Stop asking creatives to work for little to no money

Stop asking creatives to work for little to no money

It’s May 2008. I just graduated with my B.A. in Professional Writing and Editing.

My job search is is bleak, and that’s an understatement. I’m dating a guy I cannot stand who really may have a football in his head as a brain. Every editing job I examine requires 5+ years of experience. I relax my shoulders as the light from the computer monitor seems to expose my thoughts: I am going to continue working at Dunkin Donuts for my “career” if I don’t get my shit together.

The regret settles in. Everything everyone said to me crashes like waves on the shores of the ocean on a windy spring day. You can’t do anything with an English degree. You have to start out on the bottom and can’t just be an editor. You have to move to get a job as an editor. All we have here are these little newspapers.

Fast forward to July.

M make a phone call to our Writing Center director. “How do I become a graduate assistant?”

Fast forward to August.

I’m sitting in a room called “the fish bowl” in YSU’s English Department meeting the rest of the graduate assistants. I am on a full ride through a M.A. in English program.

I will be able to land any writing job I want after this.

I graduated with my M.A. in English in 2010. The program was fairly uneventful; I did my work and aced everything. I got one B (I won’t say “earned” because I didn’t earn that shit; I earned an A and was given a B, and dammit stand by that) that caused a meltdown in the parking lot of a local Taco Bell. Otherwise, graduate school was smooth sailing.

I became a teacher. Life was good.

It was good until I realized that I had a job that didn’t pay very well and wouldn’t give me health insurance or anything to put into a savings account. I was single and drove a car that recently caught on fire in my cousin’s body shop, but I knew I couldn’t afford a new one making below the poverty line (this is not. a. joke.).

So, I decided to start freelancing. I put myself out there as someone who could edit and design brochures, documents, and more.

One of my first jobs was making brochures for a not-defuncted tanning salon. The design was great, but I accidentally put “open 11 p.m. to 11 p.m.” and that ruined the 500 copies I ordered.

Fast forward to May 2010.

I just graduated with my M.A. in English. I’m working at a restaurant in New Castle.

I am late because my car broke down at the gas pump and my mechanic nicely showed up at Sheetz to fix it. My dad pays for the work because I have no money, ever, with my teaching “salary.” The sun follows me like a spotlight as I sway back and forth on the blacktop waiting for my car to get its new battery. I show up to work drenched and smelling like salt and gasoline.

My first table is six people who have a bill over $85 dollars. They leave me 81 cents.

I walk into the bathroom, rest my palms on the counter, and lean forward toward the mirror.

I have a fucking masters degree and just “earned” 81 cents after giving a table with four kids all these extra crayons and juice refills. Fuck this.

I quit three weeks later and never enter the restaurant industry again.

Fast forward to 2019. I’m married with two kids. I’m still teaching, a job I have allowed myself to love out loud. I always loved it, but it feels like I am working for nothing sometimes.

I try freelancing again by creating a profile on Upwork. My first job offer is to write a health and fitness article — with research — for $5. Five whole dollars. As though that isn’t bad enough, I accept the job on account of “building a portfolio.”

I produce excellent content. I am paid $5 before taxes. I get a strange sense of deja vu as the “payment” feels eerily similar to finding less than a whole dollar on a table of people who ran up a bill over $80.

I quit working for this client. I get a notice that the client’s Upwork account has been deactivated for “lack of payment” and I am not surprised.

Over the next few months, I am published in Scary Mommy and Yahoo! Lifestyle. I expect more freelancing jobs based on my new creds.

I get a job editing a young adult novel. I have to drag myself to my laptop to edit it. I don’t feel like $50/hour is enough for staring at a computer and fixing someone’s writing. I quit the job.

I don’t want to freelance. I finally allow myself to hate it, but it wasn’t until now that I understand why.

Freelancing is appealing to those who don’t know much about it. From the outside, it looks great: Make your own hours doing what you love. On the inside, though, many of us writers are fighting to get paid a wage that reflects our skill and talents. Freelancing is laced with creativity, and it can be considered a creative/arts profession. People in this country do not value the arts. People in this country do not want to fucking pay for creative services.

Look at the music industry.

Artists are paid less than a penny when their music streams on services like Spotify. And we — including me — are part of the problem. We keep the wheel turning when we stream our favorite artists’ music. Big names, of course, are fine, but who the hell would want to pursue their dream of becoming a musician if they can expect to make less than a penny each time their songs stream?

But do you think I am going to buy an album of some kind? No, I am not. It’s cheaper and easier to stream music.

So, shame the fuck on me, honestly.

The writing industry isn’t that different. I wish I could count the number of times someone handed me a document or emailed me an essay (without even asking!) and said “just look over this for me real quick!”

“Looking over something real quick” is not something you should ask writers with this level of education and experience. If you want someone to “look over something real quick,” hand it to your neighbor or mom who claims to have “always been good at writing” (cue the annoyed face because knowing where a comma belongs doesn’t make you an editor or a “good writer”).

The world of “look over something real quick” is the purgatory of freelancing. It’s this weird in between that’s pretty miserable. Hell, if you’re right here with me, you’ve probably secretly wished people would pray you the fuck out of i just like us Catholics do for those in the “real” (actually probably fake) purgatory.

We are constantly asked to work for free or for very little money. And I am ashamed to say that when writers like me accept jobs of 500+ words for a laughable $5 an hour, we are disrespecting the industry, ourselves, and our fellow freelancers. We continue to pave the way for businesses and clients to view writers as disposable: If you won’t work for $5, someone else will.

And it’s true — someone else always will, because the cycle never stops: The mentality in this country is that the arts should be cheap (or free), and we have to operate in the world in which we live. Writers are constantly faced with the decision of, “Do I do work that I love, or do I stand up for the rest of us and demand self respect in the form of payment that reflects my talents, skills, education, and experience?”

So, here I am. Writing an entry on my personal blog that I established in 2016 that has made me less than $15 in ad clicks over the past five years. Feeling slighted that my bestie, a very talented writer with an MFA, spent some of her time after graduation working in a restaurant instead of touring the world with her creative non-fiction work in hand. Battling bitterness that I — someone who knows better — took a job for $5 an enabled the creative writing industry to remain in checkmate as it has been forever.

I don’t know what I want you to do with this information. I don’t want you to start “acknowledging the arts” because nodding your head is lazy and doesn’t do anything for our industry.

I guess, maybe, I want you to think before you email the writer in your life and ask them to “look over something.” Think before you roll your eyes because a painting or drawing “shouldn’t be worth that much.” Think before you call a violinist for your daughter’s wedding and expect minimum wage because they’re “just starting out.”

Think back to this blog entry. Think back to when you were starting out in your career, whatever that might be: Did you want to work for free? Probably not. Do you expect people to put a new roof on your house for free to “build experience?” I doubt it.

So stop fucking asking writers and artists and musicians to do just that. And if you hear an astounding “no” to working for next to nothing, buck up and pay for what we are worth.

2 thoughts on “Stop asking creatives to work for little to no money

  1. i love your writing style! it’s frustrating to me how much the arts aren’t valued and not even just economically but also just in social settings. majoring in something creative was looked down by my parents and peers vs. friends who chose hard sciences as their majors. you really have to learn to be your own champion and supporter. good luck to you in your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

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