$60 is not a lot of money to earn for writing a 900-word piece. But it’s also not nothing. Of course, I live in England, where $60 is actually, according to today’s exchange rate, £36. But even £36 is not nothing. It’s about ten pints in my local pub, or half of our summertime electricity bill, or the price of brunch for two at the café around the corner. It’s enough to buy a week’s worth of groceries, at least, especially if you skip the meat and the wine.
I’ll give you some other facts. When I consented to write this 900-word piece that I now regret writing, I’d been freelancing for a little over a year. In that time I’d written the draft of a book, which wouldn’t be released until the following year, but I’d otherwise failed to progress my career. I was broke, and my self-confidence was suffering. I’d started applying for office jobs again, but it wasn’t going well; in fact the only interview I got went so badly that I was actually grateful not to have any others. I tried to get a job as a waitress at a restaurant run by a friend, but nepotism couldn’t compensate for my extreme incompetence, and after a trial shift I was back to square one. I wanted to keep pushing on, but I wasn’t really sure how.
And then, one day, while I was trawling the Internet for employment opportunities, an email from an editor appeared in my inbox. The specifics are not important: the gist was that I could contribute to an upcoming publication and earn $60. From my perspective, it was a no-brainer: of course I would spend a few hours writing a throwaway piece for twice as much money as I’d earn in the same amount of time waiting tables or washing dishes. It wasn’t about valuing the writing itself, or valuing the publication I was being asked to contribute to, or about valuing myself as a person. It was about the thrilling knowledge that if I write this, I’ll have $60 more than $0.
To put this into context, when I say, “I was broke,” I mean: I had £20 in my bank account. I’d just invoiced a client for another £200, but then that was it: I’d be out of cash, out of options. I spent my days wandering around the house, looking curiously at the cobwebs in the kitchen, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, taking long baths, wondering why on earth I’d spent £50 on a pair of new shoes to wear to a friend’s wedding earlier that month. Mostly I sat at my laptop, hoping the solution to my problem would present itself, fully formed, obvious, easy, if I just put in enough hours on my chair. In the evenings I walked to the pool, happy that I’d had the foresight to pay my membership fee upfront at the start of the year, happy that there was another space in this city besides my house that I had some right to be.
While at first my problem seemed mostly to be an economic one, it also bled into other aspects of my life, and pretty soon it was an emotional problem, an intellectual problem, a physical problem. I didn’t feel like myself. Even my body seemed to be digressing, or regressing – after a week of scratching my head I discovered I had lice, which I didn’t even know you could get as an adult, especially if you’re not a parent. My doctor burst out laughing when I asked her what I should do about it; it was kindly laughter, but it underlined to me the ridiculousness of my situation and summed up pretty well how I felt about it, which was that it was laughable and repairable but also humiliating and disgusting and itchy and required me to swallow my pride.
I don’t want to talk at length, here and now, about the enormous privilege that makes the particular kind of self-imposed poverty described above okay, because that’s another essay, but I do want to acknowledge it. Due to factors like where and when I was born, and other things outside of my control which I’m aware of but still take regularly for granted, having nothing in my bank account and no regular work coming in is scary but not life-threatening. I live in a country where what I earn currently has no bearing on my ability to receive medical care; I have no education-related debt; I have a partner who is able to work, and employed full time, and with whom I can share the cost of living; and I have family who are in a position to offer me support – financial or otherwise – if I need it. The stakes of the game I’m playing are, in that sense, relatively low. I’m probably not going to end up without a roof over my head, even if I’m down to my last £20.
But still! Pretend, for a moment, that the stakes are high, really high, that who I happen to be doesn’t really matter – because even if, deep down, you have the security of knowing that someone will be there to catch you when you fall, it’s a frightening and shameful thing to be on that precipice. In that moment of fear and shame, it’s easy to forget what might otherwise be important. It’s easy to forget that there’s a world bigger than your own. It’s easy to shuffle along in the wrong direction, thinking it’s the right direction just because you haven’t hit the ground yet.
