Though I feel like I tripped into my writing career, I have to assume it was destiny. Along the way I tripped into other industries too—from wardrobe styling to international music booking—but I always came back to writing as my truest love and most reliable source of income.
I constantly see people struggling to understand how they can break into a creative career. As I write blog posts for DJO, I try to focus on questions I see in groups and forums, because the same themes continue to pop up: how can I start writing for money? What do I do if I have no experience? I used to write my own story off as being too random for anyone to learn from, but the more I dig into my past, the more legit answers I uncover.
My path wasn’t linear at all, but it wasn’t as random as I thought. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, scrawling stories on loose leaf and later virtually living in Microsoft Word. I always knew content and storytelling was a passion of mine, but it wasn’t until years of studying visual communications and fashion design that my inclination toward digital content took shape.
Here’s how I turned that vague notion into a career.
During my first internships in fashion, I was depressed by how tedious the work was for someone at the bottom of the clothing design food chain—even at the most glamorous companies. All of those epic runway unveilings require a hellish amount of work. I knew I didn’t want to spend my time filling out tech packs for someone else’s clothing label. After graduation I prepped my design portfolio, but I wasn’t looking forward to the reality of what I’d signed up for. Fashion school was a dream, and I would have to wake up from it and enter the real world like everyone else… but I’ve never been one to follow the rules.
I started my blog, Hey Mishka, in the winter of 2008.
It’s probably my longest running project. Back then my blog served one purpose: to keep me sane. Life as a fashion design major was tough. I was awake until the wee hours of the morning on the regular, hand-sewing welt pockets and lapels. I nursed iron burns and needle stabs, and sleep deprivation was normal. I started a blog to keep myself chipper—to document my design projects, experiment with content, and talk about my crazy weekends (yep, I was kind of a party animal).
I got my third degree in design by 2009, but hey! I didn’t want to design for money. I wanted to write. On a whim, after receiving a Refinery29 newsletter on a warm June morning, I vowed to land an internship there. And I did it.
I was far from privy to the complexities of digital marketing and content development back then, but I knew this: R29 had the coolest stories on the damn internet. I wanted to be a part of that. Not knowing they would become a media super-company, I waltzed into an interview with Editor in Chief Christene Barberich and was offered the internship on the spot. She said she liked the way I worded my emails, and—lucky me—she also liked my purse.
That’s where it all began.
I was 24. I stumbled, fumbled and faked my way through the first few months. I was a decent writer, but I relied on editors (like Connie Wang, who was an incredible mentor and friend during my time there) to reign me back into their “downtown It-girl” voice.
As I learned how to pen exciting fashion journalism, I soaked it all in, covering NYFW shows, interviewing my fashion industry heroes, drinking champagne at store openings and pouring over articles. Every time one of my pieces went live I felt validated. Before long, my visual communications studies came in handy: I could edit my own images and make collages in Photoshop. I could write my own HTML to format our boutique listings. I began learning SEO so I could handle the meta copy. As I mentioned in my guide to launching a freelance writing career, you’d do well to learn some of these things that surround and support published writing as well.
Looking back, the founding team at R29 was incredibly patient with me. The professional world of content development is fun and chaotic, but it requires real consistency and discipline. The seeds of my anti-9-5 mindset had already been planted and were starting to sprout. I had a hell of a time showing up each day and sitting at a computer. It was the coolest job a girl in NYC could ask for, but I struggled with investing so much time in someone else’s vision.
But let me say this…
As a young writer at the beginning of my career, that was a mistake.
Back before I had the wings to fly, this escapist mindset wasn’t so helpful. You’ve got to put in the time and hone your craft under the wings of people who are more skilled than you before you can peace out and start your own thing. I had a lot to learn, and I was deep in the belly of what is now one of the most progressive and successful digital companies in the world. If I had focused less on my innate desire for freedom and more on the resources I had at my disposal, I would probably be further ahead right now. Hindsight is 20/20, of course.
I was naive and distracted, romanced by shiny objects and a budding social life. When I look back, I want to kick my young self in the shins for not being more present and digging my nails further into that dream job.
There’s no sense lamenting over the past, of course—but learn from my mistake. Whoever you’re working for, whatever your goals are, use your current circumstances to their full capacity. Squeeze blood from stone if you have to, but seek feedback. Seek mentors. Seek chances to try something new. You’re blessed with the opportunity to interact, collaborate and produce, so don’t let it slide. Get all up in it!
