National Encourage a Young Writer Day
Today is National Encourage a Young Writer Day, so 360 PSG thought it might be fun to interview our staff content writers, Matt and Erin, to learn a little more about them and their love of the written word. The duo was happy to pass along insights and advice to aspiring writers of all ages.
What’s your best piece of advice for young writers?
MN: Never stop writing. Like a professional athlete practices non-stop, be that way with writing. Hone your craft the best you can, and write for yourself as much as possible. The more you write for your own pleasure, the better you’ll be when you’re getting paid to write something else.
EM: Everyone always tells hopeful writers that they need to write what they know. But how do you get to know things? Ideally you can experience them firsthand, but that isn’t always practical. So my advice to you is to read more. Read as much as you can, on as many subjects as you can. Read different genres, and read different voices. Reading won’t magically make you the next Hemingway, but I don’t know any successful writer who isn’t also a voracious reader.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
MN: I used to write fiction stories all the time as a little kid. So I don’t know if there was an exact moment that I knew I wanted to be a writer because I feel like I was born a writer.
EM: I actually didn’t want to be a writer growing up; I wanted to be a surgeon. It wasn’t until I was in college that all the tumblers clicked into place. I accidentally registered for the wrong class, one that was taught by Yeatsian scholar Paul J Dolan. He reminded me how much I loved words, which drastically altered my lifeplan. That was a heck of a conversation with my mother. “Hey mom, yeah, thanks for all the time and money you invested in private education and science camps, but I want to go be a starving writer instead of a doctor.”
What type of work have you done as a writer?
MN: I’ve dabbled in a few lines of work as a writer. I’ve written for news publications, various blogs, the radio, web applications and short stories to name a few. That’s just hired work though. Writing poetry from time to time is something I enjoy doing leisurely, though I am certainly not good at it.
EM: I’ve been fortunate to get to have a number of different jobs in the field. I actually started out writing grammar questions for Kaplan's practice SAT tests. After that, I did some public relations work for a county agency, lots of writing press releases and handling crisis communications. I’ve worked with a grassroots lobbying group, to try and get legislation passed, and most recently I worked on an AI project for over two years, teaching natural language processing to search engines. I know people say you can’t make a living as a writer, but you’d be surprised how many ways there are to actually write for a living.
What do you like most about your job at 360 PSG?
MN: Learning is easily my favorite part of this job. I’ve gotten to learn so much about web design, as well as other random information relating to various industries that I might be writing for. We design and host so many websites that you just never know what one day might have in store for you. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t learn something new.
EM: Because 360 PSG has such a variety of clients, I’m always learning new things. Everything from urban planning to how circuit boards are fabricated. Some of it has even been personally helpful, like when I learned how to replace my furnace’s thermocouple. I also appreciate that this job gives me a chance to learn new skills. Photoshop existed when I started college, but never in a million years could anyone have predicted that writers would have to rely so heavily on computer technologies. That’s why I like the term “content designer” so much. It speaks to our industry’s need to consider all the design elements that go into creating a visually engaging experience for the viewer.
Proudest achievement related to writing?
MN: I was an intern one summer as a reporter for WBFO, Buffalo’s NPR station. I did a feature story that I also read and recorded myself, which aired on public radio. I was driving to school during one of the time slots they aired it on, and it was such an odd feeling to hear my own voice on the radio. I’d have to say that’s my proudest achievement, although I’ve never gone back and listened to it since.
EM: I subscribe to Stephen King’s definition of what it means to be a talented writer. He said “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” I didn’t pay my electric bill with my first check, but it was definitely at that moment that I finally felt that it wasn’t totally fraudulent to call myself a writer. Subsequently, there have been a few other moments that I am especially proud of, like having a piece I wrote get nominated for a CMA award or winning the Buffalo Story Project.
Do you have a writing goal that you would like to achieve someday?
MN: I definitely have a lot of goals related to writing. I think at the top of that list would be writing something for National Geographic about animal conservation. I don’t have anything specific in mind but I would love the opportunity to travel somewhere and help bring awareness to an endangered species by writing a feature piece that highlights problems and provides solutions for how we as humans can help.
EM: Like every writer, I’m convinced I have the Great American Novel within me somewhere. I’d like to get it written.
As a writer, when are most ‘in your element’?
MN: Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been writing and telling stories, so I’m always in my element when I’m writing a good story. Fiction is fun because there aren’t any real rules you have to follow, but I love writing real, true, personal stories. I feel like I look through the world through a different perspective than a lot of people. I over-analyze every detail, which is my greatest strength and greatest weakness at the same time, but it helps me look at everything through a different lens, and thus write through that lens.
EM: I’m definitely a night owl, so it’s much easier for me to write at night when the world is quiet and there are no distractions. This way I can just dive in and forget about everything else. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written til the sun has come up.
What’s one trick you use to get your creative process flowing?
MN: My creative process can be greatly inspired by nature. If I’m ever at a point where I feel like I’ve hit a roadblock, I like to spend time outside. The more secluded the place, the more inspired I feel. There is just something to be said for the connection you can feel with the wilderness of the world.
