By B.D. McClay
Continuing with our profiles of recent alumni and what they’re up to, here’s a conversation with Emalie, Writer for the Internet.
So, as I told Kate in our interview, there are a number of people I know who are doing pretty well for themselves after graduation. And you are one of those people, especially because I was pretty impressed at how you started up a blog and ended up using it to get freelancing gigs—and in a pretty short time frame!
I first read about St. John’s in one of those enormous college guide books, and I thought it was too good to be true, so I shelved the idea for a while until I finally clued into the idea that four years of reading was something that I could really do (I’m Armenian, we hate the idea of treating ourselves)! I prospied and sat in on a Republic seminar led by Eva Brann, and I remember wanting to talk SO BAD. Everyone in the seminar unanimously agreed that man’s impulses are democratic and I wanted to scream “NO!!!” and so I came to St. John’s, where I was able to write a million papers on the topic and basically beat it to death with a club. That’s the joy of St. John’s!
You and I graduated in the same year, and then I guess after graduation you moved up to Boston. Did you have any particular plans after graduation, or were you figuring out stuff as you went along?
I had absolutely NO idea what I wanted to do after graduation, so I moved home with my parents in hope of winging it, which I’m usually pretty good at. I had a vague idea of wanting to work in social services, but obviously St. John’s gives you very little training in those areas, so I was just kind of applying to places willy-nilly and hoping for the best. I can’t stress enough that this should NOT be your plan. I got knocked over a whole bunch of times; it took me forever to get a job and that was with applying like a crazy person. I will say this: the experience taught me fortitude, it crushed whatever entitlement and arrogance that lead me to believe I could just succeed really easily, and it made me appreciative of all the positive work that I’ve been doing lately. I was definitely the squeaky wheel that needed the grease when I finally started getting lucky.
And then you started a blog, right? A Sample Life. Can you tell us something about that? Why you started it, why a beauty blog. . .why samples. . . .
I started the blog for a number of reasons. I read probably a million different websites a day, and over the years I kind of absorbed their styling and studied them to the point where it seemed like a fun challenge to see if I could write for one myself. I’ve always loved to make people laugh, and that’s really my primary goal in my writing, and I figured it would be a good platform for that. When I was at St. John’s, I gravitated the most towards dry topics and really dry writing styles (I wrote my senior essay on Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, which is like Sahara dry) because they were so diametrically opposed to my personality and the way I express myself; I found it the most personally challenging to go against the grain of my expression. I wanted to break free of that in my blog, because eventually you just want to do what comes most naturally to you.
So that’s how I chose the tone, and then I chose the topic of beauty because I really do love makeup with all of my heart. Putting on makeup means exercising a little bit of artistry every morning, and it’s probably my favorite part of the day. The internet makes falling down a beauty rabbit hole extremely easy; there are millions of gorgeous blogs you can lose yourself in involving beauty but almost none of them have a humor element. I called my blog “The Sample Life” because I wanted to be honest about its aspirational quality. I’m kind of this interloper that can’t really style or afford like a truly aesthetically perfect life, but I can kind of nip at these bits and pieces of it, so I think the title fits it well.
Is beauty an intellectual thing for you? Or is it more of a leisure activity?
In terms of thinking about aesthetics in a philosophical way, I have absolutely no interest. All of the topics that I write about tend to skew toward the low-brow end of the spectrum, which is definitely by design. I gravitate towards and want to defend things that are in poor taste or just not very classy. However, I don’t think that being low-brow makes a topic any less rife for discussion or explanation! All aspects of our culture and society deserve to be respected and considered in a critical way; that’s how you get the full picture of what’s going on in the world.
One thing that was great to me about St. John’s was that when I finally graduated, I felt secure enough in my intelligence to accept that I had that aspect of myself on lock; now when I write about Honey Boo Boo or whoever I have an assurance at the back of my brain that I’m a smart person and can talk about anything in a way that has value, regardless of the taste level. It made me feel like I don’t have anything to prove.
Did you enjoy blogging? Were there any things that were unexpectedly easy, or unexpectedly hard? (Full disclosure: I find blogging extraordinarily hard.)
I love the process of writing, researching, and coming up with jokes, which all comes fairly easily to me. What’s challenging and enjoyable for me now is editing my pieces so they’re more readable and accessible; before writing for VICE I had no one to please but myself, but now I’m trying to work on the pacing and flow of my writing, as well as cutting out jokes and replacing them with explanation and content. Having an editor definitely helps in learning these things! When I started my blog I wrote without restriction, but now as a rule once I finish a piece I’ll go back and cut out 1/3 of the jokes and references. At the end it makes the piece much more substantial and readable.
