Janelle is my sister-girl-writer-muse. She writes heart-warming and thought-provoking content for some of our favorite black women’s online and print magazines. In total, she has written for over 35 publications in her tenure as a writer. In addition, she owns a boutique editorial agency, co-owns a t-shirt company, and runs a non-profit. Wow.
She has a lot to share…
Where did your love of words come from?
I’ve always been into books and writing and learning. When my mom wanted to punish me, she’d refuse to give me money for the Scholastic book sale at school. That was like torture—that and not being allowed to watch The Cosby Show. I especially loved Judy Blume and Shel Silverstein. I still have those books. Reading and writing have always been freeing to me. They relieve my mind of all those jumbled thoughts and ideas and feelings and help me make sense of myself.
How did you start your career as a freelance writer? When did you know that your passion could also pay your bills?
I didn’t start off freelancing full-time. I don’t think anybody does. I had day jobs in the editorial or communications field, mainly as an editor. But I knew I wasn’t cut out for a 9 to 5 almost as soon as I graduated from college. I’m a free spirit and I chafe under structure, so I would flit off at lunch and I’d look up and realize I’d been gone for two hours. But you have to build up to freelancing full-time, professionally and financially, so I couldn’t just quit. And, despite suffering through the business casual dress codes and office politics and all, I did pick up really valuable experience that I’ve used to build my freelance career.
My first ever published piece was an op-ed in a local paper in reaction to the comments Bill Cosby was making about the hip-hop generation. I was ticked and I just fired off this response that, even 10 years later, I can still read and say, “Go ‘head, girl.” That doesn’t happen very often. But that was one clip, which I used to get other assignments. I presented it like my best clip, not my only clip. I used that to get my first paid piece, which was another editorial, in a local magazine.
Then I started writing for AllHipHop.com—I always shout Greg out for giving me a chance to write for them—and then I applied for an assistant editor position with Sister 2 Sister magazine. I didn’t get the job, but the editor, Ericka, liked my writing and brought me on as a freelancer. Then it just grew from there. It’s been a blessing because I got pregnant with my daughter in my second year of college, so I didn’t get a chance to do any snazzy, big-name internships at Vibe or Essence or Glamour. Everything I’ve learned, I had to learn by doing.
I just started in this freelance game and I find that rejection is part of the business. Ouch. You have been living the freelance writer life for over ten years. As a seasoned writer, do you still have to deal with rejection? If so, how do you deal with it? What, if anything, do you learn from rejection?
I could wallpaper my living room with the rejection letters I have, ceiling to floor. That was back when magazines even bothered putting a little form letter in the mail to let you know you’d been rejected. Now you basically have to infer that your idea is being declined. Like you said, it’s part of the business and I absolutely do deal with it. I don’t take it personal—most of the time. If I’m really married to an idea, if I’m really passionate that it’s worth air time somewhere and it’s something people need to know or read, I’ll rework it for another publication and another and another until an editor accepts it. Especially with online mags and blogs, it’s much easier now than shopping one story around to a bunch of print magazines, which are a lot harder to get into. Ultimately, rejection teaches me to tighten up my pitches, which is something I struggle with. So I’ll look at it again and figure out how I can make it better and better and better until it’s given the thumbs up by someone out there in editorial land.
If there were any person, fictitious or real, with whom you could have dinner and drinks, who would it be and why?
Hands down, Zora Neale Hurston. No question about it. She was so fiery and eclectic and full of stories just by being herself, you really don’t need anyone else. She was like six people rolled into one. I would just sit at her feet and listen.
In our introductory email, you told me that you are a proud frugalista. Where did your financial self-awareness come from? What is your proudest frugalista moment?
I was raised on clearance rack shopping. My mama trained me to head straight to the back of the store as soon as we walked in because that’s where the sales stuff was. It was like tunnel vision—don’t look to the left or the right because if it didn’t have some kind of orange or red discount sticker on it, I knew wasn’t getting it anyway. It irked me when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure I was in middle school before I got my first pair of name-brand sneakers, which was a little extreme. But I’m glad she didn’t let me get caught up on living beyond my means. It’s a front. I’m more proud that I know how to make a dollar stretch. That’s a life skill that I’ve had to lean on plenty of times. Like, give me $50 and watch me work. I can buy groceries, get my oil changed, put gas in the tank and go see a movie. Plus, it seems silly to spend $100 on a dress when I’m just as happy in one that costs $10. I love the thrill of putting together cute outfits for cheap—my most infamous one cost me a whole $5—and getting people’s reactions when they compliment me and I tell them how much it was.
What do you know for sure?
I know for sure that God has his hand on my life. I know we live in an age of over-intellectualization and physical tangibility, where we need to have touchable, feelable, verifiable proof that something is happening or will happen or has happened, but my faith is probably the only part of my life that allows me to relinquish control and just be, and even then it’s hard sometimes. I feel like I should be in a certain place professionally or personally and I haven’t gotten there yet. But I have to trust God. He’s my source for everything, down to my creativity and my ability to do this and the other things I want to do. I’m not just a writer, though that’s my first love, but I own a T-shirt company with my best friend called Two Shades of Honey and I run a nonprofit, Write or Die Chicks, which helps women tell their own stories through the art of writing. Through all that, God is my strategist, confidant and waymaker.
What do you think is missing from black media?
I would absolutely love to see another magazine for young, Black women. I know a huge chunk of the industry thinks print is dead, but there will always be a place for something you can hold and dog-ear and save for years. I still have all of my issues of Honey and Suede and Vixen. If there was a fire in my house, I would grab my kid, my purse, my laptop and as many of those issues as possible. They’re that important. And I think other young, Black women should get a chance to have that feeling, too.
As a businesswoman, what were some of the early lessons that you learned as a beginning entrepreneur?
I have always tried to be everyone’s friend, which is just my personality. But in business, it can backfire because I end up cheating myself. Someone says they can’t pay the rate I’m charging and next thing I know, I’m agreeing to spend 10 hours to work on one project and the check from all that time won’t even cover my cable bill, much less my rent. So I am, even now, recognizing the value in my talent and skill and sticking to it. Writing is one of those things a lot of people think they can do, so they don’t believe they necessarily need to pay for it. But I always say it’s like trying to fix your car or install a toilet—you can hire a professional to do it and get the best results or you can do it yourself and maybe get it right, maybe not. So knowing that what I do is a service like everything else and I deserve to be paid like everyone else means sometimes passing on jobs because we can’t come to an agreement about the terms. But that’s OK because I don’t operate in a spirit of scarcity anyway.
Freelance writer, blogger and editor Janelle Harris owns The Write or Die Chick, a boutique editorial services agency. She has contributed to more than 35 publications in her career. She’s also a single mother, a proud Washington, DC girl and a longsuffering Kanye West fan.