Anne H. Putnam lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their cat and writes about body image, relationships, and anything else that requires an awkward amount of vulnerability. You can follow her on Twitter for politics and random musings or Instagram for cat pics and baked goods.
I began this year with a resolution to prioritize my writing, despite having a plate so overloaded it was bending at the edges. I needed to find a way to fit it in — and also to get it out, which meant, in part, that I would have to ramp up my pitching productivity.
I’d already made solid progress on conquering my fear of rejection (or worse, ghosting) by editors, but I was struggling to come up with ideas for essays and service pieces. How many angles could there possibly be on my two preferred subjects, relationships and mental health?
To be honest, I’ve always had a hard time coming up with ideas. While so many of my writer friends complain about having too many ideas and too little time to write them all, I silently hate myself for the crickets in my brain.
Until I wrote my first memoir, I never thought I’d have a book in me at all; until I started my second book, I was sure I’d tap out at one. I’m always surprised when I have an idea for a story or an essay that actually feels like it can be fleshed out beyond a paragraph. But I was determined to try.
At the end of January, when a writer in one of my Facebook groups announced she was going to send a pitch a day in February and asked if anyone else wanted to join, I signed on. Not necessarily to send a pitch every day — that was a little too ambitious for me — but to at least try to write one.
As a recovering teacher’s pet and a forever student, I love any challenge with an external structure. Show me an outline and I’ll write you a blog post about tech marketing; give me some plans and a mitre saw and I’ll build us a garden box; tell me I need to write 1667 words every day in November and I’ll draft 75 percent of a fairly terrible novel. As an established writer but a relatively recent student of the art of freelance pitching, I figured this practice could only do me good.
I quickly realized that this was much harder than those other structured challenges. I went into week one with a few ideas up my sleeve, a couple of notes-to-self with topics that had been rolling around in my head for the past few months, but by February 8 I was tapped out and panicking. I was sure I’d never have another idea — after all, I’d used up nearly a year’s worth of original thoughts in just one week!
But later that day, as I baked cinnamon rolls to soothe my anxiety about not having anything else to write about, I listened to a little Taylor Swift, and the lyrics poked at the memory center of my brain and sparked an idea. I’d made it through the day with my brief streak intact. Now if only I could keep going for another 20 days…
And I did. I started every day with the wind whistling through my brain and the fear that I’d never come up with a pitch, and every day I hit on an idea. They came from songs, from conversations, from Twitter, from my own experiences, and from the recesses of my memory, where thoughts that wouldn’t leave me alone had been huddling for months or even years.
On February 15, I put on a pair of leggings to go outside the house and then rushed to write a pitch about what a jerk I used to be about people who wear leggings as pants. On February 23, during a conversation with a friend, I said “writing is bloodletting” — and wrote a pitch about that as soon as our Zoom ended.
I stopped feeling like I had run out of original thoughts — and (more interestingly) I began seeing the world differently. Just as I found myself framing every new experience as verse during a brief (and doomed) dalliance with poetry in college, I now found myself distilling everything around me into its pitchable core.
I interrupted heated conversations with my husband to send myself emails, ignoring his probably-excellent next point so I could capture my previous pretty-good one in a pitch. I stared off into the middle distance while attempting to read, no longer satisfied with letting my thoughts be provoked temporarily by a book — no, I had to follow those thoughts, catch them in a butterfly net, pin them into a 300-word essay idea.
As I turned the corner to March, I realized I’d strengthened my pitching muscle dramatically. I read through the 28 pitches I’d written in February, seeing them all together for the first time now that I didn’t need to be so fixated on forward momentum. Not all of them were good — probably more than half were pretty bad, actually — but none was irredeemable. There were some pretty interesting nuggets in there, in terms of “things I could write about,” and the breadth of subject matter and focus was impressive.
I guess I’m not such a two-trick pony after all.
Whenever I’m stuck, I push myself to do a challenge like this: the same hard-but-manageable exercise every day, including weekends, for a definite period of time. That last part is essential, because the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel is what keeps me pushing through the hardest days.
Practice has yet to make perfect, but these sustained efforts never fail to make me feel like I’ve developed a new muscle in my brain, a living, aching, growing part of my mind that leaves me feeling hopeful and capable and ready to keep working. I feel stronger, and (maybe more importantly) I feel confident in my ability to learn new skills and strengthen the ones I already have.
So if you’re feeling stuck, I highly recommend pushing yourself with a structured, consistent, short-term challenge. (Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer is another fabulous example, and is coming up in June.) You just might surprise yourself with what you can do.
Oh, and if you’re wondering: yes, this piece came out of one of my February pitches.