EM: The harder you try to find inspiration, the more impossible it becomes. It just has to happen. I’ve found that something as simple as getting up and walking into a different room can be enough to get the gears turning again.
What’s the hardest part about being a writer?
MN: Tuning out distractions is hard for me as a writer. I tune out everyone and everything as part of my writing process, and if that gets messed with, forget it. I always try to eliminate all distractions, but that can’t always be done.
EM: I’d say the hardest part is trying to manage relationships with other people. Writers need their alone time, and that can be hard for other people to understand, especially when we choose to read or just stare out the window instead of engaging with our loved ones. What they don’t realize is how important it is to just set aside time to think and imagine and daydream. It’s a fundamental part of the creative process.
What’s one writing lesson you learned the hard way?
MN: “Don’t write an op-ed piece complaining about something if you aren’t going to provide a solution.” I remember I wrote a sports article for a college class where I went on a rant about something a local team was doing. But that’s all I did in the article—rant. My professor (who will remain nameless but is a well-known writer in the Western New York area) told me to never complain about anything if I can’t provide a logical solution to whatever it is I’m upset about. I never forgot that. And it’s really a lesson I’ve tried to live my life by as well. Don't complain to anyone about anything if you don’t have a better idea of what needs to be done. The more you really think about that, the more it makes sense. It’s a great writing lesson, but a great life lesson as well.
EM: Always, always, always read your contract. I did a lot of freelancing, and I got burned really badly when I was younger, by being too trusting and naive. Related to this, learn all you can about the differences between the things like first rights and one-time rights. You don’t want to accidentally give away the rights to your work. Ask questions if you’re unsure. The National Writers Union is a great, unbiased resource. Oh, and do not post anything on social media that you’re serious about getting published. That qualifies as “publication,” and will limit your ability to enter your work in writing competitions.
Name a place writing has taken you that you otherwise wouldn’t have gone.
MN: I feel like I could put a lot of cool and interesting answers for this, but my favorite place writing has taken me is easily the locker room of the Buffalo Sabres. Interviewing players is a surreal feeling if you’re a sports fan, especially if it’s a team you grew up rooting for.
EM: Prydain? Terabithia? Neverland? Oz? I’m joking, but I’m also serious. Writing transports people to places and times we’ll never get to encounter in real life. That’s part of why people enjoy fiction so much. It gets us out of our own head. Non-fiction can have the same effect. We don’t read just to learn things, we read to experience things too. I’ve never actually hunted down stolen Nazi art or paddled the Okeefenokee swamp, but people’s writing has gotten me pretty close.
How has writing helped you to see the world differently?
MN: I’d say my overall philosophy and approach to life is different. Writing forces you to look at life through a different lens and other perspectives. Everything about how your brain is wired just kind of changes after a while, giving you a very real and healthy perspective of the world and the people and creatures in it. My empathic intuition grows almost every day.
EM: I think reading, and doing research, has helped me see the world differently far more than writing itself. The more you read, the more you learn, and the more perspectives you gain. It becomes impossible to think your way is the only way, or even the best way.
How has writing affected your thought process?
MN: As a writer, you need to do a lot of research, no matter the scenario. Whether you’re a journalist or a blog writer, you need to know every detail about whatever it is you’re writing about. My overall thought process is a lot more critical and analytical than it ever used to be. Your brain eventually just shifts into detective-mode, and then you never really go back.
EM: I’m constantly looking for connections, motivations. Driving momentum forward is an important part of writing, whether you’re working on a crime novel or covering a news item. There have to be reasons for things happening the way they do; part of your job as a writer is to present those reasons in an understandable way. You won’t get very far as a writer if you rely on elaborate plot twists and implausible interactions. You have to understand what makes people tick, why they react the way they do. It makes you a better writer, and it makes you a better human.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
MN: I love so many writers. As a kid I read almost every Beverly Cleary book there was. I grew up a big Harry Potter fan so J.K. Rowling is easily one of my favorites. I also like James Patterson, Elizabeth Gilbert and David Sedaris. And as creepy as some of her books can be, Agatha Christie is definitely up there as well.
EM: My Grams used to buy me these children’s illustrated classics books from Kay Bee Toys. That really instilled in me a love of classic writers, especially the adventure stories of Dumas, Stevenson and Wyss. As far as contemporary fiction writers go, I really like Laurn Willig and Charles Finch. As for non-fiction, Erik Larson and Jon Krakauer are perennial favorites, along with Martin Van Troost for his travelogues.
What is your favorite book?
MN: I can’t pick just one so I’m going with three: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
EM: Without a doubt, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. There was a cartoon TV show on Nickelodeon when I was a kid, and I loved watching it. Then when I was in college, I had to read the book for one of my philosophy classes. I own about a dozen copies now, in different languages and translation versions.
What is your favorite quote?
MN: Steve Carell said “Nothing to me feels as good as laughing incredibly hard.” I know that has nothing to do with writing, but I love laughing because of how good it makes me feel. And the better I feel, the better my writing is going to be.
EM: It’s hard to pick one favorite, but I guess my favorite quote that’s relevant to this interview, and one that I rely on frequently when I defend the humanities in a STEM-driven world, is from the Robin Williams movie Dead Poet Society.
“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”