A guy I knew in grad school used to wear a T-shirt with those four words on the front. Every time he wore it, the rest of us gave knowing chuckles. The statement aptly captured two assumptions of student life: meager grocery budget; desperation for payment, any payment, for one’s words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that shirt. The spirit behind it seems both sincere—a willingness to do what it takes—and ironic. Food? You kidding me?
What about free? You kidding me?
The debate sprouts up on Facebook, professional writers’ list servs, and heated email chains: when is it okay to “give away” our writing (and why am I using quotation marks?) and when isn’t it? Or: Is it never?
I can see both sides. Writers are professionals. We deserve payment. Words; cogent analysis; creative genius; insight: these things hold value in our culture. We recognize value by paying for it. Can you imagine a T-shirt reading Will Perform Brain Surgery for Food? I have colleagues who boycott Huffington Post because HuffPo doesn’t pay its writers but certainly reaps value from their bylines. I also have colleagues who believe that the act of putting our work out there matters more in the end than payment. That we write to be read, not to be paid. That, up to a point, there is value in contributing regardless of payment.
Gross oversimplifications of both perspectives, perhaps. And yet when I find myself grappling somewhere in the middle, I think in extremes.
I’ve gladly written for free when the recompense comes in other ways. For good will, good karma, a good cause. That’s what I’m doing in this blog, after all, and yet isn’t there embedded in the very act of blogging—at least for a working writer—the idea (however flawed) that social media exposure equals, at some point, paying readers? That by saying I have X followers on my blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, I can show the marketing folks at ABC Publishers that I have a following? And yet, as one colleague recently pointed out, how much of a following is it when we can now purchase “followers” to pad our numbers?
Or do I keep giving away my words for free because I enjoy writing, every few weeks, several hundred words that go up there with the click of a key?
I remember the first payment I got for my writing. Fifteen hundred dollars, in 1996, for winning the Writers@Work competition. I put it in my savings, wanting to keep it unsullied, intact. It was writing income! I didn’t want to fritter it away into rent, groceries, and afternoon coffee.
But if we’re working as writers—if writing is our profession and our livelihood as well as our vocation—well, then, shouldn’t our writing income go exactly for rent and food, for the cost of living? That’s not frittering, that’s supporting ourselves.
Many journalists and bestselling fiction writers do just that on writing alone, but most of need to contribute by teaching, freelance editing, waiting tables, legal proofreading, supportive spouses.
Is it too simple to suggest that when we’re starting out it makes sense to take a gig—any gig—just to get our names out there? That we write (or blog) for free because doing so will open lucrative doors down the line? Or are we lowering the bar for ourselves as well as our colleagues by writing for free? And at what point do we stop?
I made good money as a magazine writer ten years ago, so good that I took a leave from teaching. I made more on one article than for a ten-week class, and I was working with an editor who seemed happy to buy every article I wrote. Yeah, I was naïve. Because the inevitable happened—the editor left the magazine, a new editor came on, and what followed in the Conde Nast building was what insiders term a bloodbath.
Yes, I found new editors and wrote (and sold) new pieces—for a few years. Then I took a break to write a memoir, and start a novel, and pretty soon I lost the traction I’d made. So when, one day, chatting with another writer, I complained about the art an online editor had chosen to accompany a piece I’d wrote, she commiserated. And then she asked if I was getting paid well. No, I said, I’m not getting paid at all. It’s a nonprofit.
She took me to task, not unpleasantly but firmly. We writers have to demand fair payment. I mumbled, changed the subject as quickly as I good. Was I a gutless fool for disguising my chumpness in writing for free as some kind of karmic good-will deed? The truth is, I didn’t need the money to keep a roof over head—and neither did she. But that wasn’t the point.
Recently, I’ve started doing magazine work again. I’ve sold two articles to be published this fall (I’ll provide links when the time comes.) Like a tonic, the very fact of a printed countersigned contract with a deadline and payment amount has imposed a certain clarity on my priorities. I told my husband over dinner the other night, This is fun! And the prompt checks in the mail do something that a good day spent working on my novel doesn’t.
But does that mean I shouldn’t keep plugging away at the novel? Of course not. I woke up this morning with one clear thought: I’m going to work on my novel. So far, unsold. Unagented, even. The prospect of getting any money for the years already put into the novel is risky, at best. But I don’t stop working on it (even if, this morning, I’m writing this blog post with no prospect of payment, first).
I just took a little break to check Facebook. Someone in my hometown group had posted about our first-grade teacher, and I had to weigh in. In reading through my wall, or whatever FB calls it these days, I saw a friend’s post: Another T-shirt, this one reading Save a Writer, Buy a Book.
I’d love to hear how others have grappled with, and continue to grapple with, this issue.