Some of my clients like assignments. They like it when I give them jobs to do or worksheets to fill out or homework to complete so I do. But I tell them that it’s ok for them to not do well at whatever I’ve asked them to do or to not be able to do it all. I tell them that their real assignment is to notice what they’re doing and report back. If I ask them, for example, to write a gratitude list and they come back to say they couldn’t do it then we’ll talk about why. I’m not grading their gratitude list. I’m not even grading their effort. What I want to hear about is how it felt to write or to not write it. For me — and I hope for the client — both experiences have equal value.
Life is made up of mistakes, right? The more things we do and try, the more likely we’re going to rack up some failures. Sometimes we have to find out what we’re not so good at to find out where we really shine. And sometimes we have to spend some time with the wrong people (friends and lovers) before we know what qualities we need in the people who surround us. That’s why I picked a maze to illustrate this post — sometimes we have to walk into a lot of walls before we find our way out.
Fortunately, counseling is a judgment-free zone. I don’t mean that my clients and I toss critical thinking out the window — just the opposite. We apply our critical thinking but we leave the shame behind. We recognize mistakes and failure for what they are but I try to help my clients understand that in every wrong move is the chance to get a better understanding of what the right move looks like and feels like.
Back to that gratitude list. If my client can’t or won’t write one then we talk about why. Is she not able to make time for self-care? Why not? Is this an internal or external reality? In other words, is she setting up roadblocks on purpose or is her schedule really overwhelming? If she started to write it but came up short then I want to know how it felt to try. Did she feel resentful about the assignment? Is she not ready to give up on some of her sadness or anger? Because change is hard even if it’s for the long-term good. Giving things up — even lousy things that hurt us like bad attitudes and fear — is still giving something up. Sometimes we need to confront and talk about that loss before she has room to try again.
So see, failure counts as a win in therapy. It helps shape our next efforts together. It helps in our understanding. And it gets us closer to success.
When Noah was two years old and I was just getting started as a writer, Katie Allison Granju gave me some of my first gigs and they were some really good gigs. She was generous with her advice, always encouraging and got me assignments when I was still so green that you might have mistaken me for a stalk of celery.
In an industry where scarcity of resources sometimes makes writers mean, Katie gave me a higher standard to live by.
Now her oldest boy is very very ill and I can’t stop thinking about her and about him and about how sometimes we just can’t keep our kids safe from the world or even from themselves.
This is hard. My poor, sweet baby boy. It’s all so surreal. Even 36 days into this, I can’t quite believe it’s happening. You read and hear about this happening to other people, but truly, you just never imagine that it could happen to your child, your family.
Oh Katie, your family remains in my thoughts.
I’m learning about queries from getting so many. When I’m back to freelancing, hopefully I can remember all of this. Want to know what I’ve learned? Ok, here you are:
–When those write advice columns tell you that you should read the magazine/web site before querying, they’re right. I get a lot of queries that clearly come from people who are shooting in the dark. Some of them are proud of this: “I’ve never read your magazine or other pregnancy magazines but I’ve been pregnant and think I have an interesting take on the subject.” Ummm, doubt it.
–Be specific when you query. I get pitches that are way too broad. I don’t mind it when I get this from a writer that I know and whose work I know. If they send me something that says, “Morning sickness, what do you think?” We can go back and forth and whittle it down to, say, “Morning Sick at Work” with tips for handling it. (This is a good idea actually, someone pitch it to me!) But if it’s from a writer I don’t know, I’m not really going to feel motivated to go to all the trouble working it out with them because they may not have the chops to do a good job on it. Now it’s fun to figure out topics with writers I know so go ahead and give me a great specific query and once you’ve done a really impressive job with that one, we can play around with your other article ideas. Also, if you send me a wonderful specific query that I’ve already assigned and you have good clips, it’s very likely that I’ll end up giving you another idea along the same lines. Basically I want to work with you but only if you show me that you want to work with me, too.
–Don’t waste your first paragraph. I don’t need to know your experience right up front; I want to know what you’re trying to sell me. And sell it, dangit, don’t just vaguely toss it up there and hope I have the imagination to see what a great idea it is. Again those writing books are right: Statistics are not nearly as compelling as an interesting, specific hook. I’d rather hear, “For the first three months of my pregnancy, I was throwing up in my office trash can and spraying room deoderizer because I didn’t want my boss to know I was pregnant!” than, “Did you know that most women experience morning sickness and since most women work, that must be really hard!” C’mon, you can see the difference, right?
–Your pregnancy history doesn’t mean that much to me. A lot of people finish their query with something like, “And I think I would be a good fit because I am pregnant now or was pregnant once.” I really don’t care. If you’re a good writer, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been pregnant.
–Read the submission guidelines carefully. We don’t accept personal essays for the site no matter how compelling your story is.
–Watch your bias. I’ve had people rail against doctors or give me a conspiring wink about epidurals in their query. That just convinces me that you can’t see both sides of a story. I may personally be a pretty crunchy-granola person, but as an editor, my goal is to meet the information needs of our audience, many of whom have viewpoints entirely different from my own. Besides, you don’t know me. For all you know (well not really you, dearest blog readers), I could be a gung-ho, pro-epidural, homebirth sucks person. By the way, I have gotten some queries that would have insulted me back when I was knee-deep in my infertility. So watch it, folks.
–Include clips!!!! People don’t include their clips. I personally dislike attached clips because it clutters up my computer but I won’t hold it against you if you send them. I’d rather people go make a homepage or something with a link in their letter. If you don’t have professional clips, include something anyway. I know we’re a fairly low-paying market and although we have some hard-core writing professionals writing for us, we have a lot of newbies, too. I’m happy to hire newbies because I was one myself. If you’re a newbie without clips, just include something that proves you can string words together decently, ‘kay?
–Don’t assume your god’s gift to me. Confidence is fine but don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by pitching to me. Aggressiveness is a turn-off especially when you’ve never been published anywhere but your church newsletter.
–Don’t tell me that you would prefer that I came up with your article ideas for you. I’ve had several people write and say, “I prefer to work on assignment so why don’t you send me some article topics.” Listen, once we’ve worked together and found out that we’re a good fit, assignments are entirely possible even probable but if I’ve never even heard of you, I want you to prove yourself.
–Proofread your query! If you can’t spell or write a grammatically correct sentence in your query letter, I’m not going to hire you to write for me.
Whew! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!!!