July 31, 2016

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!


  1. This is the lesson that separates the newbie artisan or writer from someone who has taken the next step and realizes that what we do is real work and that you are entitled not only to be compensated for what you do and all the respect that entails, but you also can and should say no if someone is taking advantage of you. I used to jump through hoops for customers that demanded the world and were not willing to pay a fair price. One day a light went on and I started to say no. Now I have more time for jobs that pay appropriately and are more valuable to me as a writer or artist. That is not to say that I don’t occasionally do a freebie for friends or a cause that I support, but now I have the time to be able to do this with a clear conscience.

    Also, I have never seen “Girls” and based on this episode description, I don’t think that it would appeal to me.

  2. Amanda McDonald says:

    Hi Susan,

    Been following your blog for a little while now and I have to say-LOVE THIS!

    I don’t watch Girls, actually I try to keep my gigs in high enough count that I don’t fall into the trap of the boob tube.

    That being said, I’m still in my twenties, albeit not that “early” ;-), and because of your blog I’ve felt comfortable enough saying no-knowing that I was going to save time and effort for a more important endeavor.

    Thanks for your blog and keep it up! Love your posts!

  3. I don’t watch Girls, but I was a big fan of Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw did a pretty good freelance career going. OK, strictly speaking, she wrote one column for one newspaper, but she just told her dating stories and her friends’, made a lot of money (most of which she unwisely spent on ridiculously expensive shoes) and lived in a pretty decent rent-controlled apartment. But while her gig was stable and fun, I don’t think any of my friends would allow me to write that much about them in detail, and I’d definitely not manage my finances like Carrie.

    And I guess it took reading about Hannah to consider Carrie to be a more rational character…And she is someone who did some stupid things, career-wise and beyond.

    • Susan Johnston says:

      @Pinar: Funny you mention Carrie Bradshaw because Girls has been described as a younger, grittier Sex and the City. Carrie had some question habits but you’re right, she looks comparatively rational next to Hannah.

      • Sometimes the first experience causes more attachment. I tried watching Girls, but couldn’t get into it- which is great. I have enough shows to drive inspiration from : )
        Do you watch any shows for inspiration or procrastination or both?

  4. I saw one episode of Girls. I’ve seen countless episodes of Sex and the City. What’s astounding with either show is how little it takes for these girls to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I mean, Bradshaw wrote a column? How much does that pay — $200? Then again, I guess we need to suspend reality. 🙂

    Love the message you found in this, Susan. And I LOVE the “big girl pants” mentality. Perfect way to phrase it!

  5. What’s up to all, for the reason that I am genuinely eager of reading this blog’s
    post to be updated on a regular basis. It includes fastidious stuff.