On Creative Freedom: How a Freelance Writer Makes a Living
September 2014 Stats:
Total Earnings: $4,728.10
Completed Pieces (all types): 73 (same as last month, coincidentally)
Essays/Articles Published: 49
“Here is where I think many writers who are strident about always getting paid for your writing go wrong—when you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to get paid for your painfully overwrought essay about your transformation in Chiapas (to take an example from my experience). If your goal is to get paid, you’re probably going to be writing service pieces for commercial mags, and then you’re going to be a paid writer but you’re going to wind up doing a very particular type of writing, with limited creative freedom.“
—Sarah Menkedick, on women writers and sustainable publishing
So I want to tell you a bit about my creative freedom.
The Billfold gives me nearly 100% creative control over my own writing, both in terms of topic selection and what actually goes into the piece. Mike Dang holds a very light editing hand, which I appreciate. Every morning, I log onto The Billfold and think “what’s important to write about today?” and then I get to create it.
And that’s about all the creative freedom I can handle. If I had to create everything I write from scratch, without any guidelines or requirements or editorial input, I wouldn’t be able to write enough to make a living.
I don’t think all writing needs to be capital-C “creative.” Creativity is always a part of it, whether I’m working on an email campaign for a new business or writing a “service piece” like Hiring Millennials: 6 Tips for Recruiting the Best Young Talent, but there’s a difference.
And I think Sarah Menkedick is absolutely right: if you want to write fiction or creative nonfiction, you’re going to need to make sure you get that writing done and don’t get sucked so far into the paying gigs of listicles, copy, and content that you write nothing else.
But they’re not exclusive, and I’m not sure creative freedom is the key issue at play here.
In terms of what people might consider true creative writing: I contribute regularly to Yearbook Office as my “fiction and creative nonfiction” outlet, and although I have creative freedom in the sense that I can write a short story about a talking, God-like cat if I want, those stories go through a true editing process and multiple revisions before they get published. Anything “painfully overwrought” doesn’t make the cut, no matter how much I want to be free to write it.
That’s the real issue. The choice isn’t between writing servicey stuff and creative stuff. It’s, first of all, building your craft so the painfully overwrought travel essay is no longer a part of your writing vocabulary. And, second, figuring out what the market will buy, whether you’re willing to work in that market, and how to balance that with your capital-C creative ambitions.
I mean, you don’t have to be a full-time writer to be a writer. (I just wrote an Ask A Freelancer advice column on that very subject.) Kafka in the insurance office is the rule, not the exception; a good chunk of the writers you know and love have other ways of earning money. My friend Amy Spalding, for example, is publishing her fourth book and she also has a full-time job.
As Amy told me: “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me when I was quitting my day job, I could—well, you get the idea. There’s definitely a majority opinion out there that if you aren’t a full-time writer only, then you aren’t a ‘real’ writer, and it’s just not true. I write about one book a year, which isn’t exactly slow, but at this point in my career, the advances are enough to pay only some of my bills. And my day job doesn’t just provide more money; there’s health insurance and sick time and vacation days and free coffee in the breakroom.
“Taxes are also much rougher on writing income, so in order to take home the same amount of pay I do from my day job, I’d have to make quite a bit more writing. Lastly, the publishing industry is no guarantee; trends shift and technologies change. But no matter what, every other week, a paycheck is deposited into my checking account. Going to work every day seems like the right price to pay for that financial stability right now.”
Financial stability is hugely important. This is why I got into the business of publishing my freelance income in the first place: I wanted to be really clear about all the ways in which I earn my own money, as well as how much work it takes to earn a livable income as a freelancer. Right now I earn nearly all of my income from writing, but that could change.
What won’t change, on the other hand, is my goal to get paid for my work.
“I know all of us at Vela have felt angsty and stressed about not paying writers ever since we opened to submissions. I also think, however, and I wonder how I can say this without seeming defensive, that it is extremely difficult to be paid for art.“
A year ago I thought about submitting to Vela and didn’t, specifically because they didn’t pay.
Vela is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to get funding to pay their writers, which is great because I think publications should always find ways to pay writers. There are also plenty of ways to do it: check out all of those pieces they’ve been writing about The Toast recently, or take a look at Scratch or The Freelancer or the Awl network or any of the other great places that both print good writing and pay writers for their work.
I’m also not sure it’s extremely difficult to be paid for art. It’s difficult if you haven’t built up your craft yet. It’s difficult if you aren’t making things that the market values. It’s difficult if you’re working in an environment where people can often get your creative work for free. It’s difficult if you aren’t willing to work with advertisers.
But it’s not extremely difficult. If you want to write thought-provoking creative nonfiction essays for the internet, the sites that pay writers for quality work are often running 5-10 individual essays per day. To quote the old jingle: “Somebody’s going to Lotto. Might as well be you.” Start pitching.
And yes, you can’t fund your life on a single essay, or a single column, or a single book, or even four books. So it’s difficult to be paid for art in that sense. It’s difficult to be paid just to be an artist—but it’s always been that way, in nearly all cases.
Mike asked me to write about creative freedom this month. Does that make this piece creatively constricted? Does the fact that I write copy mean I can never write another short story? Am I hurting my ability to make art by taking on other forms of writing?
Of course not. It’s always been about finding a balance. Always, in every job. You do what you need to do to earn money, and you do what you want to do because the money gives you the freedom to do it.
And there’s nothing wrong with making it your goal to get paid.
Next month: On what happens when you become enough of a public person that people start making public assumptions about you. It’s really strange, and it’s making me think more carefully about the way I write about other people.