Priced Out: Why I Can No Longer Afford a Career in Writing -The Toast

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Since childhood I’ve always been good at recognizing patterns. During a spelling test in second grade, I realized that my teacher was calling out the words in the same order they were listed in our English textbook, and was able to fill out the remaining blanks in advance, from memory. Walking between the rows of desks as she announced the words, my teacher noticed my completed test, accused me of cheating, and sent me to the principal. My argument (if it can be called that) was that I was just being smart. The principal countered that I was just being a smartass, and I was punished.

I’ve always wished that my second-grade self had not only recognized the pattern, but also understood what it meant — what it said about my teacher, her schedule, her expectations of students. Today my ability to understand patterns has caught up a bit with my ability to recognize them. Writing allows me to pin down patterns and see them more clearly. This clarity reveals not just the patterns themselves, but also my thoughts about them, which, until written, are often just as fuzzy as my initial glimpse of a pattern. Through writing I have discovered both the world and myself, and learned more about how both work. Some of these discoveries are pretty horrifying, since I often choose to write about race. Yet despite the horrors, writing — and all the reading and observing and listening and questioning and frowning it inevitably entails — keeps me alive.

I’d like for this sustenance to be more material than figurative, but that’s not an option. On March 4, 2015, I will begin repaying my student loans. I owe my loan providers $134,374.80. When I am feeling bored and meticulous, I view the patchwork of loans that comprises this behemoth total. There are no accounting errors, no misplaced commas; the number is eerily precise, as if I have been audited by a vindictive Ebenezer Scrooge. Every time I view this sum, I feel almost indifferent. I have accepted it. It seems to have its strongest effects on others; my friends were genuinely concerned when I sent them a screenshot of the total in a group-messaging app. One later said, “give a warning before you show that!” as if I were showcasing a loaded gun or a particularly nasty surgical scar.

My girlfriend’s reaction to my debt is more muted, but also more distressed. Unsure of whether she is an engineer (her actual job) or an economist (not her job), she occasionally spirals into a number-crunching frenzy, pulling back her hair and speaking anxiously as she explains the methodically calculated contents of the latest Excel spreadsheet charting our expenses. “Have you heard about your loans yet?” she asks anxiously.

I applied to have my loans consolidated a month ago. Doing so will centralize my payments to one loan provider and stabilize my numerous interest rates and lead to a longer repayment period — something to the tune of 30 years. “No, I haven’t,” I answer. I try to match her level of anxiety, but it never works. She always sighs, flustered by my apparent tranquility in the face of debt.

To me, my student loan balance is simply a mundane fact of my life. Even when I began looking for work in early January 2014, the pressure I felt to find a new job was primarily rooted in the present, not the future — I was living in New York City and making $600 per month as the head editor for a music magazine. Though I loved the fact that I was being paid to write about hip-hop, financially speaking it was a shit job. I worked 30-plus hours every week managing a virtual staff of writers who were paid nothing and worked out of sheer passion for music, which meant that I could never hold them accountable or have the right to. After quitting in early February following 23 months with the magazine, I spent the next few months finishing my last semester of grad school and frantically seeking work, within the media and beyond.

Media was not very accepting. Humbled by my experience as an underpaid editor and aggressively indifferent about my encroaching loan repayment date, I sought the barest of wages. My sole condition (which I kept to myself) was that I be capable of paying my rent, which was then $950 per month. My conditions seemed so reasonable. I wasn’t even looking for full-time work. I was willing and eager to build a patchwork of writing gigs that would rival the patchwork of my loans. All I needed was the opportunity to start sewing it together.

But my patchwork utopia never materialized. Editors either ignored me outright, even after giving me their direct or personal email addresses, or responded to my submissions as though they were garbage. One asked me to write for free. I’m willing to admit that some of my pitches weren’t the best, but there was always something palpably unwelcoming in both the harsh responses and the opaque silences. As an editor, even when I encountered writing that needed work, I turned down the writing, not the writer.

By April, I was completely broke. I finally accepted the reality of my circumstances after eating my roommate’s frozen chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was not sustainable. Two subsidies eventually came from my girlfriend and my generous roommate, and this much-needed assistance abruptly reconfigured my orientation toward the future. After finishing grad school in May, I left New York City for Washington D.C., where I could live with my girlfriend at a significantly reduced cost and an exponentially higher rate of happiness. I spent the summer writing and attending professional job interviews, hoping that one would lead to a position.

None did. I started looking for jobs in retail, and ended up accepting a position at Target. There it was apparent that I was a cog in the machine, nothing else; tellingly, my name badge read: New Team Member. And yet at least Target told me what it thought of me and treated me accordingly. Editors were rarely so forthright. With them I was often given the runaround, receiving compliments for my writing samples or my blog and then being met with deafening silence upon submitting pitches, queries, and even actual commissioned writing. One editor accepted a pitch and then ignored me entirely once I had submitted it.