The quickest way to fly? Jump out of the nest.
By the time I turned 25 and started a side gig hosting insane dance parties, two things were clear: I wasn’t aesthetically aligned with the overtly cool It-girl vibe of R29—I preferred a brightly colored, eccentric wardrobe to the standard of high-fashion hipster-chic I admired in the office—and, I was completely obsessed with blogging.
I kept my position as contributor and guest-editor as R29 and started writing for other brands and companies. R29 wasn’t the huge name it is now, but back then it was still impressive to people in the internet publishing world. Thanks to my time there, I scored blogging gigs for smaller companies, like Denim Therapy, for whom I still write today sometimes!
Over the next few years I hustled and hustled, doing global music booking at a dive bar by night and writing during the day. I met with companies once a week to review editorial goals and get feedback. I found very quickly that focused, objective-driven writing drove sales and made business owners happy, which resulted in fatter paychecks. I was making a modest amount, but the feeling was amazing. It fed my desire to hustle, something fierce.
I began assistant directing and promoting an annual fashion show. I blogged, taught myself how to edit videos, wrote bios for fashion brands, and did anything I could to build my portfolio. Nightlife jobs and writing jobs weren’t always easy to balance, but I had a lot of friends in the city with bizarre schedules and abnormal career paths, so I didn’t think much of it. I would advise aspiring writers not to seek out a bizarre lifestyle for the sake of being interesting, but also not to worry about it if you have to live like a nomad or work odd jobs to make ends meet while you’re building yourself up.
I barely knew what freelancing was, but I had become a freelancer.
I took pride in my new title the first time I wrote “Freelance Writer” on my Linkedin page. I liked the word Freelance. I didn’t do a lot of research on what that meant in terms of bookkeeping until another mentor of mine, Francine Rabinovich, told me to sign up for my EIN tax ID. Suddenly, I was legit on paper. I really relied on the willingness of mentors to direct me in the early days. I was just doing what I loved, thrilled that I could make money with it, and hadn’t thought too much about the technical side of anything.
In fact, I remember looking for clerical work and front desk jobs in the midst of this, whenever my mother urged me to finally find a “real” job, because I had no idea I could even turn my current fixation with writing into a career.
Not getting a full time job ended up being a major advantage. I learned how to hustle like a pro. From managing teams of writers to blogging for a luxury French furniture company to designing nightlife fliers and even taking photos of food at restaurants, I did whatever I could to network and make money. I was a content machine and no one was handing me the work.
I was hunting it down.
I found gigs on the alumni job bank at FIT, through mentors, via Craigslist, and by word of mouth. I found that when I was really putting myself out there, I serendipitously connected with new clients. I launched a blog for the Food Network. I managed an eCommerce website for a wellness company. I had quick turn around time and I learned how to adopt the voice of a brand. If one gig cut their budget, I quickly found another. I learned how to land on my feet.
Meanwhile, my blog—Hey Mishka—was gaining traction. I was invited to do three DIY events at Bloomingdale’s SoHo, got invited to showrooms for private previews and to boutiques to pick out free clothes, and at one point I even collaborated with Patricia Field on a project in Peru.
One thing leads to another. Trust the universe!
While I was making money with copywriting and having a blast blogging, other paths began to unfold. During my nightlife booking gig I was introduced to a wardrobe stylist. After raving over our mutual love of fashion, she asked me to join her on a shoot. I assumed nothing would come of it. Drunk people in NYC love to network and then not follow up, after all! I was surprised when she called me the next day.
Soon I was assisting her on professional shoots, which was like going from zero to 100 overnight. I didn’t totally know what I was doing, but once again a mentor had emerged to show me the ropes. I styled the Rock Band 3 commercial, which took place on an epic rooftop in Dumbo. I styled dog food commercials, film festival promos, and fashion shoots. The agency provided consistent work, and suddenly I was a freelance stylist.
I took it and ran with it. I began styling test shoots with photographers, and blog content for the brands I worked for. I started a vintage shop and styled the shoots. I started an original clothing shop and styled those shoots too. Word got out at my nightlife gig that I was a stylist, and an amazing band asked me to style their shoot as well. When work slowed down I styled myself to keep fresh content flowing in my portfolio.
