Halpern stresses persistence in journalism career path

Freelance journalist Jake Halpern’s ’97 life is a story of persistence in the face of rejection.

In a Morse College Master’s Tea on Thursday, the 28-year old Halpern admitted that his life has been no different from that of the typical writer — grueling and unpredictable. But now Halpern, who receives regular calls from the editors of The New Yorker, Harpers, Slate and Rolling Stone and recently published his second book, “Fame Junkies,” can offer his own life as an example of the force of sheer, dogged determination.

Jake Halpen, a freelance journalist, gives a Master’s Tea in Morse College yesterday afternoon.
Dounia Bredes
Jake Halpen, a freelance journalist, gives a Master’s Tea in Morse College yesterday afternoon.

Halpern said the first turning point in his life came when he impulsively decided to take time off from college and moved to Prague to investigate his family’s roots. It was there that Halpern said he discovered the history of his uncle’s experiences during the Holocaust and realized that he wanted to be a storyteller.

“That was the moment when law school and LSATs went out the window,” he said with a laugh.

But after explaining how he made his decision, Halpern described the difficulties involved in attaining his goal — not receiving the Richter fellowship at Yale and being rejected from jobs at several magazines and newspapers after graduation.

Still, Halpern said he looks back on this college years as a formative experience.

“What separates successful writers from unsuccessful writers is not quality of writing, but how much rejection you can take,” he said. “It’s a question of shouldering through.”

After working for a short period at an insurance law job — which he described as the worst job a new college graduate could get — Halpern quit and eventually found an internship at the New Republic, which he called a “jumping off place.” It was only there that he was able to lay the groundwork for a career in writing, beginning with a piece on an old coal mining town that had been devastated by fires, he said.

As a result of this and a series of other articles on strange towns in America, Halpern said he eventually landed a book deal on “Braving Home” — a collection of stories about homes in unique places — and secured the financial means to become a self-employed writer.

Halpern ended his talk with reflections on life as a freelance writer, stressing that it is not a job for those seeking financial stability. But being self-employed has given him an unparalleled sense of freedom, he said.

“I’m my own person, and I don’t think I can ever leave that again,” he said.

Students interviewed who attended the tea said they were inspired by Halpern’s individuality and innovation.

“It was really refreshing to hear a Yale grad who chose to forge his own path,” Grant Smith ’11 said. “I found myself wishing that I would one day be in his shoes.”

Morse College Master Frank Keil said Halpern’s persistence should inspire students.

“It really gave insight into how hard yet how rewarding it is to have a career as a writer,” he said. “It’s definitely something you have to put your life into.”

But the talk convinced at least one student that she does not want to be a journalist.

“He spoke a lot about the lifestyle of a freelance writer, and it made me sure that I would not want to be one,” Jennifer James ’08 said. “I just like stable paychecks.”

Halpern has recently written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Slate and a host of other publications.

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