Though still in her 20s, Peace Garden Writer’s October guest is already an accomplished journalist and magazine editor. A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, she regularly contributes to The New York Times, and her award-winning, syndicated column, “Twenty Something,” appears in more than 50 diocesan newspapers across the country. Her writing has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and U.S. Catholic, among other publications. She and her husband, Ted, own and operate Ries Media in St. Paul, Minn.
It seems that Christina Capecchi and I were destined to meet. Though introduced initially through the blog world and our mutual association with a Catholic writers email list, it was during a live interview on Catholic radio that we first talked with one another. Ever since that “chance” encounter, we’ve enjoyed collaborating our thoughts on everything from our spiritual sisterhood to the ins and outs of the freelance life.
Christina, welcome to Peace Garden Writer!
Q: It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you in this last year, but there’s more I’d like to know. I’m curious what started you down the path of journalism. What was it about this profession that grabbed you?
A: Likewise! I’m so grateful for our friendship, Roxane. God gave you many gifts that you share generously with everyone you encounter. I’m blessed to be among them!
I think I was wired to tell stories. I dictated my first story to my mom before I could write, so probably at about 4. “Mary the Monkey” chronicled a mom (with a tail) who effortlessly doubled as a rock star. And I’ve been journaling since third grade, which was really my first experience of making sense of life through uncensored, first-person narrative.
My biggest draw is the joy and challenge of working with words. There is almost an electric thrill when a thought travels from the brain, through the finger tips, announced in the clickety-clack of a keyboard that sends a cursor hopping across a blank Word document. Once there was nothing, now there is something.
Another draw is the way writing allows me to make sense of my world. It’s how I process and examine and critique and celebrate my life.
Q: You worked for a time at The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which is really where our association begins (you’ll recall it was through your co-worker of that time, Emilie Lemmons, that we were inadvertently placed onto one another’s path). Share a little bit about that experience writing for The Catholic Spirit, if you would. What did you like best about working on staff at such a publication?
A: Everything! My first week there the Catholic Press Association awarded the paper “General Excellence” in the largest category of newspapers in the U.S. and Canada (an award it has won many times), so our charge was to maintain that excellence. I had just turned 22, but my colleagues treated me like a peer. I rolled up my sleeves and jumped in on front-page debate, brainstorming alongside graphic designers and collaborating with the photographer. I got to work under Bob Zyskowski, Pat Norby, Mike Krokos and then Joe Towalski. I know I’m a better writer and a funnier, kinder person because of them.
Now I’m proud to be a member of The Catholic Spirit’s board of directors. Just saying that makes me feel old and stately!
Q: Eventually, though, you decided to go it alone, to try it in the freelance world? What compelled you toward that?
A: The freelancing was kind of default, actually – not some master plan or even my Plan A at that point. After I earned my master’s from Medill, I was just striving to cobble together work in a tough market. That was the work I could find. Now I’m grateful I drifted into that direction.
Q: What are some of the greatest joys of the freelance life? The trials?
A: There are so many! The freedom, the ability to work from home, the independence (I never liked group projects in school!), the lack of ill-defined, unproductive meetings that drain a day. Freelancing allows me to write, write, write. I feel like I get to stay close to my passion and (with some exceptions) be choosier about when and what and how I write.
One disadvantage is that I don’t have a primary editor who works closely with me and really learns my work and how to help me improve it. I can seek constructive criticism from more people, of course – it just doesn’t always have the same depth and quality.
The main challenge for me is the need to constantly educate family and friends about my work. Just because my cubicle happens to be in my home doesn’t mean I’m any more accessible than anyone else with a full-time job. People have this glamorous vision of the freelance life – tucked in the corner of a coffee shop enjoying a steady stream of pastries and regular lunches with friends. But I’ve found I have to be much more disciplined. I really can’t do lunch with a friend. It ends up being at least a two-hour disruption.
Q: Tell me about your self-syndicated column, “Twenty Something.”
