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In only a few years as a freelancer, brand-new ASJA member Sarah Stankorb (@sarahstankorb on Twitter) has already compiled an envious list of credits: Washington Post, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, O, The Atlantic, Vogue, Marie Claire, Longreads, Glamour and Catapult, among others. Yet it hasn’t always been easy: Along with juggling two young children, ages 6 and 9, a nonprofit career which she left in 2012 to freelance full-time, and most recently, also serving on her local nonpartisan city council, the Ohio-based writer still manages to find time to work on her book proposal—under the advisement of one of New York City’s top agents—and create a newsletter. Also, in addition to appearing on numerous national and international radio, podcasts and television shows, she is credited with creating the term “Xennials,” now defined as the microgeneration of Millennials born between 1977–1983 “that serves as a bridge between the disaffection of Gen X and the blithe optimism of Millennials.” The term has now become part of the cultural lexicon that defines generations. Her beat spans social enterprise, feminism, the environment, health, motherhood, religion and cultural commentary.
The obvious question: What got you into writing?
Sarah Stankorb: I grew up Youngstown, Ohio in the heart of the Rust Belt, among people who despite everything the world had shown them, believed hard work would result in the American dream. I wrote my first book in third grade; my mom helped me type it up. The teacher thought it was plagiarized, not only because I claimed it was at the 6th grade reading level but also because it dealt with someone who had a gambling problem, a pretty unusual topic for an 8-year-old to write about! Also, when I was an adolescent, I developed a vocal condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which made me struggle at times to be heard by others and the treatment resulted in periods of muteness. By the time I got to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but because I actually didn’t know anyone who made a living as a writer, it seemed more practical to become an academic. So I graduated in philosophy and world religions at Westminster College in Pennsylvania and got my Master’s in ethics and South Asian religion and history at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.
What are some of the other challenges you faced?
SS: It turns out I didn’t love academia, so I tried other jobs, mostly with nonprofits. When I became pregnant at age 28 with my son, I started writing again. I didn’t want him to grow up believing dreams should be deferred. So I started on a novel and essays, some of which I sold on the side while still working full-time. Three years later, after my daughter was born, I landed some consulting contracts and was selling enough stories to afford to freelance, and because we couldn’t afford daycare for two kids I worked from home with the baby. I still didn’t sleep for a year, because launching a freelance career with a newborn is time-consuming and unpredictable and involved things like doing phone interviews while breastfeeding—once on the line with Geena Davis (I didn’t tell her that though!). In 2013, my husband and I decided to move to Ohio from Washington, D.C. which was not only closer to our families but more affordable.
You scaled a lot of top-rated publications quickly. What’s your secret?
SS: Let me backtrack a bit: I didn’t entirely give up writing during those early years. I taught language arts and English and occasionally did journaling. And I often had communications roles in nonprofits. Writing was part of my job, so the skills were there.
I wrote about what interested me; which in the beginning was stories about people losing their religious faith in their teens and 20s, a fairly common occurrence. But I also pitched social entrepreneurship stories, because I thought it was interesting that people were making a living helping the world. It was a long process of pitching, pitching and more pitching. Some stories took a long time to find an editor. Also some of it was timing: In the last few years, there has been an increasing interest in stories about the intersection of religion, feminism and sexuality. So editors are now buying pieces about raising sons in the era of feminism (Washington Post); the legitimacy of the abstinence movement among teens (Cosmo) and whether hashtags like #metoo and #believewomen are helping or hurting (Glamour).
I also got involved with writers’ groups on Facebook and other social media. Finding communities of other writers who are willing to offer support is essential; they might know of an editor or publication who is looking for exactly your story idea. That’s why I joined ASJA; to connect with and support a community of other writers.
How did you come up with the term “Xennial” and how did that affect your career?
SS: I had this sense that I didn’t really fit with Gen X or Millennial stereotypes and wanted to write about it. I took the X from the end of Gen X and linguistically mashed it up with Millennial.
I’m not sure it affected my career at all, except that last year, when the word was misattributed to an Australian professor, a bunch of inaccurate memes ricocheted around the internet. I learned the hard way how many stories are written online that lift information (and even copy) from other stories without any fact-checking. I wrote an essay in Vogue about that experience, but it made me henceforth love publications that employ fact-checkers even more. I suppose it also taught me some life lessons about giving credit where due and making sure as much as I can that people aren’t put in the awkward position of having to claim their own ideas when they should just be credited in the first place.
What advice would you give newbie writers?
SS: Be a good listener. My vocal condition forces some people to listen carefully, and so that’s a skill I’ve fostered too, and it really helps with interviews. Keeping quiet gives people the silence they need to gather their thoughts and keep the conversation going until we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter.
Writing has its ups and downs. Just when you think everything is stable, it falls apart and when things seem like they’re not going to improve, it picks back up. Recognizing this helps give you perspec
tive during both good and lean times and writer’s groups like ASJA can provide the resources and help to make the slumps as infrequent as possible.
Don’t take rejection personally. In those early days I spent a lot of time on just one pitch to a specific editor. I was heartbroken if he or she passed on the idea; I thought it was a reflection on me as a human being. But it’s really a matter of timing and even sometimes the mood of the editor; they might be interested in, say, six months. So try not to be so hard on yourself if you’re rejected and keep sending out your ideas to different editors.
Follow up with payment. Financial necessity forced me to be proactive about this. Clients need to understand that, like salaried employees, you need a check to pay the mortgage and other bills. Don’t be shy about following up if a check is late. You’re due the money and they should be embarrassed about not paying, not you.
If you’re looking to break into new markets, be sure to register for this year’s ASJA NYC Conference, May 5 and 6. Professional members can sign up for one-on-one meetings with editors and agents at Client Connections. Everyone can sit in on panel discussions, including pitch slams. Early Bird discounts end on March 20!