I am writing this sentence for free.
In fact, if you consider the two packs of Marlboro Golds (“Smooth Original Flavor,” $5.74 each), and three iced coffees (Super Grande, “100% Arabica beans,” splash of skim milk, $3.29 each) I consumed in the course of producing this piece, I lost $21.35 on a single venture in the realm of Internet publishing. At this rate, I need only draft 702 more pieces for Thought Catalog in order to have my Ford Focus repossessed.
By essayist and cartoonist Tim Krieder’s metric, then, I am a Slave of the Internet — and an accommodationist one, at that. When I read his brilliant, excruciatingly precise plea that artists cease and desist providing “content” without monetary compensation, published last weekend in the New York Times, I momentarily envisioned myself as a strikebreaker crossing the picket lines for the cold gruel of “exposure.” After all, I volunteered for this. As someone who cares about writing and writers — and counts no small number of the latter among his friends and colleagues — I blanched at Krieder’s suggestion that this makes me part of the “bottomless supply of ambitious young artists in all media… who are simply so thrilled at the prospect of publication that they’re happy to do it free of charge.”
Krieder’s clarion call resembles other radical manifestos in that it inspires but does not quite instruct, preferring the clean analogy to the jagged edge of the real. Of course it’s absurd to imagine a surgeon wielding her scalpel in the faint hope that she’ll be noticed by a better-funded hospital. Of course it’s energizing to dream of the revolution we writers might create by closing our Macbooks in unison. Of course it’s deflating to think that the hours mulling, drafting, deleting, restarting, revising, and agonizing that led to this particular meeting between writer and reader will likely earn me no more than a handful of stray comments which, however complimentary, will not pay for my next pack of smokes.
And yet, here we are. Maybe I’m just temperamentally unsuited to rebellion, but I suspect my ambivalence about Krieder’s argument is not so naive as he might suggest. The unpaid gig is not merely, as he writes, “a side effect of our information economy” — it is the organizing principle, the central paradox, the jagged edge. My own nascent career has been an object lesson in the blade cutting both ways, and before reading on to find out just what I mean, you can trust that you already have the most pertinent scrap of information. Despite the forbidding ALL CAPS caveat of Thought Catalog’s “Submissions” page (“IF YOU THINK YOU SHOULD BE PAID OR OTHERWISE COMPENSATED FOR YOUR CONTENT, PLEASE DO NOT SUBMIT IT TO US THROUGH THIS FORUM”), despite the fact that I have no illusions of procuring an agent, book deal, or position on staff from this specific essay, I am still writing this sentence for free.
The first piece of advice I received as a writer, if you discount my mother’s oft-repeated suggestion that it’s never too late to think about medical school, dropped in my lap the summer after my freshman year of college. I spent those days standing under the afternoon sun in one or another town square, holding out petitions in pastel shades of pink and green to passersby who ranged from the ardently committed to the downright hostile. It must have been following an encounter with one of the latter that a gray-haired woman in sensible shoes approached me, because her first question after I recited the prescribed lines was: “What do you really want to do?”
I said I wanted to write. I said it as though the thought had only occurred to me that instant. I said it more convincingly than could reasonably be expected from someone whose only experience to that point was a film criticism column called Movies by Matt in my high school paper and a thinly reported feature about a dorm room decorating contest for my college daily.
“Funny, I’m a freelance travel writer for the [Boston] Globe,” she said. “So, you want to be a writer? Write, then. And pitch. Pitch without fear. Pitch every idea that comes into your head. Most people will say no but someone will say yes, and then you’re off to the races.”
When I returned home that evening I had no idea how to begin. The notion of pitching a story before I had written it was foreign to me. How could I know what I had to say before I had already said it?
The only answer was to discover the narrative first and pray that a pitch would follow, so I retreated to the nook where we kept our behemoth computer and started typing. Each night for perhaps a week I sat under the high-wattage bulb in an otherwise darkened house, hunched over the keyboard until the sprinklers whirred in the neighbors’ yards. By the end I had an essay, 3,600 words of memoir and history, New England childhood and California dreams, and though I have long since lost the manuscript I remember describing the way Los Angeles looks from Mulholland Drive on a clear winter’s night, the billion dots of light pulsing together like an alien communication, all the way to the horizon.
