Have you ever read an amazing piece in a magazine or newspaper and wondered what the writers life might be like? Maybe you have even wondered if you have what it takes to be a professional writer or journalist. Latria Graham takes us behind the scenes in her life as a freelance journalist in this two part series.
Latria Graham is a freelance writer and journalist who has written for many publications including, but not limited to, ESPNW, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New York Times, the LA Times, Southern Living and my personal favorite (because it was my home paper) The Spartanburg Herald Journal.
In this two part series Latria takes us behind the scenes in her life as a freelance journalist. We discuss everything from getting started to how to build a community within your profession when you often work alone.
A few of my favorite take aways from part one include:
- We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out a niche within your own profession will help differentiate you from the rest of the pack.
- Having a partner, mentor or colleague to bounce ideas off of is beneficial. There is strength in numbers.
- When hard days come, its helpful to look back at words from people who believe in you. Keep a stash of those e-mails or letters within reach.
Latria Graham E-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome: Welcome to “How She Got Here – Conversations with Everyday Extraordinary Women.” It is my belief that every woman has something inside her only she can do. The more we share the stories of other women, who have already discovered their thing, the more it inspires, encourages, and empowers other women to do the same.
Intro: Hey Pod Sisters! I am
so excited about today’s episode. That is because I am sharing my conversation
with Latria Graham. Latria and I both
happen to be from the same home town though we never knew each other. I am
thankful to have met her by chance at Hub City Bookshop over winter break in
2018. Per her website: she is “a writer, editor and cultural critic currently
living in South Carolina.
Her “writing interests revolve around the dynamics of race, gender norms, class, nerd culture, and- yes, football.” She is “ keeping her eye on publishers that are invested in celebrating the diversity of the human experience. Contributing to online publications that focus their attention on social justice and equality resonates with her values.” She loves “speaking with people who challenge the status quo and care about living and learning without inhibitions.” Latria has written for many publications including, but not limited to, ESPNW, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New York Times, the LA Times, Southern Living and my personal favorite (because it was my home paper) The Spartanburg Herald Journal. So without further ado…here is Latria
Susan: Well, hey, Latria Graham, thank you so much for joining us today. I am so looking forward to this conversation. You have no idea. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.
Latria Graham: Yeah, same here. Hi Susan. I’m glad we found the time to get together and talk a little bit.
Susan: Yeah. Friends, Latria is a writer. And I don’t mean just any writer. Latria reminds me of somebody who is out there writing, and is literally changing the world through her words. And we’re going to get into all of this. This conversation could go on for days. I’m just really not sure yet.
Latria Graham: We’ll give them part two.
Susan: Yeah. Hey, you know, I’m not opposed. Let’s start out with just you. Who are you? How did you become a writer? Why do you love writing? Let’s just start at the very beginning.
Latria Graham: Yeah. So I started writing professionally—I had my first published piece in 2008. And that was actually a segment of a book. It was an essay called “Black and White Thinking.” And it was in this book published by Random House called Going Hungry, featured by Kate Taylor, or edited by Kate Taylor. And that came out my senior year of college. But it was one of those things that I went to Dartmouth thinking I was going to be a biomedical engineer. I feel like I’ve lived 1000 lives at this point, because I thought it was going to be a number of things, and then finally settled down and decided to become a writer. But I have loved words and spelling and writing and terms and phrase since I was a little kid, but I grew up in a culture and environment that basically only taught the dead white guy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, people like that.
And so all the writers that I knew, or at least that I had read in school, basically died penniless in the gutter under sketchy circumstances. And I knew that I needed to make money. You know, Spartanburg is very much a mill town or a production town and everybody kind of makes something or they’re judged in some way by their production. And so I knew that sitting on my butt creating words the way we think of like Shakespeare, again, another dead white guy, was not the way to go so I decided I would become something else. My parents really wanted a doctor, so I thought I would do that. And then I got to Dartmouth, and like, started taking classes and you know, working in a hospital, and I was like, “No, this is not for me.” But then become a biomedical engineer. And just, I really disliked it and sort of had a nervous breakdown. And my therapist was like, “What do you want to do? What would you see yourself doing if you didn’t have all these restrictions?” and I was like, “I would be a writer.”
And by then I learned that there were these things called journalists. My parents did not get the newspaper, they were TV news watchers, and so I did not have a sense of how a newspaper came together. My mom read magazines, but I didn’t really understand sort of the production value of those. So I got the chance to learn a little bit more about those, but why not have a journalism program. So I got introduced to some living writers, but I was still in a very academic vein. But there was something about sort of this idea of writing about the self and investigating the self that was really intriguing to me.
