Sara Atnikov has always been a writer. Growing up, writing came naturally to her and was always her preferred form of communication. Even as a kid, she found that getting her feelings down on paper was more effective than talking them out. If she got into an argument with her parents, she’d race up to her room to write out her frustrations on a piece of paper and then throw it down the stairs to signal that she was ready to talk. “My parents would say they’d get ‘air mail’ from me,” she laughed.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that Sara decided to pursue the Creative Communications joint program with Red River Community College and the University of Winnipeg. There, her focus was journalism and she learned how to not only interview people and write stories but submit on a daily basis. She worked as the Arts and Culture Editor for RRCC’s student newspaper, The Projector, her first foray into the industry, and in the decade since then she’s worked consistently as a freelance writer in one form or another.
At the time we sat down to chat in late January, Sara was working for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as their Knowledge Translator, as well as working in a freelance capacity for CBC Arts, and continuing to develop content for a project she started in 2016 called “Feminist Fonts.” Feminist Fonts uses different typography to “project the three different voices that live in my and maybe other people’s heads when it comes to dealing with the inequalities that come with being a woman or a femme.”
Theability to not only share things that are important to other people but also create space for the voices of those people who aren’t often given space to tell their stories is what really draws Sara to freelance writing. Telling stories, specifically those of “two-spirit LGBTQBIPOC folks, people of colour, film and art stuff, Indigenous issues,” allows her a learning opportunity and experience she wouldn’t otherwise get to be a part of. “I like to use the privilege I have as a white cis woman to give more space to people who don’t automatically have their voices heard,” she explained. “I’m pretty intentional in that regard and that’s also the stuff that’s interesting to me.” Despite feeling “an immense amount of anxiety and pressure to properly represent” the people she writes about, it’s this variety of storytelling opportunities that she’s passionate about.
“I like to use the privilege I have as a white cis woman to give more space to people who don’t automatically have their voices heard”
And it’s not just the arts and culture writing that she finds fascinating. Sara stressed that working for corporate clients – like writing about overland flooding for an insurance company or telling the stories of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease – are valuable opportunities to learn. The things that might at the outset seem boring are often great chances to learn different styles of writing and different organizational processes that she can then apply to how she works as a freelancer, such as how she manages her time and sets her rates.
Sara has woven the thread of community development work throughout her career, which she finds couples well with writing and communication. But freelancing also affords her the ability to work at her own pace, something that is required of a process that can be non-linear and slow. The flexibility to start her day when she wants and allow herself time to think about how a writing piece will develop before sitting down to write is a benefit to Sara. And this flexibility allows her to take on various types of writing projects that a full-time arts and culture writing position wouldn’t, if there were such a position available. Writing about her passion on a full-time basis could very well burn her out, she told me, so having the luxury of taking on projects that challenge her in a variety of ways helps to make her a “more well-rounded communications professional.”
However, there are always challenges when it comes to writing for a living, one of them being writing itself. “It’s hard!” she laughed. “People have this vision in their heads that you just sit down and there are birds chirping and your coffee’s hot and you just spew forth all of this amazing content, but it takes a lot of emotional energy.” This is particularly the case when you’re tasked with writing about the “heart-crushingly sad” experiences of people who live with disease or face injustice. Writing is also very solitary, particularly when you work from home. Getting together with other people or working collaboratively can be helpful in that regard. Sara explains, “Writing can be an extremely isolating thing. I mean, I’ve had more conversations with my cat this week than I have with actual humans. So, it’s cool to be able to work with other people.” Of course, however, as a freelancer, you don’t always get to choose the people you work with. While Sara’s been lucky in that she’s worked with some great clients and organizations, working with other creatives can be a challenge if your work styles or processes are at odds. This is especially the case for writers like Sara who have a piecemeal process and like to take their time thinking about how an article will develop: “I’m not a linear person at all. It’s more like herding cats.”
Despite those challenges, writing is a passion that Sara not only continues to pursue but excel at – you can see that in her work here. When I asked what makes her a good writer, she explained that her empathy and the versatility she’s developed in her own voice are what sets her apart. Sara is very careful to showcase the people she’s writing about and is mindful that these stories are not about her: “The folks who very graciously agree to speak with me are talking about something that’s very important to them and it has nothing to do with me, it is my very serious job to make sure that I don’t fuck it up and that I present them as accurately as they would like to be presented and that I don’t insert myself into it at all.” It’s also important to her that her writing open up a discussion, noting “I don’t take myself so seriously as to say ‘this is the final word on this’.” Using her writing to share, raise awareness, and spread knowledge is key to her voice and her philosophy.
“I don’t take myself so seriously as to say ‘this is the final word on this’.”
For new writers looking to develop a career in the industry, Sara’s first piece of advice is to “just start writing, just do it. You might not be very good when you start, because nobody is, really, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep doing it.” And writing about different topics, even those you may not at first find interesting, is what will help you grow as a writer. While it’s okay to be selective of the projects that you work on, it’s important to push yourself beyond your limits and take risks that move you out of your comfort zone. “Talk to other writers and get yourself out there as much as possible,” she said. “It’s a weird thing to promote yourself and it’s very uncomfortable for some people, but I think the more uncomfortable it is the better you get at it.” Being authentic and true to your values and what really fires you up is something that can be seen clearly in Sara’s work, yet she isn’t afraid to admit when she doesn’t know the answer to something and sees nothing wrong in being honest and stepping away from the allure of presenting a perfect image to those around you. She puts it succinctly: “It’s okay to say that you’re not sure and that you’ll figure it out because nobody knows everything. I mean, that’s what the Internet is for.”