Note: This post is best read with Kanye’s “I Wonder” playing in the background
“I’ve been waitin’ on this my whole life/These dreams be wakin’ me up at night”
On Friday, I wrote the words I’d been dreaming of writing since I was a young girl. I told the world (or my little piece of it) that my writing is featured in the September issue of ESSENCE Magazine. “Selfie Nation, a one-pager about the phenomenon of taking pictures of yourself, and what it says about you is in theHealthy & Happy section. How ironic that the day it’s released, Kim “I Make Millions By Doing Hardly Anything” West announces that she’s releasing Selfish, a collection of selfies taken for Kanye (Ugh, that girl is an accidental genius.) Can’t knock the hustle.
When ESSENCE dropped the cover art for the issue, I was sitting in the bus station in L.A. with girlfriends before part II of a much needed vacation. I sent the screenshot to my mama praying she remembered to tap the thumbnail to enlarge the photo. We’d hoped to grab a copy and celebrate over drinks in some swanky hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but instead, I impatiently waited for a week. Friday, I swiped the office copy off my boss’ desk (she knows) and zoomed to the Table of Contents.
There it was on page 142: my name in bold under beautiful artwork. You’ve got to understand something. For a writer, seeing your name in a byline is equivalent to a wannabe superstar seeing her name in bright lights. I can’t say that I’ve ever said I wanted to do anything else, really. I started out in newspaper journalism and learned a valuable lesson that knocked my socks off during an internship. Ditched that for public relations, and though that’s my full-time work, and I enjoy it, I’d never given up on writing for magazines.
In 2006, I was asked to write a weekly blog for a Vibe Vixen online revamp. I was elated, but still knew nothing about finding your niche or the hustle of game. I was new to blogging at my anonymous blog where I told funny stories about personal business and my dreadful job fresh out of college. It was a good break, especially since digital was still new, but I didn’t capitalize on the opportunity like I could’ve.
Then I met Dede Sutton of Clutch, and I literally saw her dreams become a reality, as well as a few of my own. She took one idea to create a place for young multicultural women at a time when ESSENCE seemed to have lost its identity, and as a result, loyal readers, myself included. I was blessed to write for the very first issue and keep going until now, and since it’s produced writers who’ve gone on to become some of the best editors and writers in the game. Still, there had to be more.
All of the writing advice I’d read demanded you move to New York City. Leave your small town or second-tier city, and try to “make it” in the Concrete Jungle. You know, like Carrie Bradshaw. I strongly considered it once, but put it behind me. Secondly, get a mentor, and of course, I had no leads. Then I found Aliya S. King’s blog. She dished out every piece of advice aspiring writers needed. I’d been pitching to ESSENCE since college (the audacity) when only hard copy pitches were submitted in snail mail. I sent her a pitch to be ripped apart by her writer and editor friends, and ripped it was for all of her readers to see.
I adopted her as my mentor-in-my- head when she told me to call myself a writer, not just an aspiring one. “Do you write?…Yes. Well, you’re a writer.” The summer I was laid off, I flew to NYC for her The Write Pitch workshop. At 31, I sat in a small room of an old Midtown brownstone with mostly college students and early twenty-somethings who were hungry for bylines, hoping I could inhale some of the grind that I’d heard swirled around in the NYC air. After three hours, I realized that I’d written for most of the dotcoms those youngins dreamed about–Clutch, Ebony, Vibe Vixen. Why wasn’t I cracking into print though?
At 33, my peers and those younger were snatching up print stories left and right with story ideas that were no better than mine, or so I thought. One thing I’ve learned about journalism is it’s just like any other profession, in that it’s not what you know so much, but who you know. On the flip, before you even reach out to who you know, you need content. Opportunities are wasted if you don’t have the words to back you up.
I’d tried everything: submitting guest posts for some of your favorite bloggers and writers, cold-emailing editors (that resulted in my first response, but rejection from ESSENCE), participating in writing groups, reading posts by writers like Demetria Lucas, Bene’ Viera and Janelle Harris for inspiration. At best, for print, I’d landed a 65-word blurb in Uptown Magazine in 2010 after an editor turned down my pitch, but kept my information on file. Little by little, ya know? But there was still more to be done.
