In 2005, my sister got married in a Korean nightclub she rented out for the night. It had private karaoke rooms upstairs, in case you were wondering.
I was the maid of honor.
But I wouldn’t even consider making a speech at the wedding, let alone a toast.
I felt like I had nothing original to say. Nothing meaningful. And more than that, I was and completely lacking in confidence.
I’ve been writing award-winning things since 1990.
Okay, by that I mean that I won my middle school’s “Just Say No To Drugs” poetry contest.
First time I learned that words are worth money.
But I forgot that lesson pretty quickly.
Fast forward to a year or two after my sister’s wedding. A local alternative newspaper asks me to write an article for their first issue.
A $40 check arrived in the mail 3 weeks later.
You know I photocopied that shit. I couldn’t believe what I had to say was of any value, let alone the same amount as what I’d make in tips after an entire 6-hour shift at the coffee shop where I worked.
Little by little, the confidence grew. I loved my job as a journalist. All in all, it didn’t pay much. 10 cents a word. But I got to experience giving a damn for the first time. If not for my own life, then for other people's.
It was my job to pitch story ideas to my editor twice a month. I would research local businesses who were doing their part to bolster the local economy. Cooperatively-owned breakfast cafes. National celebrity paper cut artists. Punk bands. Folk schools that offered classes in forgotten crafts. A pole dancing studio that taught women how to love being sexy in their bodies after a lifetime of shame.
Maybe a hundred articles. All people doing what they did as acts of love. For the sake of art. For passion and joie de vivre.
Without my knowledge, I had started a writing business. What a joke, I thought. Who would take me seriously, let alone pay me?I was 28. No clue how to get clients. When I did finally get one, I bid $200 to write her whole website. No surprise, my words never made it to the final page.
Still, I loved writing so I stepped out a bit creatively. Took a poetry class in the big city an hour away, which led to me performing a poem about my internalized homophobia in front of 400 people.
Which led to me going to grad school for writing.
Which led to writing a memoir. Which led to me forgiving my mother.
People in my classes and my professors loved what I wrote. Okay, sometimes they didn’t. My grammar was shit and much of the time I didn’t have a practical understanding of what actually makes for a good story. But I could feel it in my body when I nailed it an emotional truth.
Then I got a client.
I’d force myself to work at the library, terrified that I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wrote from my heart. And very closely followed (or, ahem, slightly copied) what other writers wrote.
Then I got another client.
I quit my day job working for a nonprofit that taught low-income business owners how to take off, despite the fact that I loved it.
Not recommended when you don’t understand the ramifications of ongoing cash flow… or lack thereof. I just wanted to be a writer so badly.
Pretty soon after, I moved to my dream city. The place I’d wanted to live since I was a 15-year-old punk ass kid who moved out of my parents’ house because of all the fighting.
Getting them completely eluded me. I got a business coach and she told me that she didn’t know any copywriter who was lacking work. “I guess I suck,” I thought.
Slowly, but quicker than I realized, I began supporting myself with my writing. People recommended me to their friends. I studied marketing, teaching myself by looking at what others were doing that I liked, and more importantly, what I didn’t like.
I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to write things that I would actually read. My bullshit detector was strong and I had a deep-rooted aversion to sales.
Plus, I grew up without money and basically lived in abject poverty my entire 20s, so I hardly ever bought things besides food and rent. Buying something luxurious like even the $100 online classes I was selling for my clients was out of the question for me personally.
Not a good thing when you’re a copywriter and your job is to sell shit.
Eventually, I worked it out.
Fast forward to today. I rarely take the time to bask in my accomplishments. I keep a file on my computer desktop titled “Praise” where I put my testimonials or anything kind my clients tell me about what I write or do for them, including the numbers.
$5,000 in sales from one promotional email.
$120,000 from a few of them in a row, and then another $98,000 two months later selling the same thing.
“I don’t want to recommend you to anyone else because I don’t want you to get too busy to write for me.” (I always tell them to go ahead and refer me and we can work it out.)
When I open up the doc to enter a new one, I see pages full of proof that what I write is valuable. Still, there is a part of it all that doesn’t seem real.
Despite the fact that on any given day, my words go out to half a million people.
Despite the fact that I’m often booked out a month in advance and many nights I work until 11 pm trying to get it all done.
There are also days where I skip out. Go to acupuncture in the afternoon or say fuck it when my friend from Portland comes to town.
Almost every day I take my dog to Golden Gate Park for an hour before the sun sets. I watch her run through the grass, hair flowing like Falkor from The Neverending Story, headed to greet every person basking in the sunshine. She is a Yorkshire Terrier, so she doesn’t shed fur. She sheds joys.
When people ask what I do, I say different things depending on my mood and who I’m talking to.
My friend’s 12-year-old daughter asks what I do.
I tell her I’m a ghostwriter for New York Times bestselling authors.
I can’t believe the words are true but they are.
Someone else asks, and I tell them I get paid to write about poop.
Many of my clients are digestive health experts.
I’ve had a few passions in life.
Photography. (My first career choice — I worked in New York City when I was 18, but couldn’t hack it with the sexism of the industry.)
That one guy I met in Barcelona…
But for much of my life, I was pretty detached. I didn’t bother much dreaming or wanting anything because of how impossible it seemed to attain anything good for myself.
But slowly, through my side gig writing articles that only a few dozen people would read, through working with my clients — people who cared so deeply about helping people — I learned how to care about outcomes because what they — what we — did mattered.
And I fell in love with the fierceness of business owners even more deeply. Although I don’t know what took me so long, I finally realized I was one. A legit one.
My friend Jeanie corrected me one day when I said I was a freelancer.
No, she said. You’re a business owner.
Yeah, I said. I’m a business owner. I run a business. Suddenly, I was in it to win.
Winning meant having confidence for once in my life.
Winning meant making more money in one month than I did in the entire year just 3 years before.
Winning meant being able to afford vitamins and max out my Roth IRA and pay back my student loans.
Not living paycheck to paycheck? I literally didn’t even know that was possible once upon a time in the not-too-distant past.
For the first time in my life, I’m proud of something. I have a skill and am an expert. Others have taken note. I’m in demand. People ask me for business coaching, and although it’s not something I advertise, I do it and I love it. I get paid to be creative and have fun every single day. It can happen fast.
If I could go back in time, I would write a toast for my sister and her husband on their wedding day, but I can’t, so I’ll just say a few things now.
Danielle, I want you to be wildly happy.
Luke, I want you to be wildly happy.
I wish for you a lifetime of making each other laugh like no one else knows how.
Occasional fights that eventually bring you closer.
I hope you push each other to grow, always inching toward your best potential.
And a deep knowing that you’ll never lose the capacity to surprise the other one — and yet always be there to remind each other, “See, I knew you could do it.”