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Meet Mike Washington

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mike Washington.

Mike, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
The last thing I thought I would end up becoming was a “writer”.

As a kid, I didn’t really have any specific ambition. I wanted to do it all. I wanted to do it all mostly because my parents, who were and still are some of the most supportive humans I’ve ever encountered, made me feel like I could do it all.

I would build something that honestly looked like crap out of Lego pieces and show it to my mother. She would study it, then look at me and say that it was brilliant. She would then tell me that I should become an architect.

So, I wanted to become an architect.

I would get into an argument with one of my two older brothers. During this argument, I would bring up some kind of fact that was common knowledge but effective in poking a hole in my brothers’ logic. My mother would overhear that I succeeded in an argument and say that I should become a lawyer.

So, I wanted to become a lawyer.

My dreams bounced from doctor (I applied Band-Aids to boo-boos throughout much of my childhood) to photographer (my parents made me the official picture taker whenever we were on vacation) to an accountant (I was really good at making a change when it came to breaking a five-dollar bill). My aspirations were all over the map, which was an incredible feeling because I really did feel that I could experience joy in any of those fields when the time came for me to grow up and pick one.

So where did all the writing come from?
One thing that never was really brought up as a form of encouragement? My desire to become a writer… because I never told anyone or showed anyone that I was one.

I never told anyone that I loved writing. I never told anyone because it didn’t feel like a “skill” or a “craft”. Anyone with a pen or a keyboard is a writer, so I never put any thought into what it meant to grow up and become a writer.

As a kid, I always thought writers were artsy types who had patches on the elbows of their cardigan sweaters and smoked out of pipes. I always thought they were people who wrote thick books that you would find on the coffee table of your grandmother’s house. Mystery novels. Biographies. Cookbooks. That’s what writers were to me, and being presented with that mental image –I didn’t think twice about crossing “writer” off of the list of “What Mike Wants to be When He Grows Up”.

I did know that I loved telling people what I learned, though.

I got a humongous kick out of learning something I knew other people didn’t know and reporting to them what I discovered. A fact from a book, a point made on a movie or TV show — it didn’t matter. If it hit me as something I didn’t know before, I wanted to share that bit of new information with others. Much to the dismay of my parents, dinnertime was when I did this reporting. I was pretty much a tape recorder that was set to “Playback” as soon as my 8-year-old butt hit the seat.

Not every fact I reported was necessarily interesting to others, but I had to do something with the information I was learning. This feeling never went away and stuck with me as I entered high school.

In high school, I was very close with my English teachers. One in particular was very good at making interactions with writing and literature casual. She took a hard step away from making classical works feel stuffy and hallowed and treated them for what they were –just a collection of words and sentences on a page that in combination, made the reader feel something. Having this shifted perspective, I enjoyed the way this teacher of mine treated the subject of English.

Because of this teacher’s attitude towards the material, I thought that the elbow patched, cardigan sweater-wearing, pipe-smoking writer’s life wasn’t so lame after all. They were just people who wanted to make readers feel something. I liked that thought. I liked it a lot.

I also liked that the elbow-patched cardigan sweaters were optional.

This English teacher assigned a lot of papers and essays to be written. A lot. I remember being the only one of my friends who enjoyed writing these essays and papers because of the way she, as I said just above, made interacting with literature casual, not stuffy and inaccessibly collegiate …as we tend to view it.

I wrote paper after paper with this new view, and one day, this English teacher asked to see me after class. She wanted to talk about my writing.

She liked the way I wrote and wanted to know if I would be interested in writing for the high school newspaper, which she was a faculty advisor for.

I said yes.

I never thought about exploring the world of reporting and journalism before as an option, but now that someone, like my mother did when I was little, made me feel like a champion in something and recommended I pursue this new direction –how could I say no?

It was this combination of my two loves, writing and reporting back newly learned facts that got me hooked on writing for audiences. It was weird having people I didn’t even know all of a sudden become aware of who I was and what I thought. With getting added to the school newspaper staff came a regular printing of my name, picture and work being distributed on a bi-weekly basis. I had no idea how intensely I would get hooked on that kind of notoriety.

In college, I registered as a journalism major and joined the college newspaper. I worked for that paper for a year and a half and had many of my stories run. Again, it was thrilling to have strangers come up to me, who I didn’t know but they knew me, looking to give me a piece of what they thought about what I wrote. It’s weird having your picture, name and thoughts published on a regular basis to strangers. You get used to it, but at the same time, you never do.

