June 16, 2020
I attended a freelance writing seminar this weekend (over Zoom, of course — don’t get too excited), which was mind-blowing in a lot of ways. We got to pitch a series of big-shot editors, including ones from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Paris Review. About one third of our group of 20 was African-American, and I am still pondering the stories they told and alluded to about the way institutionalized racism impedes their careers.
As I wrote last week, I’m continuing to grapple with the idea of my unearned privilege, and what I can do to advance justice. This weekend gave me even more to consider. I’ve joined a group at my temple that is going to meet once a month, facilitated by a member who has vast, deep experience in social justice movements. I’m told we should be prepared to drag our own prejudices into the harsh light of day and examine how we can make a difference going forward. I’m sure I will have more to report on that in weeks to come.
In the meantime, I’m also thinking about writing for free.
The guy who runs these freelancing workshops is David Hochman, a journalist who writes regularly for major publications and, even more impressively, manages to raise a family in West L.A. on his freelance writing checks. This is the third time I’ve taken one of his UPOD workshops (don’t ask me why the name), and at each one he repeats the same mantra: you should never write for free.
David, actually, has a number of mantras, and mostly I agree with them. For the longest time, I agreed with this one, at least as far as non-fiction went (if you say you will not write fiction until someone pays you for it, then you will never write fiction). I agreed with David up to and including the moment I first sat down to write this blog, almost three months ago. Until March, my work life was bifurcated by the dollar: on one side, the fiction writing that I did for free, out of a compulsion born of misery when I tried to stop; and on the other side, any other writing that I did, for as much money as I could possibly earn while still respecting myself in the morning (to clarify, the respect part isn’t about the money, but about the nature of the work that earns that money).
I started this blog because I was locked up at home and ill with mysterious symptoms and bubbling over with more thoughts on all of it than I could jam into assignments on, say, precautions nursing homes should take during a pandemic, or whether the coronavirus will lead to more cashless payments (both articles I wrote in March). I didn’t think writing the blog was a great way to spend my time, because it wasn’t advancing my novel, and I wasn’t getting paid. But it felt so good, and when my body felt so crappy, that seemed like reason enough.
In some far corner of my mind, I figured that one of two things would happen. I’d either write a few entries, get bored, and move on. Or I’d tap into a vein of hitherto-undiscovered genius, and pen the precise words that would make this pandemic come into focus, and I’d be “discovered.”
Nearly three months out, neither one of these scenarios has come to pass. Some days — many days — I’m sure I have nothing left to say, until I sit down and start typing. I have more followers than when I started (79 as of this count) but nothing like the kind of numbers that translate into book deals.
And still, I keep going, because this blog is the gift that keeps on giving. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve done more work on my novel. I’ve worked better and faster on my articles. I’ve started again keeping an actual journal, by my actual bedside, paper, pen and all. And I even signed up to take this weekend’s pitching seminar, because if I can write into the void twice a week and strike a chord with many of my friends, than maybe, just maybe, I have something worthy to say.
So, yeah, don’t write for free. Don’t do any work for free. Unless it’s art. Or, unless you see a path ahead of you, and it makes no sense to head that way, but something in you urges anyway, go, go, go. You can always turn around and head back. Then again, you never know what you might find.