So after graduation, I moved to New York City, September 1, 2008, which was basically the start of the recession. I plugged in my TV in this cute little New York apartment that I’d gotten and there were no jobs. Lehman Brothers was closing that day, and everybody was walking out with their boxes of stuff. And so I put in 100 applications, and I wound up at the New York Society Library, which is the oldest library in New York, as a Library Page. And I learned about history, I learned more about books and how they’re made and all that. And I really started to sort of figure out what type of writer I wanted to be. I got to engage with living working writers with contracts and understanding that a little bit better, and getting into the magazine world. So that’s really how it started.
And then I went to the New School in New York City, for my MFA in creative nonfiction. And I started working on a lot of these stories about my family. It was much more of a history, but I realized now it had some of the markers of climate change, some of the markers of gentrification, and all these things that were starting to happen in my community, but we were just telling them through oral histories. And so I finished that up in my second year, the program’s two years, my dad got cancer. And so I came back and finished my thesis here, and I needed a way to make money while also caring for him. So I started freelancing, and I started writing essays about my experiences growing up, what it was like being black with an eating disorder. And really, editors started coming to me asking me, because they knew I was one of the few people of color that would talk about mental health. And that, you know, 2008 to 2013 range when the internet was sort of starting to get into personal essays. And they would ask me about pieces. And I was starting to start doing that. And that’s how I supported myself. So I felt like when I was out of options, I started making options myself, I didn’t know that there was a job called a freelance journalist or freelance writer. So that’s how I started getting into it.
Susan: Okay, I want to go back just a second, because I love how you discussed and I can remember sitting in a class vividly and thinking, “I am reading a bunch of dead white guys,” with like the exception of Emily Dickinson or somebody like that, white woman, so…
Latria Graham: Still dead.
Susan: Yes, also dead.
Latria Graham: Very much still dead. I mean, that’s the thing was that, like, we’re not talking about living writers and so we can’t talk about living wages and how they live and put ourselves in their shoes. I’m never going to be a 19th century Victorian white woman with the leisure time and the home help in order to be able to write like that. And that’s no shade to her. That is just not my reality. So it takes some of the possibilities of who you could be off the table.
Susan: Just a little, maybe. I don’t think any of us…I would not want to go back to Victorian times, anyway. I don’t think it was good for any women back there. I realized that there are groups of women, minority women who it was way worse for, absolutely.
Latria Graham: Right. Right.
Susan: But in reality, it wasn’t good so I agree with you there.
Latria Graham: It was an okay walk.
Susan: Right. Tell me, how did you even find a living writer?
Latria Graham: I was really lucky. She came to me. It was Lucille Clifton, who passed away in 2010. But she was at Dartmouth as like the poet in residence. I think she was only there maybe like a month. And the poet in residence would live in this house on campus, and they would have dinners with her. And so my advisor, Michael Chaney, who’s still a professor in English at Dartmouth, he was my advisor, and he’s like, “You have to go meet Lucille Clifton.” And I’d heard of her as a poet before, you know, they’ll accept a poem in our maybe black women writers class or something like that. I was like, “Oh, okay.” And I did not realize sort of the power of presence that she would have. And she talked to us about sort of how her poetry came about, how it ended up being published, this network of women that she exchanged work with, and sort of started entering into that conversation. I was like, “That’s how writers are doing it. That’s how writers are forming community.” And so I was just very lucky and happen to be on campus when she was there. I think that was my Junior year of college. And I have a photo of her with my black women writers professor, Shalane Vasquez, and it is one of my treasured photos, like I adore it. Yeah, so I think she was one of the first—I won’t say that she was the first but she was the first one that really talked about the process and how hard it was to sort of make that community happen because she was doing it well before the internet.
Susan: I can’t imagine doing a lot of things before the internet, much less being a writer in a professional situation where you’re not around other, you know, other people in your field on a regular basis. It’s not like you’re a part of a press corps or something or working at the Times or something like that, or even the Herald Journal, or the Dallas Morning News. So I cannot even imagine.
Latria Graham: Yeah, even with the internet, it’s still hard and not something that we can get into in terms of community building and where you find it, because I do spend a lot of time like that whole, like surviving on Coca Cola and pork skins and my yoga pants with just my, like, reading my words to my dog is very much my reality, basically. Now, if I wasn’t on the phone with you like that, I’d be sitting here, I’m dressed a little bit nicer today. But like, it’s a lot of alone time, which in some ways you need as a writer, but when things are going poorly can be incredibly isolating, and so trying to find that balance is really important.
Susan: Well, how do you do that? How do you find community within your profession, because I would think it would be important to be able to bounce ideas off of, and also find people that you trust, or that the people you’re bouncing ideas off of aren’t going to try to walk away with your idea.
Latria Graham: Right. The first thing that I will say, I think, and people will probably disagree with me on this is the idea that like nobody can really, truly steal your idea. And I say that because nobody can write it the way that you can. And so sometimes I’ll get—as I actually will give you the example, my first piece I ever did was on Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers, and I ended up doing this long form piece on him. And I followed him during his last season, the season the Carolina Panthers went to the Super Bowl. And I just kind of didn’t know what the story was going to be. But I was like, “Ha, this is a really interesting dude.” And somebody else came out with a long form feature on him first. And I was a little crestfallen because this was my first major piece ever about someone else, I’ll put it like that way, it was my first journalism piece ever. And I was a little worried about it, and I read it and I, “But this guy doesn’t have the stuff as I do, he doesn’t have the perspective that I have.”