You also never get used to stepping over a puddle several blocks away from campus and looking down into the gutter to see a picture of you covered in mud looking back at you. Some sights you’ll never unsee.

How I Failed in Journalism
I remember working intensely hard at getting better stories, better interviews and better coverage for the events assigned to me during my time on the college paper. I remember working hard because there were awards (yes there are journalism competitions, who knew?) and I wanted one with my name on it.

I wanted certifiable proof that I was “good” at my job. Yes, my stories were getting run, but I wanted more. I wanted evidence that I was not only good enough to get my work approved and circulated but evidence that I was better at what I do than those around me….was that so much to strive for?

Two award seasons later… and I was one of five people on a staff of 15 that received zero awards or certificates from the J-school department or the local chapter of district journalists.

I was crushed. It was this moment, this second awards season snub, that caused me to step out of the equation and really ask myself: What am I doing wrong, here?

I took this as an opportunity to shake things up. I had one semester left before I was to complete my degree, so I called a Hail Mary and removed myself from J-school and moved myself into something I felt was close enough to journalism, but did not have all the rules and requirements needed to “impress” anybody.

I made the switch from journalism writing to creative writing, and my world was turned upside down.

How I Found a Calling (and Work) in Creative
All those rules? All those AP Style handbooks I had to memorize and be tested on? All those drills I had to undergo as a J-student where I had to collect ten quotes from randos on a single subject every single day? All that was gone. In every sense of the word, gone.

There were no longer any rules, and I hated it.

My first creative writing class felt like I was the only adult in a room full of children. I say that only because of the way my brain was conditioned in terms of using imagination. The students all around me, many of which also in their final semester before graduating, all were in touch with their creative side and knew how to let that imagination and weirdness out and use it to their advantage in their work.

I struggled with this “no rules” policy, but I knew that there was a way to combine the rigidness I was trained for with the laissez-faire structured world I now inhabited. Trying to “be creative”, I wrote short story after short story and even a few [terrible] plays and submitted them all to the school’s literary magazine.

One after another, they all were rejected.

So, I wrote more. I went back and edited those short stories. I went back and changed up some of those [still terrible] plays and resubmitted.

Rejected again.

I shelved the stories that were rejected and based on the feedback I got on why they were not interested in the work I already submitted, I created a brand new story and submitted that.

It was accepted.

That was a groundbreaking moment for me, receiving that “Your work has been accepted” email. It was proof to myself that I really did have what it takes to survive in a professional writing space, even though at the time I was still an undergraduate. Even though journalism stopped being the center of my attention, I knew that writing was still a powerful skill I had inside of me, and that first time of being published as a creative “no rules” writer really solidified that not only was I a capable writer, but someone who could survive in the creative space.

That first time that I was published for creative writing was in 2014, and since then, I’ve gone on to work professionally as a solo freelancer, as a creative lead at an ad agency, and more recently as a creative director. I’m also one semester away from picking up a master’s degree in creative writing from California State University Northridge. All of these opportunities came about because I had growing bodies of proof that I was a capable writer and creative.

I point all of these incredible opportunities to that turning point in which I had hard conversations with myself about how I could take what I was truly passionate about and adapt to my real strengths, and not just the strengths I thought I had. Being real with yourself and what you are up against is paramount to getting a firm foothold towards any goal, and knowing that just because you are shifting your sights by a little, it doesn’t change who you are in any way. It just changes what you are currently doing.

Being able to adapt, pivot, play to strengths and know my limits is how I was able to climb into the opportunities that I’ve had, and that all came from not being one to give up, but instead, know when it’s time to make a shift in your own personal thinking.

You never know what new opportunity you’ll find yourself in if you are willing to make adjustments and try new things.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Oof, I’m a big overthinker and overanaylzer as a person (people close to me know this), so whenever I get hit with obstacles and challenges, I actually find some joy in it.

Sounds crazy, I know.

I saw my success in this industry depending not just on how much talent I felt I had as an artist, but on how much talent I had in my ability to think creatively on how I would problem solve. The biggest problem I bumped into when just getting started? Getting myself in front of the right people who would eventually hire me to work with or for them.

I picked my targets and saw everything between me and them as obstacles, and I would spend a good amount of time thinking of all the ways I could get myself and my work in front of them.

