Making it: just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re any good

abandoned Royal

(Picture by avlxyz, used under Creative Commons licence)

When I decided to launch myself as a freelance writer in February this year, I chose a shockingly bad time to do it. A recession, collapsing advertising budgets, online competition – at one point, it looked as though magazines were going under as fast as I could query them. I’ve been fortunate enough to have got as much work as I need every month since I started, but every week includes as many disappointments as triumphs. For every pitch that leads to a commission, I’ve probably made five or six that went nowhere. Honestly, the ratio could be even worse: if I kept a full tally, I’d probably burn my keyboard in despair.

Or, maybe, I’d send a letter like this one from “Scared Journalist”:

I spent the last four and a half years studying print journalism in college and watching vacantly as the newspaper/magazine industry crumbled before my eyes. The decline never bothered me. I always figured I had what it takes to get a job even in an extremely competitive market: Before I ever graduated, I had completed four internships at newspapers, magazines and a Web site, published almost a hundred clips (including longer, high-quality pieces), and left a good impression with everyone I worked with. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and I knew that I wanted to write for a living.

Now, six months after graduating, my parents still pay my cellphone bill and I am working full-time making ice cream. I make a couple hundred bucks here and there freelancing for a magazine I interned at, but otherwise my “freelance” career, as well as my journalism career, is dead in the water. I find myself despondent and unable to send out any more cover letters, and I can’t find the time or motivation to research a story idea enough to send it to an editor because I assume he or she will simply reject my half-baked idea. I’m panicking, but I fear failure so much that I can’t even get started. Freelancing seems to be my best option career-wise, but I can’t summon the willpower and enthusiasm to do it. Plus, I lost my license to a DUI conviction (that got me fired from one of those newspaper internships), which has immobilized me and left me unable to relocate to a new job until October. The DUI also contributes to my job-hunting anxiety.

What I see is that my passion for journalism and writing is waning. Working full-time has taught me that work is work and play is play, and that I need to maximize the efficiency of my hours I spend at work in order to maximize how much I can play outside of work. I am looking into jobs in other fields that pay better. Is it healthier to stick it out working at an ice cream store and desperately try to make it as a writer, or should I pursue a career where financial security is more realistic?

Salon, “I studied print journalism: Now what?”

Weirdly, Cary Tennis’ answer to this isn’t a brisk “grow up”: it’s a mythopoetic stream-of-consciousness about the role of the journalist and the times in which we live, reassuring Scared with the promise that “If you are a true journalist, you  are supposed to be having a hard time. This is how the world makes writers. It kicks their ass long enough that they start finally telling the truth.”

Apparently Tennis missed an ass-kicking session, because his reply misses a few obvious truths. If your passion for your chosen field in on the wane because you haven’t got a job you want six months after graduating, then maybe you don’t love the field as much as you thought. Six months is a fairly minimal delay between finishing education and launching a career. Scared has been able to get paid work in journalism during that time, too – despite the industry being in quite the tight spot.

And the main barrier that Scared identifies to the job hunting process is a driving ban which lasts until October. That’s not “having a hard time”. That’s being a reckless moron and being suitably punished. So, if Scared finds it that painful to take a parental stipend on the phone bill, they’re probably not cut out for trying to make it as a writer. Let it go, Scared.

orphan typewriters

(Picture by Telstar Logistics, used under Creative Commons licence)

Making a living as a writer isn’t hard because the universe is trying to make you a better journalist. It’s hard because there are more writers than paid work, and plenty of aspiring writers willing to do the equivalent of a paid job for no money at all (that’s those internships Scared was so pleased with). You might come through the apprentice period more experienced, more determined, more skilled – but whether you’re actually any good after all that depends on how much talent you started with. And even if you are good, the work still might not exist.

The Onion AV Club offered a more pragmatic, and wiser, version of the same live-through-this counsel:

Becoming a critic, an essayist, an editorialist, or a screenwriter isn’t the kind of career that you come to via the want ads, any more than you can follow a conventional up-the-corporate-ladder job track to become a novelist, painter, or songwriter. These aren’t the kind of jobs where anyone’s ever “hiring,” really. By and large, if people want you to write for them, they’ll call you.

