I was looking for jobs the other day, as I often do, when I stumbled upon a listing for a part-time editor for a website. I read the description, read about what they were looking for in a candidate, and thought it sounded pretty cool and that I sounded like a good fit. Then I saw the requirements, which listed 3 reference letters. For a part-time editor job. That paid hourly. What?
A little background, for those who may be unfamiliar: in many fields, part-time jobs with hourly pay are generally entry-level, but in the world of writing, you’re expected to have years of free labor and experience under your belt (which I do!) before you start making small amounts of money, which you should feel lucky to make, because you’re writing for a living now! Even if you aren’t actually making a living.
Also, writing jobs often find you in a spot where you’re either underqualified or overqualified by the hiring company’s standards. If you have too much experience, they’ll feel badly about the meager amount of money they’re offering (which they should feel bad about, period) and they’ll reject you. But if you have a scattered resume in different fields of writing, for brief periods of time, as many writers do since the world of writing for a living is unpredictable and steady jobs are hard to come by, you’ll be considered underqualified. Despite recognizing that writing work is known for not being steady, employers still expect prospective employees to have steady experience.
Now, knowing all of that - do you know difficult it is for a working writer to get references? It would be hard to get one, let alone multiple. Often, the higher-ups we work with are moving around just as much as we are, to opportunities that pay more or are more flexible. They’re busy. And writing reference letters for past employees is rarely a priority. And that doesn’t make them bad or selfish people - it just makes them busy people. This isn’t even touching on the fact that so many media companies foster toxic environments riddled with harassment, and that because of this, people don’t always leave a media job on good terms. And in a world where searching someone’s name on Twitter would probably tell you more about them than a former professional colleague can, why are companies still asking for reference letters? And especially for part-time, hourly wage work?
A job I was up for a little over a year ago, also hourly and part-time, that I was probably overqualified for (but jobs in writing and publishing are hard to find, so you take what you can get), wanted me to get a reference letter from a former boss that I’d worked for seven years prior, because they felt my experience working with them would be closest to what I’d be doing at their company. I explained that this former boss was a busy person, as a magazine editor, host of multiple radio shows, and a high-level figure at a streaming giant, that we hadn’t been in contact recently, and that I fully expected them to be too busy to write a reference letter or even respond to my email, if their email was even still the same. I even went as far to explain that as their former assistant, I remember fielding emails requesting reference letters from them that were put off constantly. But they kept pressing the matter. I went as far as to ask another former boss to write me a reference letter, one that I’d stayed in contact with, but apparently that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t get the job. Good riddance.
Another thing about reaching out for reference letters, to prove to future employers that you’re a competent worker — it’s degrading. But then, so is so much of the job application process, and life as an employee. I have spent the last 11 months writing cover letter after cover letter, constantly revamping my resumes to tailor them to each position I applied to, making sure I added the right buzzwords to stand out if they put resumes through one of those ATS screeners. When I’m not trying hard to sell myself in cover letters, I’m sending pitches and pitches to magazines and websites, trying to sell my experiences and words, some of them so deeply personal, only to not even get a response back most of the time. All of it is so degrading. And I know how much worse it is for marginalized groups, especially when it comes to trying to sell your stories and experiences. It brings about deep feelings of shame and trying to push yourself into a box that people want you to fit into, making you question if you are telling the true story you want to tell, if you can even be allowed the grace to do just that. So much of being a writer is putting your whole self on the line day after day, exposing the most private parts of yourself for public consumption, hoping your words are worth something: enough to make an impact, enough to pay a bill.
And so much of it is rejection. Which triggers imposter syndrome, embarrassment, shame, feeling like you’ll never be good enough.
