Alumni Profile: Steve Haruch, independent journalist and filmmaker

Recently we interviewed Steve Haruch, a writer, journalist and independent filmmaker based in Nashville, TN. He graduated with a B.A. from UIUC in 1996 (English/Rhetoric double major), and went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2000. After a series of teaching, copywriting and other odd jobs, he landed at the Nashville Scene, where he worked as a staff editor for seven years. Since then, he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR’s Code Switch and The Guardian, among other outlets. He edited People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018) and is currently producing a documentary film about the history of college radio. He is particularly interested in talking with students from minority backgrounds. In the interview, Haruch talked about freelancing, a career option that offers freedom of work.

What is your current job? What do you like about it?

I’m a freelancer, so my current job is really a series of jobs, mostly involving writing in some way. These are strung together in a manner that resembles regular work but is more open-ended and irregular.

What I like about my current situation is the freedom to pursue what interests me, and for the most part to operate outside of the kinds of institutional pressures that come with any staff writing or editing position. The down side is that part of the work involves asking for work. (And then asking to be paid for it.) Pitching stories can sometimes feel almost as time-consuming as producing them.

But it’s rarely boring because you’re always seeking out new opportunities and getting to work with new people along the way.

You have a multifarious career. How do you manage so many things together?

Keeping on top of your time is really important. Sometimes you have to be realistic about what you can really accomplish, and other times you don’t have that luxury. You have to just give yourself over to the work until it’s done. Some weeks and months are certainly easier than others, in terms of balancing multiple projects. And the Internet is a constant source of both inspiration and distraction. (Also a great way to meet new people to work with!)

Sometimes just blocking out some time and disconnecting as much as possible can help keep things moving. Other times it’s more like juggling, especially when you’re getting feedback from editors and sending out multiple drafts on multiple pieces.

How has your background in English helped you in your career? What skills that you learned in your college classes do you find yourself using now?

There are a lot of ways. I think first and foremost is having the sense of text as always open to interpretation and always subject to the context in which it is both produced and observed. Studying English taught me to not only ask what a piece of writing means, but why and how it conveys that meaning. It also taught me how to talk about the things a text means that its creator didn’t necessarily intend it to mean — which is different from willfully misunderstanding something!

I think sometimes English majors have a hard time seeing the through line from their education to a career because “reading and writing English” doesn’t seem like a marketable ability in the same way that, say, being able to program in a particular coding language does. But it’s actually a very rich skill set.

What is being communicated? What was intended? How does the form the communication takes affect how it is received? When we look at the proliferation of purposefully misleading texts out in the world, that ability to analyze and really break down the rhetorical structures is unbelievably valuable.

More broadly speaking, I think a liberal arts education has been vital in teaching me to see how knowledge systems are connected to each other, something I think we are beginning to rediscover the value of as a society — the sense that technology is outpacing our ability to understand its effects in part because the companies that are driving the conversation often seem to be operating with a kind of tunnel vision. So having an education that really demands a critical view of human culture and creation is so important.

Would you give some suggestion to our undergrads regarding how to make the transition from college to working life?

As one of my UIUC professors used to say constantly, college life is real life, so my first piece of advice is to value your time in school as much as possible — not just as a means to an end, but as an experience in and of itself, one that is unlike probably any other time in your life.

That said, I think a crucial point is not to get discouraged. You may end up working some awful jobs. Keep your head up and think about your next move. What do you want to do? What can you do to get there? Sure, you may have to process stock dividend notifications at a bank to pay your rent (something I did between college and grad school) or write the most banal press releases imaginable (which I also did). But keep reading. Keep writing.

Travel as much as you can afford. If you find yourself with an opportunity to do something weird and not English major-y but which excites you, go for it. Maybe it becomes the thing you do — and if it’s successful, there will probably be a website and other materials that need to be written well. If it goes up in flames spectacularly, maybe you can write about it someday.

What advice do you have for the students interested in exploring the field you are in now?

Freelance culture writing can be a tough game to break into, but as with any kind of writing, the first and best thing to do is read. A lot. Social media is a great way to find the writers and publications and editors who are covering subjects you care about in interesting ways. Don’t forget about small local publications. Pay attention to what they cover and think about how you could contribute.

There are a lot of fellowships and internship opportunities that I either was not aware of or was not interested in when I was starting out — once upon a time, my biggest goal was to be a published poet, not a journalist — so seek those out. (Again, social media can be great for this.) Try not to write for free if you can avoid it, and if you do, try to limit it to publications where you’re doing them a favor they actually need.

Also: Be prepared to fail. Keep writing anyway — it’s the only way to improve.


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