Tuesday Night Nonfiction: Notes from the road*

notebookI have been writing in the car lately. This is probably a bad thing, but it’s safer than texting while driving. I don’t need to look at the letters, and I can keep one hand on the wheel. With my notebook in my lap, I scrawl away messily to translate later. This is a skill I began to develop in high school when I first learned to drive and encountered the odd phenomenon of highway ideas.

Highway ideas are simply those ideas that come while you’re on the road, driving 70 mph, and for just a moment, out of the reach of your boss who waits for you on one end of your commute and the endless housework that lurks on the other. Highway ideas seem connected to flow and movement. They like momentum, and the moment you stop moving long enough to write them down, they go away. Highway ideas exist in a part of your brain that is accessible only when your body is in rapid transit. Highway ideas are also known as airplane ideas and train ideas.

Your physical body is passive, yet moving. While your muscles are relaxed and each bone is stationary in relation to the other bones, the body moves forward in terms of geography. The ethereal matter of the mind, being unbound by flesh, doesn’t hang on when the body, bones,  and brain are propelled forward. The ethereal matter mostly consists of anxiety, but also contains echos of faint yet taunting memories and a to-do list. The forward propulsion acts as a decanting method for the brain, and what is left is only the brain itself, and its most substantial thoughts which. These thoughts are not yet tangible objects, but they are to literature what mud between the toes is to solid ground. Who can appreciate solid ground without knowing mud between the toes?

*An alternative title to tonight’s post would be “Tuesday Night Nonfiction: Because Sometimes Mondays Don’t Work Out.”

That answers that question, don’t it?

So, the other day, a friend sent me an e-mail, which I’ve edited a bit for her privacy and posted here:

Hi Mary!

How are you doing lady?! Hey, writing really quick to ask you a couple questions about freelance writing. I know I’ve asked you questions about it before, but it’s been awhile and I wasn’t really ready at the time to start actually doing freelance work. At this point, I am ready and have been looking for positions online. I figured that since you have done some on your own, you are one of the best people to get tips from. [Blogger's Note: She is really being entirely too kind as I am no expert by a long shot, however, I feel compelled to give information whenever I'm asked because it makes me feel good, and I like to be helpful where possible.]

So, basically, one of the main positions that keeps popping up is for [Popular Online Thing]. It’s an online news site where anyone who gets hired by the company can write articles on their specified topic. Like, let’s say I was the Arts examiner for [town], I would find local art events, go to them and write and take photos and publish them to the website. From what I’ve read so far, you are allowed to post the articles in more than one place, as the [publication] doesn’t keep all your content. In looking up info online from people writing, one woman said she is averaging about $10 per every 1,000 page views.

Basically, what I’m trying to figure out is what is legitimate, so I don’t end up wasting my time…Can you help?

Thank you so much!

I love this question, and it came at an interesting time for me because I’m in the midst of reorganizing my own priorities and approach to writing. I’ve given this particular question a lot of thought lately, and I’m happy to have a chance to share my opinions. So, here we go.

Short answer: You can’t lose anything by trying. [added after I wrote a long ass rambling e-mail... ok, now here's the extended "director's cut" answer]

Well, [Popular Online Thing] is a legitimate publication, and it’s one of many right now that are trying this new model of paying writers per page view. I can’t really tell you if it’s a waste of time or not since I haven’t tried it, but it seems to be popular with a lot of writers. It seems you really have to write a LOT of articles and/or spend a lot of time on self promotion to make any notable amount of money on it, so it’s a question of whether you find that work worthwhile.

You may find that the writing you’re doing isn’t really want you were hoping for… say, not as interesting, meaningful, or newsworthy as you would like… I could be wrong. See, I’ve been frustrated lately because I thought I was going into freelance journalism, but it turns out the main publications hiring lately are PR/advertising driven. If you turn in a story with a source saying anything critical of local government of businesses (anything that might hurt ad sales, perhaps?), you may be asked to try and give it a positive spin, which is fine if you planned on working in PR but not so much if you are trying to be a journalist.

I don’t want to be a downer about this, but I’ve gotten quite a reality check lately. Journalism as a whole is in bad shape. It’s in the middle of reinventing itself, and if you have the tenacity to be in the middle of it and see it through, I think there’s something amazing on the other side of this, but in the mean while? One of my close friends from grad school is a long-time writer for [Long-Standing, Highly Respected Publication]. She has been worked to the bone lately, damn near having a nervous breakdown, and she tells me that even at her newsroom, reporters are asked to file two stories a day. Look, when you are working at the level they work at, you really can’t produce quality at that rate. It’s clear that publishers have completely lost sight of actual journalism while trying to save their bank accounts, and the crazy thing is that the approach they’re taking is actually driving them further in the hole because they’re producing BAD WORK.

