October 20, 2014

What HBO’s Girls Teaches Us About Freelancing

In a recent episode of HBO’s Girls, Hannah meets an editor at the fictitious website Jazzhate.com who offers her $200 to “step outside her comfort zone” and write about having a threesome or snorting coke. Eager to prove her writing chops, Hannah chooses the latter, procuring the goods from her downstairs neighbor and setting off an embarrassing bender with her roommate and gay ex-boyfriend Elijah. A friend mentioned the episode to me recently and commented that it was the “worst freelance assignment ever.”

I tend to agree.

That said, there are a few things we can glean from this train wreck of a TV character (who may or may not resemble 26-year-old Hollywood wunderkind Lena Dunham who created her and inked a book deal for more than $3.5 million last fall). Hannah is so caught up in her lofty writerly ambitions that it doesn’t occur to her that she could decline the assignment altogether or negotiate a higher fee (after all, her substance-fueled escapade couldn’t have been cheap – is $200 enough money to risk jail time and the loss of her dignity? I think not).

In all seriousness, though, you don’t have to accept every assignment that crosses your desk. Hannah desperately wants to pen an edgy memoir that resonates with her generation and this assignment may seem like a steppingstone where she can get in touch with her crazy poet persona. But if she were willing to step outside not just her comfort zone but her genre, she could find plenty of writing opportunities that are more commercially viable and don’t require illegal substances.

In fact, few writers aside from Lena Dunham herself actually pay the bills solely through the kind of confessional, zeitgeisty prose Hannah aspires to write. Ernest Hemingway covered WWI for The Toronto Star, an experience that clearly informs his later fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar slogans by day and fiction by night. Before publishing Little Women, Louisa May Alcott did whatever paying work she could find, working as a seamstress, governess, and servant. There is no shame in doing commercial writing or taking on odd jobs while you pen a novel or memoir on the side.

Yes, the world can be a tough place for young aspiring writers like Hannah (and yes, I had some missteps of my own in my early twenties), but if she’s serious about being a writer, she needs to lose the “crazy poet”/”starving artist” mindset, put on her “big girl pants” as her friend Shoshanna would say, and find better avenues for her talents.

Do you watch Girls? And do you agree with this assessment? Do tell!