Interview with Shaun Scott
Shaun Scott is a freelance writer, upcoming author, and filmmaker based in Seattle, Washington. We talked about the thrill of pitching a publication you grew up reading, using popular culture to discuss social issues, and digital communication. His book, Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present, will be released by Zero Books on February 23, 2018. Check out his website to learn more about his work. Find him on Twitter as well.
Your work has appeared on Jacobin, Paste Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and more. Which stories are you most proud of and why?
I’m proud of [the Sports Illustrated piece] because…. it’s easy to make a lot of points qualitatively, and to say football and war and to just string that together. It’s another thing to sort of use the other half of one’s brain and try to get some real quantitative backing for a point like that.
People who might not be persuaded by an argument that you’re trying to make on the level of description, when you bring in the numbers, then it becomes a lot harder to ignore. You start drawing out unexpected links and things that you didn’t necessarily think you were going to be able to find, going into this piece, because it’s not just talking about symbols and games or names of players that people might be familiar with, but you’re actually trying to get a structural look at how things are working.
It’s like the inverse of the police brutality example, where you’re taking something serious and introducing it to this lighter cultural surrounding. The Drake record review [for City Arts Magazine] is the thing in reverse, right? It was like taking something that is actually pretty shallow, if you want it to be, and making it super serious.
It’s vertigo-inducing because people might not be listening to popular culture for ideas and for political criticism or that heavier side of it, but I think anything that I can do as a writer to make that part of the conversation.
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When did you start freelance writing?
I started freelance writing in late 2014. I had been working as a filmmaker prior to that. I had been working as a filmmaker prior to that, and late 2014 was a really momentous period on a number of levels. That was actually a midterm election year. There were things that were going on with protests against police brutality, and I turned 30, too, around that point in time.
The first pieces that I ended up writing were writing about the spectacle of police violence and the fact that, at one point in time, Saint Louis was literally on fire after the announcement that the cop who killed Mike Brown was gonna get off, basically, with no charges. I think the same Monday that that happened, the Rams were playing the Ravens or something like that on Monday Night Football… just jarring juxtaposition.
What was your first story about?
I wrote two pieces that I remember for The Monarch Review, which is a local, Seattle-based publication. I go back and look at them now. It’s like, okay, technically, I’m not proud of them on the level of technique because the subject matter didn’t allow for a lot of refinement and I think plain-stated kinds of pieces. The instinct was always there, but there’s a lot of the technical aspects that I think I had to figure out coming out of writing about things that were extremely emotional and visceral.
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What do you enjoy about freelancing?
There’s a saying that I heard once: “When you’re freelancing, the downside is that you have to work 23 hours a day, but the upside is that you get to pick which 23.”
I grew up reading Sports Illustrated so being able — even to be in the position where I can pitch to it — is a real honor, to say nothing about actually getting published in there.
I like there’s no shortage of challenges and no shortage of ideas swirling in the air. For somebody like me, who’s attracted to ideas and putting them into action, that’s something fun.
What don’t you enjoy?
You can work to have a piece put together; you do your job to pitch it on-time and get it accepted; you outline it correctly; you edit and send it off; and it still might get killed for something out of your control. You’re pitching to publications that are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. You’re distant from the process of production and how the decision-making to run a piece. That can be frustrating.
As a freelancer, if you’re pitching cold and 60 percent of your pieces get rejected, then you’re doing really, really, really well, right? You just want to have to put up with a certain amount of rejection and just have commitment to an idea and expressing it.
If a piece doesn’t get published, you can still take something from that. There’s still a lot to gain from that.
But I think the initial shock, for anybody, of being told this wasn’t quite gonna work — that’s a cold bath. It’s a cold bath.
What values are important to you as a writer?
I would say the transparency and clarity are the most important things. At the same time, giving the reader a bit of a work out is really important to me because there’s so much else that we see that doesn’t require people to be emotionally, or especially intellectually, invested. It’s not kind of a smug thing; I think it’s something that I struggle with as well. If you’re into movies, sports, popular culture, I appreciate having those things framed in a way that keeps me engaged. I don’t like just zoning out, basically.
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What message do you have for the Millennial Freelancer’s audience?
As a freelancer, and for anybody who’s doing work in the knowledge economy, there are many things that happen that are structural that we have the temptation to think of as personal. Recognizing that you can do your best and be at your best as a writer and take every advantage of every opportunity that’s placed in front of you, and I think as people who are freelancers, we have that responsibility and duty to be the best that we can be.
Realize that sometimes it’s just not going to pan out for reasons that don’t have anything to do with your own skill, so to not let the individual disappointments on the way knock you off-track from where you’re trying to go and from the goals that you set for yourself.
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