And so I finished the piece and I turned it in, and it ended up being a bigger piece. And I don’t say that in a braggadocios way, it’s just to show that we came from two different perspectives. And somebody else may say, “Look, technically his piece is better in terms of structure and storytelling and some of the other stuff.” But if you read both pieces, you would get something different out of both pieces. And that is okay. And so even if somebody else decided to take the idea, you have something in your back pocket that makes you you that they’ll never be able to replicate it. So that’s why I’m not sure sometimes. Like, Standing Rock, a bunch of people covered Standing Rock, I covered it very differently from them. I did the same thing with Flint. So some of these major news stories, particularly, you’re going to have a bunch of people, a bunch of reporters in one space, and you just have to figure out what you do well, what you do differently from everybody else. So that’s sort of the first part of it.
And then I’m really lucky here in Spartanburg that we have a literary community. And so I go to my local bookshop a lot. And I am actually on the board of Hub City Writers Project now. But I can go in there and talk to people about books. And some of them are editors, and some of them are just very veracious readers, but we can have this conversation, keeping the pump primed a little bit in your brain, because you don’t have to sort of think about sort of analyzing what you’ve read, it just comes out in conversation. So there’s that.
I have a writing partner, Maggie Mertens, we went to graduate school together. And we are both working writers, both working freelance writers. And we bounce ideas off of one another. And I did this writer’s residency, we would have a call once a week or every two weeks and say, “Okay, what are your goals? How can I keep you accountable? What do you need help with?” Sometimes I’ll get stuck on plot for a long form piece, and she’ll recommend a book for me, sometimes I’ll send books to her and we sort of celebrate our triumphs. She was just in the Atlantic talking about women’s soccer. And you have somebody else to root for that you’re incredibly proud of. So that’s sort of the second thing, is finding a writing partner. And not all writing partners are going to be great fits, because I had a different writing partner before that and she took a different job and stopped writing. And so I was like, “Well…” Talking to her about writing is fine but she’s not living it in the same way. So I partnered up with Maggie.
And then the third is finding a mentor. And I’ve been very lucky because I’ve run across a lot of people that have mentored me along my way that I can send an email to and say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this piece,” or “can we jump on the phone, I just need some life advice as to whether or not to take this next job. Is this a step forward? Is this a step back?” Especially in regards to pay or is going to be a major consumption of my time. So Kim Cross, who was an editor at Southern Living, and now is working as a freelance editor. I met her at the Archer City Story Center, and I was invited to go out to the writing workshop, and I had the opportunity to go out to Archer City, Texas, which is where Larry Mercury is from, and spend a week talking about like form and structure. And I knew at that point in my career, I wanted to go out there and really start challenging myself and adding extra tools to my tool toolbox as a writer.
So I go to this tiny town in Texas and I just hit it off with her. And I hit it off with Glenn Stout, who is a sports editor and does a number of baseball books. And then Jacqui Banaszynski was out there, she won a Pulitzer on her work back in the 80s with HIV and AIDS, correct me on that if I’m wrong, but then I want to make journalism awards. And then Eva Holland is an outside writer, outside/outdoors writer that I admire. She’s working on a book, but she actually did this long form piece on what it was like to feel yourself freeze to death. And she put herself outside to the point where she was going to freeze herself to death, or was going to freeze to death, and wrote about it. So you’re reading these really incredible, intense people, and not all of them became mentors. But like they, again, they’re making you think in very different ways. And you end up keeping in contact with some of those people.
So that was a way that I sort of started finding mentors and started engaging with people. Sometimes it takes being out of your comfort zone, sometimes traveling to a conference. And I don’t do that often, because they’re very expensive. And sometimes time prohibitive, if I’m on deadline, but that does help find the mentor. Writing an email to someone to say, “Hey, I could use a mentor.” Sometimes helpful. Sometimes it’s not, just because it can be very time consuming for the other person on the other end, and they’ve never, never met you, you don’t know exactly what your interests are, and things like that. But those are the three local bookshop, writing partner and mentor.
Susan: That’s really interesting. I really appreciate how you put that. I think there’s something to be said for finding people and being able to connect with them on a personal level, rather than just emailing them. And I mean, I took a lot more away from what you just said than that. But that was kind of something that stuck out to me as somebody who is behind a microphone so often, also works from home, also, you know, is alone so often and going out and finding people and going to the local bookshop. And I love Hub City, whenever I’m town, I try to stop in and just because there’s not a lot of places like it, and where you have that community of intellectuals just hanging out at a bookstore. Before Hub City existed… What was it called? There was a sandwich shop across the street. I worked there in college, what was the name of that place?