I’ve been unemployed for almost a year now. When I first lost my job in the beginning of the pandemic, I knew it wasn’t my fault, I knew it was coming, and even though I was anxious about money, about what it would mean for my resume, about how I’d find another job in a pandemic — I gave myself some grace. With the world shut down and everyone else home, too, including my boyfriend, I was glad to have some free time, especially together. Of course, my general mindstate was better then, too, since I imagined the pandemic would be a few months-long, tops. We just needed to stay home. And there was also that pride in staying home, since every commercial on TV told us how brave it was to do so, how necessary it was to heal our world or whatever, which was rich coming from car companies who promised to be there for me, however I needed them. Because of all this, I was easy on myself. I enjoyed spending my days binge-watching Degrassi, trying out new recipes with the limited groceries we were able to secure, trying new workouts, finally having the time to beat Breath of the Wild, and reading. I wasn’t in a rush to do work, at least not right away. I started this newsletter, but that was more so for me. Not something I felt tied to as work.
But a few weeks in, I started applying for jobs to work from home. I started sending out pitches. I started writing a book. And a few months in, the world was opening up again, even though it wasn’t really safe. My boyfriend was back to work and so were a lot of other people. I was suddenly alone all the time and with no obligations. Jobs weren’t responding to my applications, editors weren’t responding to my pitches. I buried myself in writing a book, eager for the structure it gave my life. I spent every day in the office space my boyfriend helped me set up in March, sitting in my chair, glued to my computer, applying for jobs, writing, sending pitches, cycling again and again. I didn’t have a 9-5, but I was acting like it. From 10:30-8, I sat in front of my computer. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t go for walks or go out, didn’t play video games, didn’t do anything that didn’t feel like work. I rarely made time to have lunch, opting for a smoothie or Clif Bar because I didn’t want to spend any time cooking, if it meant time away from working. And because I wasn’t hearing back from jobs, wasn’t hearing back from editors, faltering in my book-writing process and burning out creatively, I felt I wasn’t accomplishing anything so I didn’t deserve a break. I still feel this way.
I watch other people with jobs enjoy their days and nights off, relaxing at home with a new show, doing something fun on the weekend, spending a day off in bed, and think that I’m glad they’re taking time to themselves, that they deserve it. But I don’t feel like that about myself. I take rejection after rejection on the chin, search for work, fail to find it, and fault myself. I tell myself that if I haven’t done enough “work” that day, I should keep working, even after dinner. I neglect time with my boyfriend because I want to keep trying to work on things, desperate to feel a sense of accomplishment for the day. I know I’m burning myself out but because I feel like I have nothing to show for it, I can’t stop.
The other day, I thought to myself, I haven’t taken a day to just hang in bed and watch movies or TV in a while. Then I followed that thought with, In a few days, my period will come and be so painful that I won’t be able to move from bed, so I can have my movie day then. Then I realized how fucked up that thought was. That I thought I only deserved a day to myself if that day correlated with me feeling so ill that I wouldn’t be able to get anything done anyway. And I know I’m not alone in that thinking, either. It’s how we’ve been conditioned to think, in this country where as an employee, you’re only allowed a few sick days and personal days are not typically a thing. People come to work sick all the time because they’ve run out of their allotted sick days. We’re led to believe that productivity is what we should be chasing at all times. And somewhere along the way, we’ve accepted that line of thinking, accepted this reality.
In theory, I am anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, I call people out for being the productivity police with their stupid girl boss Instagram quotes and fake deep Twitter threads about how to maximize income with side hustles. I push my friends and acquaintances and even strangers to extend grace to themselves, to take as many breaks as possible, to reject the standards society has set for us. I echo sentiments about how creativity isn’t a linear process to my writer friends, that taking time away from projects is an important part of the process. And I remind everyone that we are still in a pandemic, we are still living in a constant state of uncertainty and times are hard. Yet, in practice, I struggle to reject these same sentiments when I apply them to myself.
