Kevin Miller graduated from Columbia in 1992 with a BA in Youth Work. He went on to pursue a second Bachelor’s degree at the University of Waterloo and a Master in Christian Studies from Regent College. Today he’s a freelance writer and editor, and he’s recently published his second novel for middle school readers, loosely based on his experiences growing up in rural Saskatchewan. You can read more about Kevin’s journey as a writer, filmmaker, and editor at www.kevinmillerxi.com
Tell us about your current vocation. What does it involve? What do you do in a typical work week?
I am a freelance writer and editor. A typical day has me up early (I usually start work at around 5:30 a.m.) working on my own writing projects, promoting my published work, replying to correspondence, etc. After breakfast, I usually switch to whatever editing job is occupying me at the time. I edit books for individual authors and publishing companies. Toward the end of the day (I knock off at around 4:30 p.m.), I switch back to my own projects for an hour or two. I’m constantly working on multiple projects at a time, so it’s all about putting a bit of effort behind each one every day, so they all keep moving toward the finish line. I work from my home office, which I enjoy and which gives me a lot of flexibility. However, I stick to a fairly strict schedule that allows me time for work and family without the two overlapping.
What additional education or training did you pursue after Columbia?
After Columbia, I got a bachelor’s degree in social development studies from the University of Waterloo. I went to Waterloo, because they allowed me to use about a year and a half of my studies at Columbia toward my degree. I originally went there to study political philosophy but wound up doing more of an interdisciplinary degree that incorporated philosophy, sociology, and psychology. It was probably the perfect sort of education for an omnivorous writer and reader like me, because it gave me a good understanding of human nature from a variety of perspectives. A few years after that, I spent a year at Regent College pursuing a master’s degree in Christian studies. I focused mainly on epistemology and the philosophy of science. However, my wife and I started having kids around that time, and after a year, I decided I didn’t want to go any further into debt, so I withdrew from my studies. I always envisioned myself as someone who would get a PhD, so I’ve regretted not being able to pursue my studies further. However, I have filled the gap with a lot of personal study. Thankfully, many of the projects on which I’ve worked, such as the documentary “Expelled,” allowed me to indulge my passions by reading deeply in the areas of science, philosophy, and theology.
How did you find your way into writing & publishing?
Sheer determination. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer or filmmaker, but I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan, so I didn’t really believe there was a road that would take me to a place where I could fulfill my dreams. Ironically, after traveling far and wide, my writing career began in Saskatchewan, with my first job as a newspaper reporter. I used that as a platform to sell a handful of freelance articles. In the meantime, I also self-published a book on tree planting that I sold across the country. All that enabled me to land a job at a publishing company in BC. I started as an editorial assistant and then became an in-house writer. I wrote, co-wrote, and contributed to a number of books for that company and continued to freelance for them after the bulk of the company folded. From there, I freelanced for a while and then got into film, working as a screenwriter. I spent about thirteen years working primarily as a screenwriter, but I also directed, produced, worked as a film editor, and did pretty much every other job in between. Independent film is great that way. Seeing as I was always working as part of a small team, I had to wear many hats. Throughout the time I worked in film, I traveled a lot, which was painful for me and for my family (we have four children). So, about four years ago, I moved back into freelance editing and writing. Ironically, my own books have put me back on the road again as I promote them and do writing workshops at schools across Western Canada.
How does your job connect with your sense of calling/purpose?
I feel like my primary calling is that of a teacher. I love to learn and then pass on what I’ve discovered in a way that makes other people passionate about it. I’ve had the opportunity to do this in many ways–through books, films, and by teaching about writing. I believe a good story is the best teacher. But I don’t think writers of stories should ever set out to teach. Instead, they should set out to tell a really good story, and then a lesson will naturally emerge from that process as characters seek to solve the problems with which they are confronted. I think it’s best if a writer is involved in this discovery process, only realizing fairly late in the game what the story is actually about. If a writer starts out thinking he or she has all the answers, chances are good the story will be flat or predictable.
How can someone tell if writing is a good fit for them?
Most writers don’t need to be told they’re writers. I knew at a young age that I had a knack for words and ideas and that it was just a matter of developing that potential. I also knew that, due to my upbringing and my temperament, I looked at the world quite differently from most people. That’s another prerequisite. Writers are good observers, constantly making mental notes that eventually show up in their work. That said, writing is a solitary vocation–unless you pursue a career writing for TV shows, for example, which employ a writers’ room–so you have to be prepared for that. I read a great interview once with Irvin Kershner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back, among other films. He knew he had a knack for images, so he started out as a photographer and then became a documentary filmmaker. However, only when he began directing feature films did he feel like he had finally found his true calling. He put it down to his temperament. He enjoyed the high-stress, fast-paced environment of film. So, talent and passion are important, but so is finding the right sort of environment to apply your gifts.
What are some ways your time at Columbia has equipped you for what you’re doing now?
Columbia was where I came of age. It offered me a safe environment in which to get to know myself and figure out which direction I wanted to go in life. It was also where I began to learn how to think theologically and philosophically about the world. The most important aspect of Columbia for me was friendships. A few key friendships I made there played a huge role in how the next few years of my life played out. Columbia really provided the foundation for my adult life.
What’s the best part of your job? What are the biggest challenges?
The best part of my job as a writer is seeing something that began as an idea in my head become something–a book, a film, an article, even a PowerPoint presentation–that can go out into the world and be enjoyed by other people. The best part about being an editor is discovering a great author or manuscript and being able to play a role in helping that person or manuscript develop. I also learn a lot about writing by editing other writers.
One of the biggest challenges throughout my career has been travel. Most people dream of traveling the world. I did too. However, when travel becomes a constant, I dread it. It makes it very difficult to develop a sense of community where I live. At one point during my film career, I was living in Abbotsford, but my best friends were in LA, Milwaukee, Albuquerque, and points in between. When I’d get home from trips, I would just hunker down with my family, my suitcase only partially unpacked in anticipation of heading out on the road again, rather than socialize. Now that I’m off promoting my own books, I have the downside of being away from my family without the upside of being on the road with friends, so it can be lonely at times. However, I’m always meeting new people, and I enjoy working with a variety of clients on the editing side, so I feel like I’m always interacting with a significant network of people even though I spend a lot of time on my own in the office and on the road.
What advice do you have for our students who are considering becoming writers?
Writers write. There’s no way around it. Lots of people are in love with the idea of being a writer, but few people want to put in the time to truly master the craft. Like any other profession, writing is a lifelong pursuit. Anyone can dabble at it, but to truly master it requires years of practice. Writers also need to be able to work independently and not be shy about promoting themselves. It doesn’t matter what field of writing you’re in, you have to keep putting yourself forward if you want to keep paying the bills. The same goes for editing. Also, prepare yourself for lots of rejection and failure. I often joke that the life of a writer involves days and nights of misery punctuated by brief moments of despair–and then something really bad happens. I’ve been fortunate to have made my living as a writer and editor for over twenty years. During that time, I’ve had lots of films made and have written, co-written, contributed to, and edited well over one hundred books. However, behind all those successes are lots of rejections and failures, projects into which I poured years of my life but which never came to fruition. That’s par for the course. Learning how to handle rejection and failure and take something positive away from it is one of the key skills writers must develop. Because rejection and failure are such constants, I think it’s important to celebrate every little success along the way, whether the completion of a first draft or the publication of a book or article. Make the most of the moment, and then get back to writing!