She’s been a trailblazer in Indian freelance journalism. Dynamic and proactive to the core, her focus, intellect and drive are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Mridu Khullar Relph, award-winning international journalist and author-in-waiting, is a regular writer for publications such as the New York Times, TIME, ABC, CNN, Elle and more. In the interview below, Mridu offers practical advice on how to cut it as a freelance journalist, no matter what part of the world you belong to.
How did your freelance journey begin?
I was studying Information Technology in college and I failed my first year. I’d always been told I was a good writer, so I ran a search (MSN, I think, we didn’t have Google back in 2002!) and came across several websites on freelance writing. I started learning about querying and pitching and quickly sold an article about failing college to a magazine for college students in the US for $100. I thought, hmm, this is really easy.
I found that it wasn’t always quite as easy as that, but it wasn’t all that difficult either. By the time I did finish my degree four years later, I was making a full-time living with my work. I never got a job and I’ve been a full-time freelance journalist and writer ever since.
Which are your favourite pieces of your own writing, and why?
The work I have done (and continue to do) on trash collectors and wastepickers in India continues to be something I’m deeply passionate about.
How did your journalism award and the Berkeley fellowship come about?
I wrote an article about the wastepickers on Delhi’s streets for a trade publication in the US and my editor nominated me for an award. I won second place. In the meantime, I’d sold a different version of that story to a magazine in India and a freelancer friend of mine encouraged me to submit it to the Developing Asia Journalism Awards. I was shortlisted and invited to the final awards ceremony in Tokyo but I honestly didn’t think I even had a chance of winning it since I was up against so many fantastic stories and journalists, so I didn’t even go. I was holidaying in the UK when I heard that I’d actually won the Journalist of the Year award for that story.
The Visiting Scholar thing at Berkeley had happened a year earlier. I’d come to know of the fellowship and I’d applied, but I didn’t actually think I’d get through, so I’d moved to Africa instead. (Are you seeing a pattern here?). I heard that I’d been accepted the week after I returned from Accra, Ghana, where I’d been living for a few months.
The first few months/years for a freelancer are more of the proving-yourself and paying-your-dues kind. How did you navigate the tough times in that period?
You make a lot of friends. Seriously, one of the best things I ever did as a new freelancer was that I got to know dozens of other freelancers who were also new and trying to earn an income. Having people there to support you and to help you can be hugely important, especially in those first few years when you’re having little success and people in your life think you’re crazy and/or stupid for trying to do what you are.
I’m convinced that the difference between freelancers who succeed and those who don’t is that the ones who succeed have a support system of other freelancers who simply don’t let them quit.
At what point in your journey did you feel like you’d made it?
When you’re a new writer, you feel like there’s this one point you’ll reach when the seas will part and you’ll discover that you’re there, that the goal has been reached. But in reality, it’s not like that at all. There is no one “aha” moment, no one success when you feel you’ve made it, but a series of small victories that keep you moving forward. To this day, I don’t actually feel like I’ve “made it” because I don’t really know what that would mean. I haven’t made my millions, I haven’t got a New York Times bestseller, I’m not a household name. By any measure, I haven’t made it. But I do love my work, I get paid extremely well for it, and I have the freedom and flexibility I always wanted.
I think “made it” is always a moving target. When I was a new freelancer, I thought writing for TIME or The New York Times would constitute having made it, but once I started writing for them frequently, the goalpost moved and winning an award seemed like it would mean that I’d “arrived,” but that happened too, and by then I was on to something else.
That’s a good thing, though. Human beings need something to aspire to, to works towards. I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I felt I’d achieved it all.
So much is said about the importance of offline (not just online) networking with editors. What advice would you give to writers about networking? Also, do you think an editor would be interested in meeting the newbie writer, or does some experience matter in planning these things?
I don’t think editors are interested in meeting writers they don’t know necessarily, but I do make it a point to try and see editors I’ve worked with if it’s possible (usually not, since I work with editors in the US and I now divide my time between London and New Delhi).
The best advice I can give to people is to just be yourself. Don’t think of it as a formal meeting as much as a casual chance to get to know one another. Back in Delhi, I would meet a lot of my editors for drinks after work and it was a much easier and relaxed way of getting together than meeting at their office or having a formal coffee meeting. So just do whatever you’re comfortable with, and do a lot of it so that it doesn’t seem so scary.
You’re a very busy and in-demand writer, plus a mom. How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Ha! How much time do you have? Okay, two things:
One, I prioritize really well. The whole “you can have it all” thing is crap, in my opinion, because the way most people define “having it all” is all-encompassing. Parents of young children should just accept that they’re going to have about two or three priorities in their life and the rest of it is going to have to take a backseat for a little while. So you pick your priorities and focus on those. For me, my work and the time I spend with my family are my two biggest priorities at the moment, so I’m okay with setting aside my passion for travel and meeting new people. For now. As my son grows and becomes less dependent on me, I’ll have more time to add new passions into the mix. Life has become a LOT easier since I accepted that and so now I don’t feel guilty or like I’m missing out on things because I know that there’s a time in my future when my son will be a teen and won’t want to spend a minute around me and that’s when I can do those other things.
Two, and this is probably more important, is that I schedule to the last minute. Seriously, ask me what I’m doing any minute of the day and I can tell you. And not only can I tell you, but my husband can tell you, and if my two-year-old could talk, he’d tell you, too. We’re sticklers about routine because when we all know each other’s routines, our expectations are reasonable. A schedule tells my son when it’s time to sit quietly because mummy’s working and when he can demand that we now go to the park. I’m pretty uncompromising when it comes to dividing my family and work time. When I’m working, I rarely allow for housework and family problems to invade on that time, but on the flipside, when I’m with my family, I ignore work altogether and won’t reply to e-mails, etc. It’s easier to be present with what you’re doing when you know that there is time scheduled in your day for everything else.
What advice would you offer a writer on maintaining great working relationships with editors so the writer can become one of their preferred ones?
Over deliver every time. That’s it. Do that each and every time and you’ll never run out of work again. This is easier said than done, though, because you’re only human and will mess up every now and again. Also, despite how hard you try, things will get busy, your perfectionism will get in the way, you’ll be ill, etc., and sometimes good enough will have to do. But if you can consistently provide quality, on time, and be personable and easy to work with, editors will come back to work with you every time.