A lot of people ask me what freelancing is like, as if I’m an expert. I suppose I used to be mildly successful as a freelance publicist, but in all honesty, that was a gig that was much more about connections than it was about skill, and while freelance writing is definitely reliant on connections as well (as is everything), skill is also needed. I do possess them — I’m a talented writer and storyteller and editor. I struggle with pitches, or at least I think I do, since they don’t always solicit a response. But at the end of the day, a lot of it is unpredictable, at least for me, someone without sturdy connections to any editors that are always open to hear what I propose. My pitches have to be precise and perfectly worded because I’m not granted the leniency to send a messy one to an editor that doesn’t know me and doesn’t know how well I write stories. They must be sent at the perfect time, because I’m not close enough to any editors to start plotting a story for them in advance and work together on it to release when the time is right. This isn’t me throwing myself a pity party - it’s just me being honest about what freelance writing is when you aren’t well connected. I’m also not freelance totally by choice — I apply for writing and editing and publishing jobs all the time. I just don’t get them! When friends ask for advice, I mostly share the resources that have helped me: a newsletter with calls for pitches (helps with that perfect timing thing) and pitching guides that are made accessible. And I tell them to be prepared to not know what will come of it. When I first tried to commit to freelance writing, that newsletter helped me land a few pitches in the span of a few months, and I thought it would always be that easy. I was mistaken.
I saw some graphic floating around Instagram last week about how a large percentage of freelancers have said they wouldn’t go back to full-time work. I don’t blame them. I don’t love full-time work and I prefer freelance for the freedom part of it. But the unpredictability is hard to reckon with, as an adult with bills and no trust fund. What a lot of full-time freelancers don’t tell you is that they held writing jobs in some capacity before moving to freelance — jobs where they remained friendly with their editors, became friendly with other editors at other magazines, and had a virtual rolodex of people ready to take their pitches whenever they were ready to send them. It’s actually something that has been touched upon on Twitter — like when a media company has a bunch of layoffs, leaving a bunch of staff writers without a job, and editors who are still employed elsewhere rush to let the laid-off staff know that they’ll be happy to hear any pitches from them. Which is great. But what about all the freelance writers who never had that security blanket? Why can’t they be offered the same kind of grace?
Something I am desperate for people to know is that life as a freelance writer isn’t just a bubbling world of opportunities and freedom. Something else I am desperate for people to know is that having more free time to write does not mean that you will actually want to spend all of that free time writing, or that you’ll even mentally be able to do that. Over the last year, so many writing friends have made similar comments about how if they didn’t have their full-time job, they’d have so much more time to write and would get so much more done. They fail to consider the effect that not having financial stability has on your mental state and ability to focus. They fail to recognize that creativity isn’t something we can always have control over. They fail to realize that while they look forward to having free time to write after work or on weekends, people who are trying to write for a living full time can sometimes dread the act of it because it starts to feel like our only chance at making money, at success, at proving ourselves, and the pressure we place on ourselves makes it hard to accept a day where none of our words seem to work the way we want them to.
The grass is always greener.
People have all these assumptions, either directly about my own working life, or about freelance/writing work in general that simply aren’t true. And unfortunately, I internalize them often. They assume that because I don’t have a traditional job, I have all the time in the world to help them with whatever they want. People assume that they can offer me pennies to help with some project and that I should be grateful for it. People assume that because I’m a writer who just loves writing, I’d be happy to write something for them: social media or brand copy, for instance, free of charge.
Someone I don’t know well recently chatted me up on social media and asked about what I do. They asked me why don’t I try to write xyz for other people, that seems like it could be a good job. This is another thing people like to assume: that I’m failing to find work because I’m looking in the wrong places. Meanwhile, I broaden my horizons every day. But when every job I apply to has hundreds to thousands of applicants, and there’s only one job—well, my odds suck. They went on to compare their work to mine, how they work so hard and don’t make enough, as if I was somehow taking something away from them by collecting unemployment, which by the way, I don’t get very much of, so if it’s more than someone is making at their job, their job is seriously underpaying them. Which is not my fault! But it does fucking suck, and is not okay.
Writing is exploitative. It requires you to put yourself on the line and on display. But other jobs are just as exploitative. Any retail, service, or general public/client-facing job requires employees to leave their problems at the door, to put on a smile, to deal with unpleasant people and bite their tongue. They also want you to be responsible for their lack of staff, pressuring you to come in on days when you want to call out, telling you that unless you find someone to cover for you, you can’t call out, no matter the reason. Other jobs require people to deal with crap from their bosses and colleagues that they just have to take for the sake of keeping their job. I’ve worked all these kinds of jobs. As an employee, you never get to fully be yourself, which is why I think some people envy writers, because they think we get to do just that. But writers are biting their tongues and wearing masks all the time, too. And also dealing with people picking apart their identities because they feel entitled to. The point is, we’re all dealing with oppressive forces, we’re all degrading ourselves, we’re all performing in one way or another to maintain our livelihood. But we aren’t each other’s enemies.
