Author spotlight: Sandra Phinney

Sandra Phinney is a professional freelance writer who has been writing and publishing for twenty years. Her articles have appeared in over 70 print and online magazines, and she is also the author of four books and teaches workshops on narrative, travel, and memoir writing. Phinney lives on the edge of the Tusket River in Yarmouth County. In what follows, she tells us about how she started out as a freelancer, planning your work as a writer, and more.

How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and non-fiction in particular?

Started my writing business in 1999. I had spent 18 years farming (and taught adult classes & university courses, cut fish, waitressed…anything to help subsidize the farm); it continued to be a losing proposition so after losing money for 17 out of the 18 years, we decided to sell the farm, pay off the farm loan board, and move on. (In case you are wondering, we made a profit of $966 one year.)

So. I needed to find a new career. Writing found me, at age 54, at a writer’s conference at White Point Resort. One of the workshops was presented by freelance journalist Julie Watson. The title of her sessions was “You, too, can earn your living as a freelance writer.” I came home and told my husband I was going to be a freelance writer. He looked at me with a strange look and said, “Eighteen years ago you told me you were going to be a farmer.” Poor guy; I scared him silly. I didn’t even know what a clip or query was. But I soon learned.

You’ve published your work in a wide variety of periodicals and have been active as a professional writer for well over a decade. Have you noticed any changes in the way freelance writers work in recent years? 

It seems that we all have to do more with less. It’s likely a sign of the times and strikes every profession. The biggest change for me personally is getting used to new technology and social media. It’s hard to keep up. But at some point I dug my heels in. For example, I had a cell phone (because I thought I needed it to survive—especially as a travel writer), but that’s nonsense. I sold it six years ago and have no regrets.

In addition to being a writer, you run writing workshops. Do you find that teaching and writing are activities that complement each other? Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced in teaching writing? 

I love giving workshops. They definitely complement each other. I learn from teaching and incorporate that into my writing. I also learn from my writing, and incorporate that into my teaching. The only challenge I’m faced with when teaching is having enough time to get it all in…meaning, a day’s workshop is never long enough to cover all I’d like to cover. Teaching and giving workshops is probably the most hassle-free (and joyful work) that I do as a writer. And the most lucrative. Now if you had asked about what the particular challenges I’ve faced with writing stories for a living, well, I’d need about 10 mores pages.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

Believe it or not, I’ve never had writer’s block. My biggest problem is procrastination. But it’s not due to writer’s block. I procrastinate because I’m terrified of looking at a blank page and will do just about anything to avoid writing that first word or sentence. I’ve been known to stoop as low as doing the ironing for heaven’s sake! Or mend clothing or make jam or scrub the tub or clean my office! But deadlines are a powerful motivator. After I’ve postponed long enough and I have no choice (unless I want to chance missing a deadline which I don’t) then I look at my computer, face the blank page and GO. As soon as I start it’s not a problem. It’s getting bum in seat and fingers on keyboard and actually writing something that’s the biggest challenge for me.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Come up with a plan. I remember, for example, wanting to be a travel writer. For three years I “wanted” to be a travel writer but it was always in my head.  But once I came up with a to-do list (e.g., join a travel writing organization, find story ideas, analyze magazines, find markets, write queries, etc.) then it became clear what I had to DO in order to become a travel writer. Eventually, I was able to add “travel writing” to my portfolio. So setting goals is crucial, and, actually doing them.

What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?

I live in a home that’s off the grid on the Tusket River outside of Yarmouth. I can see upstream and downstream without another house in view. We don’t even have curtains. It’s the most peaceful place on the planet. So one thing that is great is the setting. How lucky am I?! Another great thing is the rural-ness of living in this part of Atlantic Canada. There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be living/working. And I don’t have to go far for stories. Goodness knows how many business, lifestyle, health, travel, nature stories etc. I’ve written that are anchored here. In fact, my latest book Waking Up In My Own Backyard is all about discovering people/history/culture in Southwest Nova Scotia (and myself in the process.) So that is what’s great about living in my part of Nova Scotia.

Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?

I remember it clearly. I was asked to write a story for the Liverpool Advance about that workshop at White Point resort I mentioned in the first question. I was paid $50 for that story and I was floored. To me that was a vast sum of money. (Remember we were still trying to sell our bankrupt farm.) I was so excited I actually jumped up and down and kissed the cheque when I received it.

Did you have a mentor when you started writing? What was that relationship like?

Yes. Glen Hancock. What a dear soul. At that same writers gathering at White Point Lodge, he was also one of the presenters. I knew that he had worked as a journalist (war correspondent, editor at Maclean’s and Reader’s Digest back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s). Once I decide to start a freelance business, I got in touch with him and asked if he would mentor me as I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. I met with him once a month for about a year at his home in Wolfville (with other writers) and am eternally grateful for his guidance. It was an extraordinary experience. He taught me many things, including how to stay out of the way of the story.

What’s the last great book you read? 

Oddly enough, I’m re-reading Joe Gould’s Secret. It’s a small book which includes two profiles written by Joseph Mitchell for The New Yorker, about a fellow in NY called Joe Gould. The first was written in 1942; the second one was written in 1964. Even though they are both written about the same person (Jo Gould) they are both extraordinary profiles. 

Mitchell was one of the early journalists who approached non-fiction as literary journalism or create non-fiction (but stuck with the truth.) By this I mean he created strong characters, compelling scenes, conflict/resolution etc., and he also used literary techniques such as metaphor, internal rhyme etc. So it reads like a beautiful piece of fiction…but everything is true. Nothing is invented or embellished and there are no composite characters. However, the research and reportage required, along with paying attention to the moment is immense. Mitchell is one of my many heroes.

The other book I have on standby is Margaret Laurence, The Making of a Writer, by Donez Xiques. It was just loaned to me with a “You must read this” recommendation.

What are you working on right now? 

Juggling a few things: profile of a docent at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton; lifestyle story about the biggest chicken farm in Atlantic Canada outside of Fredericton; one about a chap building a “tiny home” on wheels here in Yarmouth; one about Barrie and I renewing our 40th wedding vows at White Point Lodge with nine other couples last year; those are for magazines.  I’m also writing a story about paddling in a Voyageur canoe up the Trent-Saverne waterway in ON for an online travel mag.; and a travel piece for The Chronicle Herald; and a couple of stories for The Nova Scotian (one about a group of volunteers making “Boomerang bags” here in Yarmouth; and another about a social enterprise also here in Yarmouth.) Hmmm. And I have two memoir workshop to deliver this spring and I’m launching a new business called “HeartSong Travel” (check it out later this month at I think I’d better get back to work. Or go for a walk. Or a canoe ride. Anything but look at the blank page I should be looking at. Apparently the deadlines are still too far away. Like, days!

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