Sam Cooney was my most anticipated guest speaker this semester – partly because I’ve long enjoyed his ‘sweet petite tweets’ and partly because he’s been currently killing it (from my perspective) as the editor and publisher of one of the country’s most respected literary magazines, The Lifted Brow. I don’t want to blow too much smoke up his dress (unless he’s into that), but suffice it to say his CV, entrepreneurial skills and general work ethic impressed me. For someone just a couple of years my senior, he’s accomplished a hell of a lot. He also wears many professional hats. I wouldn’t be surprised if his business cards have stapled-on amendments that enfold two or three times.
Sam began his presentation by telling us about his unconventional career path. Apparently, with the advent of the internet, unconventional is the new conventional (like, hadn’t you heard?). Old career models are becoming obsolete; these days, a professional writer’s career path is invariably defined by its random discursions. It’s unsettling to think that the degree I’m working towards could count for everything or nothing, but that’s the nature of the gig. Unlike more traditional careers, the trajectory of a writer’s path is seldom linear.
Sam’s was no exception. His journey began with a false start university enrolment where he worked towards a business degree. He considered this avenue partly because he’d yet to realise his true calling, but also because his all-boys private school had conditioned him to aspire to traditional work. Fortunately, Sam spent his leisure time indulging hidden literary aspirations and it wasn’t long before he realised writing was what he really wanted to do with his life. Though he didn’t say as much, I suspect Sam’s business classes contributed to his entrepreneurial edge. If this is true, it shows that no life experience is ever truly wasted; writers will always find ways to draw from their pasts. It saddens me, though, that there are high schools out there actively discouraging students from pursuing creative or unconventional career paths. But it’s not particularly surprising, given society’s low opinion of the humanities.
They say a Jack Donaghy dies whenever someone withdraws from business school, but Sam Cooney was not dissuaded. He tied his loose ends into a proficient sailor’s knot and enrolled at Deakin University to study professional writing. He confessed a fondness for academia, and remembers his time there warmly. Interestingly, he also alluded to a sense of apathy pervading the student body. I’ve also encountered this (it’s kind of a pet peeve). Contrasting his classmates, Sam felt like an overly enthusiastic anomaly. He jokes that others may’ve found his drive and positive attitude obnoxious, but I can’t see why people would bother committing to something they’re less than passion about.
Sam credits Voiceworks, a magazine staffed entirely by under twenty-five-year-olds, with giving him his earliest career stepping stones: his first publishing credit and some invaluable editorial experience. From there, his confidence grew exponentially to the point where he was approaching businesses to offer services or pitch ideas. Confidence is rarely attributed to writers, but it pays to be bold. Sam champions having self-belief and going after what you want. With his cold calling approach, he created his own opportunities, circumventing conventional employment avenues like SEEK. He contacted restaurants and businesses to show them how a little copy-editing could improve their professional image. People took notice. Referrals followed. He recommends getting a wide range of working experiences under your belt. Opportunities beget opportunities.
Though the exact timeline of events eludes me (Forgiveness, please! I was in an over-caffeinated note-taking flurry), Sam cited several working experiences – some he had before his transformation into Lifted Brow chieftain and some which are ongoing. These included reading and editing for Overland, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac; working with/for Giramondo Publishing, Small Press Network (formerly SPUNC), Momentum Books and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival; copy-writing for the government, real estates and contractors; publishing work in prestigious journals like Meanjin, Island, Seizure, The Big Issue and Going Down Swinging; book and event reviewing (including covering shows at the Melbourne Fringe Festival); sessional lecturing; and hosting panels at the Emerging Writers’ and National Young Writers’ Festivals. He’s also a social media aficionado, master’s graduate of the Sydney Consortium and likes to sleep suspended from the ceiling, cocooned in his own leathery wings (I hear). I know. What a lazy git.
But enough about Sam’s journey and penchant for over-achieving (it’s depressing me); he also talked about The Lifted Brow and gave some very applicable advice (which he admits he doesn’t follow me as often as he knows he ought to). I appreciated this pragmatic approach; I don’t benefit much when speakers talk abstractly about their creativity. Not saying that any of this year’s speakers did this. Just speaking generally. </arsecovering>
I suppose I should share some of Sam’s pearls of wisdoms. To do so, I’m going to break down some walls [of text] and use point form. Why? Who knows? Why does anyone do anything? Why did I put this picture here?
- Attend the Emerging Writers’ Festival! Writers of all ages and experiences flock there to talk about relevant issues. It’s fun, great for networking and fosters community. It’s also free (excepting paid headline events).
- Read bad work! This was said in regards to slush pile reading, but also applies to the glut of shitty published work out there. Reading too much good work, Sam says, is like an opiate that causes one to lose their critical eye. Reading what not to do is morbidly entertaining, good for the ego and very instructive.
- Support the industry! Sam couldn’t stress this enough. Buy books! Go to launches! Give journals feedback – not to satisfy a hidden agenda but because you want them to thrive and improve. Sam says you’re unlikely to be published if you aren’t buying/supporting/reading the journal you want to be represented in. You won’t get their style, their identity. Plus, if you want journals to stay around then you have to support them. This is not a matter of arse-kissing, back-scratching or neck-tickling (that’s a thing, right?); the short of it is that journals don’t make money. It takes so much time, money and energy to keep journals afloat. Publishers do it to share a love of literature, inspire debate, foster a likeminded community and give talented, deserving writers a platform. Most journals are labours of love and deserve our respect. Their content should represent their readership; they are not vehicles for writers to attain selfish glory or nab easy publishing credits.
