Interview with Keah Brown
Keah Brown is a freelance writer, journalist, and bibliophile based in Buffalo, New York. We talked about tracking pitches, knowing the right time to write about something that scares you, and getting paid for the first time. Check out her work on her website.
You’re a Senior Entertainment Writer at Cliche Mag. Your work has also appeared in Catapult, the Toast, the Atticus Review, and others. Which stories you’re most proud of?
I’m proud of my pieces on Catapult, ESPNW, Lenny Letter, and the Establishment. Those are my major ones. I still can’t believe to this day I have bylines at those places.
I graduated from college in 2013, and while I was living back at home and looking for a job, I had a lot of free time…www.lennyletter.com
Out of those pieces, which did you enjoy writing the most?
My favorites were the Lenny Letter story about putting my hair up into a ponytail and Catapult piece about being Black in rom-comedies, seeing myself and still being in love them. I like those in particular because I was scared to write both. I expected a lot of pushback on those, that I didn’t receive. I spent a lot of time on both and had fantastic editors, including Morgan Jerkins from Catapult and Mikki Halpin from Lenny Letter. I was eager, but also nervous.
In these essays, I was most honest with myself for the first time.
How do you determine the best time to write about a topic or experience you’re scared to write about?
What happens for me, I’ll usually dream about it. I’ll think about it during the day, but I’ll go to bed and I’ll dream. If I’m dreaming about it, I need to say something. That’s usually when I know, because it’s come up more than once. For Lenny Letter, specifically, I was looking at my hair one day and said, “oh my god, I did it — a ponytail, wow. I should write about this.”
I didn’t know [this essay] would end up at Lenny Letter, but I‘m subscribed to the newsletter. I got an email months ago about places to pitch to, and then I saw the information for Lenny Letter. I pitched and they accepted. To this day, I’m still like, “are you sure?”
I am curled up in bed, sorting through my DVD collection of romantic comedies and dramas to find the movie that fits…catapult.co
What was your first paid byline and how old were you?
My first ever paid byline was Femsplain. I wrote an essay on learning not only to like my sister, but to love her. It was in 2015, so I was 23. I’ve only been [freelance writing] for just over a year. I feel lucky about that, but I haven’t been doing it as long as other people have.
How did it feel to get paid for the first time?
It felt like a magical moment. With the money I got, you would’ve thought I won a billion dollars. I was so excited that I started crying. I couldn’t believe it happened. I don’t even remember what I spent it on, but I balled my eyes out in my living room chair. “I’m doing it! It’s happening! This is the best day ever!”
I’ve always loved my sister. She’s athletic, beautiful and funny.femsplain.com
What do you enjoy about freelancing?
I edit my website every so often, whenever I publish a new piece. I like adding new writing, but I also like looking back at them once they’re out there. I like seeing my name in a bunch of different places I never thought it would be. I also like going back and reading [my work], and thinking, this really was good, so I remember that. When the time comes to be published, I’m thankful for that.
In July and August, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on body image. When I was younger, I used to have the same…www.espn.com
How do you overcome that?
One of the only times I’ve ever had to do it, which I’m so lucky about, I asked Twitter about how ask an editor about payment. What I do now, if it happens again, is to politely remind [an editor] I did a thing on this day and here’s the money I’m owed. I’m still learning how to navigate that, how to be assertive enough to get my point across, but not too assertive to burn the bridge.
Do you have any systems or any bookkeeping to track people that haven’t paid you?
I have two Word docs on my computer — one with articles accepted where and another for poetry. If an assignment is accepted, I’ll write down the date the pitch was accepted, the date I completed the piece, and the date it was published, along with who my editor is. I’m keen on specific dates.
I track every milestone in the process for when the time comes, I know what I need to be paid.
My accepted pieces are in green, the ones still out there are black, and the ones that are being processed are pink.
I loved watching Taystee talk about waking up with barbeque sauce on her breasts; I loved seeing the evolution of the…www.theestablishment.co
What are some issues and values important to you?
I have an issue with the way diversity is used. It’s a blanket term now. It’s important to me to read voices from my communities and share them. We spend so much time giving white dudes praise for mediocre work. As soon as someone brings up diversity, everyone says, “oh, no, PC culture!” People just want to be heard.
The hills I want to die on, so to speak, will make sure those with disabilities get remote work, and women, especially women of color, get their dues. We’re much more than your love interests and cute girlfriends. We have stories as well.
I’m eager to see people with disabilities, especially people of color and women, and women of color, get the attention they deserve. Their work should be championed. It’s important to me because I am one and oftentimes, people say I’m this or that, but I’m both at the same time.
I read a lot about the way the disability community will say, “put your disability first and forget you’re a Black woman.” Or, “care about this movement accepting Black people, but not Black women or people of color with disabilities.” I get frustrated when I’m told to cater to one aspect of my identity and forget about the others. That’s not how it works.
What work by disabled and/or woman writers of color inspire you?
I’m so glad you asked. Ashley C. Ford is it for me. And Roxane Gay, they’re the pinnacle. To me, they’re my favorites. I adore them. As far as people with disabilities go, I love Esmé Weijun Wang’s work. I don’t know how I’m enough to exist at the same time as her, but I am. One of my followers, Angel Powell, she’s fantastic. She has bylines on HelloGiggles, the Fat Damsel, and Lit Darling. And there’s Vilissa Thompson, who runs Ramp Your Voice!
Before Twitter, I didn’t know many Black women writers of our generation. I always read Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, the greats, but I didn’t recognize how many talented people are in our age range. Being able to read their work makes me feel like a better person and writer.
What are you favorite stories or essays written by them?
Again, I’m so glad you asked. Ashley’s brilliant, read everything she’s ever written. You can’t choose. Read Esmé’s book, The Border of Paradise, because it will change your life. Buy a copy for you and more for your friends, too. Also, read her essay for Elle. For Roxane, read everything she’s written — even read her Twitter bio a couple of times. That’s how talented she is. Read all of their work forever.
What message do you have for the Millennial Freelancer’s audience?
Just keep pitching. It sounds so cheesy, but even on the days you don’t believe in your work 100 percent, you know it should be somewhere.
Even on your works days, your work matters and you matter.
Pitch to your dream publication. Pitch to places you don’t think would take it anyway. I didn’t think anyone would take my ponytail essay. I thought it was a stretch. The best thing you can do for yourself is to take an unattainable dream and go for it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
For those just starting out, it’s going to feel like hell for the first four, five, six months. Once you get past that, you’ll be okay. If you told me a year ago where I’d be today, there’s no way I would believe you. You have to keep going to find your rhythm. It’ll be hard some days, but keep going.