I got an email and then a phonecall some months ago from the editor of an online magazine asking if I would do some free writing for them—or not totally free, the editor said, since I wouldn’t have to pay to get into the events I’d be writing about (none of these events would be movies).
There wasn’t anything to be gained from this except for a notch on my resume so I said sure, keep me on your list of writers, lemme know when you’ve got stuff that needs writing. Besides, I was already writing free reviews for a literary journal in exchange for free books and movie reviews for another local magazine (this one overseen by colleagues and friends) that got me into press screenings for movies I wanted to see.
So every now and then the other contributors and I would receive from the editorial board a list of topics they’d like us to cover for the month. The topics were usually new shows in town, new restaurants, clubs, DJs—stuff that’s Miami-focused, mostly to do with the nightlife.
Today I got the list of topics they wanna cover through the month of April, and it’s a little thin since we’re all confined to our homes until May and there’s nothing going on through the city. So, seeing as they’re always open to suggestion, I pitched something (I’m embarrassed now to even say what it was) but the editor wrote me back pretty quickly to say thanks, no thanks, and that the idea seemed better suited to a personal blog—which is perfectly fine and perfectly true.
To be hit up by editors who like your work enough to have you write for them for free, but only if you contribute the exact material they’re looking for, is a pretty common thing to encounter if you’re trying to get your writing out into the world.
It is what it is.
Part of it is exploitation, sure, but I wonder if maybe I don’t have too reposed an idea of what a writer’s life is actually supposed to be.
I forget which interview it was where somebody asked David Remnick, editor-in-chief at The New Yorker, if journalistic skills can be taught, and what those skills might be, but I remember that Remnick responded with an anecdote about a present-day reporter, a guy with serious credits under his belt, who did a story about Donald Trump’s alleged philanthropy. In order to write the article, the journalist cold called something like the top 200 charities in America to see if any of them had received donations from Trump.
Remnick’s point was that this task required dozens of hours of drudgery in order to get that single article written. It didn’t matter that the journalist was already a very good writer—his skills as a writer, his talent, only opened the door to a job that required way more than writing skills.
And I ask myself: would I want to accept such a writing gig?
What I think I want is the loftier ~Person of Letters~ gig (the type that might be extinct at this point) where you demonstrate to the world somehow that you’re a rounded person, cultured and entertaining, somebody who’s perspective is worth hearing, and so editors reach out to you and say, “Here, review this book,” or they send you to a political rally, or some cultural event and they ask you to write in your voice about your impressions.
When I cut through all the bullshit pretext, what I think I really want in life is to be deferred to—which sounds fucking awful, but it’s true, and I understand that the way to do that is to write about a ton of stuff here, on the blog, attract and cultivate a readership, and then hopefully leverage, somewhere down the line, to get a paying gig here and there.
The formula seems clear enough.
But clearly I’m not there yet because I just reached out to an editor who’s been hitting me up every month for the better part of a year to write for them, they have virtually no material going into this month, and I couldn’t even pawn off a topical piece of free writing. Little encounters like that do tend to throw a shadow over my sense of where I’m going and whether I’ll get there.
Alas, what else is there to do but stay the course?