I once saw a bumper sticker that read “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.” It was on the back of a pick-up truck parked in a lot in DUMBO. Not the bougie part of DUMBO that is all stainless steel and organic but the part that is still down under the bridge.
I was walking towards the bridge from work -- I worked ten hours a week at the time for a highly reputable literary magazine for $12 an hour doing data entry, doing a job the intern sitting next to me would have gladly done for free. They were doing me a favor, giving me this job, and I understood this, even as I understood (and was constantly reminded) that this job was not good enough.
I was reminded when it was lunchtime and I was hungry and I had no cash, or when a bill came in the mail that I could not pay. I had no savings, no income besides this piddly, part-time gig. I had only a credit card that I lived off of for months and it felt like I was hemorrhaging debt. I was reminded of all this when I would walk home rather than take the train because I was trying to save money. Home was somewhere on the Upper East Side, a two-hour walk. I had the time, whereas I didn’t have the two dollars and fifty cents.
At a certain point, I gave up looking for a “real” job, reluctantly convinced that my online footprint had rendered me more or less unemployable, at least for the time being. I settled into the role that I find myself in today, a year or so later. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say that I’m a freelance writer, and this is true. I also teach creative writing part-time to adults at a continuing-ed school in New York City.
I have always been a writer, but coming from the working class community that I came from -- where “overeducated” is a term that people actually use -- I didn’t have the audacity to think that writing could be anything more than an embarrassing hobby. Not until I lost my job and felt I had no choice -- even after I earned an MFA degree in Creative Nonfiction from the New School, I would never have given myself permission to quit my day job to write. What kind of person would do such a thing? Certainly not someone who needs to earn a living. Why not? Because -- the suspicions I had then turned out to be true -- very often, writing doesn’t pay.
Erica Jong recently commented on the phenomenon of not paying writers for content, which she seems to think is getting worse. "Authors are blogging everywhere for free,” she said, “and it’s not a good development. They are starving.”
She was speaking, specifically, about Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post, a site that has been widely criticized for not paying its writers -- a practice that became, to some, particularly distasteful after Huffington sold the site to AOL in 2011 for $300 million dollars -- not a dollar of that ending up in the hands of those of us who did the bulk of the work.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning that it was an article on the Huffington Post that cost me my career -- an article I was not paid to write -- and maybe it appears that I’ve got a bone to pick, but I actually don’t. At that time I was just so thrilled to be published by anyone, I didn’t care whether I was getting paid or not. Women in particular, I think, are the worst at this -- we are so quick to undervalue our work. Always giving it away for free.
Before I surrendered to the whole freelancer thing, a friend suggested that sometimes fabulously unique people are unemployable (because they are so fabulously unique, I presume) and so they become “self-employed.” Susannah Breslin has written about this. Oprah has said similar stuff (more on her in a second).
It is my opinion that it is a privilege to be fabulously unique. It is a privilege I couldn’t then and sometimes still can’t afford. This friend meant it as a compliment and I took it as encouragement, even though at the time I felt more like the Octomom than Oprah.
Bad decisions had led me to this place, this unemployable place where I felt useless and irrelevant and I make bad decisions when I feel useless and irrelevant, and so I was scared. It was the scariest time of my life -- the period where I was “unemployed” and before I was “self employed” -- and some days I would have given anything to have been simply earning a salary behind a desk, any desk. Fuck fishing.
Being a freelance writer is not what I imagined it would be. I am not exactly being paid, as I must have fantasized, to simply be me. The twelve-hundredth time I sold another version of the same personal essay, I must admit, I felt a bit sleazy. Let's just say that what I used to do for fun and love, I now do for money. Living the dream!
Oprah says to 1. Know who you are. 2. Find a way to serve. 3. Always do the right thing. But that shit’s easy to say when you’re Oprah. Sometimes some of us cannot afford to be ourselves all of the time, even those of us who have more-or-less committed to our own fabulous uniqueness. Sometimes, we put on a uniform. We sell a product. Sometimes, people do what they need to do to survive.
According to an article on Mashable.com (complete with some very pretty infographics, check it out) people become freelancers mostly for the freedom and flexibility. Like me, some people have gotten laid off from their previous job. They became freelancers because they couldn’t find work elsewhere. Or, they wanted a better work/life balance. You could say this was the case for me.
According to the survey, 62% are happy, describing their decision as a change for the better. And I would say I’m happy. Some days, though, I’m still hungry.