you’ve started referring to yourself as a culture writer from behind the safe screen of the internet, the next step is actively letting people know that you’re available. Start writing for student publications, and, if you have the time and means to do so, apply for work experience placements. Unfortunately, unpaid work is still rife in the industry but if you’re still studying, try and squeeze placements into holidays and term time whilst you have the aid of a student loan. It gets a whole lot harder without one.
Having undertaken work experience there myself, both The Guardian and The Times advertise their placements online over specific annual windows. There are a number of change tracking websites which are free to use. The site will email you when there are any changes on the URL you’re monitoring – to save you the effort of checking back every few months. Join your new publication’s Facebook group. It’s common for student publications to share reviewing opportunities (read: free tickets to plays, exhibitions and proof copies of books) here. If you’re short of ideas for writing, this is always a good place to start.
Now that you’ve got some experience with working for a newspaper, magazine or student publication and you’ve had some pieces published, it’s time to wrestle with pitching. Approaching magazines for article pitches is mostly thankless. Don’t expect fireworks and plaudits, it’s important you’re pitching the right work to the right publication. Research the publication extensively, tailor your ideas, and when you learn how to pique an editor’s interest, you may garner a half-interested response from them.
Create a Google Doc with the publications you’re interested in and scour the web for the relevant editor’s emails. If that doesn’t work, you’d be surprised how effective trial and error is for guessing the formulation of the magazine’s editor’s emails. Brainstorm and map the sort of work you’re interested in writing. What are you writing now, and what do you want to be writing? You’ll be rejected and ignored many more times than you’ll be accepted. Pour as much time, love and care into the pitch whilst it’s in your hands, and once it’s sent, try your best to forget about it. Now rinse and repeat.
Having said this, what happens after your articles are published is the stuff of dreams. Sometimes it’s plain sailing and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth but it’s nearly always worth the effort. The biggest obstacle, however, is summoning the energy to continue in spite of the knockbacks. The writer’s self-critical psyche is unpacked by Brian Dillon with startling accuracy, writing in Essayism that, “It never feels, as a writer, as if you are being especially productive or prolific; in fact, the more you do the more you are likely to feel that it is not, never will be, enough […] my obsession with how much I’m writing is a distraction from the more fundamental truth, which is this: I’m addicted not so much to production as profusion.”
Whilst Dillon is right to recognise that the writer’s biggest saboteur is their own internal nihilist, unfortunately, this can also manifest externally; although this is less common if you’re working in a freelance capacity. The occupation’s gatekeepers congregate on the brutish fringes of Twitter, Facebook groups and open-plan offices. They mouthpiece your insecurities and heckle you for your youth, inexperience and lack of formal training. Know that they exist, know your worth, and when they come knocking, refuse to credit them with the emotional labour they crave.
Although I didn’t know it aged 17, the path to becoming a culture writer is endlessly surprising and thoroughly unpredictable. However arduous the journey it may be, channel your experience into your work, acknowledge your ‘sweat’ and write, write, write yourself into the workplace.