Nneka Okona on Freelance Writing, Travel, and Advocating for Self [Interview 19]
"I write, talk and think about freedom a lot because I’ve never really known what it means to be free. Certainly not as a child and lesser so as I’ve grown and matured into a woman well into my adulthood."
Nneka Okona's journey toward finding her freedom is one I've been following for the past few years. Back when I first started blogging, Nneka was another woman of color travel blogger who I connected with on Twitter; she's someone I've admired ever since. Her sense of self-identity, her command over words, the candor and vulnerability she shares with the world are both inspiring and empowering for creators of all kind.
A full-time freelance writer, Nneka's work can be found in Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Food and Wine, Fodors, and I am Well and Good, to name a few familiar publications. She's written about topics like taking trips or vacations to deal with grief/loss, Philadelphia's must-visit African American landmarks, creating space in your life for consistent cooking, and an array of other pieces relating to travel, food, drinks, and wellness.
On her personal blog, Afros y Paellas, Nneka also shares her travel stories – the lows and highs and occasional tips, but mostly the emotional, spiritual and psychological ties to writing, artistry and creativity. Her writing chops speaks for itself – I know I can't be the only one eagerly awaiting her first book.
Previously based in Atlanta, Nneka decided to pack up and hit the road at the beginning of the year to feed her wandering heart. She's taking the slow-travel approach that many digital nomads enjoy, choosing to spend several weeks or months in one location before hopping to the next. So far this year she's lived in both Mexico and Colombia (follow her on Twitter for the sights + stories). I talked to Nneka about committing to her passion as a full-time writer, how she prepared to move abroad and freelance, and what advice she'd offer anyone looking to trail-blaze their freelance writing career:
KW: What are the biggest mindset shifts you had to make to prepare for full time travel?
NO: I've long known I wanted to live abroad again after doing so five years ago to teach English in Madrid, Spain. That experience both changed and brightened my life. It opened up the entire world to me and it was then I realized how limited I had been dreaming.
My dreaming had been too small, too conservative. Nowhere near as big and bold as I know myself to be as a person. But I also knew I didn't want living outside of the States to hinge on teaching English. I loved teaching in many aspects but I hated it a lot all the same. I wanted to be able to travel making money doing what I loved: writing, telling vivid, resonant stories and memorializing the people and things I encountered along the way with my words.
Despite knowing I had this desire to full-time travel and be nomadic, I was terrified. It didn't seem feasible and I had no idea where in the world I wanted to go! Which, knowing where you want to go is half the battle.
Last summer I ended up in Oaxaca City, Mexico, where I spent 5 weeks. Being in Oaxaca opened my awareness to there being places I could go and be inspired as well as actively use the second language I speak: Spanish.
The next month I headed to Colombia and spent time in Medellín, which I loved as well. My awareness had been expanded and I saw two very real possibilities of where I could go and work + write remotely. But my fear was still so loud. Until my friend died in a car accident the end of August.
Before she died I was nearing a massive burnout work-wise. I no longer felt inspired and was churning through work and going through the motions. I was also bored with my home life and the city I was living in. Days before Thanksgiving, as grief started to be a lot less overwhelming, I finally booked my ticket.
The lesson I've learned is this: fear can distort the realities even when they're staring you right in the face. I kept thinking if I was more sure or had a magical amount of money saved up it would ready me to take the leap. Courage doesn't work that way, at least it has never worked that way for me. Living a creative life means taking risks and resting in the fact that all will be well in the end. And I'm a very spiritual person, so when I finally booked my ticket, as doubtful as I still was, I knew deep down that God and the Universe had my back and I'd be okay.
What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects you've experienced since tapping into your passions as a full time career?
I've been writing professionally for over a decade at this point. I started at the young age of 19 within newspaper reporting. Reporting full-time was my life for a long time until I grew out of it and it was no longer fulfilling. After I moved back Stateside to the DMV summer of 2014 (from Madrid), I threw myself into job searching and finding full-time reporting jobs but nothing stuck.
I was frustrated for a long time as none of the job opportunities I had panned out. During this time, I was freelancing and writing pieces here and there but not at all consistently. Eventually I was honest with myself that having a traditional career with office hours in a cubicle was not what I wanted.
The beginning of 2016 I moved back home to Atlanta and committed to full-time freelancing. I got organized and poured all the energy I would've poured into writing for a full-time in-house position into freelancing for a number publications and managing my output myself. I focused on travel and personal essays initially but have since expanded the breadth of my work to include food + drinks writing and most recently wellness writing.
The majority of the writing work I do is for editorial publications which requires consistent pitching and advocating for myself. It is hard and often extremely stressful work but career-wise I've never been happier. I have the ability to have my hands on all kinds of writing work that is varied feeding my Mercurial nature. It's not for everyone but it is for me. I have every reason to believe my prior career in reporting prepared me for this.
What's your most valuable tip you'd offer other freelance writers to find their ideal writing gigs and opportunities?
The most important thing, an ideal starting point, is being doggedly honest with yourself about what type of writing you want to be doing.
I went to journalism school and have always written for magazines and newspapers. This is what feeds me as a writer, so writing for publications is what I focus my efforts on. But that might not be the case for everyone.
There is copywriting, there is writing marketing copy, there is communications writing work, there is business and corporate writing. Find what speaks to you and pursue it – that is my advice. It differs for everyone.
For those who want to write for newspapers and magazines, whether digital or print, my advice is to use Twitter to your advantage. I've connected with a lot of editors and gotten tons of work simply by being visible on Twitter and advocating for myself on a regular basis. That means listing in my bio what type of writing I do and mentioning where I've had bylines, in addition to sharing work that is published more than once.
Editors pay attention to writers and will reach out if you're confident enough to promote yourself consistently. Expanding your network is important and makes a huge difference. If someone can vouch for you and put in a good word or an editor remembers that piece you shared on your Twitter account, your chances of getting work increases tenfold. That can't happen if you don't put yourself out there so people know you exist and are writing.
Also, Facebook groups. There are tons for every type of writing under the sun. Join them and connect with fellow writers (all writers need community + support).
What does an ideal balance between work, travel, and play look like to you?
I'm going to be honest and say that I work a lot and in certain ways I'm asking questions like these of myself currently. One of my goals for 2018 is to have more fun, actually. I deeply enjoy my work and so yes, of course I pour a lot of time and energy into it.
The success of my career since I went full-time freelance two years ago means a lot to me because it represents a rein of my life where I rejected the status quo, fought to figure out my way, and it worked. I cling tightly to that as a reminder of all that's possible when I let myself be free enough to honor my heart and silence the noise of society's criticism.
I don't know if a true balance will ever exist for me. Being a writer is not just what I do; it is who I am and how I navigate the world around me. It is that central to my identity. Work will always be a dominant area of my life but I think if I can continue to take stock of when I need a break to travel without my computer for a week, or when I need to have fun to celebrate my successes and the beauty of life, that will serve me best.