- Adapt to capitalise on opportunities! At the start of his career, Sam’s only interest was creative writing. But when paid editing work came his way, his writing dream was pushed to the background. As he devoted more time to editing, he discovered he had a talent for it. Nowadays, he still hopes to succeed as a writer, but concedes he’s probably a better editor. This reassessment of self was hard to accept, but Sam’s growing more comfortable with it. It’s best to remain open and not box ourselves into a single professional identity.
- Do one thing well! Sam has had to take a conscious step back, temporarily shelving other ventures to accommodate his Brow responsibilities. He’s learnt from experience that it’s better to do one thing well than overcommit to many projects. Like Homer, he’s using his whole arse now.
- Kind of an extension of the last point, but … find a healthy life balance! Freelancers don’t work regular hours and can struggle to switch off. It took a partner’s observation for Sam to realise he was working too much. (No, critically assessing manuscripts all weekend does not constitute unwinding.) Devise a fixed routine (i.e. two hours of writing time in the morning, a few hours for lunch, exercise and domestic duties, and leave the afternoon free for the nitty gritty bureaucratic stuff). This will ensure you maintain optimal physical and mental health. Overworking leads to burning out, which then leads to spontaneous combustion.
- Be confident! Think outside the box to create job opportunities. Approach companies that would benefit from your services. All businesses want to effectively communicate their products and ideas. As a writer, your communication skills are a highly valued commodity – particularly in the computer age. No prospective tenant should have to read a dog’s breakfast real estate listing. Capitalise on our illiterate nation!
- Don’t undersell yourself! Establish fixed rates. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask for what you feel your efforts are worth. Unlike other trades, working writers are often extorted if they don’t make a hard case for their own worth. There’ll be the odd jobs you do for friends, family and early exposure, but try not to get into the habit of working for nothing. Credits and references don’t pay bills, and hard workers deserve remuneration. Use your judgement. Undercharging lowers employers’ standards, which has massive repercussions for the industry.
- Be part of a workshopping group! Pretty self-evident. Every guest speaker has mentioned this. I suppose that makes it a cardinal rule.
- Support the industry! Worth reinforcing. See Point #3.
The Lifted Brow
The Lifted Brow is a bi-monthly magazine from Australia and the world. It publishes fiction, essays, art, comics and commentary. Upcoming themes include ‘Ego’ and ‘Medicine’.
I’m not going to spruik The Lifted Brow because that would be kind of lame and disingenuous. Depending on time commitments, I may review their current issue down the track. We’ll see. I mostly wanted to mention a few pertinent/interesting things that were mentioned about the magazine. Sam’s personal writing philosophy is also The Lifted Brow’s mission statement: they believe the best stories are those with new or unique elements. Writers don’t have to radically reinvent genres, but should strive to experiment with voice, form or perspective. If you’re not a natural innovator, try approaching classic ideas from fresh angles.
The editors at The Lifted Brow enforce strict quality control measures. Some past longer pieces, Sam said, took as long as nine or even twelve months to finalise. The editing process is stringent but democratic. Authors are encouraged to refute proposed changes. Their wishes will be honoured if they can justify a particular inclusion.
I’m no Brow expert, but from my understanding there are three versions of each issue: print, online and app. Each features entirely unique content that is tailored for the respective medium. My first thought when I heard this was Holy shit, that’s cool! What a progressive magazine! My second was Oh my God! They’re effectively working on three issues at a time! What a fucking monumental task! I do not envy them! Considering the diverse material that goes into each issue, it strikes me as a Herculean operation. But they make it work. Go team.
I’d never read The Lifted Brow before Sam’s visit, (I know, right? Minus thirty-five cool points), but have now. Quick tangential anecdote: Sam was kind enough to bring in three copies which he planned to award to those who asked the best questions. Competition during a speaker presentation!? It’ll never catch on!
Except it did. Sam’s proposition incentivised question time (historically when seventy percent of the room averts eye contact/looks to the floor), resulting in some generally inspired questions. Sam’s presentation was engaging in its own right, so the prospect of Prizes! (especially sex-themed Prizes!) was doubly effective.
Unfortunately, the unprecedented volume of good questions overwhelmed Sam and, like a malfunctioning robotic card-shuffler, he was forced to distribute the magazines at random. I was one of the lucky seagulls – although, to be fair, it landed very close to my nearest neighbour. Fortunately, she was friend not foe. Diplomatic publishing students that we are, we decided to time-share The Lifted Brow’s Sex Issue (awkward because it, err, came with a condom). What I’ve read so far has been great. I suspect I’ll be a Lifted Brow convert. I’m circling the drain.
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Well, that’s everything. Gold star if you’re still reading. I realise this was outrageously long, but I had so much quality information. I couldn’t kill any of my darlings. Thanks to Sam Cooney for a great presentation. (And if he’s reading this, I apologise for dousing him with my praise gun.) Until next time!