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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Meet Amy Pengra: A Writing Pad Success Story

As a student, Amy Pengra made full use of Writing Pad as her playground. After taking class with Marilyn Friedman, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and then performing at Christine Schoewald's personal essay show, Amy landed her piece in the pages of Marie Claire. Her freelance career is off and running and she took some time to tell us about the journey.

Your pathway to publishing your Marie Claire piece was due in part to several Writing Pad instructors. What was the trajectory?

I first worked on a messy draft of my essay “The List” with Marilyn, aka Mrs. Writing Pad, during the 2011 WP retreat in Ojai. She gave me great notes, but for a myriad of reasons I just wasn’t ready to tell that story. I put it away for a while and then dusted it off in one of the three or four (who’s counting?) essay classes I took with Taffy. At the time I was working full-time, so taking classes with assignments kept me on task with my writing. Otherwise, I collapsed in front of the television. 

With Taffy’s sage advice and support I finally elevated the story and hit send. I chose the NY Times Modern Love column where it was rejected, but the note I received was complimentary and encouraging. Around that time I ran into Christine Schoenwald who was a fellow student with me in one of Taffy’s classes (and also a WP instructor). She told me about her spoken word show Pinata where people read essays aloud. I submitted "The List" and later read it on stage. Between Christine’s notes, the experience, and audience feedback, I made yet another edit and then sent it to Marie Claire who bought it pretty quickly. A long and winding trajectory indeed. Moral: sometimes it takes a couple years to tell (and sell) a story. And sometimes it takes a Writing Pad village!

What was your publishing experience prior to landing this piece and how has it changed since? 

I published a short story back in the 90's (remember those?) in a small pub called FATE. Reading it now makes me want to run away and change my name, but at the time I was thrilled. So thrilled in fact, that I took a 16-year publishing break to work in marketing. But I still wrote on the side.

In 2009 I read my essay “First Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” at Spark on Rose, another spoken word show in LA, and then later submitted it to an essay contest. It was ultimately selected and was published in an essay anthology titled “Fits, Starts & Matters of the Heart: True Stories of Love, Loss and Everything in Between,” which I also titled (they had a naming contest as well). Being selected was incredibly exciting and rewarding. And that affirmation reignited my passion for writing and swinging for the publishing fences.

Last fall I left LA (and the job) to focus on writing and freelancing. Two months after making that decision, I sold the story to Marie Claire and have sold three other stories since then: one to xoJane, which came out this week, and two other travel stories to a Canadian website called TravelMindset. I also have a few others in the hopper and continue to fill my essay/pitch pipeline per the TBA Gospel!

What are your essay writing tips for women's magazines?

Find your strength and use it. This goes for essay and idea pitches. I often use humor and wordplay to make titles and pitches interesting to the editor since I know they’re inundated. Even if the idea/essay turns out to be a bust, I figure at least they’ll be entertained before passing. Plus, I try to talk to them in a casual manner – a tone that shows my personality – because that’s also more interesting than a note that sounds too formal or one that’s been cut and pasted 900 times. Also, be sure to check your impatience and sensitivity at the door. Selling an essay can take a lot of time and often includes multiple rejections. You have to keep your chin up and be willing to keep hitting send. Semi-pro tip: tough skinned persistence pays off. 

Thanks, Amy! That's a great mantra.

If you want your freelance career to take off like Amy's, Taffy Brodesser-Akner can set you off on the right foot. She's already helped 26 students get published! Writing Pad has several classes with Taffy this Spring/Summer: 

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