Is Fake Journalism Viable as a Career? Methinks Nope.

I took this picture at a hospital on a freelance project.

My journalism studies stopped abruptly after my first semester of college when I realized that my true love is fiction & writing it.  So after–or perhaps it was during–my second semester, I did a ninety degree turn and switched from Journalism to English with a Creative Writing concentration.

I spent most of the glorious next four years swimming in the ocean of literature, criticism, contemporary fiction, and writing.  I dropped the Oxford Comma habit, then picked it up again when I ditched MLA for Chicago Manual.

Now, ten years later, I find myself as a practicing journalist.  Would those lovey journalism professors I scorned during my energetic and immersed first year of college be proud of me, or would they think I’m a poser?  I feel like a poser.

I write hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of words each week for newspapers and magazines, and am in hot pursuit of more of this work using my trusty manual, Writer’s Market, and the online service, too. These are invaluable for the freelance writer.

And while all of the editors I work with seem to esteem me and my work somewhere between pleased and just-glad-to-have-a-reliable-freelancer, I keep finding and being offered more of this work, so I must be doing something right.

The jargon eludes me sometimes (though I cheat), and there are many aspects of AP Style that strike me as particularly un-stylish.

I’m kind of devastated by the realities of the print media business, and I am knees-deep in something that feels, in many ways, to be almost dead.  Rasping halted breaths after the world wide web and free content bludgeons it, print media is living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Nobody is paid well enough (especially not freelancers), and in the barren economic environment–or in the failure of print media to adequately prepare for and adapt to new media–the dearth of analysis and criticism that print media can afford its subjects contributes to the general disregard for critical thinking that is all too prevalent.

Still, I love talking to people and learning new stuff.  I love to do research and procure a working understanding of new topics.  And for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette (that I’m not linking here because every time you open their website, you get popups from Publisher’s Clearing House or Netflix), I get to talk to artists and musicians primarily, and I’ve met some excellent people, and learned about some groovy new tunes.  I’ve also talked to some Broadway celebs and authors I admire or respect.

But, I live in Williamsport, PA.  And while there’s tons of stuff that’s happening here that’s amazing, it’s not New York, Chicago, LA, or even Nashville.  We get d-list celebrities and Glenn Beck. Besides which, freelancers for small-town newspapers don’t really get to talk to the national acts (which is totally understandable and I am NOT complaining), and even when I do get to talk to national acts, it’s not like they’re folks who’re up-and-coming.  American Songwriter probably doesn’t want a piece about Foghat.  And the two pitches I’ve made for singer/songwriters that I thought would work there have been handily ignored.  (Again, not complaining.  Rejection is a reality of a career as a writer)

And in this huge Wildcat Comic Con project, I’m meeting even more cool people and learning even more cool stuff.  Ditto my podcasting for Billtown Blue Lit.  And these are up-and-comers.  So I’m hoping to mine a goodly number of pitches from this work.

But I find myself wondering why I expend so much energy and get paid so poorly (or not at all) when the likelihood that this work (or more of it) will still be available for me in even two years is slim.  Staff writers are more-or-less a thing of a bygone age, with staff writers having made a laborious transition to being called editors and getting paid less to do more work, so I don’t delude myself.  I am an apprentice to an industry that won’t be able to provide for my retirement.

So I mostly view this work as personal enrichment, and building a solid base of published pieces that I can leverage into better-paying gigs, plus writing practice because (say it with me), All Writing Is Writing Practice!

(I am also considering applying to graduate school again.  Don’t tell Penelope.)

Too, I’m getting my name into the world, on the internet, and the more people who know about me, who see my name in conjunction with things they enjoy, the greater my odds of being offered freelance writing work of any stripe.

But Penelope says that when you’re in your 30s, you have to stop doing work that people in their 20s do. I feel like I’m doing what I should’ve done the moment I earned my degree, and the realities of efficiency and the limited number of hours each day means that honoring this low-paying work while pursuing better-paying writing jobs is a tightrope walk between self-torture and -affirmation.

