Alumni Spotlight: Caitlin Crawshaw

Salvage What Works

Photo supplied

Photo supplied

“Holy Fucking Cats,” says Caitlin Crawshaw when I ask her (after an amusing and insightful conversation about her career as a freelance writer and her work on her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia) what the hed of her profile should be. Though she’s given me nothing but writing wisdom throughout the afternoon (and had me laughing at every turn), we both agree it’d be an absurd hed. But as a lede, it has potential….

Ever since she was a kid, Crawshaw remembers that she loved to write. She would sit on her nana’s knee and together they would come up with wild stories. “[Writing’s] a compulsion, honestly. It’s one of the very few activities in which I can lose myself completely and focus for hours on end,” says Crawshaw. Thus, she’d never want to rule out commercial success for herself or anyone with work they love doing.

However, Crawshaw received different advice when she first set out on a full-time freelance career. When her pitches weren’t landing at a magazine in Edmonton, she asked the editor out for coffee to learn what she could do to improve. Crawshaw wasn’t quite expecting the advice she received. “She went on a tirade about how I should get out of the industry now and it wasn’t too late for me to become a lawyer,” says Crawshaw. “She was pulling out every argument for why it was a waste of time: you won’t make more than $50,000 in a year, you won’t be able to retire—it was pretty ridiculous.”

Thankfully, Crawshaw didn’t allow that editor to discourage her, and instead only accepted the advice that allowed her to successfully pitch a story to the magazine. Now, many years later, Crawshaw has established for herself a successful freelance career and never intends to pass on that editor’s advice to any emerging writers. “There’s no point in keeping knowledge to yourself,” says Crawshaw. “It’s served me so much in this world in encouraging people. It makes me sad to hear people who aren’t because it’s hard enough being a writer.”  She is very realistic about what to expect in her writer career, and she’s played hers very wisely. “You can write about arts, and you should write about arts,” Crawshaw explains, “but it shouldn’t be all that you do. It just absolutely can’t. There are better paying niches like writing about science and technology and business, and looking past magazines and newspapers towards different types of communications writing.”

In building her portfolio and client base, Crawshaw balanced it out with all of those different publishing venues. Even if she didn’t think she’d enjoy writing a particular assignment, Crawshaw recommends never saying no—she never knew where it could lead. During her time at The Gateway, Crawshaw wrote the science articles in the newspaper because no one else wanted them, and on top of enjoying writing them, she won an award from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. Crawshaw says, “I was really excited about that, and it sort of grew from there. After that I was like, I can write about anything!”

Crawshaw admits her freelance writing career can be a bit terrifying at times because there is no formula or manual for how to succeed. “There’s no obvious way to move up,” explains Crawshaw, “but there are way to make more income or to diversify or to change directions of what you’re writing about. You just have to be a little more creative in this economy and in this industry. People create opportunities; industries are always changing.”

A graduate of the butt-in-chair school, Crawshaw says that the only way you’ll become good at writing is by doing it. You can’t always hope to ride a wave of creativity, according to Crawshaw, “If you just let yourself wait until you feel like you’re in the mood to do it, you really hold yourself back. It really sucks because I think we’re all perfectionists as writers to a degree, and it sucks to keep going when you feel like it’s a real dog. Eventually you have to go back to it and salvage what works." If you don’t feel good about a piece of writing, it helps to share it with a workshop group as Crawshaw says that the feedback can help you improve it.

Writing groups are also useful for inspiring you to write if you don’t have any deadlines, Crawshaw says. But that group should contain a very special type of people: “Find yourself some reasonably polite assholes—smart assholes.” She explains, “You really don’t want idiotic feedback. You don’t want people who will say, ‘Well, that reminds me of this thing that happens with my dog.’” If your group cares more about your feelings than offering constructive feedback, she says, you won’t progress in any way.

Currently, Crawshaw is working on her Master’s thesis, which is a collection of essays about motherhood as a queer woman. In writing her own stories, Crawshaw admits she finds it easy to regurgitate personal information, but it’s often hard to find the appropriate creative way to structure an essay. Also, she admits that sometimes her memory’s not that great. Though events and details may not always occur in her essays as they do in real life, Crawshaw says, “the emotional truth is what matters…or what the vulnerable piece of it is. Because you have to be vulnerable or what’s the point?”

One of Crawshaw’s best pieces of advice for emerging writers is, “If it makes you feel uncomfortable, do it.” For her, that’s what’s at the heart of writing, as she explains, “It’s all about going for it when you feel paralyzing anxiety—though obviously, if it’s paralyzing, you can’t go for it. But that’s writing: keep going until you hit a rock. Then stop. Then keep going.”

— Matthew Stepanic