The next biggest challenge I had when just getting started? Looking interesting on paper. My resume and portfolio was pretty sparse as far as entries, and I knew this, and I knew I had to do whatever I could to correct that. The solution I went with was to get a hold of editors or content directors (through online digging or sliding into their DMs), show them what I actually did have, and then tell them I’d work for free in exchange just for publishing. I just wanted to pad out my resume and portfolio in any way I could, and because when you are starting out you won’t have many entries or published works yet, I leaned into it instead of fighting it.

I set a stretch of time on the calendar that I would work for places for free in exchange for publishing, and after that stretch of time was over, I would then have enough entries under my belt that I could go out and start soliciting publications that would actually pay me to write for them. There was a set window of time that I would take the risk of working entirely for free, and thank god it paid off.

Obstacles are not meant to be ways to stop you from where you want to go. Most of the time, they are nothing more than a chance to think creatively and problem solve.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
This is an interesting question, as I don’t necessarily work for myself anymore, but am on a staff now. Looking back at my “business” though, I’m incredibly proud of the trajectory my time as a freelance writer took.

I started off just writing “news” pieces for online magazines (I’d interview a subject and write about them), and then I moved into writing copy for web pages (which was super boring but tended to pay the most). While creating copy for company web pages, I got the chance to create creative content for company blogs, and I fell in love with that and received opportunities to do that more and more. I wrote those blogs and stories and articles for a good couple of years and lived off of the steady work coming in from the relationships I had with those companies. Sure, you’re sending off close to ten or eleven 1,000 word articles that you had to research, draft, edit and assign images to on any given week before your deadlines hit — but it sure beats doing pretty much anything else in my book.

I contributed articles to online magazines and websites for a few years and eventually opportunities came to come aboard as a staff writer at a few of those places. Those opportunities lead to opportunities to do more than write content, but to photograph content as well, and then those photography opportunities lead to being able to shoot video to go along with that content. It kinda dominoe’d from there.

With my “business”, having chances to do something almost always led to a chance to do something else, which was incredible. I’m not going to lie though– almost always, I would have to make those opportunities come about on my own. They didn’t just fall into my lap.

The trick to being any kind of “successful” as an artist with big aspirations is being able to adapt to new landscapes as they come, and not say “No” to things you actually want to do.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
Ooh, that’s a good one. I do think that luck or providence or serendipity or whatever you’d like to call it has a definitive role in what I’d call my career. Absolutely.

I don’t really see it as individual moments of divine intervention, but I do see the overall person I was designed as being where I got lucky.

As I said earlier, I’m a big overthinker and overanalyzer. I used to see this as a huge negative and only a negative, which it can still feel like at times, but I’ve learned to use this trait as an advantage.

Because my brain has a natural tendency to scrutinize every detail and interaction, I use this overdrive of excess thinking to study what I’m trying to do and brainstorm all the ways I can potentially get what I need. If I’m facing the obstacle of looking for a new gig, I set my overthinking sights on how I can find that new employer and then come up with at least five ways I can get that person’s attention (the hiring manager, the content director, the owner of the company, etc…).

Outside of taking advantage of being an overthinker, which I see now as a lucky pro rather than an annoying con, I do feel lucky in the opportunities that have popped out of other opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to play around with.

My freelance writing gigs have allowed me opportunities to come aboard full time as a staffer or have at the least led to a stable line of projects because they got familiar with me and liked my work. Or, I’ve also been dropped from projects because even though I wanted to work with them, they didn’t want to work with me because they didn’t connect with my work for whatever reason … which sucked, but would end up being a lucky move because it would allow me to connect and work with other companies or brands that truly did connect with and like the work I made.

I think that luck can be a part of it all, sure, but really every time something happens that moves you along in any way, that’s luck in my book.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
This question is a great reminder for me to slow down and think about all the places I’ve actually been and pick out the top five, which is incredibly hard for me. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big overthinker so I’m constantly making plans on how I’m going to keep moving forward and land that next gig rather than reminisce on where I’ve been….

I’d say my proudest moment would be when I first got brought onto the in-house staff at an ad agency as a copywriter. I’ve always been fascinated with advertisements and how they affect people with their visuals and copy (the text you read on ads) and I loved that my writing was deemed interesting enough to get me into the room with a lot of brands I was already a fan of so I could create work for them.

I was also a really big fan of Mad Men and was stoked to be living that kinda life for real… we drank and smoked a lot less in our offices than they did in the show, though.

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