If it hadn’t been for a falling tree 10 years ago, Tom Harpole might not be a freelance writer today.
Harpole spent 12 years as a contract timber faller, tipping over trees and sawing off limbs, and eight years as a horse logger, dragging trees to the roadside. He also raised and trained Percheron draft horses at his 160-acre Montana ranch. Then, a falling tree disabled his right arm. After devoting a few more years to horses, “I decided to try writing for a living.”
To learn more about writing, Harpole, his wife Lisa and their daughter and son moved to Ireland, where he spent two years at University College at Galway and in the Irish National Writer’s Workshop. Why Ireland? “Irish writers have conquered the language of their conquerors,” Harpole says, and he was determined to learn those lessons.
In 1989, the family returned to Montana and a few months later, Yellowstone National Park went up in flames. “This was a story of international interest in my back yard, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen next, so I interviewed park biologists, rangers and other experts,” Harpole says. Several magazines published his articles.
It’s that ability to glean ideas from life experiences, coupled with reading the publications for which you wish to write, that will most help new writers. Harpole says, “Look at the style, diction, length and craft that the writers and editors have accomplished. My years of reading The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly helped me know how to weigh the piece I wanted to write about Yellowstone.”
Harpole says his yearly income floats between $35,000 and $60,000 after expenses, and that there are tricks to his success: “Treat editors like they are clients. Invite them to be mentors. Let them know you are willing to learn through the editing process. Regard changes they make as excellent chances to hone your skills. Don’t agonize. Be nice, heedful and willing.” Further, he says, never be late for an interview and never make an important phone call without knowing how you want the call to progress.
Those tricks have won Harpole his share of memorable magazine assignments, including sojourns to Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, China, New Zealand, the Philippines, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.
One of his most memorable assignments involved his first sky diving experience, in Russia with a former Red Army colonel. “I had to put my life in a Russian’s hands and he taught me more about understanding what trust means than anyone I’ve ever known,” he says.
Harpole has been published in Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Life and Air & Space Smithsonian, and he has read his own fiction on National Public Radio. But he still has goals, including publishing a story in Harper’s, Atlantic or The New Yorker. “I hope to keep improving until I write well enough for those folks,” he says.
Amanda Lynch is a freelancer who writes for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, American Way, Neighborhoodamerica.com and other local and regional publications.