Mary Wagner

Mary Wagner
Wisconsin, USA
February 13
Former journalist, now criminal prosecutor, and award winning essayist and photographer, proves its never too late to make mid-course corrections! Vices include Belgian chocolate, Irish castles, great shoes, long clean shorelines, classic cartoons, big skies and Lee Child "Reacher" novels. Multiple degrees earned in the "school of life" include mother of four, former girl scout leader, truckstop waitress, cocktail waitress, office temp, judicial clerk, and radio talk show host. Latest essay collection, "Fabulous in Flats," just went live, preceded by "Running with Stilettos" and "Heck on Heels." Visit my website at


JUNE 20, 2011 10:16PM

Write what you love

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Write what you love. Love what you write. Write for love...

There's a lot of advice out there for writers and would-be writers and free-lance writers about what to write, how to write, and how to get what you write noticed. And recycled. And reprinted.

Cottage industries--and mainstream ones too--abound on the topics of timeliness, and cover letters, and queries and relevancy and rates.

I'm here to strike a blow for writing for the love of it. For the pleasure of feeling the words flow from your fingertips across the keyboard to take their place on the screen. Or, if you're REALLY low-tech, the feel of ink sliding from a fountain pen across a legal pad as your penmanship struggles to keep up with the sparks in your mind, and your brain slows down and measures its pace to give the written words time to catch up.  I wrote an entire novel that way once. (Of course I was twenty six at the time and it was absolutely DREADFUL now that I look back at it, but the pleasure was still palpable, and quite memorable.)

Over the course of several decades, since I was a journalism student in college, I've written a lot for money. On occasion I've written FOR a lot of money.  A couple of years of newspaper work during and after college was followed by several more years of magazine writing about television programming.  Law school eventually channeled my writing toward different goals, and I found myself crafting colorful language and persuasive turns of phrase for appellate courts. And in each of these arenas, I was writing to serve a master. Whether the editor on the copy desk of the newspaper looking at a hard news story or an editor of a magazine reviewing a celebrity interview or a judge whose opinion I was trying to bring around to my own, there was a format and a style and a set of expectations that went with each of these assignments, and certain "marks" I was expected to hit. And hit them I did.

But a few years ago, friends who realized I needed to exercise more creative writing muscles than the ones that start with "May it please the court..." nudged me into starting a blog.  My first essay was a complete leap of faith, but I posted a piece I called Tale of the Christmas Axes about turning over the rolling pin to the younger generation, and being surprised that what came off the cookie sheets was Christmas cookies decorated like bloody axes.  Nothing like a little niche marketing...ha ha ha! For the first time since I could remember (even the novel written when I was twenty six was crafted to impress a publisher of paperback romances), I was writing to please nobody but myself. It felt oh so marvelous! A year later, the same piece was reprinted in the local daily as an offbeat Christmas story, giving it a far wider audience, but at the time, who knew?

In the four years since then, I've written a lot since then, and always from love rather than duty.  I wrote about gardening and a blossoming romance in Wildflower seeds and beer...and took first place in a national press organization's annual contest for web writing. No money came with the pretty certificate announcing the win, but what a boost for my morale!  I wrote about motherhood and the symbolism of frosted baked goods in Love in the Time of Cupcakes, and became a finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Awards competition in Florida.  No money came with the pretty lucite trophy that went with the award, but again, it was another vote of confidence.  I wrote about unspoken gestures of affection in Love in Wood and Wax.  I don't think I won anything anywhere for that one...but I can still feel my heart stir when I think about watching fireflies at dusk. And most recently, I just learned that another essay, Full Circle, took another first place award in that same press organization's annual contest that honored the "Wildflowers" essay three years earlier, a cherished stamp of validation for a personal journey spanning seventeen years, a broken back, a broken heart, and a law degree. But the even bigger point here is that with every line I wrote, with every window I opened into my own experience, my heart grew a little bit more.

Last summer, I was a co-speaker at a presentation about turning one's blog into a book. (I've mined my blog for three books by now.) After sharing our experiences and our learning curves, the other speaker and I opened the floor for questions.  One listener wanted to know how much research we'd done to determine marketability for our books before we commited to putting them into print.  The other gal had actually put some careful thought into it. I, on the other hand, was far more cavalier.  I think my exact words were "I didn't give a damn."

Well, then. I still harbor dreams of fabulous commercial success with my three essay collections, and hope that I'll be one of the few self-published authors that buck the odds and get picked up by a more "traditional" publisher who will help with the heavy lifting.  But you know what? That's certainly not the only thing that matters.

Once in while it's good to remember that success on a bookshelf or a best-seller list is fleeting and transient at best.  It's the joy and the love that last.


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You know what ? I totally agree with you. And I have done the same, but only because like you I had a well paying, full time career that supported my "addiction". I think if one relied solely on writing to make his/her living, writing for the love of it would be a luxury difficult to afford. Wouldn't you agree?
Yes, definitely. There are some very talented writers out there who make it work together, but many more who have to choose between writing for love and writing for money. Not that writing for a paycheck doesn't have its elements of fun too! I can chalk up racing my '64 Chevy at a drag strip as one of my earliest paid feature articles.
Hi Mary,

As one who has written for a paycheck all my career ( in advertising, fundraising, and now exhibit design for a children's museum) -- I find myself in free fall, writing for myself. It's harder. And I only wish words would just flow from my fingertips... they don't, they still need coaxing and prodding.
Word by word, post by post, I'm here to build the muscles... for a body of work to call my own. Thanks for this today!
Vivian, how well I remember making the leap from newspaper writing (fourth grade reading level and simple sentence structure) to magazine writing (adverbs, adjectives, opinions and the occasional literary flourish!). Ouch, those muscles groaned. And then when I finally turned from magazine writing to trying my hand at writing a suspense novel (no, not the romance novel at twenty-six), it felt like such a radical departure, taking a small idea and making it big instead of taking a big bunch of impressions and fitting them into a smaller space. And once again, the newness of giving myself permission to just let the words dance out of my fingers on their own and lead me down new word channels and slot canyons and across mental horizons. Yes, new steps are always a little bit scary!
I am digging the bloody axe Christmas cookies. Here's hoping for us all and best wishes with your collections of essays.