In retrospect this seems like a fool’s errand. I had not yet considered where to pitch the story, much less received an editor’s interested reply. If you have ever read an article in Writer’s Digest you will know this is not the prescribed order of operations, but at the time I was too inexperienced, too desperate to say something, to care much about prescriptions. In some sense, I still am. I still prefer to write long after the house has gone dark. I still listen for the whir of the sprinklers. I still pitch a story only after I’ve discovered the narrative. I realize now that every sentence I’ve ever written I’ve written for free, even if I received payment for it later, because in the end the only thing I’ve ever been good at is the mulling, drafting, deleting, restarting, revising, agonizing.
Let me put it another way.
After a bit of searching on the Internet I sent an unsolicited soft copy of the essay to Rick Wartzman, the editor of West, at that time the magazine of the Los Angeles Times. I had no expectation of a response, but because I am lucky, or because the piece was heartfelt, or because Rick’s first editor’s note for the magazine had promised “writing not just about California but to California — to that distinct part of every thinking Californian’s self-identity, to that California sensibility that resides in all of us,” I sold the first real piece I ever wrote for a princely sum. I was still so young that I had to ask a friend with a fake I.D. to buy the champagne to celebrate.
I regret to report that West eventually killed the piece, though I cannot say with confidence whether it was the architecture of the Los Angeles Times or the architecture of my writing that collapsed first. In any case, I do not have the item on my resume. I do not remember the byline’s ink on my fingertips. I do not know what, if anything, would have come of the essay’s publication. I hope you’ll forgive me for admitting that I sometimes dream of this shadow career, the one that might have been had West not killed the piece. The gray-haired woman in the sensible shoes told me that most people would say no, but she didn’t warn me just how hard that turns out to be. This is what I meant when I said the blade cuts both ways: I kept the money, but I would have returned every cent to see the dog-eared issue on my bookshelf.
“I beseech you, don’t give it away,” Krieder writes. “As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.”
I empathize with this sentiment, and with those who’ve shared, tweeted, tagged, emailed, or otherwise lauded Krieder’s op-ed since it appeared. I am writing this sentence for free and I wish I were not. But the lawyer’s son (Marx) and the industrialist’s son (Engels) who called on the workers of the world to unite failed, as Krieder does, to appreciate the paradox of pragmatism. To choose another day in the factory over storming the barricades is not to betray one’s vocation or to deny the collective interest, but to recognize that structural change is more easily promised than accomplished.
Tim Krieder is 46. He sold his first piece of writing for print in 1989, when I was two years old, and for twenty-plus years has forged a reputation as an illustrator and writer with an effortlessly funny, unmannered command. I am 26, sold my first piece of writing for print in 2006, and watched first-hand as the industry — the entire world economy, for that matter — disintegrated as I finished college. Through yet another stroke of serendipity I landed as a contributor at Thompson on Hollywood!, where I receive enough money to cover a few bills at the end of the month, but beyond the diehards who enjoy my musings on old movies (notably, this does not even include my own parents), I have not had the chance to forge a reputation for much of anything.
I’m only asking for the chance you once had, Mr. Krieder: the chance to fend for myself. I am not a slave of the Internet. I am, rather, an indentured servant, completing a voluntary term of (mostly) unpaid service with the prospect of independence ahead. Squaring a space of one’s own in this sandbox of ubiquitous, endless, ephemeral “content” is not so easy, but trust that when I write for Thought Catalog or any other publication without compensation, I’m not writing simply for some crude notion of “exposure.” I’m writing so I might work up the courage and the opportunity to ditch graduate school, where I’m pursuing a Ph.D in Putting Off the Inevitable. I’m writing to hear once more the sprinkler’s whir. I’m writing to practice the craft, to collect clips, to understand why a pitch succeeds or fails, and if an editor at a publication with money to spare or an agent searching for new talent should see this and reach out to me for some reason, so be it. You see, Mr. Krieder, I’m writing this sentence for free because I have to believe that my day to stand with you will eventually arrive, and we can storm the barricades together.