Writing and the Ultimate Unpaid Internship

Pictured: a failed prototype cover art idea for a failed prototype manuscript

Long before I tried my hand at op-ed pieces and personal essays, I was a wannabe novelist.

I knew I wanted to be a novelist before I could actually read books that counted as real novels.  I told everyone I was going to be the next Stephen King (only, y’know, Stephanie King, because I’m a girl) long before I had actually picked up a Stephen King book.  I wrote a terrible “novel” in the 10th grade that exists now only in paper form in a binder in my basement, and I’ll make a nice campfire out of it before I let anyone actually read it.

I wrote my first actual novel when I was 22.  I started it as part of a summer-long fiction workshop class, where the final project was the first 30 pages of your novel, plus a full synopsis.  My classmates loved it.  My professor (who, thanks to her most recent book, is now a NYT bestselling author) urged me to finish it.  I had dreams of becoming a renowned novelist, jetsetting around the world for international book tours, selling the movie rights for millions of dollars and getting full creative control as they shot the film.

So, yeah.  That didn’t happen.

My professor’s agent passed.  A lot of agents passed.  Even when I overhauled the manuscript, overhauled my query letter, and went at it again.  A lot more agents passed.  I threw my hat into the ring for the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist award and my little manuscript didn’t make it past the first round.

The lesser-failed, still-prototype cover art for my still-failed prototype manuscript, charitably made by my wonderful sister-in-law

Somewhere around that time, I had finished an additional manuscript (which I knew right off the bat was even less marketable than my first one), and I had started writing for websites.  It started off as a way to process: I had just quit my job as a teacher and I had written about the emotional fallout and at some point I had decided to send that to Thought Catalog.  They published it, it got attention, and I decided to submit more pieces.  By the third published piece, one editor asked me to start sending things directly to him instead of through the website’s submission form, and I was officially on board.

In some ways, I take a lot of pride in what I do.  It’s incredibly cool to say I’ve had things published in ElephantJournal or xoJane, that I’m a “contributing writer” to Thought Catalog and EliteDaily and now HelloGiggles.  Actually, in a lot of ways, I take pride in what I do.  It’s one thing to be a shitty English major, crooning about how you’re a “writer”; it’s another thing to say, “Yes, I’m a writer, and here are the various platforms of publication where you can find my work.”

I don’t write because I still think I’m just one lucky email away from becoming that jetsetting novelist.  I write because I have something to say, dammit, and I want people to hear it.  I want to express my views in a way that might help people reevaluate the things they assumed were true (people never do; they just read the stuff that they agree with and disregard the rest, but, hey, a girl’s gotta try).  I have a story to tell and, the same way misery loves company, experiences are validated in their potential common ground.  I write because nothing brightens my day more than when I get an email from someone who says, “Hey, I read your piece on this particular subject.  I went through that, too, and I want to thank you for putting those feelings into words.”

It’s not about the attention and it’s not about the money.  It’s about the connection.  Which is good: because I can count on one hand the number of websites I’ve pitched to that actually pay their writers.

I’m not here to call anyone out.  This is not me denouncing the websites that do not offer money for their writers’ time.  Like I said, I’m not here for the money.  I’m here for the connection.  And I am exactly what’s wrong with the system.

Somewhere along the line, writing became the ultimate unpaid internship.  Gone are the days when you were guaranteed to get paid for your time.  Like the unpaid internship, writing jobs became something you did for experience, exposure, and the potential to maybe, someday, get paid down the line.  Like most unpaid internships, there is a hoard of too-willing hopefuls ready to fill that slot.  And, like most unpaid internships, the promise of it paying somewhere down the line is never fulfilled.

I’m exactly that hopeful little sprite who puts the “free” back in “freelancing”.  When I start actually thinking about the amount of time I devote to writing — and how little it actually pays at the end of the day — I remind myself that I’m doing it to get my words out there, I’m doing it to help hone my skills, and — hey — maybe my superbly-bloated résumé can translate into catching an agent’s eyes and maybe (just maybe) selling a manuscript or two?

And, like the unpaid intern hoping to snag a full-time spot at a company, only to watch their internship end and be replaced with yet another internship cycle, this has yet to come to fruition.

At some point, the image of a writer morphed, and this disfiguration got romanticized.  Now writers are people working full-time jobs in a field they are either neutral about or hate, while they burn the midnight oil and use any remaining free time to write.  We’ve become enamored with this writer-on-the-side persona, this tireless artist plugging away at their favorite hobby, like someone who works on their car or does woodworking in their spare time.  Nevermind the part that there are actual jobs out there for people who like to work on cars or do woodworking (I’d like to see a properly-trained mechanic get told he could come on board for a garage, but only get paid in exposure.  Exposure to what?  Oil?  Metal?  Annoyed soccer moms?).

And who is to blame for this?  Well, if we’re being honest, everyone is.  We’re a culture that will make articles with titles like, “15 Ways You Know Your BFF is, Like, Totally your BFFL” insanely popular, while ignoring the posts that we can’t easily gobble up like potato chips.  To be blunt: a culture where 50 Shades is the best selling book of all time is not a culture that values its writers so much as it values easy entertainment.

Then there is the problem of “everyone’s a writer”.  Everyone buys into it, from the aspiring poet using shitty similes to the owner of a company who’d rather pile on additional duties to their sole English major employee than actually hire an in-house writer.  The attitude builds on itself, creating a causal loop, until even the most distinguished writers are, say, unemployed and getting rejected from container store jobs.

I think of how quickly Amanda Palmer’s attempt at getting musicians to work on her tour for free crashed in on itself.  It’s a problem every artist faces, whether you write or play guitar or photograph the world.  The saying used to be, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Now it’s more like, “If it’s something you love enough that you’d do for free, best believe you’ll probably be doing it for free.”

photo by Neal Sanche, who is getting paid in exposure through CC licensing. See how easy that is?

So, what’s the remedy?  You tell me.  I’m obviously part of the problem.  I’ve yet to contact the websites I’ve written for that don’t pay their writers and go, “How much money did you make off of ad revenue on this article?  And you can’t throw, like, $15 my way?”  I’m too much like the overeager daughter, desperate for a few words of approval from her self-absorbed father.  You mean it?  You like my work?  You actually read it?  Aw, shucks.

But, even though I’m a symptom of the illness at hand, I’ve already noticed a shift in my behavior: I give priority pitching to websites that pay.  If I have to pitch, submit, potentially rewrite, and most likely deal with my work being edited in a way that I don’t agree with, I might as well have a few dollars to buy lunch with.  But I still pitch and submit to websites that pay in “exposure”, which shows that my behavior won’t be remedying anything anytime soon.  Still that overeager daughter, too timid to say something that will remove that bit of attention from daddy.  Still too pleased that my writer is out there, in some form, even if it will never help pay the bills.

And maybe that’s the biggest problem: as writers, we don’t write because we want to be millionaires.  We write because we have to.  We write because we have these ideas that are burning up inside of us, and we feel like we’ll surely combust if we don’t get them out.  We toil on our off days, our time off, because there’s nothing else that will put out that fire.  And then we put the end result out there in any way that we can: we blog, we submit to agencies, we work for websites for free.

If the writers can’t stop themselves, if the Big Guys see no reason to stop themselves, if the culture prefers sharing ecards that say inane shit like, “Kids get their coolness from their aunties!!!!”, then what is a writer to do?  Write a somewhat defeatist blog entry — a blog that she routinely updates for free, in her free time — and turn to everyone else to see if there’s anything left to do.  That’s what.

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