Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Alchemy of Luck

A long time ago, I was a waiter in a French Quarter restaurant. I was months out of college, and we had just moved to New Orleans, and I was doing everything I could to break into print media. I was working at a small newspaper and sending out resumes by the dozen. But I just couldn't get anything to happen.

One night, I waited on a couple from Tennessee. I ended up chatting casually with them throughout the meal, and I told them I was fresh out of college and trying to move up in the publishing business. The guy told me he owned a small PR agency, and while he couldn't help with the media, he would be happy to send me a few pages from a national directory of magazines. He mailed the pages a few days after his vacation over. No note. No letter. Just an envelope with pages.

My plan was to cold-call these magazines and see if any needed help. Believe it or not, on the very first call, I landed a job interview in Boca Raton. A month later, we moved and I started a new job as a travel editor. 

A few years after that, I was working as an editor at a niche book publishing company, and I was hiring copy editors. I ended up hiring one that I talked to for a few hours after I sent her the first project. I don't remember the exact words of that conversation, but I remember exactly what was said (if that makes any sense). At the time, I was considering a freelance career, but I wasn't sure it was possible. But this freelancer said it was. "Look," she said, "I'm full-time. I make good money. I work hard. I hustle. I sell books. I work from my house. You can do this. It is possible."

Two years later, I quit my job, and I've been freelance ever since.

I'm still friends with that freelancer (you know who you are, if you're reading this), and this was just at the beginning of a remarkable stretch in which she published three, four, five books a year. Once again, until I saw it, I didn't even know such a thing was possible. I thought only "they" actually published novels, and by "them," I mean those ultrathin people who live in New York City, dine at exclusive restaurants, wear only black, and sip on impossibly expensive cocktails. People who know people. 

Opportunity. I wish I knew what it looked like when it rolled through the door. But it's always taken different forms ... a diner on vacation, a chance contact at work, a throwaway comment about a job opening. It's only later, looking back, that I see these moments changed the trajectory of my life. 

They say that good luck lies at the crossroad of ambition and hard work. I believe it.


Mark Terry said...

It was pretty similar for me, actually. The biggest problem was that I didn't know any writers. I didn't really think you could make a living as a freelance writer simply because they all seemed to be THOSE guys. The internet's helped a lot with this, I think.

For me, there was a slow accrual. I kept focusing on fiction without any luck, but then somebody handed me a book and said, "You want to be a writer, review this." So I did. (She didn't want to). Then I did another for the same publication, then I convinced the editor to make me the book review editor (it was a technical journal--which I now edit!).

Then somebody--because I had a genetics background--said, "Would you write an article about genetics for this magazine, focusing on our lab, so it'll look good about us." So I pitched the magazine, they snatched it up, and I'm still writing for them.

One thing led to another. It was a sort of random thing, pitching a magazine listing I'd come across that turned out to pay very well --85 cents a word--that brought me on. And suddenly instead of $150 per article I was looking at $1000 or so, and I thought, "Huh." And that magazine had a sister publication and...

LurkerMonkey said...

It's funny how that works. Leave yourself open to the possibilities, and it's amazing what rolls across the transom.

Jude Hardin said...

Mastery of craft + persistence = the potential for good things to happen.

Zoe Winters said...

I believe that too.

Erica Orloff said...

But I DO wear black and sip impossibly expensive cocktails.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Serendipity and lagniappe are beautiful things.

LurkerMonkey said...


Well, now that you put it like that ... so much becomes clearer!

LurkerMonkey said...


Well, now that you put it like that ... so much becomes clearer!

LurkerMonkey said...


Lagniappe is one of my favorite words! As a waiter in New Orleans, I think there's a rule about increasing tips for waiters who can correctly pronounce lagniappe, jambalaya and laissez les bon temps roulle.

Amy Nathan said...

Yes, I believe that, along with the fact that it takes years to be successful overnight.

For some reason though, all of that, I believe, makes success much more sweet.