And I get Writer’s Digest, and I read blogs about freelancing, writing, media, and personal/professional development. I learn more about how to freelance as a writer every day.  So maybe I’m doing everything right? Or maybe I should just keep on keeping on and quit worrying so much over the theory.

Anybody care to weigh in?  I’d love to know what you think.  I approve all comments, even if I think they’re wrong, unless they are decidedly trollish.

Youth and Arrogance

I recently subscribed to Writer’s Digest and it is sincerely the best little bit of money I have ever spent.  I suspect it’ll pay for itself over and over again, plus it is a tax deduction.

There’s a terrific little section called “10 Embarrassing Moments That Made Me a Better Writer”  (This is the issue of 10s), and my favorite is from Jane Lebak.  It goes like this:  “In one college-level, short-fiction class, each student would lead a session in which we critiqued two pieces.  When it was my turn, I received a story about a military wife stationed in Germany; the writer was the mother of another student, and was auditing the course with her daughter.  In my young-writer arrogance, I critiqued with impunity, giving my unglossed opinion that the story suffered because the main character was self-absorbed and arrogant and she didn’t seem aware of it.  As I delivered this opinion to the surprised writer, her daughter covered her face with her hands. It turns out this piece wasn’t a short story, it was a memoir.”

Stick with me for a minute.

Been catching up on Mad Men.  There’re analagous anecdotes all over the place in that show, but one struck me on the episode we watched last night, somewhere in the middle of season 2.  Peggy begins to befriend this young priest.  The priest seems to be a little more interested in Peggy than is appropriate for a man of his station.  Meanwhile, Peggy’s older sister, who’s charged with the care of Peggy’s bastard son, and who lives with her mother and does not flit off each day to live in an apartment and keep a job in Manhattan, tells this priest about Peggy’s indescretion in confession.  The priest then, on Easter Sunday, hands Peggy a blue egg (blue, the color of truth, ahh, Mad Men.  You are so clever) and says, “for the little one.”  Peggy is, of course, aghast and that’s the end of the scene.

So I’ve been thinking, with some embarrassment, about the time I was a sophomore in college and somehow managed to become the editor of the undergraduate Literary Journal.  I was reminded of a particularly embarrassing event born of my similar arrogance, and here’s my story.  When I sat with my editorial board in the magazine’s office going through the pile of submissions, their duplicates, and cover pages and cataloging and categorizing the entries, we were disqualifying ones that exceeded the length requirement.  The woman who’d been editor of the magazine a few years before me, we’ll call her Pam, was in her forties and was, as far as I was able to glean, a somewhat ridiculous character.  Her piece was something like 3-5 pages over the length maximum.  So we disqualified it.  She’d been the editor 3 years running, and had transformed the journal from a very amateurish publication to something that looked professional.  Everyone was very proud of her for that, and she was in a love relationship with one of the faculty.

In my 21-year-old arrogance, I felt justified for the following reasons:  The journal was for college students.  To my mind, it was tacky for Pam to even submit work because she had 20 years more life experience than the average college student, and I felt like she’d had her share of the limelight from that publication, and I thought it was time for her to just be graceful and let the space for someone else.   I felt like she was being absurd, and it was in my power to show her I thought that, and it was for those reasons as much as for the fact of her slightly-too-long submission that I participated in disqualifying the piece.  Also, I didn’t want to be seen as playing favorites.  I wanted to treat everybody exactly the same.

Turns out, that’s not really how life works.

And now I know, like Jane learned, that Pam’s life was not easy, and that college was probably the first thing she felt successful at, and that being a woman is tricky in the world, especially if you happen to be a woman who has children and is smart.  Fairness and equal treatment exist only in really rare microcosms of society.  I should have just printed her story, disregarded maximum length and all.

And I acted like the priest from Mad Men.  I presumed to know something about Pam just by what I could see from the outside.  I had not yet learned that when people are ridiculous or absurd or insane, there’s often cause—and the cause is usually understandable, even if their behavior is perplexing.