This past Friday, creative writer Denise Grollmus came to Syracuse to chat with Ed members about breaking into the magazine industry, developing writing skills, and surviving in a competitive industry.
Her story began when she graduated in 2003 as an English major from Oberlin, a liberal arts college in Ohio. She started freelance music writing, then graduated and got an internship at the Akron Beacon Journal where she covered events like rock festivals. She noticed that with dailies, she wasn’t able to get very creative with her writing, but realized that “even if you have a stupid assignment, you can make it your own.”
She then attended the Academy of Alternative Journalism at Medill where she started writing about drunk Amish girls, mercenary boxers, bad politicians, and true crime. It was then when she transitioned into narrative, literary journalism, which remains as her passion to this day. She was hired by Village Voice Media in 2004 and completed a six-month fellowship at the Cleveland Scene, where she worked closely under an editor who encouraged her to maximize her potential and really produce good stuff.
Although she wrote draft after draft, she got some great experience and produced dozens of clips. She stayed at the newspaper, and after four and a half years, they finally gave her a staff position. Grollmus says she was pitching stories left and right, even though she wasn’t particularly good at coming up with that “sexy, high-sell idea.” Nonetheless, it was crucial for her to learn how to pitch.
Soon, Grollmus got into crime writing, or “the pervert beat,” as she calls it. She would skim the local papers in search of weird stories that didn’t quite add up. She’d then dig deep and do her own reporting to get the real scoop on the crime. Grollmus says that small news is a great place to look for stories begging for narrative treatment.
Later, Grollmus went back to school to pursue one of her true passions: teaching. She’s currently working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Penn State where she takes classes and teaches classes simultaneously. She learns from her students and gains inspiration from them. In her most recent article titled “Will Teach for Food” in Good magazine, Grollmus writes: “teaching is precisely what my heart desires; it’s an opportunity to make an immediate difference and to be intellectually engaged with the world.”
Even though she says she hates freelance writing, Grollmus got published and recognized through her pieces featured on The Rumpus, Wax Poetics, and Spin Magazine. Online, Grollmus receives instant gratification and deals with readers via comments. First, she writes for herself. After producing something she’s proud of, (like “Snapshots from a rock ‘n’ roll marriage,” the story of her relationship with The Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney), she sends her piece to numerous publications she thinks it would work for. She emails editors saying: “I am sending you my essay titled TK. It’s about TK. I’ve written for TK.” Plain and simple. Once the story actually sells, Grollmus follows up with everyone she originally emailed and lets them know it’s no longer available.
Grollmus explains that she’s a binge writer. When it comes, it comes. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t. She works on a lot of different projects so she doesn’t get burnt out or bored. For example, she’s currently polishing up the manuscript of her memoir, The Value of Ruins, and in October 2012, she plans to do more research in Poland on a Fulbright research grant in Creative Writing.