on writing

The Writing Jellyfish


Last week I submitted more work to literary magazines than I did throughout the entirety of 2015. That sounds impressive until I pony up the actual number: nine. Nine submissions.

I haven’t been as lazy over the last couple of years as that number suggests; in fact, I’ve been very busy. Toward the end of 2013 I started catching paid online work — essays, think pieces, reviews, daily journalism, even listicles. Since then I’ve racked up over 500 paid pieces. I’d be an ungrateful fool to complain about that, but I will anyway.

My working life’s spirit animal is the jellyfish–spineless, mindless, drifting with the tide. Any career advancement I’ve experienced has come down to saying “okay” to whatever I’m offered. I’ve never understood people who read career books, attend networking events, etc. Make no mistake: I believe they’re doing everything right while I’m doing everything wrong. I just don’t understand them. The career plan people are an alien species to me.

Most every conscious career decision I’ve ever made has been wrong. The most glaring example that comes to mind was the time that the president of Capitol Records offered me a job and I passed because “I don’t want to work in the music industry.” At the time I earned minimum wage as a record store clerk, proving that career planning is clearly not for me. No, better to be the jellyfish and drift with the tide.

Drifting into writing for hire wasn’t a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of work, not the least of which is that it’s a hell of a lot easier than digging ditches. There are many miserable ways to earn a living, but throwing together “10 Signs She’s Cheating (#7 Blew Our Minds)” isn’t one of them.

Work for hire forces a writer to deal with constraints: tone, topic, style guides, length, deadline, editors’ eccentricities. Deadlines in particular are wonderful for hobbyists who romanticize the act of writing. When it’s 3:00 and you have to file by 5:00, there’s no time to sit around waiting for a visit from some fruity muse–one just has to sit down and get it done. It’s an exercise in focus, and a very good one.

Over the last couple of years the for-hire words piled up, a half million or more of them over 500 pieces. Some of them are pretty good, most aren’t. In newspaper terms, most of that effort was no more than filling column inches–500,000 words immediately forgotten, if they were even read at all.

I continued drifting along like a jellyfish, letting the tide carry me wherever it chose. A clickbait provider contacted me with a proposal to write original content for them. “Sure,” said the jellyfish. “Send over the contract and let’s get to it.”

They did, and then my mother died. Someone called me while I stood frozen in front of my hotel, unsure of where I should be or what I should do. “Have you had a chance to review the contract?” the voice said.

“I can’t do this right now. My mother just died two hours ago,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Take all the time you need,” the voice said.

Over the next few days I wrote an obituary, a eulogy, and a short story about my mother’s death. I delivered the eulogy at her funeral after the minister delivered my obituary as if they were his own words.

A few days later I received a nasty email from a client stating that I overcharged him for an essay. Under normal circumstances I probably would’ve just taken it as a misunderstanding, but I had no emotional buffer zone at that time. The incident struck me as rude and insulting. We settled up, and I scratched that client off my list.

Months earlier, I agreed to cover Metallica’s Super Bowl show for another client. The show was a couple of weeks after my mother’s death. The thought of covering it was causing me panic attacks. I didn’t want to do it anymore, but I didn’t want to be unprofessional and back out on a few days’ notice. Eventually I did, and understandably that was the last assignment that site offered me.

Shortly after that the clickbait site withdrew their offer. I guess I grieved a couple of weeks too long. My work for hire was quickly drying up, and an unexpected thing happened: I felt relieved.

Writing anything in the months since my mother passed has been difficult. I’m not entirely sure why, but my hunch is that watching the woman who raised me take her last breath rendered everything meaningless.  It’s hard to be passionate about trivial things when the image of my mother’s lifeless face has overwhelmed my mind’s eye. Everything seems trivial compared to that.

That includes adding to the pile of paid words, disposable words, clutter, noise. I’m not proud of those 500 pieces that I was paid to write. I’m not ashamed of them, either, but it’s hard to get motivated to add to the pile. Those pieces are not building blocks from which I can create bigger things, and if they were I couldn’t do anything with them. They’re my words, but they don’t belong to me.

But my literary (“literary”) work–no matter how good or bad it is, it’s mine. Chances are that all nine stories I submitted last week will be declined. That’s the way that game works. Even if they’re accepted I’ll only make a couple bucks or receive a couple of free copies that I’ll crack once and never look at again because the sight of my shitty story sandwiched between two other writers’ superior work will embarrass me.

I’ve taken an enormous step backward. I’ve virtually given up paid work in favor of returning to the dreaded slush piles that writers try so hard to get out of. Don’t misunderstand: I’ll still take assignments that come my way and I’ll enjoy them. What’s changed is my compass heading. Rather than focus on work for hire, I’m going to get back to storytelling for a little while. There’s no money it, but the decision feels right.

I can’t figure out why, though. My guess is that for the first time in years I’m making a conscious career decision rather than simply drifting with the tide. Let’s hope that in the long run it works out better than that Capitol Records deal did.


Categories: on writing

5 replies »

  1. I’m thinking that bucks or no bucks, those nine stories will give you more than paid writing will ever do. I know that your pieces about your mother will.
    I think I told you I had a steady freelance writing gig at a regional magazine for a few years, back in 04-07, something like that. I wasn’t making huge $$ but I was getting paid between $500 and $1500 a month. And felt ridiculous. I was writing but as you say, it wasn’t MY writing, not the stuff I wanted to think about, to share with my little corner of the world. Keep on keeping on, James. Your big fat check is in the mail, somewhere.


  2. So the question seems to be: Should James write shit that he gets paid for or should he write quality stories that don’t pay but offer genuine satisfaction and pride? Perhaps I’ve weighted the choice so as to be a slam dunk. That is because I get a great deal of joy reading your quality stuff. Many’s the time I have finished reading one of your pieces and been so moved that I sat quietly, just hoping to extend the experience.


  3. What they said. 😀
    Especially about sitting quietly, hoping to extend the experience. How many times I have done that with one of your memoir pieces, half the time not realizing that tears are plopping on my keyboard, or I am sitting there smiling like the village idiot. Your storytelling has kept my little non-writing passion alive when it often seemed impossible. So, selfishly as always, I am glad you are choosing more storytelling, less “25 years ago today.” Don’t get me wrong, I read those and enjoyed them, and was pleased that you were getting paid to make me feel ancient, but……more intimate James is always choice number one.


  4. Here’s your new schedule:

    Monday – shitty assignment
    Tuesday – storytelling
    Wednesday – shitty assignment
    Thursday – storytelling
    Friday – shitty assignment
    Saturday – half day of storytelling, go to record store
    Sunday – watch TV and eat ice cream


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