How I Changed as a Writer After Interviewing a Suicidal Writer
Mindest shifts on writer identity, background, and niche writing after talking with Jennifer Walker, a suicidal physicist turned professional art, travel, and culture writer
Jennifer Walker tried to kill herself in her mid-20s.
She was in the middle of her PhD in Nuclear Physics when she realised that being a scientist was not what she wanted to do in her life.
This inner conflict made her feel lost.
Jennifer started suffering from severe anxiety disorders and depression, but instead of abandoning her studies, she acted by impulse and opted for a bunch of tranquillisers mixed with vodka.
Thankfully, it didn’t work.
Thankfully, she started to seek help.
She went into therapy, surrounded herself with good friends, and then discovered the thing that made her want to live again: writing.
Today, Jennifer is a professional art, travel, and culture writer. Her work has been published in various esteemed publications, magazines, and newspapers, including National Geographic, The Times, BBC, Lonely Planet, Evening Standard, The Guardian, and CNN, to name a few.
I interviewed her on my podcast, and in this article, I’d like to share what her story taught me about writing. At the end of this post, you’ll also find a few tips Jennifer wrote for all of us (aspiring) writers.
I hope what follows will inspire you to become the best writer you could possibly be.
I used to think I was not a writer.
Writers, to me, were people who wrote for a living. Stephen King, J.K Rowling, journalists, paid bloggers, ghostwriters, copywriters — these can be called writers because they get paid for their words.
Talking to Jennifer made me change my mind. Jennifer didn’t see herself as a writer either. But then something changed.
“I remember going on a date with a Swiss entrepreneur who helped me make a huge shift in my mindset. I told him about my dreams of being a writer but how I was not there yet. He asked me, ‘How much do you write and think about writing?’ ‘Almost all the time,’ I replied. ‘Well, you’re a writer then. Accept the identity, and the rest will come.’ That’s what I did.”
After that conversation, Jennifer started seeking more opportunities to make a career change. She accepted several unpaid writing jobs, volunteered as an intern writer, and worked on building a portfolio. One published piece led to another, and then another, and then another.
Jennifer became a writer the moment she started believing she was one.
Her story made me realise that, to consider myself a writer, I don’t need to make 100% of my income from writing nor do I need to publish a bestseller.
Now I see myself as a writer because a) I believe I am one, and b) I write.
This is the mindset I must adopt to improve my craft. This is the mindset I need to stick to if I want to move forward in my writing career. And, maybe, this is the mindset you need, too.
Your Background Is an Asset
Because I’m a trained English as a foreign language teacher, I always thought I could only write about language learning. Pitching outside this realm would have made me feel like an imposter.
Listening to Jennifer’s story, though, made those imaginary limits disappear.
“I’ve always had that scientist label attached to me because of my physics background. For a long time, I felt like an imposter because people categorize you into a different box based on your work and educational experience. But recently, I realized that my background gives me an advantage. Someone even told me that because I don’t come from the conventional background in writing, I come with a different perspective.”
Her PhD in science was indeed what helped her land a job at a culture magazine in the Netherlands.
The editor was looking for a candidate who didn’t come from an art, history, or humanities background. He needed a more analytical thinker and Jennifer was the perfect writer for the job.
Could my background help me stand out as a writer?
I believe it could. To make that happen, I need to see how my skills, experience, and knowledge can make me the writer who comes with a different perspective.
My background can be a valuable asset. And so can yours.
I used to say, “I’m multifaceted, so I can’t write about one topic only. Picking a niche is a recipe for boredom.”
But Jennifer told me that 80% of what she writes is about Vienna and Budapest. She’s a successful writer (also) because she writes about a specific area.
“If you are very specific in an area, then people will see you as an expert in that area. Part of my success has been down to that. If I try to generalize in too many things, I would probably be pitching things all over the place. But people would find me because they were looking for something specific. And I wrote about something specific.”
This makes sense.
Being specific gives you an advantage over generic writers. Being specific can allow you to charge more for your writing because specificity is scarce.
How could you expect to be paid more when seven million other writers could write what you write?
Yes, I am multifaced and I can write about anything I want. In fact, I should. That helps me explore topics, learn, and improve my craft as I go. But if the goal is to turn writing into a well-paid, full-time job, then I’d better reconsider.
Niche writing may not be sexy. But it’s in demand.
Over to Jennifer Now
I asked Jennifer to answer this question: “What advice would you give to someone looking to improve their writing skills and develop as a writer?”
Here’s what she said.
“It’s a bit of a cliche, but just write. Put your work aside; nothing gives you better clarity than distance and then edit. The more you do this, the better you get.
Read as much as you can across various genres and styles. Read fiction: read literary fiction, read genre fiction, and read trash. Read non-fiction, read things that interest you.
Also, try to read like a writer. Francine Prose’s “Reading Like a Writer” is a great book I’d recommend on this topic, but simply put, try to read with an analytical mind to understand why something works and why it doesn’t. The sheer repetitive act of reading, writing, and editing your own work over and over again helps you build up the craft.
Of course, getting feedback is also invaluable; join a writing critique group and see what people think and what advice they give. You don’t have to take it (not all feedback may be the right feedback), but you’ll get some external feedback.
Even give others feedback, you’ll step away from the bubble of your own writing and see what you think works as a reader. It won’t happen overnight, but it’ll take time and practice like any craft.
Watch the world around you, observe what’s going on, and write it down.”