THEME: Rearview Review
That’s how Jessica and I used to greet blog posts. I’m temporarily traveling in Korea and winning on time zones. What day is it? …OCTOBER?!
Delays aside, this piece is intended to reflect on the last year, throughout which, the notion of value has punctuated the buzz of my constant stream(s!) of thought at various intervals. Like when you’re on aisle six, carrying tampons and queso, suddenly, consciously, mom-humming to Dancing Queen.
Shifting between the non-profit world and writing was a decision provoked by value. A sound fiscal decision!, I sang to my trio of rubber ducks that hold fort, as I sat in the bathtub holding a bottle of wine, cackling manically. My career path, for better and worse, has been long forged in the wake of choices made by preferential treatment of non-monetary incentives; this was another one of those. (Please note: I will happily take your cold hard cash.)
Initially, I viewed each option distinctly. I had my anti-trafficking policy research side; I had my writing side. I had an anti-trafficking blog. I had GMGM. Then I had my first taste of convergence.
As a voluntary non-profit, our blog contributors are primarily academic and sector-specific professionals. Most academic publications don’t pay. We can’t afford to pay.
In my anti-trafficking capacity, I submitted a piece to another, larger NGO peer-reviewed journal, which was eventually published, and unpaid (as expected). Afterwards, we (my co-founder and I) were invited to submit a complementary blog piece to a Major News Agency, pitched to us as a media opportunity. We would be cross-promoted, the publication journal would be cross-promoted, and everyone would win! The piece would be sent to the Major News Agency editor, who had the option of rejection and no contractual obligation to any of us for payment or publication. I thought nothing of this process in particular; to my knowledge this is all common practice in the NGO/ academic worlds.
Then I took a writing workshop on presenting pitches. And something clicked. We should be paid for that article. There should be a contract. The irony dawned on me: a large non-profit publication, making no money, collaborates with a small voluntary org, making no money, to prep blog posts, for free, for some Major News Agency editor about labor exploitation. Suffice it to say, I never wrote that blog post because it wasn’t worth my time – though if cross-promotion was a Big Deal to us at the time, then perhaps it would have been an opportunity. Relative circumstances, relative value, and all that jazz.
I’ve learned two important lessons in the last year. First, value your writer self. Being “passionate” is in vogue. (For comedy on the subject, please see: David Mitchell.) This undying passion of yours shouldn’t be a trade-off for being smart and getting paid. Don’t devalue your skills or time by granting the world more because you do what you love. Bill Gates does what he loves; no one undervalues Bill Gates. The interning, the volunteering, the free contributions provided to others: be wary. Even writing or editing the work of friends because you’re so good at it may not be worth your time.
I’m not even remotely the first person to write about this. One hyperlink would barely scratch the surface of the debate on this subject. But this lesson bears repeating. Don’t settle for the lowest rung because of bullshit ideas about portfolio building or whatever is being poured into the Kool-Aid these days; it sucks for you. It lowers the bar for everyone. (I’ve both worked for free and settled; so I’m a registered expert and hypocrite. Shout out to Kool-Aid.)
By all means, write. Find a way to showcase your brilliance. But not all writing will propel a writing career or help pay the rent. (And yes, writing can be compensatory in other ways.) I’m learning how to appropriately monetize my skills and assess my personal capital, while building on my long-harbored beliefs about labor exploitation and reconciling my (sometimes bad) habits borne out of long-term contributions to the non-profit sector. So what I’m saying is: question the idea of investing time doing something tedious or soul-destroying for free. Ask for what you are worth.
The second lesson is to value other writers and collaborators. Volunteers are easily taken for granted. I am immensely grateful for the time that busy people have given me, alongside their trust and professionalism, just because I asked.
Value isn’t stagnant. It is a joy to witness my friends’ burgeoning writing careers – to see how their choices evolve as their lives evolve. Our writing is worth something different now. In observing the writers of GMGM, I am more sensitive to the collective generosity in coming together; appreciative of the time taken to contribute to something we feel is of value.