Latria Graham: The Sandwich Factory? Is that the one you’re talking about?
Susan: The Sandwich Factory, yes. Everybody hung out there. But before the bookshop existed, and then they created the Writers Project, and then the bookshop came and it was such a—I loved just being around those folks, even if it wasn’t really my jam at the time, because you just knew there was like so much information there in front of you and so much creativity, and just gleaning any ounce of that that I could—I tried to.
Latria Graham: Yeah. Do you remember Java Jive at all?
Latria Graham: So I was like not old enough to be there. I was like 12 or something like 12 or 13, yeah, because it closed by the time I was like 15 or 16. It was definitely off the radar. Java Jive, you know, had these like…For people listening because I realized this may make it as cut and may not, but Java Jive had these really interesting—was the first coffee bar and had these gigantic cookies and like they had taken bathtubs and turn them into seats. And there was a really eclectic, interesting kind of unbridled energy in that space. Particularly like, we weren’t out late. We definitely had to be home by eight o’clock. But it was starting to get really interesting after five, right after school. So like, we knew that Jill’s older sister was going to have to pick us up and take us home. We definitely had to be home by nine, for sure. But, you know, there was that weird, interesting space. And the Sandwich Factory was sort of this really eclectic intelligence that is sort of what they call it like space during the day. And like Hub City feels like this great, but not crunchy version, like fusion of the two. And that’s why I sort of love it. It’s got this unbridled energy to it. But it also has this incredibly intellectual side of it because you know, people are they’re reading 900 page biographies of somebody. So yeah, I adored both places, even though I was a little bit younger than you and did not get the chance to like, you know, grow up in the spaces.
Susan: Okay, well, thanks for calling me old.
Latria Graham: No, no, no.
Susan: I’m totally kidding. I’m totally kidding. I’m totally kidding. I’m yanking your chain.
Latria Graham: No. You’re the host. You never want to like piss off those.
Susan: Oh, honey, you couldn’t? I’ve had too much fun getting to know you. And one of the most respected people in my life is the one who—well, after we met, she actually recommended you. So yeah, there’s no way that would ever happen. Because I don’t want to piss her off.
Latria Graham: Yeah, neither one of us wants to, actually. We’re going to leave her as she will not be named. But she’s incredible. And I think incredibly highly of her and of you. So yeah, we will keep it all good. I will send you like some Disney merch or something that would make me super happy.
Susan: Oh, you are hilarious.
Latria Graham: So I will come up with something.
Susan: No, I was totally kidding you. Let’s go back to—you made a point that you were at Dartmouth, you graduated, you moved to New York City, you came home to help take care of your dad, who had cancer and you knew you had to earn money. And so you figured out a way to marry your passion? I’m going to say it this way. I don’t know if this is a good way to say it. But marry your passion with figuring out how to make money. Can you share a little bit about that? Because I think a lot of people have trouble with that step. They have a passion, but they cannot figure out how to monetize it, if and when that becomes necessary.
Latria Graham: Oh, that is a rough one, oh my gosh. And the way you said it was really interesting, because I definitely have passion projects. But I see writing as a skill that I have to like utilize it. So I would not necessarily say just blanket, you know, writing is my passion or books is my passion. I think that’s how people think of the profession in of their passions, right? Like they think of art, like it ends up being this kind of big thing, where it’s like, no, I have a particular set of skills that I’ve drilled down where I’m very good at this. When you are able to get very specific about what you’re good at, and what your skills are, you start seeing where they fit within a market in order to be able to better monetize them.
So I realized that I am not—and there’s no shades of them, because we need them. I am not a traditional newspaper writer. And I thought for a little while that I was going to go that route. And I’ve written a couple of things for my local newspaper. But I’m much more of a long form feature writer, and really getting spending time with someone getting inside their heads. And being able to take a big policy issue, put it in, like show how a person is living through it. And I realized that’s what I’m really good at. And I have a harder time with content marketing work and things like that unless I did a piece on Shalane Flanagan when she won the New York City Marathon. And that was very much getting into her body and Amy Crags body and spending like four days with them in order to like push through that. But if they had wanted me to write about their sneakers for 6000 words, I’m the wrong person.
So it’s very much like once you know who you are and what your skills are, you can really market them in a way that makes sense for you. Because like my tagline, and I really do live this, if you look on my website, it’s “Social issues deserve subplots.” And I believe that because like I don’t think you can have this one, like, sort of we think about it, I’m trying to give a really good analogy. Right. It’s the iceberg in some way. We think about this huge point on top, we don’t think about all the things that are going on underneath. So I’m never going to be the type of writer that writes maybe three or 400 words on just this is by you know, x is that. It’s always going to be much more nuanced and have all these shades of grey, because life is so much messier than we think. So again, if someone’s wanting me to write, and someone actually was willing to pay me a lot of money, to be an editor for a conservative sports vertical, and it would have been sort of hitting people over the head with morals in some ways. And that’s just not what I do. And so I stuck to my guns and passed over it. But I was like I would have also been really terrible that job because that’s not the tool kit that I had, you can’t take a plumber’s tool kit and try to go fix a car. It’s just not going to work, you’re not going to have everything that you need. So did that answer your question a little bit?
