December 22, 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!

PSA: Vote for The Writer’s Inner Journey

Ed. Note: Meredith Resnick is a wonderfully prolific and generous colleague so when Alexandra asked about writing a guest post in support of Meredith and her blog, I just had to share. Enjoy! 

By Alexandra Grabbe

Psst. I’ve got a secret to share. It’s called The Writer’s Inner Journey, a blog by a terrific writer/friend who has just been nominated in the Best-Kept-Secret category at the Bloggies, the annual competition for bloggers, celebrated this month in Austin TX. Her name is Meredith Resnick. Please click over before February 19th and vote. What should I care, you say? Writers need to support other writers, stand shoulder to shoulder, carry the torch for one another. Here’s an opportunity to let the world know writing does matter and make a statement about our – choose one, two at most –

1.) profession

2.) hobby

3.) passion

4.) bad habit

5.) secret vice.

That’s why I’m turning to all you wordsmiths out there, in cyberspace. You see, if you are not familiar with Meredith’s blog, you should be. It allows you to discover useful information on craft, The Journey, working part-time, and lots of other fun topics that rock a writer’s world. A visit to Writer’s Inner Journey feels like stepping into an old-fashioned salon and taking part. Yes, you will enjoy the chitchat but also come away totally energized.

Meredith summarizes what she offers as, “Bestselling authors, professional creatives and emerging voices in quirky dialogue about how they write and why it works” – WHY IT WORKS. Now, who can resist that?

[Read more...]

Is It Writer’s Block? Or Over-Thinking?

“Don’t get it right, just get it written.” ~James Thurber, The New Yorker

Awhile back, a guest blogger proclaimed writer’s block a lie. And many of you weighed in for or against this notion. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have another theory: often what we think is writer’s block is actually our brains over-thinking the project.
I don’t always agree 100% with my guest posters, and in this case, I respect Daryl, but I disagree with his idea that you should love every single project you tackle and if you don’t, that might be why you’re feeling blocked.
Look: if you write for a living, you’re probably going to have to do some projects that don’t excite your inner muse. Unless you’re independently wealthy (or incredibly lucky), there will be times you accept projects because you need the paycheck.
The fabulous Lori Widmer recently published a post about getting through projects she describes as spaghetti squash (they don’t taste good, but you need to do them anyway). I suggested that you think about the paycheck as dessert and let that motivate you. And I’m going to give you the same advice you’ll hear from some nutritionists: don’t settle for crappy dessert. Go for the good stuff. If you’re writing for the paycheck, then make sure it’s really worth your while and you won’t need to swallow so much spaghetti squash in the future because you’ll have that heavenly dessert to sustain you.
But back to my original point: over-thinking. Many times we have ideas and phrases floating around our heads, but our inner editor dismisses them. (I observed this in a writer friend recently, and I’m certainly guilty of it myself sometimes.) We spend two hours laboring over the first three sentences, staring at an empty computer screen, because we think none of our ideas are good enough. This isn’t writer’s block at all! This is us obsessing about finding the absolute perfect word when it would come if we let it.
Don’t over-think it. Let the words flow. Remember Anne Lamott’s theory about shitty first drafts (all good writers have them, she says, and they are necessary for the writer to move forward). If you don’t have a deadline looming and you need to step away from your keyboard and go outside or shift gears and work on another project, do it. If you’re up against a deadline, then it’s usually better to have a mediocre something than nothing at all. You can always polish, nip, and tuck later.
What do you think? Have you ever found yourself obsessing over a writing project? Or do you find that you’re still plagued by writer’s block?
Flickr photo courtesy of - reuben -

Open Thread: Does Gender Matter to Freelance Clients?

A lot has changed since the nineteenth century, when women like Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) and the Brontë sisters published under pen names. Or has it?

The recent revelation that “James Chartrand” of Men with Pens is actually a women has the blogosphere abuzz with questions. In her Copyblogger confessional, the blogger formerly known as James Chartrand says she chose to apply for writing gigs with a male name, because she had a higher rate of success with prospective clients. J.K. Rowling employed a similar tactic, but her choice of name was a bit more vague.

Now, I’ve been pretty darn successful using my real name, but it makes me wonder if I would have achieved even higher levels of success under another name/gender. I’m guessing not, because while “James” conducts business exclusively through email (ostensibly for productivity’s sake, but probably also to conceal her real identity), I can’t. I’d like to, but many of my clients insist on phone calls to nail down details and many of my articles require phone interviews so I can capture voice inflection and other attributes of my subjects. Plus, while “James” blogs with a bit of a macho swagger (very convincing, I might add), my sassy writing style is part of my own appeal.

But getting back to the bigger picture, I don’t fault “James” for doing what she felt she needed to do to support herself and her children. It saddens me to think that she felt the sting of gender discrimination so strongly that she needed to deceive her clients and readers. And it reminds me that when you’re reading a blog, even one where the writer seems friendly, collegial, and thoroughly honest, you just never know who that person really is. Not that she’s the first blogger to do this, but maintaining an alter ego like that must have been challenging at times (both logistically and emotionally). On the other hand, it gives me even more respect for “James,” because she’s clearly a very talented and versatile writer.

What do you think? Would you be more successful if clients thought you were man? Would it be worth the struggle to conceal your identify? Men, what do you think of all this?