I was home on Thanksgiving or Christmas break when I started the now defunct WritingWhileBlack.wordpress.com. It was 2009. I felt so excluded from my mostly white graduate J-school and needed a platform to write the thoughts that were in my head. I’d outgrown the Notes section on Facebook and I wanted to engage with people outside of my bubble.
Surprisingly, people were interested in what I wrote. The site grew, I hustled my ass off to become a published writer and eventually my byline became recognizable. The WordPress blog was deleted, writingwhileblack.com was born and was finally revamped to beneviera.com. I’d gone from unknown writer to writing for Clutch.com then ESSENCE magazine and later Gawker’s Jezebel in a year. Not bad for a chick who moved to New York with few contacts and little money.
I was polarizing. You either vehemently disagreed (and hated me because of it despite having never met me), or were proudly part of the “yasssssss, girl” choir. I’m passionate about race, black women, feminism, social justice and relationships so I wrote about those topics. I was overly active on social media, constantly promoting my work, engaging readers or defending one of my pieces. I’d receive emails daily from self-proclaimed aspiring writers wanting to know “How did you do it? How can I do what you did? Please give me advice.”
Many of those emails went unanswered. I thought it a strange thing for anyone to look at me as some sort of inspiration, let alone someone who could dole out advice on how to break into an industry that I’ve barely touched the surface of after five years. But posts like “A Year Later” and “The Faces of Domestic Violence Pt. 1” made people cry. It inspired. Others were just happy they weren’t the only one going through it, and they graciously told me as much. The “me too!” responses became my motivation.
Long before I knew I wanted to be a writer I was writing. I have old journals of raps I’d written (yes, they’re terrible), poems and short stories. My first byline was in The Saginaw News in seventh grade. Yet none of that made me think ‘I’m going to be a writer one day.’ I knew for sure I’d be a big time sports and entertainment or civil rights attorney. I took the LSAT. I even thought after getting my Master’s I’d pursue a JD, but I finally gave up that dream in 2009 and have been writing professionally for about five years.
I’m honored that my truth and story resonates with people from all walks of life. I’m often humbled by the emails I’ve received in some of my darkest days when I didn’t think I could pen a sentence worth much of anything, or the days I complained about not getting the credit I was due. Those emails carried me during the times I felt I had to stop writing about race because mainstream would put me in a box, or that I wouldn’t make it because I didn’t have a clear niche. I cried when I’d read the encouraging words of total strangers during times I needed to read them the most. Those words were a beacon of light from Mother Universe pushing me forward, telling me I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, and I was exactly where I was supposed to be. For those I didn’t thank personally via email, thank you. I am forever grateful.
As a writer I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally satisfied with my writing. Hell, I still break grammar rules. The English language is tricky. And because I can’t write magically like Chimamanda Adichie or Zora, it feels weird to give advice to younger writers. But I know my voice is valuable. I know something about being the underdog. I know about going from a grad student with no writing credentials to interviewing everyone from Diahann Carroll to Anita Hill to Rev. Al Sharpton to Nas to Trayvon Martin’s dad. I know the full-time freelance hustle. I know about working in mainstream from my experiences at The Network. I’ve written essays and profile pieces and Op-Eds and news stories and low-hanging fruit lists. I know things about the media industry because I’m in it. And I’ve studied it.
So here’s what I know and what I’d tell anyone if they asked for quick advice about being a writer.
You’re not an aspiring anything. Either you is or you ain’t.
I don’t remember who gave me this advice early in my career, but I do know from that day forward I never introduced myself as an ‘aspiring writer.’ I am a writer. Period. Titles matter. It’s why we celebrate promotions at work. It’s why there’s a difference between being a man’s friend versus his girlfriend versus his wife. More than anything, this gem was a lesson about speaking your life into existence and the power of words. The words you speak aloud manifest in your life. If I’d kept referring to myself as an aspiring writer I may still be aspiring.
Read more than you write.
If you write more than you read you’re doing this wrong. Reading mind blowing writing all the time should make you a better writer. Read everything. Even what you’re not interested in. Magazines. Fiction. Non-fiction. Literary journals. Subscribe to ESSENCE and VIBE, but for the love of brown Jesus read the The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Esquire and Fast Company. Love you some Zora and Zadie and Chimamanda, but don’t overlook Virginia Woolf, Flora Nwapa and Junot Diaz. Everything you read doesn’t have to be mainstream either. There are literally tens of thousands of blogs with important content. Seek them out. Just read smart, funny, thought provoking, dope ass writing.
Get rid of your idols. No, seriously.
Idols disappoint. Get them the entire fuck off of that pedestal you’ve created. Including myself. I’m sure by now I’ve disappointed the same readers who once spazzed when randomly meeting me in person. (I will never get used to that happening.) One of my writer idols disappointed the hell out of me when he/she hopped in my DMs over the backlash he/she was getting from some inflammatory shit he/she had tweeted. Said idol spoke their peace, I spoke mine, then he/she promptly let me know they were unfollowing me on Twitter. “I’ve greatly enjoyed your wrtg through following you. Unfollowing, because as you can see here, I have no respect for subliminals. Peace.”
