20 Sense

20 SENSE: Maura Kutner Walters, Freelance Writer

Maura

There’s no corny concept I believe in more these days than paying it forward, regardless of what phase of your life and career you’re currently hovering in. I can trace most of the worthy-of-caps-lock situations in my short life so far back to a moment when someone above me (success-wise) helped a sister out, or took a chance on my lost little soul and sent some blind faith my way. I’m not just talking about situations where I receive something obvious, like a writing opportunity, but those that include the simple sharing of quality advice or a fresh ear to listen to my trials and tribulations.

I was reminded of this when I met Maura Kutner Walters, who went out of her way to dish Twenties Collective a compliment and invite my humble little ass to breakfast. Maura is older (though you wouldn’t know it from her way-too-beeyootiful face), wiser, and has far more experience than I do as a writer. She’s worked at numerous publications and now does freelance work for some of the best, including New York Magazine and NYLON. Unsurprisingly, she is incredibly nice and so easy to talk to that by the time we finished breakfast I had barely touched my delicious food (shout out to Bubby’s Pie Co.) and felt like she was moonlighting as the older sister I never had. As a struggling twenty-something, there’s truly nothing more valuable than having a mentor, and I’m beyond happy to add Maura to my roster of go-to guides.  Regardless of your career aspirations, you will be itching to pick her brain, too, after reading her stellar advice on navigating early adulthood.

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How old are you? 30.

Describe your trajectory since turning 20 up until now (can be as broad/vague or specific as you’d like). I started out in ad sales at Hearst. I couldn’t get a job in editorial to save my life, and I thought this would help me get my foot in the door. Luckily, it worked! After a year, I got a job as the second assistant to the editor-in-chief of Town & Country. From there, I landed in the features department at Harper’s Bazaar, then moved into digital, working at the website PureWow and then as editor of Seventeen.com. I went freelance in September 2013, and have been writing for all sorts of publications (both print and digital) since.

What surprised you most about your twenties? What went exactly as expected? I expected to make enough money to live in a small but cozy one-bedroom and still have spare cash for shoes. I love Sex and the City, but I think it fostered some unhealthy delusions about Manhattan—and journalism, for that matter. My post-graduation reality could not have been less glamorous: I had to beg editors for assignments, wrote too many stories for free (I don’t recommend it. Never devalue your work), and bartended three nights a week to pay rent. I still can’t open a bottle of wine.

Do you feel like you’ve found your niche or are you still searching? My niche constantly changes, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. One week I’ll be working on a story about how to protect your blowout at the gym (yes, you can!), and the next I could be on a camel in the Middle East. It will always be easier for me to write about gowns than gadgets, but variety keeps my job fun. I think it’s beneficial to step out of your comfort zone as much as you can.

The bulk of my writing in my twenties was fashion-driven, and I’m looking forward to working on more serviceable pieces in my thirties. My dream assignment would be a profile on Christy Turlington: Obviously she’s a huge style icon, but she’s also making a big impact on the world with her maternal health foundation, Every Mother Counts.

What excites you more about life: the enigmatic experiences or those with extreme clarity? Can I say a combination of both? An experience with lots of twists and turns that morphs into a “now I get it” moment is the most exciting, especially when it comes to writing. The best part of my job is turning a big, broad idea into a highly focused story.

What did your twenties teach you about romantic love? Friendship? When it comes to romantic love, be with the person who makes you laugh. Before I met my husband, kindness and humor weren’t high on my list of dating priorities (OK, they weren’t on there at all), but there’s a lot to be said for the man who strives to make you smile.

My twenties taught me a lot about friendship—specifically about weeding out relationships that don’t serve me. I’ve been lucky to have the same three best pals since childhood, and I think it’s so, so important to have a few life-emergency contacts. I associated with some pretty catty folks in my early twenties, and I usually felt icky after being around them. At some point, I realized I wanted to spend my precious free time with people who made me feel good.

What motivates you? Passionate people, especially those who abide by the campsite rule of leaving your space in better condition than the way you found it.

Where do you get the most inspiration? How do you snap out of a creative rut? I get my inspiration from all over the place—freelancing will do that, because (if you’re lucky) you’re working with lots of different people and pitching all sorts of outlets. Grace Coddington says something in The September Issue that I love: “Never close your eyes.” It’s so true! Here’s a fun example: There’s this very cool artist who works a few blocks away from my apartment. She’s burying a bunch of statues in China in opposition of the country’s one-child policy. I was inspired by her work, and we’re turning that into a story. That’s my longwinded way of saying it pays to listen to Grace Coddington.

When I’m in a creative rut, it helps to switch lanes and step away from whatever it is I’m struggling with. I can usually reset my brain with a walk around the block or a little yoga. It’s remarkable what five minutes away from your desk can do. And when I’m writing, I try really hard to do only that for at least 30 minutes. No open browsers, no email checking, and I put my phone in the other room. When I’m not super disciplined, I set myself up for writer’s block.

What did you believe in your twenties that you know now to be false? That taxi drivers understand Brooklyn.

If you had to create a twenties survival kit what would it include? Diane Higgins facial oil (the only thing you’ll ever need to put on your face), and a copy of The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan. That book should be required reading for anyone who feels lost.

What are the best parts of freelancing? The worst? The best part is the variety. I’ve had some incredible experiences. The worst part, of course, is the uncertainty of another assignment—which results in a self-imposed pressure to say yes to everything.

What advice would you give to young people [like me] who want to make it as a freelance journalist? Pitch everything, and everyone. Have you ever looked at Wikipedia’s list of magazines published in the U.S.? It’s enormous! Publishing is a competitive game: You have to prepare yourself for a lot of unanswered emails, scrapped stories and brutal edits. But if you love it, it’s worth toughing out. Take every meeting, explore any connection and look for stories wherever you can. When you actively start searching for ideas, you develop a whole new crop of interests. I have a newfound love of running after working on a piece about fitness apps, whereas the very thought of jogging once seemed like torture to me.

What publications do you enjoy reading the most? New York Magazine for its insanely on-point reporting, Bazaar for the illustrious fashion stories, Cherry Bombe for its focus on enterprising women, Bon Appetit for its consistently easy, wonderful recipes. I have a long list, and I never get to read everything. I actually just started a monthly get-together with some of my lady writer friends, where we read and talk about articles. It’s like a Book Club 2.0.

Do you have a favorite story you’ve written so far, or a favorite research/interview experience? It’s hard to pick a favorite story, because many of them have influenced me. I always come back to an as-told-to piece I wrote for Harper’s Bazaar on Francesco Clark, who founded Clark’s Botanicals. He turned a tragic injury into a wildly successful business. If I could write about people like him for the rest of my life, I’d be happy. A top research experience was a recent trip I took to Dubai to review a new hotel. It was a crazy three-day adventure that involved dinner in the desert, a visit to the tallest building in the world, and a very ill behaved falcon. 

Best writing tip you’ve ever been given?The best writing advice I ever received was to “just get there” when working on a story (I think this is great life advice, too). As a magazine writer, you’re generally working with limited space and speaking to readers with limited attention spans. If you can say something in a sentence instead of a paragraph (and you usually can), do it. It’s challenging, but that advice has made me both a better writer and a better editor.

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For more interviews like this, check out the 20 SENSE archive.

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