Writing Course Graduate Q & A

Sarah Kelleher

Sarah Kelleher completed the Freelance Journalism Course, and is currently working on her first novel on the Write a Novel Course at NZ Writers College. Sarah tells us about her experience on her writing course, and her progress as a writer.

Writing course success Sarah Kelleher

Tell us a bit about yourself. What made you sign up for a writing course?

I’m Sarah Kelleher, Pākehā, 37. I finished high school and trained as a pilot straight after that.

I got my first job as a flight instructor when I was 21, my first airline job at 28, and my dream job flying a jet in 2018 at the age of 34. Sadly, the job stopped due to the pandemic in mid-2020, a few months after I finished the Freelance Journalism for Magazines and Webzines course.

Since then I’ve been a full-time mum to my one-year-old son, plus copywriting on contract, and writing magazine articles  – often rejected, of course! I also signed up for the Write a Novel Course for sanity’s sake.

I just got my first article accepted for publication in the December issue of MiNDFOOD! I was so excited when I found out that I struggled to sleep for three days.

Were you juggling work and family commitments with the course?

Ever since I learned how to write at age 5, I wanted to write novels (or ‘chapter books’ as I called them) and over time picked up a desire to write articles too. As my flying career got going, it started to drain energy that I would otherwise put into my private writing projects, which I’d always had on the go. By my early twenties I’d stopped writing altogether. I was however that rare flight instructor who enjoys writing theory material!

I did the journalism course over 12 months while flying full-time. 

Now, with all of my writing, it generally takes place while my son is asleep or when my husband or mother-in-law are caring for him, and sometimes in sips as he crawls over and shuts the lid of my laptop to hand me a toy! I have to admit, the Wiggles and noise-cancelling headphones definitely have a place in the creative process.

What did you find most challenging about the writing course?

The biggest challenge of that course was the interviews, calling myself a freelance journalist when I was anything but, and taking up people’s time on that promise. For my first interview, over the phone, I had to sit there making my nervous source feel at ease when I was unbelievably nervous myself!

The article I produced on the course was under submission with Next Magazine when Bauer Media pulled out of New Zealand, which was another blow after losing my flying job, even though I knew chances of success were slim.

I retooled it and submitted it elsewhere but got no takers.

My husband and I also welcomed our beautiful son in 2020, so it was a crazy year of change. I’d gone from an airline pilot with a writing career in the works, to a stay-at-home mum with no route back to work in sight and a magazine industry saturated with experienced writers.

The potential of journalism is exciting, but until my recent breakthrough, the rejection and endless unpaid hours was really taking a toll, plus the imposter syndrome is huge, so I wanted to do the Write a Novel course to finally get down one of the three big novel ideas that had been driving me crazy for some time.

The therapy of creative writing, with a sense of purpose and potential, has been a real anchor for me. It’s also brilliant to be able to write and not have to talk about it with anyone but my tutor! My daily routine is total chaos so I’m completing a module about every 1-2 months.

The biggest challenge of the novel course has been to keep going when I’m not happy with it. At the start of my draft I have in capitals, ‘JUST GET IT DOWN.’ It’s devastating to watch a brilliant idea in my head fall flat on the page and paralysis can kick in, but the creative flow and excitement does come back when I persist, and editing is magical.

I’ve come to think of writing as laying down clay for me to mould into something later, so if it sucks, it doesn’t matter.

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What have you gained by doing the writing course?

My writing skills have improved exponentially during both courses, in ways I could never have achieved by myself.

My tutors (Donna Daley for the journalism course and Alex Smith for the novel course) have been awesome. They’ve both got that balance of correction and encouragement that is so important, and they’re nothing but lovely when I have stupid questions!

I’m not sure about another course, but to be honest I’m looking for any excuse to do one, because it’s so nice to have someone holding your hand and giving you clear direction.

"Doing a writing course isn't about finding out if you're any good; it's about making yourself good."

How are you using what you learnt in the course?

As for my current work, the copywriting I picked up by word-of-mouth. Seemingly everyone I know is starting a small business or ramping up their side gig in these uncertain times, and so many of them need copywriting! However, I hear there is ample work to be found on Upwork.com.

I have a regular contract and plug gaps with short jobs. It’s a constant balancing act to judge how much I can take on and still have energy for my son, and my novel, and hopefully that next magazine piece – I’ve found the key is to follow my nose and just do what makes me excited, so the ‘for myself’ writing gives back as much as it takes. Right now, I now have relationships with NZ Thrive magazine and MiNDFOOD and I’m preparing pitches for my next pieces.

Writing Course Graduate Sarah Kelleher
Sarah with her one-year-old son, Liam

What advice do you have for anyone considering doing a Writers College course?

My advice for anyone considering a course is not to make the decision with your self-doubt. There are hundreds of quotes from famous authors about doubting themselves and pushing forward anyway.

It might feel safer to sit in that limbo, where you don’t know if you’re any good, but doing a writing course isn’t about finding out if you’re any good, it’s about making yourself good.

Writing is a skill that needs to be learnt like anything else. Be brave! Have a go!