Shayla Lawson is one of the top five most fashionable people I know. And so when I was moving out of Bloomington, Indiana in a flurry of minimalist purging and giving away mounds of clothes, I was deeply flattered that she picked out a sparkly blue dress I found in a thrift store in New Orleans. PS: It looks great on her. But enough about the sisterhood of the sparkly dress! Shayla is both highly creative and highly productive, a fellow freelancer in the trenches, with degrees in the kindred topics of poetry and architecture. She writes, designs, sings, composes, draws, and dances.
Her work has appeared in print and online at Tin House, GRAMMA, ESPN, Salon, The Offing, Guernica, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, and MiPOesias. She is the author of: A Speed Education in Human Being, PANTONE, and the forthcoming I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean. She is a 2017 Oregon Literary and MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a member of The Affrilachian Poets. Here, she talks about transitioning between artistic states, creating a persona when applying for jobs, and being “employment fluid.”
At parties, what do you say when people ask you what you do?
I say “I’m a copywriter…” and then will often change it to “Well, I’m a writer.”
Is there anywhere, in the telling of what you do, that you stumble?
Absolutely. When people push me past the explanation of what I write on a daily basis—”I write emails for [insert name of major retailer here]”—into a more expansive inquiry into what my day looks like, then I tell them that I freelance as an essayist. If they get really interested (or I’ve had a few cocktails) I explain to them I’m a poet and that part of my freelance work involves writing, publishing, and performing in support of my passion project.
Are there any points where people push or pry? (e.g., “How do you make money doing that?” or “Is there even any market for that anymore?”)
People don’t seem to much anymore. I think the ‘I write emails for X’ answer lets them know how I feed myself and the fact that I am still working as a published poet, a published poet who has published books, they definitely treat it with more respect than just a hobby. At a barbecue this weekend, I had a very successful industrial designer (what I originally thought I wanted to be) tell me that she always felt envious of writers because they always seemed so interesting, and in my mind I thought, “Yeah, but you can afford a house and a kid AND the expensive shoes we both love”… so ultimately, I think it’s often me that does most of the pushy prying and judging.
You always seem to have some sort of inter-genre project going on: you sing, you hula-hoop, I’m pretty sure you DRAW…so first of all, what are all the artistic things you enjoy/know how to do/have going on? And how do they play off each other, help each other, or hinder each other?
I think I’m always transitioning between one artistic state and the other. I was very lucky to have parents who were great appreciators of the arts. So my sister and I took a lot of art lessons from a very early age. I’ve appreciated that a lot as much of me has gotten older but the rest of me is still working in the dogged childish pursuit of learning how to draw a perfect pony. I went to architecture school, so I did draw, but not so much anymore. I still love the medium, but as I move into nicer apartments I feel less inclined to explain the graphite and paint splatter to my landlords. I still make visual poetry using computer programs like Illustrator and Photoshop–tricks I picked up in design school. I retired my hula-hoops after knee surgery but still take other circus arts classes—pole and silks. I write. I recently took up the keyboard again (I took piano lessons until I was 16) so that I feel like a more integrated part of the band that I sometimes perform my Frank Ocean poetry with. I often think less about what media I’m working in and more about what’s the best way to tell a story. Whatever serves the story is what I’m interested in trying to inhabit and I really like the connection that comes with figuring out different ways to channel that through my body. The downside is I don’t sleep very much. I keep myself really busy. And in doing a lot of things at once, I often feel like I’m not doing as much service to one project as I would like. I’m hoping to streamline over the course of the year, but there are still so many things I want to do, I don’t see that happening. The projects I want to do in the future are getting larger, not smaller—like staged versions of the visual poems I’m working on in Illustrator, or a concept album that I’m currently working on with a local producer who is teaching me rudimentary sound engineering—I just need to get paid making all this stuff and I’d be fine.
You’ve lived all over the country and even the world. Have any of your moves felt particularly artistically significant?
Ha! Every move is artistically significant because I have to adapt what I make to my environment. With each move, I try to allow myself more space for the things I love. For instance, I’m in the process of moving right now. My new apartment is small, but has high ceilings and big bay windows. I’m excited about having a real desk that looks out into the street again. I’m happy about being able install my aerial yoga hammock, so I can train. I’ve gotten used to adapting the projects I create to what kind of work my environment allows for.
You have an MFA in poetry. What is post-MFA life like? Have doors opened up to you that were formerly closed?
Having an MFA means I can teach. Which is a wonderful option, but not a fiscally responsible one. Adjuncting has turned into more of an institutional abuse of over-educated early-career professionals instead of a training ground for the next generation of academics. But when I found myself out in the world and traditional teaching/academia was no longer a viable option, I got hungry and smart. If nothing else, a writing MFA trains you to construct identities. I built a professional persona for myself. I developed resumes that were character sketches of the life that I lived and how I was educated that suited the kind of person that gets hired by creative agencies or major journals. Much like the characters I create, I treat my professional persona as a construction. It makes it easier for me to identify my weak points and brush it off when things don’t pan out the way I’d like to: They are not responding to me, they are responding to my work. Even though I may be a static thing, my work is constantly growing, changing, learning, and becoming increasingly dynamic—so if my work doesn’t land this job, an extra year of study and growth and I will definitely land the next gig I go after, if not something larger.