And why do they decide to call you? Usually because they’ve read your writing, or because a mutual acquaintance recommended you, or both. That may seem like a paradox, but it really isn’t. Up above, I said that the number of paying media outlets is narrowing, but there are more opportunities than ever for aspiring writers to ply their trade, via blogs and the like, and our modern wired lifestyle is such that you can develop collegial relationships with fellow writers that you’ve never actually met in person. But it all takes time and effort, and in the meantime, yes, you’re probably going to have to get “a real job.” To put it on a personal level: I started getting paid to write criticism and features while I was still in school, but I wasn’t able to do it full-time until about seven years after I graduated, and that was only because I was being partially supported by my wife. It took another seven years before I started making enough that my parents stopped asking when I was going to go back to work.

Onion AV Club, “Ask The A.V. Club – April 17, 2008″

There aren’t really any access courses for a life in letters (well, apart from being born with a daddy who can supply the start-up for My First Style Rag). Just working, networking, dusting yourself off, and hoping you’ve got the means of your own self-belief.

5 thoughts on “Making it: just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re any good

  1. What I have a problem with is this bit:

    ‘Working full-time has taught me that work is work and play is play, and that I need to maximize the efficiency of my hours I spend at work in order to maximize how much I can play outside of work.’

    That’s sort of true, but if you’re already thinking about minimizing your hours at work as you head into a freelance career then you’re probably not cut out for it. Partly because the work/funtime divide is never that clear when you’re freelance, and partly because if you only see writing as an easy way to fund yourself going to gallery openings and yogalates, you’re probably rubbish at it.

    AND ANOTHER THING. As I type, I’m sitting next to the latest in a succession of media-studies interns who can happily reel off all the work placements they’ve done but apparently haven’t ever tried selling anything to a magazine – like getting paid work is something you don’t bother with until your course ends. I spent my entire final year of university having things rejected/accepted in probably about a 5:1 ratio (barely working on my course, natch) and it amazes me that anyone who thinks they want to be a writer wouldn’t do the same.

    Gosh I get angry in these comments. Too much caffeine.

  2. Four and half years study and four internships!

    Do people really do that?

    Just about to take a leap of faith and move to Hanoi with the objective of securing writing work.

    My thoughts are this – firstly I need money. Secondly I am going to write what I have to write to earn that money. Hopefully at some point I’ll have enough money to also to write what I’d like to write.

    But also, I have other skills – in social media, in marketing, public relations copy writing etc – hopefully each of those will also generate some cash.

    None of us can afford to be choosy and writing and publishing is essentially de-skilled so there are usually plenty of others willing to do the job for less. It seems every other blog I read in Vietnam is someone teaching English language who confides that what they really want to do is be a travel writer.

    You just have to survive. Most people in most professions rarely reach “where they’d like to be” – you just do what you do most and tailor your output to a point whereby you hopefully enjoy it as much as you can AND you bring in enough cash.

    You plan your future and you strive for better things. That’s what everyone does.

    Journalism is no different.

  3. Well, I think sometimes a little ass-kicking is necessary. And if everything this person told you was a true representation of their situation, they’re feeling more than a little sorry for themselves without much justification and they probably needed to be presented with the idea that they just don’t love writing as much as they thought they did. And, in a world where there probably isn’t enough editorial budget to go round, isn’t it a little irresponsible to let someone believe that their struggling is a sign that they’re actually excellent?

    Thanks for commenting, Cary!

  4. Agreed. As someone who’s been earning my living primarily based on editorial writing for 5+ years now (and writing-related professions for longer than that), I think there’s no room for this namby-pamby emo nonsense, not to mention sheer irresponsibility. (DUI conviction? what, was he trying to be Christopher Hitchens and drink his way to fame and writerly fortune?)

    Struggling is all well and good if it’s in the service of getting to where you want to be, but struggling does not, in fact, improve your writing skills or — apparently — your level of maturity and responsibility. He (she?) is fortunate to have parents to help during this tough financial time, and should cut it out with the whinging already / leave the work to those of us who can hack it if the navelgazing business isn’t paying well enough.

    (Wow, I’m a cranky old lady today!)

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