If you have aspirations of becoming a journalist, columnist, editor, and/or digital media doyenne, then this one is for you.
Ann Friedman used to be the executive editor of GOOD magazine. Then she co-founded the celebrated, crowdfunded magazine, TOMORROW. These days, she spends her time sitting at a banker's desk in her home in Echo Park, L.A., tweeting funny sh*t, drawing piecharts, sending out hilarious newsletters, and writing stories for The Gentlewoman, ELLE, New York magazine, and others. She's currently spending the summer in London (that's just the kind of thing you do when you're a fabulous freelance writer, ya know?) but we called her up to talk about Robin Thicke, drawing piecharts, and why it's the 'unimportant' stuff that really counts.
Hi Ann. We know you're in London right now, but where do you come from originally?
I’m from Debuque, Iowa—what is, for Iowa, a city, but is really not a city by any other state’s standards!
How did you first cultivate an interest in writing?
Through books. Books are the reason why I am everything I am today—they're how I got interested in the world. I was constantly reading as a kid, and that gives you a worldview that is bigger and broader than your own. Credit to my parents for always buying me books from the school book fair, and to mother especially for letting me use her adult card, which allowed you to take out 20 books a week as opposed to 10 with the kids’ card! My parents used to make me go outside and play for an hour a day in the summer when all I wanted to do was read.
When did the passion for reading transition into a passion for writing?
Before I was old enough to read the newspaper I decided I wanted to be an author of children’s books, but I think that’s just because they were all I read at the time! I always stress to people that I’m weird in that I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do, and I’m now doing it. Most people are not like that. I feel like you’re taught that people like me are the norm, when in fact we’re the weird ones.
So you’ve never questioned your choice of career?
I went to a journalism school that was very focused on newspapers, and back then - bear in mind that I graduated ten years ago - it was a very dry style of reporting the news, without much of opinion or humor, where you didn't get to write things that were interesting until you’d been covering city council meetings for ten years.
After a couple of newspaper internships I was like, “Oh, maybe I don’t want to be a journalist! This is really boring.” So I had a period in my first year out of school - which I think is miserable for most people, acually - when I was questioning everything I wanted to be and do. i worked at a nonprofit for a while and was so bored but that eventually I thought: “Maybe I do want to do journalism again.” That’s when I moved into magazines, and never looked back.
Did you write for yourself as you were growing up?
When I was a kid, I definitely wrote short stories that were thinly-veiled autobiography! I obviously wrote all through college at journalism school, and my first year out of college I started writing for a blog that a woman I knew had started. I really always had some kind of writing outlet, but I think that right now is probably the first time in my career when I feel like I get paid to writing that I really like to do.
How would you describe the kind of stories that you write now?
I’m really interested in taking the conversations I have with friends, or the things I wrestle with personally, and working them out with the written word. If there’s a thing I can’t stop obsessing over with friends, then those topics often make their way into my work.
I also find a lot of inspiration in things I can’t figure out how I feel about. I wrote a column last summer about the Robin Thicke song ‘Blurred Lines’ which I feel everyone now agrees is terrible, but was then the ‘song of the summer’ and I didn’t know how to feel about it! You know--my booty is jiggling a bit when I hear this and I don’t want to feel bad about wanting to dance, but if I applied a feminist stance to everything I listened to, I would never listen to any music, ever. So I work out things I feel conflicted about in conversation with friends, or on the page. The fact that I’m paid to do that is mind boggling to me.
Is that how the idea for the Shine Theory column came about?
That was one of those things that I’ve been looking to write about forever. My good friend Amina, who I mention in that article, always says: “I don’t shine if you don’t shine - if you look like an idiot on Twitter, I look like an idiot on Twitter.” Something I love about being a writer is being able to articulate and put a name to thing that people are thinking about. It makes that thing more powerful.
Have you ever experienced professional competitiveness with other women?
I think when I was younger and doing work that didn’t make me super-happy, I would look at women who were my age and had jobs I wanted and think: “What does she have that I don’t have?!” It never occurred to me to write one of those women an email saying: “What you’re doing is supercool, how did you do it?!’ You know, to put that positive spin on it. I just used to feel inadequate.