So what’s the big deal? I wrote something I would otherwise not have written because I was offered $60 to do so: worse writerly crimes have been committed. But I feel deeply uncomfortable about it now, and it’s not really about the money. Writing for money – writing as a conventional job, where payment (in cash, not flattery or exposure) is exchanged for labor – is, after all, what I aspire to do. And like most aspiring writers, I know it isn’t always possible to write exactly what I want and be remunerated for it; I know sometimes you have to take the assignment you’re not thrilled about, crawl your way up the food chain. But in this case I wonder if the reward wasn’t worth the sacrifice – if, in other words, I “sold out” too cheaply.
The thing is, there’s nothing particularly terrible about the piece I wrote. It’s trite, forgettable, but it isn’t in and of itself advocating anything I feel is especially inconsistent with my values. I never intended for it to occupy so large a place in my mind. I certainly didn’t imagine I’d ever write an entire essay about my feelings towards it; I just didn’t think that much about it. That $60 didn’t fix everything, but it helped a little, and soon enough I found more, regular, better-paid work, and the piece disappeared from my consciousness: I was done with it.
But it’s out there, now, and it’s contextually attached to a project which I have reservations about being associated with. And perhaps to others it’s less obvious, but to me this seems a betrayal of my integrity. If building a career as a writer is about creating a body of work, this particular piece rings untrue. It isn’t how I want to present myself. So my discomfort stems mainly from the fact that when you write something for publication it becomes – and this should have been obvious to me from the outset, but somehow it wasn’t – public. It lives on. It’s attached to your name. It can’t be undone. Even if you can delete or renounce it, it’s more like smudging it a bit than striking it from the record: traces remain.
The fact is, this piece of which I feel ashamed is now a permanent part of my narrative as a writer. And if, someday, I finally find the fortitude and ability to write what I really want to write in the way I really want to write it, I’ll still always have all the things that came before. Little public reminders: here are my weaknesses! One of them is impatience; for instance, in my impatience to Be A Writer, I published a hell of a lot of shit.
This all boils down to a set of worries I have about the value of my work. On the one hand, I’m tired of trying to evaluate it in terms that fit the prevailing conversation about writers and worth: how much is a piece of longform investigative journalism worth? How much is a personal essay by a woman worth? Does writing for free hurt other writers? How should an aspiring writer pay her bills? There’s no consensus about the value of an earth-shattering piece of reporting, or a first-person essay, or a novel, or a poem, and there’s no consensus, either, about how to deal with this fact. On the other hand, it’s hard to stop asking myself the same old questions. How much are my essays worth? Who am I hurting if I write for free, or for $60, or $600, or for attention, for practice, for pleasure? I still don’t know what to do about the practical, nitty-gritty financial side of things, either, the how do I make a living making things question. True, I’m edging towards a solution that works for me, I’m in better shape nowadays – but my solution will be meaningless to everyone else, because everyone else is in a different place.
Lately, I notice, I haven’t written much because I haven’t felt I had anything worth saying – yet another expression of value, tied to concerns about my work in relation to others. These concerns are really just more questions: what if, for instance, that stupid $60 piece is actually, in its own way, more valuable to readers than anything else I’ve written? I’m haunted by the feeling that the more I learn the less I know, that increasingly the answer to the questions – both said and unsaid – in everything I write is: I don’t know. And I don’t know how useful that is for anyone else to hear.
So maybe it helps to think about it in different terms. What do I value about the creative work that other people do? Mostly my appreciation for the words of others is very private. I think about them at night, drifting off to sleep, or while I’m making coffee in the morning, or while I’m getting dressed. I think about them in the moment before I slide into the pool, and sometimes a phrase or an image or a character or a single word will get caught in my head as I surrender to the blankness of physical repetition, and I carry that image or that phrase with me – a wisp, like a snippet of song stuck on repeat – as I do my laps. This is no different to how I value my own work. It means something to me, but I don’t know how to quantify that something. It’s a form of love.
And, I tell myself: that’s enough. That’s enough.