Many multi-talented members on Gigaverse will identify with MeiMei Fox, who, in addition to being a writer, also works as a life coach and yoga instructor. Though her BA and MA in psychology from Stanford and MA in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute don't necessarily scream "writer," she has leveraged her academic background in all of her pursuits.
As a writer, MeiMei has spent over ten years working as an editor, ghost writer, and co-author of non-fiction books and blogs. She is presently working on a screenplay, a sci-fi fantasy novel, and a TV series with her filmmaker husband Kiran Ramchandran (oh, and in her spare time, she blogs and contributes to the Huffington Post).
In the interview below, MeiMei reveals more of the winding path that lead to her work as a writer and reveals various inroads one might take to become a self-supporting, professional writer.
Did you know what you wanted to do with your psychology degree when you graduated from Stanford?
I did not know what I wanted to do with my psych degree. I just knew that I loved the coursework. It really stimulated me. I felt passionate about understanding what makes people tick, why we do the things we do, and how we can learn behaviors and cognitive processes to make our lives better.
How has your background in psychology contributed to your work over time?
My background in psychology definitely contributes to my work as a health and wellness writer. So much of our life satisfaction has nothing to do with our external circumstances, but rather boils down to how we perceive ourselves and our situations. "Life is 10% what you make it, and 90% how you take it" someone famous once said. I love how psychology teaches you to replace negative thought patterns with positive ones. To realize that happiness and life satisfaction come from within. To be generous and compassionate with others rather than obsessing over what's wrong with your life. To be grateful and appreciate the gifts you do have rather than always fantasizing about what MORE you need in order to be happy.
How did you end up in the writing/editing field?
It's a crazy story. I was working as a management consultant with McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco after graduating from Stanford. It was a prestigious job, and most of my colleagues were psyched to be there. I found myself a fish out of water. I just couldn't get excited about the business world or working to make huge companies more profitable, even though I was learning a ton and working with really amazing, brilliant, inspiring people.
So after my two-year stint there was up, I found myself at a loss. Just then, a friend who was an MD approached me about writing a book with him. He knew I loved to write, and he knew I needed a job. I had no idea what writing a non-fiction book on health and wellness entailed. So I went to the bookstore and bought a book called "How to Write a Book Proposal." I followed the instructions and wrote a book proposal for our book, "Sexual Fitness." It offers an all-natural approach to improving your sex life - totally clean and out of the bedroom - mostly health and fitness tips, a diet and exercise program. I loved writing. It was so fun! Then I wrote an email to all my friends asking if anyone knew anyone who worked in publishing. One of my friends wrote back that she had a friend at Penguin Putnam who'd be willing to look over my proposal. A few weeks later, that woman, Nikki, wrote me an email saying, "I never do this... But we're actually going to buy your book!" So there I had a book deal with a major publishing house for my very first book proposal.
I had such a great time writing that book! I also became close friends with the senior editor at Penguin Putnam who published it, Amy Hertz. She became my mentor. She was incredibly generous in offering my advice and guidance. She also connected me with my literary agent and got me my next few ghostwriting and editing projects.
What tips would you give to those who seek to enter the publishing world?
It's a tough industry, especially now as traditional publishing collapses/consolidates and attempts to redefine itself in the face of self-publishing and ebooks. I actually think that self-publishing is a terrific option in this day and age. You get to keep 90% of the revenue from your book sales instead of 10-15%! Plus it's just easier to get your book out there.
If you want to get into traditional publishing, the typical way is by starting off as a junior editor at a publishing house in New York and working your way up. If you want to do what I do, ghostwrite and freelance edit, then you could try starting out the way I did: Find someone famous/ with a big "platform" (huge following) --a celebrity, musician, chef, TV host, politician, professor - and write a book with that person. It's all about having a big audience and the publisher knowing that you can sell a ton of books.
Having worked for well over a decade as a co-author, editor, and ghostwriter, what financial advice would you give to those who want to make their full time living in the field? How have you adjusted your lifestyle and budget to cater to irregular and varied paychecks from different clients at different times?
There isn't a lot of money in writing. I decided a long time ago that I'd rather have a terrific lifestyle - self-employed, able to travel and live anywhere in the world, work when I want - and earn less money. That's a trade-off I was willing to make. If that sounds appealing to you, then go for it! If you are someone who needs stability, a paycheck every two weeks and health insurance, then this isn't the career for you. I have lived on a small budget. I look for projects that pay me to travel, too, like going on Expedition with Alexandra Cousteau in 2009, or an upcoming trip to Uganda with a non-profit. I love my life!
Is becoming a ghostwriter or editor a good stepping stone to becoming a published author? What other freelance work might be a good first step toward that goal?
Yes. For one, if you want to be a writer, then you need to WRITE. Being a ghostwriter/editor is one way to get paid to write, and I find more creatively challenging than working in advertising. But advertising is also a great way to get paid to write, especially if you can do actual ad copy. There are many opportunities for those writing people's websites or doing technical writing. There is journalism too, of course. Blogging is terrific. I blog once a week for the Huffington Post even thought I don't get paid. People often wonder why. The answer is twofold. One, I build an audience, which is instrumental in selling a book that I write on my own (coming soon!). Two, I am motivated to practice my craft, cranking out 1000-1200 words/ week no matter what else is going on in my life. You have to get your 10,000 hours in any field. So why not get them in writing by blogging and build a following at the same time?
What different challenges do you face as an independent author that you did not face as a ghost writer and contributor to other publications?
The main challenge is finding places to get published. Even as an experienced author, my own writing will get rejected. It's the reality of the field - and of being a creative. You have to develop a thick skin! Second, after 15 years, I get paid really well to ghostwrite. I know upfront how much I'll get paid, because we get an advance from the publisher. Now, working on my own novel and screenplay with my husband, filmmaker Kiran Ramchandran, all the writing is on spec. I don't know how much money we'll make (though I'm confident we will sell everything, given our joint experience in these fields). So that's stressful!
How different is the experience of writing a screenplay from that of writing a novel?
I'm really loving writing both. Screenplays have very little description. I enjoy that they are dialogue-driven. At the same time, every word counts. So we revise, revise, revise! It's almost like writing poetry.
Writing a novel is this long long journey. It's not a sprint. You have to put your hours in. My mantra is "ass in the chair." That's the only way to get it done.
With both, I love the creative freedom versus non-fiction. I get to invent characters and worlds. It's so fun!
What made you decide to become a life coach?
I had the psychology background. Then I got an MA in counseling psych because I wanted a career to compliment writing that was more social. Writing is so lonely... It's just you and your computer for hours and hours. Plus I was writing all this health and wellness stuff to help people make their lives better. I was eager to see it in action in the real world, how my ideas and practices might actually influence people. I now work part-time as a coach, and really enjoy it.
As a life coach, author, ghostwriter, screenwriter, article writer, and editor, how do you manage to focus on anything? What do you do to ensure that you are not constantly distracted or spread too thin?
It's definitely easy to get spread too thin. I try to set aside time for writing and nothing else every day. That seems to be the only way to get writing done. So I usually start my day with exercise and social media/email, then have a few hours to just write. If I have coaching clients, I'll work around that to set aside those 4 hours or so for just writing. I find I can't really write more than 4 hours/day, really focused writing, that is. So it all works out! But this career takes a lot of discipline, make no mistake about that! You have to be a very self-disciplined and motivated person to succeed as a writer.