Talking with Olga Mecking was a bit like chatting with myself 25 years ago when I was just a few years into my fledgling career as a freelance journalist. Olga is a polyglot, Polish by birth and living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three young children. She is totally dedicated to making it as a freelancer and her drive and passion make her the ideal role model for other new writers.
We meet in the coffee shop of The Hague’s Filmhuis and I almost miss her. I find her with her back to me, head bowed, reading a book on her iPad, sitting behind a pillar. But that’s typical of Olga I guess, for, despite living in the same city I have never bumped into her in the flesh so to speak. Online however, it is another story. That’s where I find her all the time.
I mentor new writers and have done so for more than ten years. Mostly they start by taking my Definite Articles course either online or in a live workshop and then I do my best to help them get a career off the ground, first with blogging, then writing articles for free and then moving to source hidden paid-for markets. I suggest my mentees and students write for six different places.
“I had been published in fewer than six, I think,” she tells me before taking a sip of her ginger tea. “Maybe six places but some of those were guest posts on other blogs.”
It is gratifying to find that the ‘rules’ I have been bashing my students over the head with for years still hold true and more gratifying still to discover that she, like me a few years ago, is pretty good at finding paying markets. Like me, she recognised that getting published, albeit for free, for a reputable publication would really give her career a leg up. My launchpad publication back in the 1980s was the Weekly Telegraph.
“I wanted to write for Huffington Post,” she explains. “They pay now by the way.”
Being able to say you have been published by a big name does wonders for the ego as well as the portfolio. Of course, Olga maintains her portfolio, over at OlgaMecking.contently.com and an impressive sight it is too. She began by blogging as EuropeanMama for seven years. She then moved up to being paid as a freelance and has three years under her belt.
“You need to read and write a lot,” she advises. “And to pitch and pitch. I have about three successes for every ten I send out and I try to pitch most days. Oh, and you need to think of yourself as a writer too.”
Now that is dedication, motivation and being serious about what she wants.
“It’s not just about pitching, though,” she continues. “You have to follow up once or twice too. I follow up first after a week. Many pieces were only picked up after my second follow-up call.”
We both agree that it’s vital a writer can ‘see where the stories are’. I believe that a writer can spot a paying market too. This is why Olga spends so much time online.
Like me, Olga gets bored quickly. She has found it hard to stay within one niche and finds the expat issue niche to be too limited. She rarely writes for EuropeanMama now. But one thing that never bores us is writing in any form or genre. Olga has produced an anthology of posts by bloggers in the Netherlands, called Dutched Up and has just translated her grandfather’s holocaust memoir into English. One Chance in a Thousand is now available on Amazon.
It is impossible, for me at least, to live in the Netherlands and not visit the Keukenhof gardens. First established in the 17th Century this 20- hectare site becomes aglow with fragrance and colour as it opens its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors to its displays of spring flowers. We visited on Monday.
Having been in Malaysia for a few years it had been more than five years since my last visit and this time I noticed a change. Instead of swathes of block colour created from hyacinths, narcissi and tulips, they now had a joyful abundance of mixed beds. Beds with seven or more varieties in them, as varied in height and hue as an English country garden.
“Did you bring the SLR camera?” I asked Josh, half hoping he’d take a few photographs that would be better than mine and suitable for a blog.
“No,” he said. “I’m going to write word pictures instead.”
That’s my boy, I thought.
“I challenge you to a poem-off!” he declared.
And so, as the day went on we dueled with descriptions of the cherry trees, “with icy fingers stretching towards weak spring sunlight that turned its blossom into summer snowflakes,” and “the grass skirts” of the fritillaries among other things we failed to write down.
Then we were over by the lake, a favourite spot of mine.
Josh pointed at a deep pink hyacinth. “What colour is that one, Mum?” he asked.
“Pride!” I said and battle commenced.
Rich indigo was “pomp”, pale pink was “first love”, a peach one, “wedding day” and so on We had soon collected “pity” and “greed”, “shyness” and “obsequiousness” and with each appropriate word we were filled with an increasing sense of achievement and fun. Oh yes, that reminds me, a vibrant yellow was “glee”.
Yes, to me, this kind of exercise is simply fun. I made a mental note to add an exercise I shall call “A Flowering of Emotion” to all future Me-Treats. Join us in France (May) or Devon (July) to try it for yourself.
Do you ever people-watch? As I write this now my mother is sitting in our first floor apartment, with her chair turned to the window. She is looking out on the street below. Just sitting and watching.
I love looking out the window and when I eat my breakfast I gaze over the road at the café opposite. I notice the old man creak as he dismounts his bicycle and leans it against the wall before going into the post office. I watch a grey-haired lady in pearls, white shirt and jacket drink her coffee, read the paper and smoke a cigarette. I think she looks like Theresa May. My mother disagrees.
“Can you imagine Theresa May leaning against a wall having a fag break?” I ask.
As I sit and stare I notice the boxer dog opposite, nose pressed against the pane as he, like us, surveys the street. The jogger crosses the road, belly forwards, bottom back. He is shaped like an S. A For Sale sign has appeared on an upper floor. I muse about whether I have ever seen the occupants of that place.
The other folk sitting outside the café are looking at their phones. Like so many, these days, our default action, when left with an idle moment, is to distract ourselves by scrolling through screenloads of inanity. ‘Chewing gum for the mind,’ my friend Dave calls it.
In all of my writing classes I encourage students to stop, listen, look, smell and feel what is in front of them. I inspire them to pay attention and to step away from the chatter of social media, to feed their souls by simply being in the moment. It is only when we allow ourselves to decompress in this way that we can make the space in our minds for creative thought.
Next month, in France, we will pay attention among the fields and vineyards and the delightful grounds of Praana Wellness. We will eat slowly, enjoying our food and good conversation. We will fill our artist souls with chateaux and old stone towns. And we will write. In Devon, in July, we will take our fill of nature, down by the millstream, the wetlands and the willows, way way down the winding lane that feels like we are entering a magic rabbit hole.
Today, perhaps, give yourself a treat and look out of the window for a while.
author, journalist, teacher and poet
'Sharing what I know to help others to grow.'
Jo Parfitt has published 31 books, helped more than 100 authors get into print and more than 1,000 to begin writing. She's an inspiring, compassionate and encouraging teacher.
Jo has run Summertime Publishing since 1997. She has lived abroad for almost 30 years – in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia. She specialises in inspiring others who write about expatriate issues.
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