A Chorus Line features a great song for writers, “The Music and the Mirror.”
Like all the songs in that musical, it was originally written for dancers but it speaks to everyone. You don’t need to be a dancer to get the song–we’ve all felt a bit useless at times:
Give me somebody to dance for
Give me somebody to show
Let me wake up in the morning to feel
I have somewhere exciting to go . . .
Does that sound like Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, the newspaper writer with a shoe habit? Maybe on a bad day? With newspapers cutting staff left and right, I think the next Sex and the City movie should revolve around Carrie losing her job. Her book deal falls through and she’s forced to join the throngs of real freelancers scrambling for gigs.
My beef with Carrie is that she adds to this ridiculous idea most people have, that writers do very little work, live glamorous lives, and make lots of money.
So let’s address those points.
First, the amount of work.There’s a very funny open letter to Carrie from freelancer Lucy Ledger in which she says, “I’m pretty sure I work 10 times harder than you but my picture is not on the side of a bus.”
Since writers always seem to be available for lunch or coffee, folks assume we don’t work much. The truth is that most writers write 10, 12, 14 hours a day. The reason that we’re always available for lunch or coffee is that we are desperate for a break and some human interaction. Writing is lonely.
As for being glamorous: imagine me laughing so hard that I must run to the bathroom before I pee my pants. Now imagine I’m back. That’s about as glamorous as it gets.
That leaves making lots of money, which fictional writers like Carrie and Castle seem to do easily. The truth: writing is a poorly paid profession. There’s no minimum wage for freelancers. That’s why so many of us are waiting on tables, teaching high school, or signing up with Kelly Services.
Writers scramble to find writing work. They send query letters to agents and editors, proposing articles and new books. There’s lots of competition and the markets change constantly. I say that not to whine, but to be clear: writing jobs aren’t handed out like day labor gardening stints. You don’t hang around till someone says, “Hey you, give me 500 words on your favorite celebrity!”
I wish. In reality, the writer thinks of a topic, spins it, finds a market, creates a killer pitch for the idea, sends the pitch to the right editor–and often hear nothing in response. Ever.
(Is that news to you? An old friend of mine thought that writers just called up magazine editors, identified themselves as writers, asked for work, and got assigned a story. And that the editor also provided all the research material to the writer. No.)
Back to the song: “Use me, choose me . . . “
Now, while waiting for editorial responses, a writer also looks online for work. It’s easy to spend several hours a day looking for writing jobs. CraigsList and other sites post gigs for writers, so of course every other writer in the world is checking them out along with me and sending a letter or application. Sometimes I get lucky. Since my specialty is history, I’ve gotten a few jobs by letting my academic work push me ahead of the crowd, and that’s fine.
There are also places that offer work at a price of a penny a word. Quite a few places, sadly. Even worse are sites that don’t pay at all, but will remunerate you later based on a certain level of clicks that your article may attract. Kind of a “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” set-up, only I don’t think anybody ever makes enough money to buy a hamburger. At least not a big, juicy Bluenami from Islands.
Not all writers scrounge for work. Either they don’t need the money–like Carrie, they married a Mr. Big–or they have day jobs that they don’t dare give up because, let’s face it, who wants to spend 3 or 4 hours working on a someone else’s blog post that’s only going to get them $5? And when I say blog post, please don’t assume that blog post will be on the writers’ choice of topic. No, when you work for hire, the post you must write could be about maintenance on an HVAC system, the nearest parks to a condo development in another state, or edible plants that grow wild in the Pacific Northwest.
Actually, that last one was kind of interesting.
But you get the idea. These aren’t the kind of thing you can toss off without research–way more research than anyone should do for a penny a word.
But it’s writing and it pays. I look at such jobs as my way of telling the universe, “Hey, I’m doing my part. I’m taking the work I can get.” Amazingly, once I swallow my pride and start plugging away, something better does come along.
“Give me a job and you instantly get me involved.
Give me a job and the rest of the crap will get solved.”
I know other writers who earn money as writing coaches and editors. Some teach their craft; they’re very good writers, but they need that supplemental income that comes from the class.
I also know some absolutely great writers that have honed their skills and energetically built up a network and resume, so they always have work at top-paying markets. I am not jealous; I know how hard they worked to get themselves to that point and I applaud them.
That’s an upbeat note to finish on, but here’s one thing more: like most creatives, writers are happy doing what they love, even if they’re not getting rich. We take those other jobs because bills have to be paid, not because we’ve become disenchanted with writing. Like the hoofers in A Chorus Line, we are passionate about our craft–but our careers will last longer than a dancer’s.