Living Long and Prospering: A Chat With Nate Hendley

Today, I happened to stumble upon a writer besides Stephenie Meyer who — what? — yes, makes a living just by writing! Or, at least, when I woke up in the middle of class, he was standing there, right at the front, giving a guest lecture.

Nate Hendley, a freelance writer and author from Toronto (eh?), has published news and features in plenty of Canadian publications — including The National Post and The Globe and Mail — and has written 10 books, including true-crime looks the lives of Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. He also runs a blog, motivatetocreate.com, which features advice for new writers and interviews with his peers. And, like most freelance writers who both still exist and can still afford to eat, he writes for lots of boring trade magazines.

Nate was nice enough to chat with me for a few minutes after class about balancing the passionate with the mundane, and the overall quirks of the work:

Why freelance?

Part of it wasn’t really by choice. I’d had a number of full-time, salaried gigs, and I usually ended up getting fired. So I found it easier to freelance. And I hate certain things about working in an office, like office politics and going to staff meetings — they just became insufferable. I enjoyed having the freedom to be on my own.

It’s a bit of a Darwinian thing too, in that it’s sink or swim. It’s up to you, and you can’t be lazy and occupy a desk in the back of an office. I’ve been doing it for so long at this point — 20 years — that it’s what I’m used to, and I don’t know if I’d ever want to have a full-time gig again.

What’s been the biggest change in your life as a freelancer over the course of 20 years?

Internet and email, absolutely. Email probably even more so, because it allowed me to communicate with editors across the country, as well as send manuscripts. Back in the old days, you’d have to either mail the work or fax it. And the person at the other end would get the fax, and they’d have to input it all. Or you’d mail them a computer disk. Compared to today, it was like the stone age.

Do you ever miss the stone age?

No way. It’s a thousand times easier to do stuff now. Much easier to research, much easier to contact editors, and I just love being able to say “Here’s my story” and push a button, rather than sending a disk or something.

Since you have to divide your time between exciting work, like your books, and the more mundane work, like pieces for trade magazines, do you feel like you’ve developed two different personae that you can turn on and off?

Yeah, I guess it kind of happens unconsciously. It’s jarring because you go writing that really comes from the heart — for me, the crime writing is the kind of stuff that I really want to be remembered for — to the trade magazine stuff, which is just purely for financial reasons. Often, I don’t particularly like the topics, and it’s just for the money. So it is a bit jarring. You go from doing something you love to doing something that’s just paying the bills.

What’s the weirdest piece you’ve ever had to write for a trade magazine?

I did a piece once for Canadian Metalworking about an elephant in the Calgary Zoo who got a mechanical tusk. They made it in a machine shop and had this big campaign to pay for it, and there were all these different engineers going back and forth. That was definitely one of the stranger ones.

Have you also done work for American publications?

Yeah, I’ve done a little bit. But I found that the opportunities I had weren’t enormously well paying. For a long time, I really wanted to write for American political magazines, like The New Yorker, and it’s still in the back of my mind, but I just don’t have the time right now. But that’s my ultimate fantasy.

Did you ever find differences between Canadian and American editors?

Not really. The only big difference is that an American publication wants an American perspective. They’re not really interested in what’s going on in Montreal unless it’s totally cool or somehow related to whatever it is you’re doing.

And you have to take all the “u” out of “colour,” eh?

Yes!

What was your impetus to start motivatetocreate.com, a blog for providing advice to writers?

 There are a lot of books about motivating yourself to write, but almost all of them are for fiction writers, and I wanted to make one for nonfiction. Now, it’s kind of merged with more fiction-related stuff, and now I say it’s for all writers and other artistic creators. That’s given it a much broader perspective.

Also, a lot of the advice books I’ve read are really sappy, with stuff like: “Follow your muse by waking up with the dawn and dancing with the elves…” I just want to cut to the chase by giving guidelines, providing exercises for getting creative, and saying what not to do.

What do you have to say to those new writers, as they try to make the cut?

 Well the obvious thing is just to write, write, write. You have to love it. If you want to be a freelance writer and you don’t love writing, then don’t bother. You have to be dedicated and you have to be willing to make sacrifices, like working on the weekend or Friday night, when you might have been doing more exciting things.

You have to have very thick skin, and not be hurt by editors who are jerks or just ignore you. And you have to have talent.

 

Find out more about Nate by checking out the blog or going to his website, natehendley.com

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