Sophie Kohn, RSJ ’06, Writer q, CBC Radio One, Ryerson University
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
I wanted to write long-form features and essays for magazines. I took my writing very seriously; I wanted to write about women and feminism and how we treat the environment and all kinds of Big Important Topics.
How did that vision change as the years went by?
The year after I graduated from Ryerson, I took a total beginner improv class at Second City, sort of on a whim. Some friends had done it and insisted I’d like it. I’d never really done anything in that realm before — never acted, never been onstage, and certainly never improvised. Within about 12 seconds of the first class, my brain exploded from joy. Here was permission to be weird and inventive and silly and ridiculous, and the community I found through comedy felt like my people instantly. It was like opening a portal to another dimension. I continued through all the improv levels, auditioned for the conservatory program, performed more and more, and eventually gravitated to stand-up comedy, which I’m still doing. But that experience, that first day in beginner improv, unlocked and unleashed a part of my brain that I suddenly understood I needed to use in my professional writing. And so my vision came into clearer focus; I wanted to find a way to merge my journalism training with the comedic voice Second City helped me discover. I still wanted to write about Big Important Topics, but I wanted to use humour and satire to do it.
Thinking back to your first-year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
I think my first-year self would be amazed and surprised and relieved. I spent so much time in high school, undergrad, and at Ryerson knowing I wanted to write, but feeling unsure that anything was unique about my writing. I knew in a general sense what issues I cared about, but I really hadn’t crystallized a voice and tone that was mine and mine alone. So I think she’d be happy and comforted to know that she does (unexpectedly) happen upon the trailhead when she falls into comedy.
What do you think the RSJ experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
I learned and sharpened a lot of really concrete, practical skills at Ryerson. I did my undergrad in English Literature prior to arriving at Ryerson, and all my classes were very philosophical and concept-based. But how to edit tape, how to slash 200 words from a story, how to craft a headline, how to conduct a meaningful interview, how to build sentences meant for the ears versus the eyes, how to pitch a story to an editor — all those really practical skills meant that when I graduated, I was well-equipped and ready to work.
What have you done since graduating/how did you arrive at your current position?
I’ve been on so many hilarious and beautiful adventures. I wrote for a comedy show called GO! on CBC Radio One, I moved to TV and wrote monologue jokes for George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, I’ve written humour pieces for The New Yorker, McSweeneys, and Chatelaine, and I was the editor of the CBC Comedy satirical news website for the four years it existed. Now I’ve returned to radio and I’m writing for q on CBC. I’m also teaching Satire Writing at Second City, and maintaining my freelance magazine writing as well.
How has your journalism degree and what you learned in school prepared you for your current career?
Before I got to Ryerson, I’d been writing for most of my life — long, sprawling, meandering and shapeless things, mostly for my own eyes. What I had not done was put some parameters around that pursuit: non-negotiable deadlines, an intended audience, strict word counts. Ryerson taught me to write faster, write with purpose, write to and for someone, and to have clear and specific goals for each piece of writing, whether it was a service journalism piece or a poetic essay or a local news broadcast. Those skills have formed the foundation of my entire career.
Can you talk about one of the biggest:
Accomplishments you’ve made?
I think my biggest accomplishment so far is being nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2018 for a long-form personal essay I wrote for Hazlitt. I don’t have many moments where I feel certain I’m a “real” writer. But that nomination was a pretty loud one, and it just felt amazing.
Challenges you’ve faced as a journalist?
The biggest ongoing challenge I’ve faced is that as a writer, my employment tends to be precarious, freelance, contract work, and largely uncertain. I love this work and I truly don’t want to do anything else, but it comes at some cost to my feeling of stability and security. That tolerance for risk has become sort of normalized by now, but it would be nice to be able to relax into a permanent job, feel safe, and not constantly feel that I have to prove myself anew every morning. I’d love to be able to put the mental energy I spend worrying about my next contract renewal into the work itself.
What’s one of your favourite memories from j-school?
In Jim Handman’s radio class, we used to produce a mock radio news broadcast every week that aired over the Ryerson campus. We would take turns co-hosting it. For April Fool’s, we were allowed (just this once) to write and produce a whole show of totally made-up joke stories. I was co-hosting that week with my friend Natasha Rudnick, and the stories our class invented and produced were so ridiculous and absurd that about halfway through the show, I broke down laughing on the air. She started laughing too. The point of no return was the moment we made eye contact. I think we probably had a full two minutes of dead air on that broadcast because we were both doubled over and totally silent from laughter.
Any memorable RSJ professors during your time at Ryerson?
Ivor Shapiro, Ann Rauhala, and Jim Handman, each in their own very different way, taught me the art of chiselling my writing until only the most essential, beautiful, and powerful words remain. They taught me to make every single word fight to be included, to make every word a thoughtful, deliberate, and intentional choice.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
It’s a strange thing to go to school to become a storyteller, because learning the craft of storytelling is only half of what you’ll need. The other half is: what kinds of stories do you actually care about telling? And I think the way to discover that is to be fully engaged with the world and to lean in hard to your own weirdness — travel, read a ton of books, take classes in things completely unrelated to your professional image of yourself. Banjo, Japanese, canoeing, or whatever you’re fascinated by. Play on frisbee teams and do a trip to Finland and volunteer at an elderly ferret shelter and go see weird bands in Kensington market and listen to podcasts about death. You need stuff in your brain. You need as much stuff in your brain as will possibly fit. And you need stuff in your heart. Consume and create as many stories in all their forms as you can. And then all those things you’ve slowly collected collide inside you and a voice is born, and it won’t be like anyone else’s.