In 2012, I created my first “dream board.” At the very bottom, I pasted the ESSENCE logo, along with the word “contributors.” Unlike many others, I had a contact, but within a year or two, I’d received a handful of nice rejections. “Sorry, we’re already covering that” or “I’m going to pass on this one.” I would scream in my Strange’ voice, “WHY ARE MY CONCEPTS BEING IGNORED?!” (my movie quoters will get that one) What I did pay attention to was, “Please, keep sending pitches.”
When I created my dream board this year, I didn’t bother to include ESSENCE or much of anything about writing. I was tired of the rejection, and thought I’d hit the glass ceiling, destined to write for my favorite publications’ websites forever. I randomly pitched the ESSENCE editor again, but instead of the same rejection response, she forwarded me to another editor. Weeks later when I’d long forgotten about it, an email came in. The rest, as they say, is history.
Folks fail to tell you what happens in that history though. Like, sometimes, it may take editors weeks, even months to get back to you about a pitch. Or maybe they don’t get back to you. Your story may get bumped to another issue with no warning, if it’s published at all. It’s all a stressful and uncontrollable thing, but so worth it in the end.
So, here we are.
If I never write again, I can say I had a story in the print version of my favorite magazine. Someone I don’t even know is reading my words. It’s fascinating to me as I’ve read magazines since I was a little girl, wondering how they did it. No matter how I try to throw them away, there are still stacks at my mom’s house. I have a stash here that dates back to 1995 (Remember Jodeci’s VIBE cover? DeVante had a rose in his mouth. Got it.)
Talking to a friend today, she says, “You sound over it… Like, ‘okay, another goal checked off the list. On to the next.’” She’s right, in a way. In just 48 hours, I’m still on Cloud 9, but already thinking about more story pitches. The last thing I want is to be a one hit wonder. How dreadful.
What’s better than the story itself? The support from family and friends. Y’all, people are posting selfies while reading the story (shout out to Alpha Tau, Spring ’03). I’ve received so many kind words, texts, messages, posts and phone calls from folks who have been “riding since Day 1.” My mother, the one who knows the best how much this means to me, listens to me talk about writing even when she probably doesn’t want to. My wonderful circle of friends whom I love dearly, too. My linesisters, classmates from junior high, high school and college, social media followers to whom I’ve never spoken in person are there. Then there are fellow writers who give heads up on leads, who’s looking for new writers or moved to another publication. There are people who support me, and I’ve never communicated with them at all. It really is a collective effort.
They read, share, retweet, comment on my work. I get Twitter direct messages and texts at midnight about writing opportunities that I might’ve missed (“Ma’am…look at this. Get on it.”). When I have deadlines, they rush me off of the phone with just the right amount of tough love (“Don’t you have a deadline? Finish your shit, mane!”). They remind me to update my blog or finish the short story series I started (“We gotta get you that three-book deal!”). Church members encourage and congratulate me Sunday after Sunday, even when I haven’t written anything. I have a mentor (no longer in my head) who, even though she has her own deadlines and book deals, answers my frantic Gchats about writing from miles away in New Jersey (we both had stories in the same issue. How crazy is that?) Talk about a support system!
For all of that, I cannot express my gratitude. I’m glad I’ve made you all proud. You think sometimes that no one’s reading, but someone’s always watching. THANK YOU.
The moral of the story is…Keep going. Whatever it is you love to do, press on. If you really love it, you won’t really ever stop. Your heart won’t allow you to. I’ll be honest and say no matter how much I wanted to quit, I’ve known since I was a child that God had it written in my story somewhere, I just didn’t know what page. I can’t explain it, but I thank Him for atleast giving me something that Iwant to do. Everyone can’t say the same. If you don’t know what your “thing” is, ask Him to show you, and pay attention.
This story isn’t the pinnacle. It’s not a Pulitizer Prize or a column in the New York Times, but it is a dream that’s a reality, and that’s all that matters.
Pick up the September issue of ESSENCE or download the digital version on your iPad for a tablet extra! And if you want, post a selfie reading the story. I think the hashtag is #SelfieNation #AlishaTillery Don’t forget to keep the conversation going about selfies and include @essencemag