Susan: I think so. If I’m understanding you right, it sounds like you do have a passion for certain subjects maybe that you’re writing on. And then you also can back away from that. And it’s not just that you’re always doing work that you’re passionate about. You write, you’re willing to write and you do write about other subjects. But then there are the passion projects. Yes? And it’s all within this writing circle.
Latria Graham: Yeah, well, and I look at it as more storytelling. My passion is storytelling, I’ll put it that way, whether it’s visual or written words, figuring out a way to tell those stories, but my skill set…So yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. So my passion is storytelling, but my skill set is stronger in writing. And then it’s stronger in long form features that have a person living through policy aspects, right? So it very much narrows down what you what you do, and the type of work that you do. So that whenever you put up your website, you put up your Instagram stuff, everything is sort of in one vein. So even when you look at your Instagram, the way that you tailor the stories and the things that you tell, coupled with the photographs that you have, and I think Instagram is a brilliant way of thinking about this. If you’re whenever I open your tab, and it shows me all nine photos, your most recent nine, right? Like you can get some idea of who you are in a theme and where you’re going. And you’re like, “Ah, okay, I see that about myself. Here are the things I know about myself, here’s how I can market myself.” So if you look at my Instagram, and my top nine things, it’s all adventure things. But if you click on them individually, every single one has a story. I’m never going to post something that just has one or two sentence, it’s got to have a revelation about something that I’ve learned either about myself or that I’ve learned about someone else. And so you learn through scanning my Instagram scanning my social media, that’s the type of stories that I do, where you’re going to get an unexpected twist and learn something that you didn’t anticipate. And so yeah, when you start having those sorts of things, you can say…And people are really good at the elevator pitch. My brother works in San Francisco, and he can tell you exactly who he is in 100 words or less. I have a very hard time doing that because I’m a writer by nature, and brevity is not my strong suit, and that maybe should be my tagline. But yet you start getting very defined about what it is you start finding your tagline, you start figuring out how to describe yourself. And that sort of becomes the way that you market yourself. And when word gets around about what you do—and this is in any I think passion when people find out what you do, and they have a specific project, they start coming to you with that project, because they know what your identity is, they’ve been able to figure it out because you’ve marketed yourself that way. Is that a better answer? Does that make more sense?
Susan: No, I think it’s fascinating the way you answered that, considering we started the conversation with you getting, I guess it was a Master’s at the New School. And one of the things you were doing was writing out the stories of your family.
Latria Graham: Right.
Susan: And I think that it kind of it just in a weird way. It just kind of came full circle of you’ve been doing this a long time.
Latria Graham: Yes. It feels like I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’ve been gathering information my whole life. I just didn’t realize that the pain and the information would be useful to me. Yeah, that’s the difference. It’s like people said to me, “Someday this pain will be useful to you.” And I was like, “Damn, they’re right. I hate that they’re right but they’re so right.” Yeah. And I actually just looked back at my Instagram and started looking at, you know, what was up there, and like the first things that I put up there were shots from the farm that we had picked up and shots to the produce stand and things that we’ve gotten in and stuff that that I learned, I hadn’t looked at this in a really long time, because like freelancers never looked back. It’s sort of how I think of it. But yeah, it all informs who I am. And it’s like, how do you distill that down so other people can understand it, too?
Susan: Yeah. Wow, that’s such a… Yeah, that’s really cool. I also liked how you said “freelancers never looked back,” and you are looking back right now. It’s pretty funny.
Latria Graham: Yeah, it is. Because you don’t like once that check clears, if you don’t write another piece you don’t eat. And so I never…Like I get on that. I call it the hamster wheel. You never see how much…It’s not a treadmill, you don’t know how far you’ve gone, you just know that the wheel has to keep moving in some way. So we don’t look back. I don’t think about the awards I’ve gotten or anything. And when people ask me for a bio, I’m like, “I have written a lot, I have been doing this for a while.” And that’s the only like, contemplative moment that I have is when I’m forced to look back.
Susan: Well, I ran back in the day I was a runner, I guess I could still be a runner, if I put on some running shoes and went outside. But I was actually in training, like I was winning a few local races and stuff like that. And so reading back through your writing and reading the article you wrote. I’ve watched all of her races. And I remember her falling. And I remember watching it happen and crying and thinking, oh my god, like that’s it, you know, because she was picked to win. And it was devastating. And for the life of me, I can’t remember which race it was. And so the way you wrote about her, it was just so moving and inspiring to me. But a lot of your writing is that way to me because I’ve read everything on your website. Tell me what you enjoy writing most about like, do you have favorite subjects? Because I know it’s freelance but what are some of the favorite things that you write about? Or you have written about or people? What are your favorites?