A: It’s often hard for freelancers to sell their own work. It’s not as though we choose to be in the sales biz; we’re writers! But I really appreciate the experience I had of cold calling editors and offering them my column. No one knows your product better than you do! It was great practice to master that elevator pitch and then jump into a conversation that was brief and pointed but also warm and engaging.
I believe in my column and the purpose it serves, adding a much-needed young-adult voice to diocesan publications. The more editors I called, the less scary it got. Freelancers have to be self assured. No one is going to sell your writing for you. No one should, really.
My column grew more than I expected because it filled a void, reaching a demographic that isn’t being adequately served, one that is imperative to the future of the Catholic press – and journalism at large. It’s not as though I did extensive research before launching “Twenty Something.” It was an intuitive thing. I couldn’t miss the need for such a column. I was flipping through diocesan papers and I wasn’t seeing any of my peers. Young adults want to see and hear themselves in the publications they pick up.
Q: Christina, you’ve landed some very admirable jobs through the years. What would you say is the source of your drive, primarily?
A: Selfishly, I’ve always wanted an audience. First that meant I held my mom captive the moment a story screeched out of our dot-matrix printer, but now it means I yearn for readers, and that comes through larger publications.
I think the drive is part of loving my work and also the result of having been steadily encouraged along the way – by parents, relatives, mentors, professors and editors – to aim high and really go for it.
Q: You’ve obviously become adept at interviewing, Christina. What would you say are some of the most important components of a good interview?
A: Good rapport helps, but the key is good questions. People do not naturally share the stuff we’re seeking. They speak in bland generalities, where we need details and examples and anecdotes. You have to keep pressing for the good stuff. Press, prod, persist.
It can feel rude or invasive, but a simple preface explaining the purpose of the interview and the sometimes strange questions that may follow usually does the trick.
Q: I know that you and your husband have been privileged to travel on occasion for your work. Of your adventures, what has been the most profound and why?
A: Traveling to the Holy Land was incredible, but I think our biggest thrill was greeting the pope in Rome. We were standing in the right spot, thanks to a tip from a Spanish nun.
Q: You are so young with so much of your career ahead of you still. Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten?
A: In four or five years I hope to be writing my first book. Like so many writers, I’ve dreamed of being a published author since I was a girl. But I’m keenly aware that a person doesn’t just go and write a book. Sustaining a compelling, cohesive book-length narrative demands an incredible amount of muscle. Right now I’m exercising those muscles, gearing up for the marathon.
In 10 years I hope I’m on my second book and having fun with essays, columns and long-form stories for national magazines that currently seem impenetrable.
Q: If you could give one young or aspiring writer a piece of advice about the profession they are trying to enter, what would it be?
A: Be tenacious. If you do everything you can to hone your craft, you will create room for your work. But you can’t be lazy or half-hearted. I’m disappointed by the number of people who tell me they want to write – a statement that sets my heart aflutter – but in the end don’t do the hard work of reading, writing and revising, of studying the craft, of thorough reporting and of relentless pitching.
I edit two national Catholic magazines, and I’m very open to new writers, but I can’t commission a piece based only on what you’ve posted in a blog. I need to see clips. So roll up your sleeves and make it happen – then email me!
If you want to get my attention, demonstrate that you know how to report and interview, weaving in data and adding context. Everyone wants to write essays. Being able to craft a thorough, thoughtful reported feature makes you much more marketable.
Sure, some publications are tough to crack, but it is entirely possible to break into freelancing. There are opportunities for the taking if you are willing to earn them.
Q: Finally, how can we read more of your work?
A: “Twenty Something” is archived at www.ReadChristina.com. (I’m also on Twitter under the handle @ReadChristina.) My work for the Times comes up when you enter my name into www.nytimes.com. Much of the rest is Googleable, I think. But I’d love to hear from your readers directly via Christina@ReadChristina.com. A friend of yours is a friend of mine!
Christina, thanks so much for sharing your inspiring thoughts with us today. I look forward to watching your career continue to unfold!
Q4U: Readers, here’s your chance to fire away a few questions for Christina.