#GirlsRock: An interview with author, freelance writer, and editor Crystal Schwanke 🍳


It’s iconic.

Do you know what it means to be a writer?

I’ve known kindergarteners who make a claim on it and grown people who are reluctant to articulate it. They both do the work. But what it boils down to is how you feel when you’re doing the actual writing.

Meet Crystal Schwanke — editor, freelancer, and writer.

Crystal and I struck up a conversation on LinkedIn a good while back and stuck with it for this interview. It’s aged well! Please give her a warm JAD welcome. You’ll enjoy learning about her journey as much as I have.

Eli: When you were little, what did you think you’d grow up to be?

Crystal: I always wanted to be a writer and artist, but around age 13, my family got a giant, clunky desktop computer and I spent countless summer nights “counseling” people in chat rooms until 2 or 3 in the morning. Because I enjoyed talking people through their problems so much, I added psychologist to the list (I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology now). I would caution against doing that sort of thing these days, but chat rooms were new and somewhat innocent back then. 

When I was around 5 or 6, I wrote and illustrated my own little booklets about whatever I was interested in at the time. I’d just take any paper I had nearby, fold it in half, poke holes along the crease with scissors, and tie the pages together with string. I distinctly remember showing one about outer space to my grandfather, a newspaper editor. He told me everything that needed to be fixed and I didn’t take it well. Lol 

When I got my hands on my first R.L. Stine books (the Cheerleaders series) while recovering from the flu around age 12, it hit me that I could write stories and sell them, too. Such an epiphany! haha, I wrote fiction, essays, poetry, and plays…

I’m still trying to figure out how to do all these things at once – write, create art, and help people who are struggling to see their worth learn to live boldly and go after their dreams.

Other things on the list of possibilities at one point or another: CEO of a big company (mostly for the big office with a glorious view, let’s be honest), lawyer, professional clarinet player, and fashion designer (this one lasted a long time and I had quite the portfolio to go with it).

Eli: I love the book stories! I have to ask more about the fashion designer one … tell me more about it, and about the portfolio.

Crystal: It was just a giant Lisa Frank folder absolutely stuffed full of drawings of the clothing I wanted to create and sell in a boutique my friend and I were planning to own one day. I drew everything from simple T-shirts to ball gowns and kept all the designs in there. I took the folder (with blank paper tucked inside, too) with me everywhere I went for at least a year so that when inspiration struck, I could get it down on paper right away. Too bad I never learned how to sew. Lol Years later, I was still carrying a notebook and pen everywhere, but for words, not sketches.

Eli: Do you remember how the transition started? How have you moved on to words? There may be some parallels between processes for both.

Crystal: Not really. It probably had to do with the fact that I could create a finished product and get it out into the world more easily with words. I remember thinking I would need to grow up, go to school for fashion design, learn how to sew, buy fabric and other materials, and complete all kinds of extra steps before I could really do much with fashion design. With words, I could write whenever I wanted (and as much as I wanted, since pencils, pens, and paper didn’t cost much), enter contests, pitch story ideas to publications, or even write a book and try to get it published. 

Continuing to learn things I could do with language in school probably helped push me that way, too. I know I always had English/Language Arts classes, but I didn’t always have art classes where I’d be exposed to new techniques, concepts, and materials to play around with. 

As a preteen/teen girl with a lot of thoughts and emotions to work through, putting words down on paper just started to feel like better therapy than art, too. I also remember thinking I’d be able to make an impact by writing words that made people feel understood, but I never felt that when I designed clothing, even if they were clothes that would help people express themselves. There was always a longing to connect with people (often the ones who felt overlooked, sad, lonely, etc.) and lift them up. 

I can’t remember a time that didn’t drive me, at least in part. So there were probably a lot of things working together at the same time to push me from fashion design to words.

As a preteen/teen girl with a lot of thoughts and emotions to work through, putting words down on paper just started to feel like better therapy than art, too.

Crystal Schwanke

Eli: Were you a writer, then, by the time you arrived at Valdosta State?

