When I relocated to Naples in January 1987, I needed a job. I required little time to discover six regional magazines published in Naples. Capitalizing on my strengths—a Master’s degree in English and 10 years of teaching high-school language arts—I began knocking on doors. My elevator pitch to each editor was: “Give me a try to write for your publication. I promise you’ll have each piece on time or ahead of deadline, within the assigned word count, and you won’t have to worry about commas.”
I had always wanted to become a writer, but before moving to Naples, I’d focused on the sure-thing income from teaching. Here was my chance to create for a living, to work my choice of hours, to expand my horizons, and to live my dream.
The first to offer me freelance assignments was the editor of Gulfcoast Magazine. Over the next few years, the many publications this organization produced—some monthly, others quarterly, and one annual—brought me the lion’s share of my income. I wrote two or three articles in every monthly and upwards of a dozen more in the quarterly and annual editions.
One experience stands out. In 1988-89, a group of local investors mounted an effort to discover what they believed to be a Spanish galleon that sank in the 1500s somewhere off Naples. I was engaged as the official chronicler of the expedition. I approached the editor at Gulfcoast with an idea: to write a feature article describing this search for treasure as a business venture. He bought it, and I zeroed in on the business side of the adventure, interviewing the leader of this team, whose name was Don Johnson. We exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch as I prepared the article.
Even though deadline approached, I took a long weekend to visit a friend in West Palm Beach. Returning to my hotel after Saturday night dinner, I was greeted by the front-desk clerk bouncing with excitement. He handed me a slip of paper and motioned to the house phone. “You got a call from Don Johnson!” he exclaimed. “Don Johnson! He wants you to phone him back!”
I knew he believed this to be the star of the top-rated TV series Miami Vice. I knew better. But I didn’t want to let down this obviously mesmerized hotel employee, who hovered nearby to catch my conversation with THE Don Johnson. As I talked with the search-team leader, I managed to make it sound as if I were getting together with the TV star. For the rest of my stay at the hotel, I was treated like royalty.
As my freelance career blossomed, I found myself writing on assignment for five of the six Naples-published magazines. All those bylines caught the eye of the publisher of the sixth, who phoned me with a query: “Are you too busy to write for my magazine, Florida Golfer?” Always eager to expand, I arranged to meet him at his office.
Once seated across a long mahogany table, we launched into our questions. I asked, “Why do you need a new writer? What happened to the one before now?”
“She moved out of state with her husband, and I wanted a writer here in town. I noticed your name on all sorts of articles, from business to construction to real estate to lifestyle, so I thought you might be the right one for me. Of course, you play golf.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, only Putt-Putt.”
It was his turn to shake his head. “Oh. Well then, sorry to waste your time. I think you have to play golf to be able to write about it.”
I gathered my materials and stood up. “If you say so, but I happen to believe that a professional writer can write about anything. You just have to know how to research, get the answers your own experience can’t provide.” I started for the door.
“Wait. You have a point there. And I do need a writer. Okay, I’ll start you out writing lifestyle pieces—what it’s like to live on a prestigious golf course. You can profile golf course designers, golf pros who teach. That sort of thing. I’ll do the golf stories myself.”
After I’d written for three issues, the publisher phoned me. “Just thought you’d like to know that I keep getting compliments on your articles. Maybe NOT playing golf has been an asset for you, made you come up with questions no one else has ever asked these pros and designers. To a person, they told me you are great.”
Within six months, I was writing every article in the magazine, including golf tips: how to improve your short game, how to get rid of that tendency to slice, how to line up a putt. Research, mister, research.
One day in late 1991, I took a phone call from my editor at Gulfcoast. “Are you sitting down?” she began. I was. “We’ve just been bought out, and the new owners are scrapping all our titles. So stop working on your assignments.”
“What about the ones I’ve already turned in that haven’t run yet?”
“Good question. We hope they’ll spring for paying in full, but if not, we’ll insist on a kill fee.”
There went half my income. I allowed fifteen minutes to feel sorry for myself, to curse up a storm and punch my pillow. Then I got busy and wrote letters to two people I’d met at a recent Chamber of Commerce event. They had asked me to get in touch if I ever needed work.
I left on a two-week vacation with a friend. When I returned, I had letters from both men asking me to contact them. One was the marketing director for Bay Colony, an ultra-upscale community in the northern tip of Pelican Bay, which was just being developed. He engaged me to provide copy, hired a graphic designer, and together we became an in-house marketing team. I was given carte blanche to create unusual—even bizarre—copy geared to wealthy, sophisticated, highly cultured prospects. Our newspaper ads, marketing brochures and videos—all won top awards. I brought home a handsome salary.
The second person I wrote to also hired me. He needed my imagination to create copy for brochures and a video presentation for a unique project he wanted to sell. He also rewarded me handsomely.
The year after Gulfcoast went out of business, taking with it half my income, I earned more money than I ever thought possible from my dream of a job.
(Editor’s Note: Defining Moments is a new series in SCOOP to give you, our press club members, a forum for sharing highlights from your career. Please share your Defining Moments story for an upcoming edition of SCOOP by emailing your article of 400 to 750 words to email@example.com, attention Karla Wheeler.)