Latria Graham: Oh my gosh, that’s like, in some ways asking me to like choose children. So like the piece—this is going to sound basic, but like the piece that I’m maybe the proudest of, even though it years ago, and like probably technically not as good as what it could be if I’d written it now, was the Josh Norman piece because I didn’t know that that was coming. And it really announced that I had become a writer. And I’ll tell the story really quickly if you’re okay with it. But like so my dad had passed with cancer. And that was in 2013. And no, was it 2013? That’s very silly. I should know when my dad passed. Sorry, it was 2013. So my dad had passed of cancer. And I was trying to figure out who he was at that point. And one of the things that my father like loved, loved, loved was football. He started as a Washington Redskins fan back in the 60s, because Carolina did not have a team but whenever Carolina got a team, my dad rooted for them. But because we were farmers, like in summer is our major time, He never went to training camp, even though it’s five miles from our house
So I was kind of lost and didn’t know what I was going to do who I was going to be, if I was going to move back to New York. I graduated, while my dad was ill, but I didn’t have a job lined up, obviously, and was devastated. So I was like, “I’m going to figure out who my dad was through football, I’m going to do something he never did. And I’m going to go to training camp.” And I met Josh Norman, he was practicing on a field like an hour after everybody had gone in, you know, Cam Newton and signed autographs and disappeared at this point and stuff. And I asked him a question. And he answered it, and I just kind of kept coming back and observing. It’s kind of like, what is it about this dude. And it turned into this long form piece. And I’m really proud of the storytelling and the orality I was able to do in that. Josh Norman’s piece one of my favorites.
The Standing Rock piece pushed me further than I ever thought that it could and I had such admiration for the people that I covered. And so that is another favorite, but any chance that I get to explore those big copy issues, and it’s happening less and less, would sort of be collapsed with certain digital media outlets. I’m not getting to do it as often as I would like. Any chance that I get to bring those types of topics to a new audience that thought they would not have skin in the game, I’m really proud of that. I’ve always spent time investigating the body, both my own and other people and how it reacts to the environment and those cases with water and what the stakes are. I love those pieces. If I could do those pieces, types of pieces for the rest of my life and get paid on time. I would say that I have my dream job.
Susan: Well, let’s…You brought this up. So I’m going to kind of shift gears for a second. And this is not a question I prepped you for. You brought up online publications that aren’t making it or that are leaving us or what have you. Journalism right now is so, so, so important, and accurate. Storytelling is so important. We need you, right? We need your stories, we need what you’re writing, because we don’t all get to go out and experience this every day. What does the non-writer in the United States need to know right now about the importance of good journalism? And where can you still find good and accurate and real journalism? What are your thoughts on my questions? Maybe you don’t even answer the question. But what are your thoughts on those types of questions?
Latria Graham: This is a whole other…So the first one that I thought of was when you read really good stories that like touch you in some way, like because writers like maybe not as much for the post, but sometimes those guys are freelancers too, like, let them know, like I keep every email that I’ve ever gotten about somebody that said something positive about my work, you know, going back to you 2013, right? And so I kept every single email. And when you have like really crappy days, you can go back and be like these people believed in what I was doing. So that’s part of it.
And then the second one is paying for journalism. And people are really annoyed with their pay walls and things right now. But like the fact that people read for free means that we don’t get expensive, like I was very lucky with that Standing Rock piece, that piece would’ve cost me probably about $2500, if I’d had to buy my own last minute flight to South Dakota, and try to get a hotel and food and rental car and all that stuff. And ESPNW, believed in that story enough to be like, “Okay, we’re going to front the expenses, you don’t have to pay for that. Go tell a good story.” And that has happened to me maybe four times in my entire career. And the biggest story—well, the big story I told for The Guardian, which had something like I think 4 million readers. I slept in my truck, because I could not afford a hotel room. And I knew that that was not going to be expensed for me.
So it’s realizing that new people are people too, and some of us are putting everything we have into this job because we know what’s happening is important. And so sometimes it’s feedback, sometimes it’s knowing that people are paying for news, and that you’re going to get reimbursed for your expenses. But some of the biggest stories I’ve told, I’ve only broken even on. And I told them because they were necessary. And the story I was talking about with The Guardian was called “Last of the Dying Breed.” And it was an African American female swim team. And it was the last African American swim team at HBCUs and it was going to be disbanded. And I got to catch one of their last practices and talked to them. And they also enabled me to talk about African American discrimination and why we don’t swim and why so many African Americans drown.