For years you were an editor but now you're a freelance writer, living and working from home in Los Angeles. How do you stay disciplined?
It’s definitely hard to know when you’ve done ‘enough’ work - I’m always wondering why I said yes to six different commissions during a busy week, but then again I really am interested in doing lots of different stuff. In terms of staying productive, I have really concrete deadlines to meet. I do a weekly column for New York Magazine, and if I don’t meet that deadline then i’m making things tough for them and failing to honor my side of the agreement. The same goes for print commissions.
I know most people don’t think about creative work this way, but the way I see it is that I provide a service like cleaning houses or doing taxes, and that service I provide has to be delivered by a certain time. Just because I’m creative, doesn’t mean I give myself a free pass. I’m also protective of my reputation. I want editors to want to keep working with me, and missing deadlines is not the best way to go about that.
How do you gauge your own progression when you're self-employed and there's no 'promotion' to aspire to?
That’s really hard. I’m at a point where a certain amount of work just comes to me, but that might not be work that is necessarily the most fulfilling. Part of me wants to set a path and outline five articles that I'll aim to write by next year, and part of me just wants to take things as they come. I would like to be more self-directed but at the end of the day, I’ll always take a cool opportunity!
How do you reply to emails from young women asking how they can have a career like yours??
It’s impossible to know what would’ve happened if I’d taken a different path, but I do know that I’m able to be stable and happy as a freelancer because I had so many years of experience as a staff editor. In some ways, it was about making contacts and building a really strong professional network. In other ways it’s about learning to be fast. Also, I know how editors think, how they like to be corresponded with, and how difficult it is to be one!
You’ve written about your choice to opt out of living in New York even though it’s the nucleus of publishing and media. What advice do you have for girls living in Iowa or wherever, who want to write but don’t have access to those big city networks?
I would say that a lot of the success I’ve had in my career has come from things that I didn’t, at the time, consider to be ‘important’ - whether it was the hobby or the side job. I mentioned a blog I wrote for when I graduated in 2004. At that time I thought blogs were for nerds and I only did it because I wanted an outlet, but it enabled me to have all these different writing samples ready when I was applying for writing jobs. And I could’ve done that blog from anywhere.
Or, these piecharts that I make. Now, a couple of publications pay me to make silly little piecharts, but I just started making them and putting them on the internet. I did it for literally years before an editor was like: “Yeah! This weird little thing you do is something we could use.” If I’d just pitched a messy, hand drawn, semi-autobiographical pie chart, they would’ve said been, like: "Goodbye." So if you’re not in your dream job, or you're living in a location that doesn’t feel like the epicenter of your industry, just doing a creative thing on your own, in a way that is closer to what you wish you were paid for, will allow you to prove to people that you can do it. Everybody knocks working for free, but I think there’s a lot of value to creating stuff in your own space.
You’re a big proponent of the Internet. Is it important for any journalist to have a strong online presence?
I think if you’re doing it simply because you think you should, you won’t be very good at it. If you see it as an exciting way to express ideas, or get ideas, or converse with other journalists, then you’ll do it well. But you can always tell when that effort is fake.
You produce a weekly newsletter. What was the thinking behind that?
There’s no boss telling me I’ve done a good job on any given week, so part of it was a way for me to catalog both what I had put out for the week, and what I had consumed— because I do believe that I am better at my job when I am consuming interesting books and articles, rather than watching Mean Girls again.
As an editor, I know that there were all these times when I had a great story to assign and couldn’t think of the perfect writer. Most editors are not organized enough to have a database, so I guess my thinking was that maybe if they saw my name popup in their inbox once a week, they'd have it closer to the tip of their tongue than it might've been otherwise.
Is there anything you’ve read recently that you implore everyone to read?
I just read Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. She’s an interesting person who I’m very interested in professionally , because she has an academic background, she’s a journalist, she writes personal essays that feel very ‘Internetty’ in many ways. Her writing is a hybrid of all this stuff and it was interesting for me to think about that as a new form or style - she took these three things and combined them in a way that’s totally her.