I have two English degrees – a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in creative writing and a Master’s degree in creative writing and children’s literature from Kansas State. I was attracted to English programs because you can’t major in “storytelling.”
Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. We use stories to teach our children, pass down our heritage, entertain our friends, and learn from people and places we don’t understand or even fear. I wanted to enter into the storytelling tradition and use written communication to bring people together through stories.
However, I also loathe the “starving artist in a coffee shop” stereotype. I wanted to always be gainfully employed and make a difference with my writing. Writing is sometimes lonely, and I need a village, not a hermitage. Through trial and error, I learned how to accomplish both my desire to tell stories and make writing my vocation.
One of my mentors gave me great advice early on in my writing education. He told me, “If you want to be a writer, write. And get paid for it.” I’ve tailored my jobs from age fifteen until now to be writing-focused. I’ve written for newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, social media and advertising campaigns. My topics have covered everything from web sites about garage door openers to bootlegger queens during Prohibition. I’ve indexed scholarly nonfiction, edited peer-reviewed articles, and I’ve ghost-written a book about airplanes. And I’ve been paid to tell all of those stories.
“You’re an English major? What will you do with that?” is a very popular question to ask English majors. I’ve been out of college for seven and half years, and I’ve had a variety of roles in my jobs. These opportunities have come through my full-time jobs and through my “side-hustles,” which include freelancing and part-time jobs.
I like to write about diverse topics, and I try not to be afraid of topics I don’t know about. After all, if I don’t know about the topic, then I can serve a population who also knows nothing. One of my favorite topics is Untold Stories. These include stories of women being brave and breaking barriers. Pictured here is Evelyn Sharp, one of the country’s first female pilots. I also enjoy sharing the stories of Native Americans and giving a voice to the Great Plains’ first peoples.
Unbelievable True Stories are also a favorite of mine. I used to write more fiction than I do now. I’ve discovered that I like to surprise people with background or history about their places or their peoples, and nonfiction gives me that chance. My current favorite is my most recent article, “Louise Vinciquerra: Nebraska’s Bootlegger Queen,” published in the Summer 2018 issue Nebraska History. Louise ran a successful statewide bootlegging empire and bragged about making $45,000 as a 22-year-old mother of two. I never confirmed that number, but she was a fascinating and ruthless human being. The research for this article took me eight months of steady work, and the entire idea-to-publication process took over two years. When you are a writer, you are often playing the long game.
Everybody has to eat, but many people do not know where their food comes from. Farmers and producers are often inept at sharing their stories because they’re too busy making the actual products. Celebrating the history of agriculture and the toil people go through to feed the masses is one of my favorite topics. Stories about food or the people who raise it, harvest it, process it or market it need to be accessible, and they need to be well-told. Using social media and magazine stories to connect farms with tables and tables with farms is storytelling at its finest.
If I’m not writing about agriculture, then I hope I’m writing about education. I’m currently an academic advisor for journalism and mass communications at K-State. I use writing in outreach and communication for our department, and I use writing to help my advisees. Whether I’m writing academic progress appeals to help students on academic warning who need a second chance, creating an email to explain their options for classes, or coaching my students through the resume and cover letter writing process, I am using writing for the greater good.
As a writer, you also need a sense of humor. Puns can combine both your love of words and your sense of humor. This moose post was one of more popular posts when I was a social media manager for History Nebraska. I still don’t quite understand why.
To sum up, I have three pieces of advice.
1) Practice writing all the time. Your writing ability is a muscle, and you need to put in the conditioning. If you start getting sloppy with your texts or with your emails, it will show up in your other work. Write nice thank-you notes. Send professional emails. Craft meaningful social media posts. All writing is important writing.
2) I’ve been trying to get a novel published for the last five years. Ninety-six different agents have rejected me. I’m just not good enough yet, and that’s fine. To use a rural metaphor (my favorite kind), I’m going to need to make more horseshoes before I’m ready to build a plow. And that’s okay. I’m dedicated to being the best horseshoe maker I can be, and I’ll gain enough experience to tackle bigger projects and more competitive markets.
3) Be the MVW (most valuable writer) of any workplace. Just remember that written communication shouldn’t be your only strength – you want to tell stories through photos, video, design, and public speaking on multiple platforms and on both big stages and at private parties. Learn the art of small talk; make talking about the weather or engaging with a stranger at a work function an opportunity to hone a story, either your own or someone else’s. Yes, I am telling you to attend parties to make you a better writer and storyteller. As a literary partier, land somewhere between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jay Gatsby.
Share the stories. Design the stories. Tell the stories. Write the stories. You can do it all with a degree in English.
— Kylie Kinley (M.A. ’13)