And yeah, like I got paid maybe less than $300 probably for that piece. And so by time I paid for food gas, drove my own truck, but could not afford a hotel. But like that story, knowing that like, this was the last time that this was going to happen, I had to be there. And it was a springboard on to some other stuff. But that’s part of it. Also, just checking—whenever we talk about new sources, and I’m hesitant to throw out like the big ones, because they do some really great reporting. But they also have their leads, but just really say, what was the point of this article? What did I learn from it? Was it incredibly skewed? And that’s something that I see people, like the number of times I have to say, this is fake or this has been disproved by Snopes and all that I’m sort of like, the journalist fact checker on social media for some of my friends. A lot of them appreciate it. But a lot of them get really annoyed by it. But I was like, “You can’t…Just because you want this to be true, doesn’t mean that it’s true. And look at more than one source and see what’s coming out there and figure out what the endgame is supposed to be and why you believe what you believe.”
So I mean, because there are a lot of really great places in like Southerly is doing a lot for the American South and picking up a lot of these environmental stories for the different smaller—and some of them are small sources. And sort of compiling them and giving people stuff to read The Bitter Southerner is another one that people would not necessarily think of, but I read it just as much as I read The Atlantic. So I’m hesitant to throw out too many names, because everybody is always going to think—and they’re great, impressive pillars of journalism. But I respect Brendan Meyers was at the Dallas Morning News. And he was one of the greatest long form writers. He’s about my age. But I read everything he wrote, because I thought it was incredible. So there’s so many places, people will always think of the New York Times, they’ll always think of The Washington Post, but they really should be thinking locally too about their newspapers in their communities, and who’s doing really interesting long form stuff. Where are the investigative people? If they’re not there, why aren’t they there? You know, and start looking at stuff that way. So yeah, this was not a question you’ve had before but I am so passionate about it, that I will stop rambling now and hope that I gave you some pointers.
Susan: You’re not rambling at all. And some of the smaller publications you mentioned Southerly and what was the other one?
Latria Graham: The Bitter Southerner.
Susan: Yeah. I’ve never even heard of them.
Latria Graham: I mean, they’re incredible. So The Bitter Southerner is like, really trying to take away the red necky, only had two teeth, almost sort of hillbilly elegy thing that has been put on the country. It especially got prominent after our current president was elected, but like taking this, you know, they think of us as sort of backwoods, know nothing’s, and that’s not the case. And it was not necessarily meant it to be political. But it is just like the South is so much more nuanced and interesting than you thought it was. And that’s the case like Charlotte, our state is doing some really interesting stuff now. Charlotte Magazine, Atlanta Magazine has always done really interesting things. And I get a lot of these, even though I don’t live in Charlotte and Atlanta, but I frequent these places. And so I do read them a lot and keep up with some of their writers and look for them whenever they come out with books and stuff like that. And that’s the other thing is like some of these, some of it will leak over like Beth Macy was a newspaper writer, and she wrote Dopesick, she wrote Truevine. And so they go on to write books and supporting them that way. And some of the longer work they do, because you appreciated their newspaper or magazine, was another really good way to get into it too.
Susan: Those are really helpful. I’ll admit, sometimes I get really heavy in the bookworm side of stuff, and I can sit and read books for hours. And sometimes I forget about, I mean, I read the newspaper daily, I’m probably one of the youngest people that does, I don’t know if everybody sits around, read the newspaper. And I do read it on my computer. I’m not sitting there with the old school paper, and I and I pay for it, and multiple papers. I’m kind of a nerd. But I do get heavy sometimes into books. And I forget about small, not smaller, but like magazine publications that are local… I mean, I read like the Dallas Observer, or sometimes I go back and read…Although I don’t think it’s there anymore. I think the Village Voice is gone.
Latria Graham: The Village Voice is gone, but y’all have Texas Monthly, which is incredible. They’ve done some major work. And they do all have a couple of lesser and I know Texas is contentious, because it’s the South but it’s also the West like, it’s also a very big place, having been there. So there are a number of ways that you can…But yeah, Texas Monthly does some really cool stuff. And Long Reads is a great place that compile—they pull from everywhere. And generally it’s stuff it’s over maybe like 5000 words. And sometimes it’s things like Texas Monthly or the Atlantic, but it can be The Bitter Southern or it can be outside. It pulls from everywhere. And they publish during the week, and you can follow them on Facebook. And some of the more interesting long reads of the week you can find there, as long as there’s a digital version. So that also is helpful because I get probably 20 to 25 magazines a month. And I can’t get through them all. And I also get The New Yorker, which sometimes I like. I adore it when I read it. But the fact that it comes more often than I’m home can make for a serious backlog. So we recycle all our magazines. But like right now, I’m sure my house—because my mother is also a magazine person. I’m sure we have 2000 to 3000 magazine in this house. And it’s just too many. It can get overwhelming for people. So sometimes having an editor that will feed you things the way that Long Reads does it helpful for people just breaking into and trying to figure out how to support that longer reading habit.
