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How I became a writer
April 18, 2011 - Stephen Browne
I became a professional writer about 18 years ago. By professional, I mean someone who gets paid for his stuff. Like a lot of people I've written for amateur newsletters and such like but face it, if you're not getting paid at least something for it you can't call yourself a "writer" with a straight face.
Being a writer is major cool, even if you can't quit your day job just yet.
Like a lot of people entranced with the romance of the writer's life I tried for years to make myself write regularly. I did write regularly when in university, which does teach you discipline but the dry academic style isn't what you usually think of when you fantasize about introducing yourself at parties, "I'm a writer."
Without the motivation of regular assignments... I know, probably doesn't work for you either.
Then in 1991 I moved to Poland to teach high school in a small town west of Warsaw. The town was served by an archaic operator system where you had to call the town and request a three-digit number - in Polish. (After not too long, gossip being what it was, it was enough to call the town and say "Pan (Mister) Browne!" loudly.)
As isolated as I was, I started writing letters to my friends and family. In one year I'd written more letters than I had in my entire life before moving. Better still, I was describing my experiences to people who had absolutely no familiarity with life in post-communist Poland, so I learned to paint word pictures for them.
Later, after I moved to Warsaw to teach at the local Berlitz school I met a decayed Austrian count at the local Irish pub. He was the editor of the Airport Magazine, the kind of publication for tourists you find in travel bureaus and stuffed into the seat pockets of airliners.
Over a beer he asked me, "Gee Steve, you sure can talk. Can you write?"
"I can write," I said.
"Can you write funny?"
"I can write funny."
"Can you write something funny about Polish health services?"
I laughed out loud, "Not even difficult, this will write itself."
So my first published-AND-paid-for piece was advice for expats on how to arrange their health care in case of emergencies. I pointed out the remains of the communist public health system left something to be desired by western standards, but that competent professionals were moving into the private sector offering quality care at unbelievably low prices, and often spoke English.
I wrote about a friend who'd severed the tendons in his hand punching a window at a party. (Where else?) He'd gotten the hand stitched up at the hospital, and put on a waiting list for a tendon reconnect operation - in 11 months.
Might as well not bother. In that time tendon shrinkage would have crippled his hand for life. So after dealing with lots of shady characters who assured him they had the influence to jump the line for him, he was finally put in touch with a private surgeon who operated out of a converted apartment. The examining room was the kitchen, the surgery was a converted bedroom, and it was all spotlessly clean. He was in and out of surgery, hand working just fine, for a price you wouldn't believe.
(For another example, our first child was born in a private hospital in Warsaw the movie stars use. From the day the froggie winked at us to delivery, total costs amounted to about a thousand dollars max.)
Sooooo, the day the magazine hit the stands the Minister of Health for the Republic of Poland, that's the Honorable Minister not a secretary, called up my editor and demanded, "Who is this Stephen Browne and why is he saying these terrible things about our wonderful Polish hospitals?"
I asked my editor, "Gosh, are we in trouble? Could I get deported or something?"
"Nah. By the way, you didn't ask what happened to my arm," he said, showing me a cast.
"So what happened to your arm?" I asked.
"A couple of friends broke it," he said. (Not at all unusual for him by the way.) "I got it taken care of at the hospital right away. Of course I had to bring them two bottles of cognac for quick service."
I was later told this was an auspicious beginning for a career in journalism.
I started writing pieces on events in Eastern Europe during the time of transition, which I either sold for beer money or gave away to journals of "much passion and small circulation," in Prince Kropotkin's fortunate phrase.
After covering the election that brought down the Milosevic regime from the street in Belgrade, and getting an interview with the widow of a murdered dissident in Belarus, even I could realize this was dumb.
I told my wife, "Honey, I've got to get back to the States and get some formal training in journalism."
So in 2004 I took my family back to Oklahoma where I'd started out from almost 14 years before. There I found my old university had built a huge new journalism and mass communication department, staffed heavily by Eastern Europeans who knew that I "get it" about the area.
Three years of graduate-level study on a fellowship later, it occurred to me that I needed experience in a newsroom more than another degree. The first offer took me to North Dakota, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Years ago I defined my goals as a writer in five steps.
1) Write regularly. 2) Publish my writing. 3) Get paid for writing. 4) Make a living at writing. 5) Make a lot of money at writing.
So hey, I figure I'm on step four already! Of course, each step is a degree of magnitude more difficult than the last one...
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