The most difficult thing about blogging is all the extras you don’t think about when you imagine yourself writing. Finding images, editing for grammar, hyperlinking, and worrying about word count are all incredibly arduous for me. At the end of the day these are good habits to practice; your final product should be professional on levels beyond the content of your writing. This was the hardest thing for me to adjust to after St. John’s, because I feel like the stylistic rules are particularly freewheeling there. Don’t dismiss grammar and formatting as sophistry! It’s going to bite you when you get into the real world.
And then your blog got picked up by somebody else, right? How did that happen?
The short answer is that I forged relationships with people on social media, and as those people began working at different sites they asked me to write for them. I met my editor at VICE through Twitter; we shared a sensibility and were excited to talk about the same subjects. If you want to get readership for your work and potentially write for the internet, I can’t stress how important a Twitter account is! It’s a great way to meet like-minded people and get quick feedback and validation for your ideas. It’s also a great way to communicate with people who’s work you admire; I’ve had so many authors and journalists I admire respond to my questions.
So how does this freelancing stuff typically work for you? Do you pitch pieces to VICE or other outlets? I think knowing how to freelance is probably the most important skill for a Johnnie to pick up, as far as career stuff goes, but it’s also sort of. . .not stressed very much to us, I think.
Usually I pitch to my editor at VICE; since we have a relationship, I bring up an idea I’ve been having or a topic I’m interested in and we kind of spitball until I have a fully formed idea that matches the interests of the sites readership. I haven’t pitched a lot of other places because I’m so overworked and exhausted!
My advice is to think about the site you are pitching for, read a bunch of the articles that they’ve already posted to get an idea of the topics they cover and what their readers like, and then pitch an idea that fits in with what they already have but hasn’t been done yet. Make sure your idea is original enough that it’s not just a slight variation on stories they’ve already posted! Not every idea is going to work for every site, so pitch a variety of ideas to a bunch of different places and Don’t. Be. Discouraged. Every person who’s ever been published has also been rejected a million times!
I am in no way close to supporting myself freelancing! I have a day job that’s amazing, working at a non-profit and helping allocate funds to programs that support the elderly, people with disabilities, and people in need. I see the benefit of a St. John’s education reflected there as much as I do in my writing; my ability to synthesize information and speak coherently about subjects I am pretty novice on has proven invaluable at my job.
Would you want to support yourself freelancing, if you could? Is it something you’d want to do as a career, or something you prefer as a side gig?
I’m still deciding on what I’d like to do with my life, but I know that my writing will always be a part of it. Right now I’m leaning towards going back to school for public policy, which my day job has made me really excited about. My specific interests are in housing policy and improving access to public benefits, so that’s probably where I’ll concentrate. I would love to take my writing in a direction where I could report and educate on those issues. As with any Johnnie, however, my interests are always subject to change!
Of all the pieces you’ve written, what’s your favorite?
On VICE, I love the piece I wrote about Amanda Bynes and Monarch Mind Control, because it married my passion for pop culture and ideas about feminism and society in general. It was also my first stab at reporting, and one of the conspiracy theorists I tried to interview ended up calling me a “Satanic Shill” after reading the story, which was exciting.
On my own blog, I’ll always have a soft spot for my piece on looking like a member of the Wealthiest One Percent; it was the first post I ever made public (or, rather, I was outed by a friend who posted it on Facebook, because it was never my intention to share it) and the positive response that I received from the people in my life made me so excited to write more.
Finally: what did you get out of your liberal education, Emalie?
Besides crippling student debt?
Ha ha, hahaha, we don’t talk about the debt, Emalie.
So much. St. John’s opened my mind to looking at a given subject through a variety of lenses; it helped me understand what it means to be principled, and how to be rigorous in my own life and in my work. It stimulated my intellectual curiosity and gave me the tools to fulfill it and learn voraciously. It made me a total nerd! I really don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t think about a program book or idea. It was also amazing to be around so many like-minded and enthusiastic students! I read absolutely everything my classmates write and blog about (I mean that) and it’s so amazing to see the variety of topics we’re all thinking and learning about.
Emalie lives in Boston in a palace of cats. She works at a non-profit by day and reads and writes by night. Her hair is her pride and joy.
Illuminati image via Wikimedia Commons.
If you are an alum—recent or otherwise—who has a story to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.