Ok, I’m ranting, so I apologize for that. I am really not trying to discourage you from trying freelance work but just sharing the things I’ve had to hash out recently. So… realistically, here’s what I advise:

Try the [Popular Online Thing], but only if they have something open that you are interested in and knowledgeable about. It’s not likely to pay tons right off the bat, although I know people who say they make decent money doing it. So, pick something you’ll enjoy working on and make it worth your while.

Meanwhile, ask yourself where you want to go with writing. It seems like you are really multi-talented, so is writing something you feel driven to do as a career, or is it something you just want to try out? Are you hoping to use the [Popular Online Thing] as a step toward working at bigger publications? I think that’s possible if you’re writing about what you want to write about for the long term. So, if you start writing about style and health, it may be a route toward writing in magazines on that topic later. In my case, I realized none of the stuff anyone wanted to pay me to write about was of much interest to me. I started writing for very different reasons, and people don’t pay for poetry, so I’m cutting the freelance thing a bit in order to focus on the aesthetic writing that I really love doing. There is headway to be made in journalism, and if anyone can do it, it’d be someone like you. I lack the drive of a reporter, and I’ve decided that the best thing for my writing is to cultivate what I love.

Hmm… Ok I am seriously going on now, so I’ll just reiterate my point one last time:
-Decide what your goal is with writing
-Cultivate the aspects of writing that you love
-Kick ass, take names, repeat.

Of course, there is another set of advice that I’ve neglected. If you do want to work in journalism, there is one tactic I know works for getting freelance gigs:

Apply for everything. Even if you might be slightly under-qualified, apply. If they like your resume and like your work, you can get a freelance gig out of applying for an editorial position. You just never know what’s out there, so test the water and see what you’ll find. And if you try it out and love it, fantastic. If you hate it, well, that answers that question, don’t it?

Well, team, what do you think? I know at least a handful of my readers and friends here are writers also. How are you handling the changes in journalism? What advice would you give to someone who wants to try freelancing?

Against Talent

What is talent, anyway?

It’s a tricky thing.

As a kid, I had a natural inclination toward writing. That is not to say I was good at it, just that I was interested by it. I was into the look of words on a page. I enjoyed the feeling of putting ink on paper. I mean, before I actually knew how to write my letters, I would just scribble line after line on blank paper and pretend to be creating a masterpiece. Why? Well, mostly because I couldn’t draw or do any other creative activity particularly well, and I needed some way to entertain myself.

That’s not exactly talent. After all, once I did learn to form sentences and whatnot, I still seriously struggled to make things up. Plot completely evaded me, actually, so how is that talent?

In the fourth grade, I got really into diagramming sentences. It was just so satisfying to pull apart sentence structures and see how they worked. It was, I’m sure, the same kind of thrill future surgeons get from dissecting their first frog — oddly magnificent and compelling — it draws you in intellectually, and there’s the added bonus that you find yourself rather good at it. But is that talent?

Even if it is talent,what’s that worth?

I’m asking because more than once now, people have told me I had this thing called talent. I appreciate that. It’s a nice thing to say. But you know what? Talent doesn’t get you a job. Talent doesn’t pay the bills. Talent is just a starting point, and furthermore, some successful writers apparently don’t have what we would call talent. That is, they didn’t find they had a natural affinity for subjects and predicates. Instead, they read something amazing one day and felt they would never be satisfied until they wrote something equally amazing, so they tried and tried, got countless rejections, got called all kinds of unkind things, and then finally succeeded. What they have is drive.

Is drive more important than talent? Yeah. I think so. But talent helps … whatever it is.

The trouble with talent is this: When you’re a kid, if someone tells you you’re talented, you internalize that, you believe it, and you add that word to your self-image, the standard to which you will hold yourself for the rest of your life. If you believe you are talented, you will find it hard to face the struggle that comes later — talent or no.

Monday Night Nonfiction: Yeah, I can hear that.

I think the greatest value of art, and maybe the only real value of art is that in it, we find comfort, and through it, we can reach out to one another. Art is the epitome of what makes us human, and when we practice art or appreciate it, we are making one another less alone in our humanity.

A friend suggested I should write a letter to my younger self and read it every time I start to beat myself up about the past. Yeah, well … I’m working on that. But until then, here are some songs.

And goodnight.