Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox two Wednesdays each month.
So, you’re a journalist and you want to write a book.
Whether it’s expanding your reportage into a book-length work or hoping to stretch creatively with nonfiction, fiction or poetry, many journalists are up for the challenge.
While I haven’t yet published my own book (or even completed a manuscript, ha!), I am a mid-career journalist who has made forays into the world of literary nonfiction since 2018. A huge part of my growth as a writer comes from attending writing conferences, residencies and retreats.
For me and several of the journalists I spoke to for this article, an important gateway into the world of creative writing came through Poynter’s Power of Diverse Voices workshop. The four-day workshop is a unique space that allows journalists of color to turn our storytelling lens inward. When I participated in the 2019 class, I was unsurprised to find myself among a vast majority who had come up in newsrooms where (mostly white) editors ruthlessly excised from our work any bits of language or empathy that made our journalism sound like us.
Lam Thuy Vo, who participated in the 2021 class, said her acceptance to Power of Diverse Voices came at a critical moment, right after leaving her job at BuzzFeed News.
“This was the first time someone said, ‘I want to hear your voice.’ It was a room full of people who were validating your voice and interested in the very particular niche community you come from,” said Vo, who describes herself as a Vietnamese German descended from refugees.
I met Fernanda Santos, editorial director of Futuro Media, as a participant in the 2019 works— ∏—hop, and she now serves on the faculty. “This journey into the world of creative writing has been a lot about liberation,” she told me in a recent interview.
Since we met, Santos and I have both sought out additional literary events to connect with writing communities outside of journalism. Previously based in Phoenix, Santos said it was important for her to find opportunities closer to home, especially as a single mother who, at the times, had limited availability to travel to the East or West coasts. She co-wrote an off-Broadway musical and is working on a memoir.
At the 2021 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Santos received important validation for her memoir manuscript when she won first prize in the conference’s personal essay contest.
“When you’re writing a book, it can be very lonely. Events like Mayborn and the Tucson Festival of Books were great opportunities to create community and give back,” she said.
Vo, who serves as data journalist in residence at the City University of New York, is also working on a book project: a data journalism-driven narrative about technology, human bias and urban living. To find support for her work in terms of time, space and funding, she stays up to date on fellowships and residencies particularly valuable to journalists, which she keeps track of in this open-access spreadsheet, originally developed by journalist Azmat Khan..
Taking the time and space to focus on creative or longform work requires intention, says Rodlyn-mae Banting, a staff writer at Jezebel whom I met this summer at The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.
“In 2022, as I was finishing my graduate degree in gender and women’s studies, I decided to be really intentional about going for opportunities that would allow me to establish some form of ‘the writer’s life,’ ” Banting told me. Using research skills she’d honed as a journalist and as a graduate student, she compiled a list of different summer creative writing workshops to apply to, including Kenyon, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Tin House. (A great place to start your own research is this guide by Vanessa Chan in Electric Literature.)
When she was accepted into Kenyon, Banting said she “gunned it” to author Grace Talusan’s creative nonfiction workshop because it would be a gratifying opportunity to study with a fellow Filipinx American writer. “As corny as it sounds, being represented really did hit a nerve,” she explained. “I’d never been in a workshop where a Filipina American author used so many examples by other Filipino American writers, and it made me emotional.”
I, too, strongly prefer to work in groups led by an instructor of color, especially because I often find these groups attract more diverse groups of writer peers. Connecting with fellow writers – especially those who are curious or understanding of my work – means I can hear from peers I trust about new, worthwhile opportunities to pursue.
Getting a change in scenery helps, too.
“There’s something about being in a really beautiful environment and being away from your day-to-day responsibilities that is restorative and creatively invigorating,” said Meredith Broussard, a professor at New York University who’s benefited from writing residencies when working on multiple books, including her forthcoming title “More than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech.” “It’s a really great way to connect with your project and think about it differently than you might at home.”
Each workshop peer-turned-writer friend, each conference attended, each page written is yet another building block toward a new part of my career as a journalist and aspiring author. And hopefully, these blocks can help wedge the door open for even more journalists of color who want to write books.
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The Collective is supported by the TEGNA Foundation.