I hope that reading this helps people better understand the complexities of writing for a living, and that it inspires people to treat each other with more respect.
On a similar note…
This past weekend, I watched Nomadland, which touches on gig working and the idea of freedom. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widower who lives in a van that she’s made her home. She travels around for work, first pictured working for Amazon, packing orders. It’s a temporary job, but the scenes of her working there are cheerful, showing off the camaraderie between her and her colleagues. In an interview with USA Today, she said of that work, “I love repetitive work like that. Would I want to do it all the time? No.” That’s honest, I guess. But there is definitely a problem in the limited view of that Amazon job, especially during a time when firsthand experiences and information about what working for Amazon is really like is readily accessible: there are multiple reports on dire working conditions, being susceptible to injury, not having long enough breaks, not being allowed to use the bathroom, and of course, the abysmal pay. Yet, in the film, when someone asks Fern about what her gig at Amazon is like, she remarks: “Great money.” Wilfred Chan reported more in-depth on this for Vulture, and it is very much worth a read.
Aside from Frances McDormand and her love interest, the cast was mostly made of real nomads, who aren’t professional actors. People traveling and working for a living. When I see these kinds of people in film and TV, it hits home. I see my family in them. I see my mother where she was a few years ago, working herself to the bone at a laundromat, and even where she is now, working as a delivery driver for the “freedom” aspect of it and because she doesn’t exactly have a lot of options. I see my grandma, who worked at the same video shop for my whole life, even after video shops became obsolete and it became a porn store, up until she got put into hospice care for the pancreatic cancer she was ignoring. I see my dad and my stepdad, both laborers who have spent their lives working with their hands and running their bodies down.
It isn’t a romantic story, this story of "the real American experience.” It’s people’s real lives — more people than you know. While I appreciated seeing these experiences on screen and found Nomadland to be a beautiful film, which did address these kinds of concerns to some extent, I didn’t appreciate the voyeuristic view into real people’s lives and experiences that didn’t tell the whole story. I’d still say it’s worth a watch.
Also watched this week:
Midsommar, which I absolutely hated. I thought it was gory for the sake of shock value and shallow where it wanted to be deep. No photo, because the poster is actually great but I wouldn’t want to fool anyone into thinking they should watch it.
Spirited Away, which I absolutely loved, even though the parents in the film are so infuriatingly irresponsible. I am now obsessed with the soot sprites, though. I should commit to watching one Ghibli film per week. Coincidentally, this movie has its own messages about working for a living and how degrading the whole experience is, but that is not why I watched it, or why I think anyone watches it. I watched it yesterday, which was a day I allowed myself to have no responsibility, even though I wasn’t in pain. Clap for me!
Oh! And why did I say divorce rules? Because it does. It’s relevant this week as news seems to have become official of Kim Kardashian filing for divorce from Kanye West. I am very happy for her. Of course I don’t know her or really care about her life, but I do know that as a public figure who was previously mocked about how she didn’t last long in her first marriage, and as the mother to four children she had with Kanye, it was not an easy decision. I don’t think divorce ever is, which is why I think it’s so powerfully strong. Letting go of something that no longer serves you, even though you’ve committed to it for life and are expected to honor that commitment, takes serious strength. And those who come out on the other side of it can tend to relish their freedom even more. This obviously doesn’t apply to all divorce situations, but I do view divorced women as strong and powerful, as role models who know how to put their needs first. I would love to banish the idea that divorcing someone or even breaking up with someone means you’ve failed at something. It’s categorically untrue.
So I leave you with these thoughts:
Stop asking for references,
Stop thinking divorce is a failure,
Stop thinking your freelance/writer friends have time for your shit,
Be gentle to yourself, the way you would be gentle to a friend.
Until next time!