How do you pay the rent?
I pay my rent with my day job. And by down-sizing. I’m moving out of my more expensive luxury apartment and into a more efficient reasonably priced one so that I don’t feel tied to keeping my day job just so I can pay rent. Part of remaining employment fluid (I’m going to make up a millennial term for freelancing; yes, having a job is less about a binary than a spectrum) is setting reasonable financial goals. It is easy to get into debt. It is easy to watch your account boom and bust. But if there are concrete expenses that you can keep within the range of an attainable budget, it makes it easier to decide how you to manage your time. I keep a day job, because I got tired of the social strain freelancing can create. Looking for work often means regularly hitting up acquaintances until you’ve established enough of a reputation to get solicited. You can’t necessarily count on regular commissions, so living within your means can be crucial.
Last year, 50% of my income was teaching on contract, 20% was writing commissions, 5% of it was book sales, and the other 25% was copywriting. This year, my income will be mostly copywriting full-time, but we’ll see how the rest of it, and next, pans out. I still do a lot of work for ‘free’ (e.g. reading manuscripts for contests, some editing jobs); they are often time-consuming, so I’m talking about them here, but I see them as a service to my community or my ultimate writing goals and value them as much as my paid work.
Have you discovered anything that feels like a sustainable market for your work?
I’ve found I’m really good at teaching people how to write. Often, that shows up in the classroom, but it also shows up in the work I do as a copywriter. Working at my day job for the past year, I realize my experience as a teacher, freelance writer, and editor is very helpful to career professionals who sometimes atrophy when it comes to keeping their writing style flexible. Since I’ve worn so many hats, I can catch a lot of things people who are used to being in one mode might miss. I’m watching more of my creative/journalistic writing get traction, and am looking for ways to parlay that into a long-term writing contract (a column, an advance on a memoir). I’ve had good responses so far and feel really hopeful.
To you, what does “support” mean in your career? Like, some people might see support as “you always come to my shows” or “you buy me coffee cuz I’m so broke.” How does someone in your career most need to be supported?
I need space and time. I need people to let me come to their houses and commandeer a piece of their kitchens or living rooms to write. I need writing buddies who’ll meet me on weekends. I need artists who are willing to sit down on their weekends and teach me new skills or introduce me to new collaborators. I need venues in which to perform. And, of course I want people to show up! Those are the things people have done for me that have meant the most to my career. I definitely feel supported as a writer. Now if I could just find myself a male artist who will cook for me, wash my clothes, and bask in the glow of my success (as has historically been the meaning of “support” when it comes to “successful” artists and their female romantic partners), I would be set.
People talk a lot about the “hustle” and the “grind.” How much of your work is actually hustling and how much is, you know, making the actual work?
Hustle. Hustle. Hustle. Grind. Grind. That seems to be the formula for me. I’d prefer to be grinding, but I feel like if I’m not visible I’ll miss an opportunity. I do A LOT of networking and always look for an opportunity to turn a social conversation into a job prospect. But it gets exhausting.
What is most terrifying to you about what you’re trying to accomplish?
Oh, gosh. That it won’t pay off? That I’m running around like a crazy person for nothing? I don’t know, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from achieving things I never thought I might, which is a lot of what freelancing is—going into each contract cold and (hopefully) coming out wiser and victorious. Approaching new partnerships is always terrifying, but it doesn’t sting as much as I would have once thought when I’m not the person picked for a job, and it feels like I’ve made a lot of progress when I succeed.
Do you have or feel the need to have backup plans, safety plans, retirement funds, etc.?
When I have steady work I make sure that I’m investing heavily in retirement accounts. I have a regular work IRA and an additional retirement savings account that takes money out of my checking account before I spend it all. I put my rent in a separate savings account, and keep a savings account for incidentals. This probably is overkill, but I’m bad at managing money if it’s in my account, so I try to make sure I’m putting things away in secure places so I’m preparing for the future.
Are there any moves you’ve made that you regret? Any that turned out to be far more lucrative (in any sense, not just financially) than you expected?
If teaching had worked out for me, I would have never explored using my MFA to become a copywriter. It scared me to lose what I thought was going to be my life plan, but I’m so happy that happened because I learned so much about what I am capable of. I don’t regret anything yet. Occasionally I wish I’d gone down a more financially secure path (wow, it’d be cool if I could buy a house now that I’m turning 35), but I think this is the path that’s most gratifying for me at the moment.
Do you have any sort of spiritual practice? How does it or the lack of it contribute to your work?
I consider myself a spiritual person. Poetry feels like a meditation to me. I try to practice patience and generosity when I can—I’m a bit better at generosity, but patience definitely helps when I feel like I’m not achieving my goals at the rate I would like to. My spiritual life keeps me in tune with the bigger picture.
Do you feel like the idea of “the muse” has any role in your life? If so, what does that look like?
I definitely believe in progress, but I don’t know about a muse. I feel like, if you want to be a freelancer, it’s important to be flexible. My experience with muses is that they tend to be fickle.