If you’re clicking on these links you’ll see a huge mix of amateur and professional—that’s just how it is when you’re starting out. Don’t worry about it. Keep producing work and publishing things. Collaborate with professionals and other people who are just getting their feet wet. Get feedback, and then get back to work! When you’re using your creative energy like this, you really come alive and see what you’re capable of.
In the end, styling wasn’t my dream job.
There are so many things I love about styling—namely the collaborating. You work with a team of photographers, designers, showroom coordinators, makeup artists, models and more. You make friends for life. You have victorious moments with the crew after busting your ass all day in the freezing cold and producing something beautiful. You gain contacts for future gigs. You pass work to them when you’re not available, and they return the favor. If you’ve got the physical and mental stamina, it’s an incredible industry to be a part of.
Styling eventually landed my work on the cover of a magazine, but I was missing my first love: writing. I decided it was time to get back to content developing.
The day I learned my worth.
Back in the writing game, I saw a lot more jobs opening up (and competition was getting more fierce). Freelance writing had become a popular gig. Brands were waking up to the epic importance of their messaging. I took a technical copywriting job for a major mass market company, and after long hours of tedious work, something dawned on me: big corporations value good copy.
They are also willing to pay for it.
The language a brand uses to inspire their customer to make a purchase is crucial. It has to be language that already lives in their minds. It has to make them think the brand really knows what they’re going through in life. It has to make them feel like they’re part of something. At the same time, it has to comply with legal restrictions, have flawless grammar, and depending on the medium, be printed millions of times in hard copy for distribution as well as live online.
Pretty wild, right? If someone walked up to me in high school and said, “Something you write in the future will be printed a million times!” I’d probably be too scared to become a writer.
The first time I made over $1000 in one week, I hop-skipped to the bank with a new lease on life. I had discovered that writing, which I loved with all of my heart, was a valid potential career.
I decided to build my future around it.
I’ve been surfing the highs and lows of my content career for nearly seven years. I branched into other kinds of media, produced copy for apps, developed email campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the world, put a celebrity fashion designer’s collection inspiration into words and plenty more.
I’ve had a freelance contract cut short because I lost my motivation and let my personal life ruin my professional life. I’ve also been publicly recognized by powerful marketing directors in swanky private parties with champagne toasts. I’ve felt lost between gigs and then even more lost after finding them—because I always want to be doing my own thing.
I’ve long dreamed of starting my own business, traveling, consulting, sharing my resources, and sharpening my own blades. I’ve logged an epic amount of field research, experimentation, and small victories in my creative life… but it’s never enough. I’m always looking for the next adventure.
At present day I am a full time copywriter and content manager at a major fashion brand in NYC. I collaborate with multiple teams and publish content throughout the week. I’m learning how to be a master of project management and even getting trained in managing new eCommerce platforms. Today I’m more comfortable putting in the hours for someone else’s dream as I hone my own long term goals. I seek out mentors and even friends the way I always have, and now I recognize the value.
Still, I’m usually scheming, sketching business plans and preparing for take-off.
Day Job Optional is my muse among muses, where I can finally talk about the intricate complexities of being a creative professional. I can share knowledge that can make a difference. I can talk about my dream of traveling the world, and how I’m chipping away at it one trip at a time. I can share my story, and invite others to share their stories too.
If I had to sum this up in just a few pieces of advice it would be this: Don’t let someone else design your life. Don’t resign yourself to one profession or one office cubicle. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Spend time with mentors and get as much wisdom from them as you can—but then do your own experiments.
Work with integrity. Collaborate and credit others for their contributions. Your creative career will always be an ongoing experiment. Get comfortable with the uncertainty. Fall in love with it. Learn how to hustle. Put your fear aside and do it anyway. Be good to people, and they will be good to you.
And finally, don’t forget that the universe has your back, and if you’re working toward your passion, you’ll figure it out along the way. It’s the process that makes life vivid. No moment of victory can give you what years of working hard and creatively solving problems can. If you’ve signed up to be a writer, or a creative professional of any background, you’ve been blessed. Never give up. Another lesson, another victory, another chance to share your gift is right around the corner.
That’s my story, so far. Thanks for letting me share it. If you’re interested in becoming a freelance writer, check out my guide to launching a freelance writing career.
I want to learn about you! Are you a freelance writer? Join the conversation in our free writers mastermind!
Want to quit your day job and launch a work-from-anywhere writing career? Get our newsletter and learn how.