There have been other times with even pettier stories of idols 20+ my senior minding business that is not theirs to mind then denying me an opportunity because of it. Humanize the hell out of these people because if you don’t you only have yourself to blame, if and when they disappoint you.
You are not Lola Ogunnaike or Ta-Nehisi Coates. You’re you.
Comparing my writing—more honestly my journey—to other writers, has been a cause of much discontent. Let’s unpack the writing piece first. Admire your favorite writers’ words all day long. I don’t even mind you temporarily borrowing pieces of their style until you find your own. This is common for new writers. But don’t you dare try to become a knock-off version of them. Your voice is what makes your writing different from everyone. If your voice is a cheap imitation of someone else’s words then you’re not really a writer. I’d give my 80+ pair shoe collection to be able to write like some of my faves. I study their words. I’ve practiced writing with more color, more anecdotes, more alliteration to mirror their beautiful sentences. But I am still me. And my words will always be authentic to my voice.
When it comes to comparing my career to that of others I’ve mastered that shit like Chelsea Handler’s mastered unfunny, racist comedy and riding black penis. When I’m having a meltdown to my man I always refer to Demetria’s career. It’s one I’ve admired from the sidelines and now know on a personal level as she’s been a great advisor over the years. “But Demetria got a job at Honey from writing a blog. Then at ESSENCE she built her platform and visibility. Every successful writer has a niche. Demetria is all about relationships. Touré does race. I don’t even have a niche!” My patient and loving significant other always reminds me, “That’s not your journey, though. Everyone has a different path. You have to stop comparing yourself to other people.” Whether you’re comparing your career to peers or mentors who have years on you, it’s self-defeating. Not to mention pointless. You are where you are, you’ve accomplished what you’ve accomplished, and it has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else. Travel in your lane. Of course you want bigger, better, more. Figure out how to get that on your own terms. Stop comparing your chapter one to somebody’s chapter 20.
Be real with yourself.
Do you want to be the EIC of a magazine one day or is your end goal to start your own magazine? Are you writing about music for the culture or do you just want to attend the open bar music listenings to snap a picture with an artist for the ‘gram? Your goals will change as you accomplish old ones. Be real with yourself about why you’re writing, why you want to do this and what you’re willing to endure to get there. If you’re not willing to be poor in the early stages of your career, wait sometimes up to 90 days to get paid, doubt your writing pretty much forever, pitch ideas, hear “No” often and get down right ignored by editors, you may want to consider another industry.
Are you a writer or do you want to be in the industry?
As tempting as it is for me to write about the people who are obviously in the media game just to be in the industry, I’ll spare you. This shit is not glamourous. Yes, I’ve posted IG pics posing with Nas and Brandy and Diahann Carroll. Sure I’ve heard classic albums like Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city before it dropped. I’ve been the only journalist in the studio interviewing OGs like Busta Rhymes. I watched the early screening of Django Unchained with the private theater. This could all be considered perks of being a journalist, but be very clear, it’s a job. I don’t attend events just to be there. I’m completely uninterested in being on the scene. Don’t get into this game because you think it’s going to be a lot of hobnobbing with celebrities. No, it’s going to be a lot of 14 hour days, working a 10-6 you don’t love but it pays the bills, attending events, getting home at 11p.m. to have to write a post about said event for the next morning. There’s going to be a lot of alienating friends and family because there isn’t enough time in the day for your day job, freelancing and your side hustle. Half the time you forget to eat because you’re doing 723 things at once. Something has to suffer and it will be your relationships. This shit ain’t a movie. If you want to be in the industry for the sake of being in the industry you and I have nothing in common. And you’re not a writer. You’re a socialite posing as one.
Keep your head down and do the work.
Oh Denene Millner. This gem has carried me through, do you hear me? I was stressing over not knowing where to go next. What to do. How come I’m not further along? And baaaaby. Denene gave me a word. When the woman who has written 24 books (some NYT Bestsellers) talks, you listen. Not to mention her pen game is bananas. Instead of all the worrying I was doing she first reassured me that nobody starts out with a niche so to get that out of my head. She then told me to “get the burden off my shoulders” by comparing myself to her or Aliya S. King or anyone else I admire. Then she went to church. “You have to learn your craft. Keep experimenting with your words. Keep your head down and do the work.” That’s it. I won’t elaborate on this too much because Denene said it all. Opportunities will come to you as you’re working, as you’re perfecting.
Write until your fingers bleed.
Discipline is something I’ve vowed to do better about. I can’t in good conscience tell you to write every day. But write as often as you can. Experiment with word play. There’s no shortcuts. Repetition breeds mastery. Practice all the time. Say yes to every story that challenges you. Write for publications off of the radar. Take every assignment. 10,000 hours. Read Malcolm Gladwell so you’ll get that reference. Stylistically switch it up. Write until your fingers bleed, or at least until they feel cramped.