Crystal: At heart, yes, but I wasn’t trying to publish anything yet, other than when I entered the occasional contest here and there. I was an English major for a little while before I decided to switch to psychology. Even after I changed my major, I decided to minor in creative writing because I couldn’t completely let go. Poetry was my favorite thing to write. I started freelance writing after college. It was for fun, a side gig to help me pay off my student loans faster, but as soon as I started, I knew I wanted to quit my job and write full-time.

Eli: You were working in sales at the time, right? Tell me about the day you quit and started chasing that dream.

Crystal: Yes, I was a sales manager for a small shop at the time. Once I paid off the last bit of my student loan, I felt free to make the leap into the unknown. I was so scared to have that conversation with my boss, I just left a letter on her desk. I didn’t trust myself to get all the words out face-to-face because I was so nervous–not just about her reaction, but about my decision to leave a sure thing, a guaranteed paycheck every two weeks. 

Of course, she called me into her office later to have a conversation in person anyway. It did not go well at first due to a misunderstanding, but even as I sat in that chair, waiting to explain, I could feel my resolve to make this work get stronger and stronger. Once that conversation ended, I felt so relieved–SO much lighter and excited about life. It felt like I was finally on the right career path, with nothing in my way. A decision had been made and there was no going back. And the people I worked for seemed pretty happy for me once they got the whole story, so it all worked out. 

I was just elated, and I hadn’t felt that way in a long time. I didn’t know how things were going to work out, but had faith that they would.

I ended up working there for another three weeks to train my replacement, so I didn’t just get to walk out of that conversation and into my full-time writing career. The closer I got to the end of those three weeks, the more excited I got. Once I was done there, I started getting up before sunrise every morning (feeling refreshed and alive, even!), making tea, sitting down in the living room with my laptop, and scouring the sites I’d found online where people would post freelance writing gigs. 

I loved that quiet, peaceful morning ritual and was always excited to see what I could apply for. It was always such a thrill to get a response back (sometimes as early as that afternoon) saying I was hired. Every day felt like Christmas morning. I got to live in a state of joyful anticipation. Even the quick rejections were nice because I got closure and could mark something off on the Excel spreadsheet I’d created to keep up with potential gigs and assignments. haha. 

In the afternoons, I’d either write for new clients or the content site that I’d written for while I was working in sales. Sometimes I’d pitch ideas to magazines, but that wasn’t my focus because it could take weeks or months to hear back on those and I was trying to fill my schedule more quickly than that so I’d have some money coming in. Lol

Eli: What is next for you, Crystal?

Crystal: I’m working on a second book that I plan to self-publish this year. I’m also starting a new site, CrystalSchwanke.com, to help people unlock their creativity and get more comfortable writing, whether it’s for pleasure or work. I’ll still be running ThatOldKitchenTable.com and working with a few clients, too.

Eli: Crystal, you do some awesome things and it’s a pleasure to know you. What advice would you give girls and young women who have ideas to be bold the way you did?

Crystal: My advice is this: You probably already know, deep down, what you want to do and be (or you at least have a really good starting point at your core, based on what you enjoy doing). Pay attention to what you know is true, even if you don’t know how to make it all work yet. Focus on what lights you up! Let that guide you and just take one step at a time. You can’t really mess up, but you might take a detour or two (or three, but hopefully they’ll be short). 

Even if you get off course, remember that everything is a learning experience, a new bit of wisdom, and/or a new skill (or set of skills) that can be used for whatever comes next. Stay courageous, curious, creative, flexible, tenacious, and open to constructive criticism when it comes to bringing your big, bold ideas to life. Journal a lot to get clear on exactly what you want, what you think, and how you feel (you may surprise yourself). Take breaks when you need to. Surround yourself with other encouraging, unstoppable women if you can. 

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2 Comments

  1. Marvelous! She knows of what she speaks, and i hope she gets to keep following her dreams.

  2. stomperdad says:

    As always, a rockin’ interview. She sounds like someone who would be easy to be friends with!

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