I now have a full-time job editing business proposals. This has been a splendid development for both my student loan balance and my girlfriend’s exhausted checking account. Paying jobs, especially jobs in which (1) a black male (2) can sit (3) in a room that is (4) heated, (5) lit, (6) regularly cleaned by another person, and (7) devoid of mosquitoes, roaches, sewage, blood, or broken glass, are always to be appreciated. Nevertheless, this is not the greatest development in terms of my professional writing career, about which I have recently grown indifferent.

I never entirely believed in the meritocratic narratives of editors speaking at writing conferences or on panels, but I did always dare to hope that I would be smuggled into the world of professional writing, either by luck or tenacity. My pending loan payment has finally forced me to realize that that is a pricey and unlikely proposition, a desperate gamble. I can no longer afford to buy into writing as a job. My debts are too large and my wallet is too small. Writing professionally requires a wallet that can expand like a stomach wall on Thanksgiving. It requires investments in capital and time that run far beyond the margins of a reasonable ledger, even one that is strategically, desperately managed.

Most of all, it seems to require a connection, not to the rhythms and patterns of the world, not to interesting experiences, not even to the everyday practice of writing, but to the gatekeepers. I once heard a talk in which an editor encouraged aspiring writers to ask him out for coffee, as if everybody who wanted to write for him lived in his neighborhood, in his city, in his region, in his income bracket, on his schedule. The power of writing, especially in the digital age, is supposed to be its ability to bridge gaps, whether temporal, geographic, spatial, or racial. But in my experience, proximity and access still reigns supreme. We use the word “pitch,” but sometimes it seems more like a handoff. And the hands are often the same shade.

I don’t think there is some collective conspiracy to keep underprivileged, brown, female, and queer writers on the margins, but it’s hard to look at this pattern and view it as a mere coincidence. I’ve been an editor. I know about the recurring tidal waves of emails, the treacherously protean working hours, the cranky writers, the faulty Wi-Fi, the delayed or unissued paychecks. These aren’t ideal working conditions, and they can definitely be obstacles to financial security, a good night’s rest, a healthy social life.

But they are not obstacles to diversity. A lack of diversity is what happens when editors see inclusion as “accepting submissions from all candidates, regardless of sex, race, nationality, etc.,” but don’t see a problem with that “acceptance” stopping at their inboxes. Accept doesn’t have to be a passive verb. Writers on the margins can be actively solicited, specifically and generally, individually and collectively.

And there are a ton of ways to go about this. You can be explicit and target a specific group or experience in a call for submissions. You can solicit and recruit specific writers you like. You can continually reach out to organizations like the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, or the Native American Journalists Association. You can reach out to college organizations like sororities, fraternities and student groups. You can identify prominent writers within underrepresented groups and ask to tap into their networks. In an issue of Scratch, former Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal described how contributing editor Ian Bogost serves as a kind of HOV lane for writing about technology and objects, which, it was implied, might not normally get through the editorial pipeline. Getting these relationships with writers off the ground will definitely involve more emails (sorry), but these are precisely the kinds of relationships — with organizations, with established writers, with friends — that already feed editorial pipelines in countless ways.

I don’t expect editors to become human resources experts, to make and publish rigorous transparency indexes (Scratch actually does that, ha), to have daily calls for writers on Twitter (though that would be awesome), to turn away their regular contributors. I’m also not implying that editors alone have the power to change the structure that currently makes the pool of freelancers so white, male, educated, and well-off. But when editors make decisions about what they reject and what they accept, they should take responsibility for those decisions — no more lamely claiming that they “just accept the best pitches!” as if entire demographics are unable to offer good or interesting ideas. No more staring at homogenous submissions folders and “wishing for diversity,” like it’s a goddamn unattainable dream house. No more seeing new writers only as “potential risks” when all writers are potential risks. You either do the work, finding and welcoming and fostering different voices, or you don’t — acknowledging that, either way, what you choose to publish plays a role in determining how many writers move on (like me), and how many stick around, feeling welcome.

I may sound bitter, but I’m really not. I accept what has happened and where I am today. It’s just difficult not to lament what could have been. Seeking paying writing opportunities in the world of professional writing is like bidding at an auction in which the auctioneers charge first an entry fee (education) and a service fee (unpaid or low-paying internships), and then only accept offers from bidders they recognize, regardless of the presence of better, or just plain other, bids. And that’s before you tally up the other fees and the externalities, like student loans and living in expensive cities where so much media is based, which already has many striving bidders severely in the red.

Of course, I haven’t totally given up. I still do business with respectable auctioneers. But after recognizing and understanding the particular pattern at work in the writing world, it’s just too risky for me to keep waiting around, hoping that someone will finally blow the dust off of my constantly accumulating, constantly rewritten, and constantly pitched writing. I can’t wager my future on the arbitrary machinations of an industry that doesn’t value my time or what I can produce. My future has arrived, and it costs me $134,374.80, with interest.

Stephen Kearse regularly writes about race, hip-hop, history, feminism and film at The Black Tongue. He was formerly the online editor for RESPECT. Magazine.

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