Susan: Well, that’s such a good point. That is an excellent point. Because you’re right, it can get overwhelming. And we won’t even talk about Texas trying to consider itself the South. Now Southern Living has even included them. And I’m like, “Y’all, I am from The South. Just be Texas. Just stick with Texas. I love Texas. But it is not. It is just not the South. It just isn’t”
Latria Graham: It’s a very different version of the South. And there’s barbecue out there.
Susan: Right. And it’s wonderful, but just be who you are. Don’t try to be something else. That’s a whole other conversation. I want to switch gears and go back a little bit and talk about –because I know I have listeners who love writing, and I have listeners who might be moms right now. And they’re thinking about getting back into the workforce or they’re thinking about doing something creatively. Maybe they’re just doing it on their own maybe it’s just journaling. But if somebody is considering maybe getting a few things published, or writing a few pieces and seeing where it goes, what would you—because you’ve been doing this for so long, and you went to such an accomplished…I mean, you went to the Governor’s School for crying out loud and South Carolina, you went to Dartmouth, you’re not dumb. You’re really, really, really smart and clearly had very good SAT or ACT scores.
Latria Graham: Oh, no, I was saying mediocre, actually, mediocre SAT scores. I think I had a lot of ambition. But that’s the thing people think you need incredible score. So I will let you repeat that again or re-say the intro again. But yeah, I realized I interjected and shouldn’t have. But yeah, my scores were meeting, my grades were excellent. But I’m not a great test taker.
Susan: Hey, I get that. I wasn’t either and somehow, I got lucky enough to get into Converse College. And it’s not Dartmouth, but I’ve got a college education. And now I forgot was going to ask you. Oh, yes, I know! If somebody was thinking about really jumping in and getting into writing and they wanted to try to get something published, how would you suggest they go about doing that on a smaller scale? Would it be contacting their local magazine or local publication? Or what does that even look like?
Latria Graham: So first, I would say anybody that journals and journals daily actually has more discipline than I do, so kudos to you, I am one of those people that writes, sort of when I’m on deadline, or have an assignment, and I’ve tried. I have 20 journals, and have not been able to fill them. So that’s the first thing, the discipline to sit and write even several times a week, I think you have it to work on getting something published. So the first thing that I would say is the Internet has made things so much more accessible than it used to. So for people, it depends on what they want to write. So some of it is doing a little bit of research, if you want to write Op Ed’s, or personal essay, or journalistic pieces. That’s how I wrote my first personal essay, it’s like, I googled, how do you write a personal essay? I knew what my subject was going to be. But first thing was to sit down with your ideas, give it a little bit of structure, or write and see where it goes. And don’t be afraid to get rid of what’s not working. If you have people you trust like that bookshop or writing partner or mentor, somebody in your circle that also writes or understand, sometimes you can show that to them and get their trusted opinion. But like, make it as good as you can on your own before sending it out to somebody. And the reason I sort of emphasize the internet is like, The Atlantic and the New York Magazine, and a lot of those places, these people are on Twitter, and their email address is in their Twitter bio. You don’t necessarily have to start out on the smaller scale, if you have a story that is compelling enough, or timely enough that it should be on the national radar.
So that is something incredibly important to say, like people had essays about their time at Notre Dame and obviously, when the fire crumbled, they were like, “Okay, this is something that I need to send in,” or spend time thinking about and get it really good and then send it in. And so some of it is knowing that you don’t have to have small. But part of it, the only thing stopping you in some ways is you in terms of competence, I was really bad about writing stuff, and deciding not to send it in because I was just worried it wasn’t good enough. If you wanted to start on that local level, and you’ve written a couple of things, you can have copy, or you can at least email them at your local newspaper magazine and see if they’ll at least have a meeting with you. Or you can send them a couple of clips. And when I first got started right out of graduate school doing book reviews, I did pho clip, which means that like I didn’t publish them anywhere. I just like looked at what a book review was. And I sort of modeled myself after that person, but chose a book that they had not written about, so chose my own book, wrote what would be considered a standard book review in my voice and use that as clips.
So you don’t have to necessarily have published-published work in order to have the resource. They want to know that you can write, they want to know that you can find a story. And then they want to know that you can turn stuff in on time because if you have a really great story, but you can’t turn it in, the editor still has nothing. So there are a couple of different ways to go about that. But if you really don’t have anything yet, the modeling clips idea works really well. So modeling clips, coffee with editors that may be willing to entertain you. Don’t get discouraged. Some of them don’t have time. And then also using the internet to find the bios of some of the big guys, if you really do feel like you have a national story.
Susan: Well, those are really, really excellent points to just have the clips themselves or smaller pieces that aren’t necessarily pre published that way they can see that you can actually in fact write. That makes perfect sense to me that just seems like a no brainer that you might not think of on your own. So thank you for sharing that. Because sometimes you just don’t think past your own. You get stuck in the weeds and you don’t really think above like the tree line.
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