I’m trying this new thing where I’m being less neurotic about the things I write (which is like telling a bird not to shit and an M&M not to melt in your mouth) by introducing a few new, hopefully easier-to-write-than-an-essay columns.
Because I sometimes get letters from aspiring writers and creatives wondering how I’m doing all the writing and creating I’m supposedly doing, I, a writer of my stature (that is, none), think it’s high time I share my so-called wisdom with a recurring column called Questions & Answers(ish).
Instead of responding to one lucky asker via email, I’m now sharing my answers with the lucky readers of this blog—all five of you (seriously, good turnout this year).
Without further ado, I’m kicking things off with something light and fluffy: The Great Recession.
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Yo, yo, Karen. I hear you’ve been writing professionally since back in the days when Ja Rule wasn’t just a punchline associated with a festival named after what, for legal reasons, I’ll refer to only as an oxidizing chemical reaction, but rather a successful rapper who, based on his veritable hits with the legendary Bronx native J.Lo and the iconic Ashanti, well, quite literally ruled. Nonetheless, in the late aughts, you fell on hard times when the economy came crashing down. What was that like? What did you learn from it? Based on the recent HuffPo and BuzzFeed layoffs, history seems to be repeating itself. Is writing still a valid way to make a living or should I just give it all up now and go to med school, as is custom especially if you’re a practical, probably Asian human with demanding, probably also Asian human parents? Also, do you think med schools would count my Contemporary Flailing Called Dance* as a transfer credit?
Not a Writer, Not Yet Not a Writer
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Dear Not a Writer, Not Yet Not a Writer:
First of all, breathe.
Second of all, what’s your favorite Ja song? Mine’s probably “Put It On Me.” I mean, what would we do in a world without Ja? Not putting things on other things, that’s what.
Third, and sorry to suck the air out of the room, but for most people writing has never been a valid way to make a living. (Again, sorry.)
For every Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, there has been an untold number of writers in the history of Earth creating mostly unread rants on scrolls and self-published pamphlets and blogs (hi). Writers in the days of yore (that’s how you can tell they’re really old) often held down normal jobs to pay the bills. Other more idealistic and, not coincidentally, unemployable writers died poor AF.
So, unless you’re going the poor AF route, perhaps the validity of the writing profession isn’t quite the right question to ask.
The question should be: How do I make a living as a writer?
If you do go the way of med school (or insert some other lucrative, more stable profession here), you could still totally be a writer. Michael Crichton, author of a book of essays—many of which involved med school things—called “Travels,” did just that. He may have gone on to write more famous books, possibly about dinosaurs, but I’ve never read them so I can’t speak to them.
Point is, you don’t have to only write to be a writer, which is the really cool thing about it. It’s also the really frustrating thing about it. You could spend your whole life trying to figure out how to be good enough to get paid doing something else while making enough time to be good enough to get paid at the writing thing, too.
It’s a totally annoying balancing act, but dem’s the breaks.
If you’re like: Hey, Karen, I don’t have to balance shit because my parents are so totally loaded/I won a billion dollars in the Powerball/I’m Stephen King, then, that’s cool, bro. This column isn’t for you (more power to you, though).
If you’re like me—a writer who isn’t good enough at anything else to get paid for it and has made the terrible decision to put all your eggs in the writing basket, but doesn’t come from money and must overcome additional layers of complications outside of your writing ability, including but not limited to, issues of Other-ness, immigrant-ness, woman-ness, and short-ness—then you’re in the right place. And this place is dark.
But don’t fret.
I’m not about to give you bullshit advice by saying things like, just show up somewhere and do things for free, including taking out the trash and washing dishes, to show your true dedication and work ethic!
I could write a whole other column about that whole mess, but let’s just say that tactic works well for people whose main bias to overcome is whether or not they can write. Because, you know, what they lack in melanin they make up for in gumption that other people also have! That’s like High School Me saying, you too can get those Hershey’s Sundae Pies at Burger King for free because your brother also works there and he will also hook you upppppp.
You get the idea. And you’re right. High School Me was super hip.
Here’s what I did do: I wrote. I studied something writing-related in school. Then I wrote some more.
I decided I’d show up somewhere with the skills and qualifications to demand the same respect as more privileged writers. It was kind of delusional—I believed the world was a meritocracy. But it was the kind of delusion I needed to pursue this path. It helped me get my first paid writing jobs in the small towns of Virginia, sometimes for media conglomerates that had programs like “mainstreaming,” which required that each reporter talked to a person of color and logged it. Curiously, I was never told about this program by anyone in a position of power. Perhaps my existence was mainstreaming enough.
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In the years leading up to the recession, I chose to put my writing skills to practical use by majoring in journalism. And not just any journalism, but print journalism.
Ya done laughing now?
My program was so old school that one of my classes involved cutting handmade headlines by hand and gluing them onto a different piece of paper so you could photocopy them into something that looked like a printed newspaper.
If you’re scratching your head thinking, I knew you were old but not that old, you’d be right. Suffice it to say, the program was kind of behind on the times, which was not unlike the news industry itself. Instead of adapting to the internet, the news gods far and wide decided to stick their heads in the sand, cling to the millions of dollars they were still making, and hope it would all go away (spoiler: it did not).
