A MANIFESTO FOR YOUNG, BROKE WRITERS (OR: DON'T FUCK UP MY RIGHT TO EARN BY ACCEPTING LESS)
Let’s set one thing straight: I’m poor.
I’m a writer who earns practically nothing. I earned more when I was bussing tables. I earned more when I was a bakery girl greeting the 6am breakfast crowd with a smile and a broken cashier. I earned more when I was tagging tiny eyelet onesies for Italian designer brands.
I started writing when I was 14, about Enron and listicles on the Hard Rock Cafe; I am now 26 and write about art and occasionally, civic issues. Narrative journalism/writing is possibly the most illogical profession to be in if I ever wanted to make money or wallow in the rich waters of fame or recognition – I have resigned myself to the fact that I will probably die having achieved neither.
I started the way most of us did, with unpaid internships and weeks of work experience financed, in part, by my family and in part by the other jobs I would take to supplement my real passion. But I also had a decades-long plan in mind, formulated when I was actually just 14 – to write for the rest of my life, and to make it work. I would not be here today, still writing on a Sunday morning at 9am, if I didn’t really love writing. The pay is shitty and will remain shitty for the rest of my life unless I write a book about the shittiness of it all and other shit-paid writers buy that book and we all help ourselves, a little bit, out of that shitty pool of shittiness.
I am often asked for advice by younger writers – and I realise how ridiculous that sounds as I really only just turned 26 – as to how to wedge your foot in the door of writing and to make editors stop in their proofing tracks and think: ‘this writer! So amazing! A voice that cannot be suppressed. We must have him/her on our team. I will now concisely and neatly sum up what I have wanted to tell all of you, but might not have for fear of crushing your hopes and dreams so you end up like a sad, empty crisp packet.
Stop thinking money doesn’t matter.
It does. I am always thinking about it, when I’m both earning money and doing unpaid work. There’s this crass phrase that a CEO once spouted at me during an interview: ‘when bankers get together, they talk about art; when artists get together, they talk about money’. Now that I’ve been writing, unpaid and paid, for literally over a decade, I’ve developed a stamina for asking for it, for asking about it and for talking about it. I ask for my own raise; I ask for a kill fee (you should always ask for a kill fee); I negotiate my own freelance rates. The reality of this industry is: if you’re not being screwed over, you’re screwing someone else over.
And that someone is me. If you took the bitter pill lying down – less money than you deserve or no money at all – you are essentially fuelling a ruthless industry that will seek any way to cut costs and to haul in free labour, allowing them to push out writers with fees who have already developed solid spines. I am not entirely faultless, as I definitely accepted work for no pay or for a free t-shirt or something utterly materialistic and useless in the general needs of daily life. I’ve done it all – overhauled a website for a couple of cocktails at a bar where the editor made me pay for his cigarettes. I wrote features that were killed over and over again, features I had spent hours researching and writing, before I knew what a ‘kill fee’ was.
I’ve also recently had pitches snatched by publications – who, I suspect, just took them and asked an unpaid intern to write the stories. I’ve also been offered an insultingly low salary just because others were accepting that company’s sleazy low-balling policies, and they weren’t willing to budge despite my protestations of ‘that pay is not relevant or equivalent to my experience’. From their point of view, there’ll always be some bright-eyed passionate writer willing to live below their means because those writers treat writing as an art akin to a bohemian writing out of a Parisian garret, not a profession. I’ve also heard younger writers say to me, out loud, things like: “We’re all earning nothing; who am I to ask for more?”
Yes, you can, and you should fucking ask for more. Where’s that hot-headed journalistic attitude you employ on the streets when tracking sources or pinning down a fact? Why do you feel you don’t deserve a byline? Because your writing isn’t good enough? We live in a day and age where the internet can be our best friend or our enemy: be smart. Use it. Read more (more means much more than you think is enough), study more, make notes on what other writers are doing perfectly and what they’re doing horribly. Not asking for more or what you deserve sends a message to your future employer or editor that you are worthless, unless you have a very, very specific reason for not bringing money into the conversation. (Ironically, I am writing this piece unpaid because I wanted to rant and Sarah is a friend. See, logical reason.)
I get it. The plight of young, underpaid writers is that our lives appear fabulous. We’re paid for our words, which most of the time (let’s face it) are pulled out from various orifices in and around our bodies as we charge through life with an arrogant, poetic force that funnels into our egos as we tell ourselves: we matter. Our words matter. Our stories matter. (This actually often affects most writers, not just young.) The issue with that illusion is that we are often fooling ourselves, too.
We believe we’re harbingers of motion, of real action – we’re the worst kinds of armchair activists. Who are we to give voices to those who cannot speak? Who are we to convince ourselves that we’re changing anything in the world? I recently wrote two long form features, one about the state of artists living and working in Hong Kong, the other on arts cultivation within migrant worker communities in the city. Both pieces were published and immediately after, I moved on fast. My hunter’s instinct went into overdrive, sniffing the dirt for the next big, smoky truffle of a pitch. But the reality is that neither artist nor migrant worker –the people I had interviewed and spent afternoons with and basically used their stories for my own false altruistic gains – benefitted from the stories. They were not paid; their voices are still marginalised. I became all too aware of my position of privilege and how, honestly, as a writer, I can never make it ‘right’. The fact that I wasn’t even paid for one of those pieces makes it that much worse. The act of writing out of charity or selflessness is to have a close relationship with the knowledge that yes, I am poor, but I am privileged and there will be food on my table tonight. To tell myself otherwise, or that I can change anything – or for any artist to tell themselves otherwise – is tantamount to selfish ignorance.
Now that I’m slightly older and have jumped through some hopes, I’ve seen how my previous actions might have affected more seasoned writers who are, like I am now, becoming increasingly frustrated at the way ingénues enter the market. Unfortunately, it does also seem like a specifically female issue, although I have encountered and worked with a variety of amazing female writers and editors. The potential is there; you are a good writer; you deserve more. Sheryl Sandberg was right: we need to lean in, but we also need to sit straight, find our spines and fucking open our mouths.