Her writing career may span more than 25 years, but Cleveland, OH-based writer and author Mary Mihaly says she is a self-employed businesswoman. And she takes a predictably business-like approach to her writing: marketing her “services” (i.e., her writing skills), diversifying her “product line” (i.e., producing both books and articles) and expanding her market base (in addition to authoring or contributing to eight books, Mihaly writes for magazines and corporate clients).
And she’s also a world traveler, having visited more than 70 countries on assignment, including Egypt, Colombia, Chile, China and Uzbekistan, as well as a certified feng shui practitioner with a small consultancy, New Paradigms~Feng Shui.
A lot of this and a lot of that — that would be Mihaly’s writing career in a nutshell. And in this interview, she shares her experience and views on having a writing career. (For more information about Mihaly, visit her website.)
Tell me a little about yourself. What type of writing do you do? If you do more than one kind or prefer one genre over another, what type is your favorite?
I write nonfiction. Until 1992, I freelanced on the side while working full-time jobs (first in the social services, then at Cleveland Magazine), then started full-time freelancing. For about 12 years, from the mid-’90s, I was exclusively a travel writer. That was great fun but I barely earned enough to pay my bills; travel can be exhausting and I wasn’t good at working on the road. I wanted to enjoy where I was–some writers would go up to their hotel rooms and start pounding out an article at 10 p.m., but I’d rather sit in a tavern and eavesdrop on local gossip, even if people were talking a language I didn’t understand.
That ended with 9/11. If you recall, people were afraid to travel for a long time, and when people aren’t traveling, there’s no work for travel writers. So I was forced to branch out. Some writers advise specializing, but I learned the hard way that putting all your eggs in one basket can be a bad decision. I started writing about health, and now have been studying wine and writing about the wine business. I expect I’ll get into some wine travel later. I sent my first article to a publication, the long-defunct Harper’s Weekly, in 1977. I was shocked that they accepted it and sent me a check for $15. It was a book review. The moment I saw my byline, I knew I would write for a living someday.
My second article was for Seventeen Magazine (I’ve always thought advice to “start small” was dumb), and a few days after it appeared, I got a call from Charlotte Sheedy, a top New York literary agent. Her 12-year-old daughter, Ally (who grew up to be a fairly famous actress) saw my article, a piece on assertiveness, and showed it to her mom. Apparently Charlotte had been trying to find someone to write an assertiveness book for teens and she asked me if I was up to it. Of course I said Yes, and the publisher flew me to New York to sign the contract. So I guess I owe a lot of my career to Ally Sheedy!
Who are three of your favorite authors and why?
I only have one favorite author, John Steinbeck. I cry when I read his books because every paragraph is exquisite.
Courtesy of James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”: what profession other than that of a writer would you like to attempt?
I want to monetize my wine training somehow — I’m already using it in writing, but I want to give tastings for private parties, corporate parties, do some private coaching. I’m toying with the idea of getting a part-time job in a wine shop. I need to get away from the computer.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I have a home office. Sometimes when I have to spread papers out, I sit at the dining room table, and I love to take reading out to the front porch. But I’m generally at my desk in my office, an IKEA desk system with half a dozen cubbyholes and shelves going up the wall.
What do you usually wear when you’re writing? Do you “dress for work” or dress for comfort?
I always dress for work. I have to, if I want to get anything done. If I’m in sleep pants and slippers, I don’t feel as if I’m “at work.” Sometimes my work outfit is sweats or old shorts, but I always, always wear a bra and shoes. Once I’m wearing a bra and put on shoes, I’m suited up and can focus on work.
Do you keep a journal?
No, I don’t keep a journal. The last thing I want to do after I spend all day at the computer is to write some more. I want a glass of wine and Real Housewives.
What do you find the hardest part about the “writing business”?
The hardest part about the writing business is getting paid, and getting paid well. Those are two separate issues: People hold on to their money for as long as possible, and I’m always, always waiting for checks in the mail. And rates have gone down over the past decade. I’m working much harder to earn the same money I earned in the ’90s.
What is your most recent book or published piece? What inspired this? Did you pitch the concept to the publisher or did the publisher come to you?
My latest book is on lowering your cholesterol — Complete Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol: Your All-in-One Resource for a Heart-Healthy Life. Doesn’t that sound exciting? It fell into my lap through an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) contact. It’s a handy little book, but really just a light reference.
The book I keep promoting, the one people are interested in, is The 250 Questions Every Self-Employed Person Should Ask. I pursued that contract and had an agent I won’t work with again — he was representing the publisher more than me — but it was fun to write. I learned a lot, researching all of those questions.
What is the next project you have in the works?
For my next projects, I’m starting a wine blog (www.BigSexyReds.com) and planning to try publishing a couple of e-books this fall. The first will be an update of that old assertiveness book for teens that was published in 1979.
What book are you reading now?
At the moment I’m reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I picked it up because I loved Bel Canto. This one might be even better.
How do you define success as a writer? What makes you feel successful as a writer?
I feel successful when people are hiring me to write for their publications or companies, and are paying me well. Fair pay is key to feeling successful. When you write (or do any work) for low pay, you’re just spinning your wheels in life — you work too much, you take jobs you don’t enjoy, you work for people you don’t necessarily respect, and you have no options. Money buys you options, so it’s important for writers to project a professional image and always submit their best work so they can command good pay and keep building their careers.
What advice do you have for other writers who are contemplating pursuing a writing career?
Network. Join a national writers’ organization, even if you don’t feel like you’re a “joiner.” It gives you perspective and contacts that will take you forward in your career, and gives you a chance to give back to your profession. No one can succeed in a vacuum.
Thanks to Mary Mihaly for being part of One on One: Insights Into the Writer’s Life!