While I’d been writing on the internets since I was about 13 years old, I wasn’t entrepreneurial or prescient enough to figure out how to make that work for me. I actually hid my writing voice in order to get hired by paying publications. Keep in mind that back in those days, objectivity in journalism was very much the thing. Expressing opinions in your writing, much less Twitter, was discouraged. If you were really square, you didn’t even vote (whoa).
Fun ancient practices aside, the important thing was that I was writing. I was writing memoir(ish) essays in my LiveJournal. I wrote for the school paper. I wrote in class. Every summer, I took paid internships and wrote for small daily newspapers in small towns in Virginia. After I graduated from undergrad, I got a job as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in a city about 40 minutes away from home. I was a professional writer.
Life was good.
A few years passed, and pretty soon it was 2009. The year of <dun dun dun> The Great Recession.
I’m not going to go into the specifics of how I got laid off and what I did after. I wrote about that at length here and here and here.
Long story short, it sucked, but was at times great, and I ended up figuring it all out. For a while. Then I pivoted again and went to grad school, then moved back to New York, and figured it out all over again.
Now here I am, on the 10th anniversary of my layoff (WOO), having just left my last stable writing gig, and figuring it out all over again.
Are you sensing a theme here?
I can’t give you specific steps for how to make a living as a writer, because I don’t know what the future of media and journalism and writing and intergalactic hieroglyphics will be in 10 years. All I know is that to stay in the game, you just have to, well, write. It’s as hard and as simple as that.
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You know how they say you are what you eat? The same is true for writing. You are what you eat when you’re writing. I mean. You are what you write.
You’re probably thinking, Oh no, Karen. I write coupons for a living. Does that mean I am a coupon? Also, if I read two of your blog posts, will I get the third one free?
The answer, my friend, is kind of. Plus, you’re in luck. My blog is currently running a Read Two or Three or a Million for FREE special. But hurry—this offer won’t last forever.
In an ideal world, one would get paid to write the kind of shit one loves to write. But one must also be ready to adapt to economic realities and take jobs that pay the bills. Sometimes that involves writing about intellectual property law, which was actually way more interesting than it sounds, or in your case, coupons. Ain’t no shame in making ends meet. Hopefully, though, one’s getting paid doing something that’s not all-consuming and so draining that it prevents one from writing the things one’s passionate about. And hopefully one’s building up one’s skills and portfolio so that one day one will snag that dream writing gig. Finally, one must stop saying one because one sounds stupid. One.
Ten years later, I’m doing OK.
Copywriting pays well enough that it’s allowed me to build an emergency fund I can use when I’m in between gigs. I get paid to write fun projects and not suppress my voice behind thinly veiled objectivity (because I’m square enough to care about that kind of thing). I’ve written things I’m really proud of and things I’m not proud of (which you never, ever put in your portfolio, but think of fondly while you’re staring at the pink sky in some far-off destination because it paid for that amazing trip).
Outside of copywriting, I take writing classes. Sketch writing. Fiction writing. I make comics. I tweet. I Instagram. I write this blog for you five and hopefully one day, if I’m dreaming REALLY big, 10 whole people. One day I’m going to write a book.
I’ve come to expect discomfort and uncertainty. It will never get easier. When it does get easier, I know I should fucking cherish it because surprise—nothing lasts forever, suckaaaaaa. And that’s fine. Far more successful people have LIVED THE DREAM, only to return to Earth and have to make new dreams.
The thing I’m still learning, though, is being patient. I’m often too busy thinking about the next thing to celebrate the successes I’ve actually had. But just let me be impatient and forever unsatisfied, universe. You can’t have everything.
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Before I go, I’ll leave you with one last long-winded story.
During The Great Recession, amid the throes of unemployment, with the possibility of me moving to New York feeling damn near impossible, I wrote to a former student of my former journalism professor and lifelong mentor. She was a freelance writer in New York. I asked if she wanted to grab coffee someday.
“I don’t know what to do,” I wrote in weepy fashion. “My parents say I should do something more practical. My friends are worried about me moving to New York to ‘freelance,’ whatever the hell that is. I hear it’s the fast track to poverty.”
“Should I go to law school?”
She soon wrote me back, detailing the woes of the freelance writer’s life in New York City. It sounded awful.
She closed with this:
Do NOT go to law school. Exclamation point. Exclamation point. Exclamation point.
I never did meet up with her for coffee. I guess that was all I needed to hear.
Now I’m going to repeat it here for you.
If you can envision yourself being a great lawyer/doctor/whatever and really enjoying it, then go do that. There are far worse ways to make a living. Write on the side and maybe you’ll find you’re awesome at writing AND lawyering. Like John Grisham. That fucker.
If you can’t envision any of the above, and you’re kind of hopeless because writing is literally your one and only useless, semi-marketable skill, then hi. Welcome to one of the most frustrating, horrible and seriously fulfilling things you’ll ever do.
*P.S. I’m not well-versed in college transcripts so you’d really have to ask your prospective schools about whether you can transfer your Contemporary Flailing Called Dance credit. My gut tells me no, but I also didn’t go to one of those schools where you, like, make up your own major and, like, get a degree in it.
Got a question? Leave it in the comments/email me at karenbolipata (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it between you, me, and my five readers.
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