Writer Talks: A Chat With Writer Elyssa Kirkham

Several years ago, Elyssa and I were coworkers at a personal finance website. It didn’t take long to become friends, as she was assigned to help me acclimate to my new job at the company she’d already been working for. When I discovered her wonderful, wacky personality and the lengths her daughter would go for pizza, I knew I needed to have Elyssa in my life for years to come.

Now, Elyssa and I chat weekly about all things content. She helps me work through ideas for what I’m doing here and I help her work through ideas for her blog, Brave Saver. Now, she’s sharing some of what her writing life has been like over the years, as well as some of my favorite writing advice.

1) What kind of writing do you do for work?

I've been in the online content game for nearly 10 years now, and seven of those have been in the personal finance space — as an in-house writer for financial news and content sites.

Starting at the beginning of this year, however, I took the plunge to start freelancing and working for myself. I'm only a few months into freelancing so I'm still adjusting and finding what works for me, but I'm quickly getting more comfortable with the flux of this type of work.

Currently about half of my paid work is writing informational and educational articles about personal finance; the other half is research-based content that allows me to ask weird or interesting questions and chase down data to see what the real story is. Adjacent to that is the work I'm putting into my own site, Brave Saver.

2) What kind of writing do you do for fun?

Honestly, my personal writing projects can be a little all over the place. But I try to let them be that way. I view them as play, or as a practice, and try not to put undue pressure on myself to produce. Lately I've been loving personal, memoir writing in either prose and verse.

I actually think maybe we writers can give ourselves a little more credit for the casual, one-off writing we do — leaving online comments, texting a joke to make a friend laugh, or drafting a thoughtful Tweet. Journaling is important to me, though mostly as a self-care practice — but it's still writing. Or I got really fascinated by the mythos of astrology last year, for example, so as a hobby I'll sometimes comment in astrology forums. I try to recognize all the "non-writing" writing I do so often and give myself credit for that.

3) What's your ideal writing routine?

Routines and I have a love-hate thing. I've used routines or habits or goals as a way to try to drive my writing productivity in the past, but for me, it can easily wind up feeling punishing and demoralizing. Like I'm slaving to the to-do list rather than it being a tool to support me.

But there are also flexible little rituals that I have built that are helpful to get me primed to write. Ideally, I try to journal or work on a creative project for about 20-60 minutes a few days a week. I usually try to get some coffee or another treat, sit down with my journal or a notebook in a quiet, sunny room, and see what's "there" to write about. I like writing by hand regularly, but I might switch to typing if I really hit a stride.

4) How often do you get to partake in your ideal writing routine?

The only thing I'm really consistent on is that I'm inconsistent, hah! I try to view my mini-routine as a tool: a little ritual that I know works, most of the time, to get me ready to write. How often I will pull it out ebbs and flows. There are months where I'm doing this almost every day, or there are times like the past six weeks when I don't have the energy.

I'm trying to be more accepting of my flow and not always demand that I produce because the alternatives are not pretty for me.

There have been times when I put a LOT of pressure on myself to meet personal writing goals like writing 500 words a day, or writing for 30 minutes daily. When I didn't, I'd feel so guilty. I think there are a lot of messages out there that tells creatives that if they aren't actively, constantly working on their craft or projects, then they aren't true artists. That if you really want to write a book or get better at painting, you have to show up day in and day out — if you don't you're faking, a fraud, a wannabe. It was the attitude I was stuck in for a while.

It was effective in that I got a lot of words on the pages. But it came at a huge cost in that I stopped enjoying the writing. I lost trust in my ability to write through the challenges. I pushed myself too hard and in the process damaged my relationship with my art and my creativity. I gave myself permission to set that project aside because I realized the way I was trying to create was making myself miserable. It wasn't sustainable or conducive to doing meaningful work.

So now I try to respect and ride the inspiration and energy when it's there. When it's not, I will return to writing more as an outlet rather than to produce anything. Seeing my writing as something that serves me and living creatively, not as another obligation or to-do list item.

5) Do you believe in writer's block?

I would say I believe in writer's blocks, rather than "writer's block." The experience of not being able to write is universal, but it's also different from writer to writer, and even from project to project. Almost anything can keep us from wanting to write, being able to write, writing as well as we'd like — the range of possible writer's blocks is endless.

That's where self-awareness and introspection help. I can turn the situation over and see what's really going on when I'm struggling with my work. And then more quickly find an effective strategy to return to my writing, whether that is sticking with it, taking a break, or something else entirely. Also, having other people to give perspective is invaluable when I'm stuck in a rut and can't figure out why.

6) As a paid writer, when was the first time you lost trust in your own work?

I have many strengths as a writer, but the technical side ain't it. In my first couple of writing jobs, this became a pain point frequently. I was often called out for having typos or style errors in my writing. It felt shitty, and I worked hard to lower my errors. It improved a lot, but the last little bit persisted.

Eventually, I started to push back and ask questions. Did they really expect my copy to be 100 percent error free, 100 percent of the time? No? Well then, exactly how many errors were acceptable? In the course of asking questions, I started to see what was really going on. My employer had every reason to devalue my writing and my skills. It kept me working hard to try to "make up" for it, and it kept me from thinking I deserved to be paid more.

I advocated for myself at work, but more importantly, with myself. I set a personal boundary that whatever my employer thought of my work, I would no longer crucify myself for misplaced commas or incorrect capitalization. I worked to stay centered on my strengths and asked for changes in my role that would allow me to work on projects more in line with what I was good at.

I've had to build on that lesson since then, definitely. And it's something I still have to work on all the time: trying to capitalize on what I'm good at, giving myself credit wherever it's deserved, and not being so hard on myself. Being on my own team and believing in myself as a writer, professionally and personally, has been huge.

7) Do you ever daydream about doing another job when you're having a bad writing day?

I have in the past. I'd go to a coffee shop and feel a surge of envy for the barista just banging away at the espresso machine, breathing in the roast coffee smells and bantering with customers.

It became so persistent I had to eventually ask myself what these daydreams were all about. The answer: they were escapist fantasies, a sign that I was overworked and overstressed and wanted to run away from my current job/life into something simpler, more straightforward, more social. It was time to address those more proactively. Now I'm in a much better place and I've returned to daydream standbys like weeklong naps and yearlong vacations.

8) What are your personal and professional goals?

As if it's not super obvious from all my self-analysis here, I've been doing some serious work on myself in the past couple of years. It's all still in progress. Still I think my central goal is to try to enjoy life. To measure the value of myself, my efforts, my life first and foremost by how happy I am and how well it's serving my own health and wellness.

Professionally, my goal is to have work that first, doesn't fill me with dread, and second, I am genuinely interested in doing. (Also, making sure I get paid enough.) I've craved control over my work for a long time, and I'm excited to finally have and use it — I'm planning some big things for my own site, Brave Saver.

9) What's one piece of writing advice you got that still reigns true? What writing advice would you give?

A college creative writing professor said in our first class, "A writer is someone who writes." And he advised us to view ourselves as writing, not as writers. The poet Mark Nepo says something similar, that art and creative living are verbs not nouns. They are an act we're doing, not a static noun we try to achieve.

The requirement is showing up, even very occasionally, to engage with your ideas and medium and inspiration. Beyond that, it's all up to you. Hold yourself and your creative journey gently. Be committed but also flexible. Allow your artist's path to unfold in its own time, its own directions. Be open to its twists, turns, and even backtracks. Keep the joy of creating at the forefront.

Want to get to know Elyssa better? Check out her blog, Brave Saver, and follow her on Twitter here.