October 21, 2013

It is a real job, mom

I’m sure you’ve read it by now, that letter by Miley Cyrus’s backup dancer who put on a bear costume and performed on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards. She confessed that all the while, she felt absolutely “degraded” and “less than human.” Here’s a bit from that Hollis Jane:  
If the little person community continues to do performances like this, it is my belief that we will continue to only receive maybe 2% of the auditions and opportunities of our average sized friends. Society will think we’re OK with being laughed at because we still continue to do things that allow them to laugh at us or look at us as props.
I wanted to connect what she had to say to writing. While her confession has nothing to do with it, it has everything to do with upholding your worth—and as a freelancer, I might know something about that.

As I read her powerful statement, I drew comparisons of her quandary to my own. When I was younger and hungrier, which is not to say was all that long ago, it was so easy for me to say yes to anybody who promised publication for no pay. Because instead of pay, I would get bylines! clippings! exposure! (Yeahh, about that big to-do I made…)

Sure, that stuff was sexy. Then. Now that most of my earnings come from writing, I realize that doing it for free is 1.) a nosedive into debt, and 2.) deprecating to myself and the craft. 

If you’re good at something, don't do it for free. If writing is that something you prefer to call a living rather than a hobby, treat it like a business. Your accountant wouldn’t sift through your tax files for nothing would she, would she?

Writers have a bad habit of undervaluing their work. I’ve seen them (*coughs* me) accept crappy contracts or low- to no-paying gigs even when they know they’re better than that. Much like Hollis Jane was vouching for, if good writers keep accepting these kinds of gigs, then it just makes it okay for people to ask us to write 4,000 words in one day for $25.

There is one exception to writing for free. I would, and do, write for no pay for not-that-profitable publications whose values I stand by, some of which include a commitment to diversity and none to photoshop. 

I hate to say that cash is king, but when it comes to writing stories about the world we live in and telling readers how those stories bear any relationship to their lives, that’s important work that deserves to be recognized in an economically viable manner.

If one should ever forget that, I’d take a cue from Flannery O’Connor who was the biggest hustler of them all: “If they don’t feel I am worth giving more money to and leaving alone, then they should let me go.” That good woman.

UPDATE: Tim Kreider is my spirit animal. He wrote about this very sentiment in the New York Times and got paid for it. Read it here