By Andrea Plaid
I’m tapping out of the full-time freelancing writing life. I don’t have the constitution for it.
Or maybe there isn’t a constitution—a binding structure or a shape—to sustain this life for me…and others who leave the profession.
Of course, we’re warned that the full-on freelance writing life would be very hard, to be prepared for “feast or famine” cycles by having so much money to cushion you, to buy things in bulk during the flush times in order to survive the fasting ones when our pitches for blog posts/magazine articles/ news stories aren’t accepted or the check doesn’t arrive on time, if at all.
But what these warnings don’t tell you about is, to really maintain a certain quality of freelancing writing life over time—to be able to pay for a mortgage or rent, food, transportation, clothing, utilities (including phone and some sort of internet access), and some “pocket money” in order to attend those networking events to buy drinks—one also needs to what I call an “invisible income structure.” SBF homie Deanna Zandt touches on this at Forbes, but what this entails is having a financial safety net in place that bolsters the freelancer’s income, such as a steady-paying gig, having roommates, having a partner who works a steady-income job, living on public assistance (from unemployment to food stamps), living off parental support or an inheritance (be it money, property, etc.), student loans, living in a geographically inexpensive place, and/or some other break with expenses or monetary supplement.
Without that structure, how many freelancers are really “making it”—meaning that they’re able to not only pay for the basics, including the aforementioned “pocket money”, but are able to live a comfortable middle-class or upper middle-class life strictly on their earnings, when the market is demanding more from writers for less (and by less, I mean “free”) or, at least, six bottles of wine? Especially in a metropolitan place like New York City, which still is seen as the literary/artistic nexus of the US and still the most expensive city in the nation?
And this life isn’t relegated to New York writers, the usually middle-class US-educated–though so many are still, monetarily speaking, the working poor–creative class and the working-class day laborers, some of whom are undocumented immigrants. In fact, this freelancing life is the reality of US working life. What actors and writers and fine artists have been told (and frankly, we tell each other) is our lot—under the romantic myth of The Starving Artist for —has now metastasized. The economic uncertainty that undergirds the Starving Artist Myth crept into corporate and non-profit “office culture,” with the rise (and rising acceptance) of the temp worker. It also inhabits academia, with the increasing dependence on adjunct faculty. Unlike adjunct professors and artists, the temp jobs held at one point held out the promise of full-time work, if not a 40-hour work week for a certain period of time—which some companies took advantage of—then going from a “temp-to-perm” position in a company, complete with medical and other benefits for one’s self and one’s family (depending on the structure of the family) when hired. With that acquired full-time job—as so many others presumably have in the company—one could build a life, like a home.
And the freelance life narrative has an updated cache to it: it’s sold with the hip-hop phrase of “being on your hustle” or the 90s alternative buzz-acronym of “DIY”—WNYC’s New Tech City even intones 60s hippie anti-establishment nostalgia when talking about “micro-entrepreneurship” (another word for the freelance economy) in term of the “small businessperson” sticking it to the Big Corporations–and the updated upstart tycoon dream of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, if not in their league, with the media positioning of the next hot young Silicon Valley/online darling(s) as the new captains of industry. And this new economic zeitgeist is shaped as a “creative” thing, too–that’s where the constant stories of writers/graphic designers/social-media folks come in. Because it also says that “you, too, can be a hip young someone, like these artist-y types.” The “cool” factor recombines with the entrepreneurial. In other words, you’re not the next Warren Buffet or Oprah Winfrey or even Zuckerberg–you’re the next Jay-Z.
The stories that I saw that were all up with the freelancer economy constantly touted the stories the creative and the technological classes and their need for flexibility and loving the “challenge” of producing the next big “click magnet” or the latest app…while glossing over the fact that, though they may make “more money than they did when they worked for someone else” (the leitmotif of these articles, reminiscent of the tales of how people got rich during the housing bubble), once they figured in things like taxes and insurance into their monthly expenditures, they couldn’t make it on their freelancers’ salaries alone.
Depending on the wage and the company, a full-time job, especially one with benefits, allows for a grown-ass life where folks have the stable income to rent or own for themselves (or at least share out of volition, not out of economic necessity), put food on the table, pay their bills, have some disposable income to enjoy a movie (be it at a theater or on Netflix), and maybe get a bit of savings—if not a retirement fund–out of it. The freelancers’ life is forcing—if not keeping us–stuck in permanent college lifestyles. In other words, in the freelancers economy, every age is the new 20s, financially speaking—and we need to pull ourselves up by our start-ups and get with that.
However, the stories about “the new economy” prime present and future workers to accept less by accepting the Starving Artist Myth–because they’re supposed to be “passionate” about their work, as should the “entrepreneur” with the hold-out hope of living off their earnings. The long hours and the low pay and the financial insecurity? All part of the myth-based ethos. As Squeezed Between Feminism’s Tami Winfrey Harris said:
“We are being told there is nobility in working hard, but still starving and not accepting ‘hand outs’ from government or employer [through things like medical benefits or even a paycheck]. The way that message is twisted to the creative class is through the ‘starving artist’ trope…because folks with degrees and big-time aspirations aren’t gonna go for the idea of part-time work unless its positioned as an ‘adventure’ of sorts–a kind of freedom made possible by creative excellence. That’s the message we will buy, but the end result is the same.”
To paraphrase my mom, the end of that message is if you don’t partake in this new economic life, you deserve your poverty.
And can cis women of color, trans and gender non-conforming people of color, and cis queer folks of color–especially those of us of a certain age–afford the “starving artist” life? We tend to not have the invisible income structures that could quietly sustain that life. As Tami said, people of color are less likely to have parents who can float our households and their own. We are less likely to have inherited wealth. We don’t make the same amount of money in our working lives because our bodies and labor aren’t viewed as valuable. (Prime example: post-#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen conversation on Twitter, Salon put out a call for women writers of color to submit posts–with pay that was $50 less than their going freelancers rate.) We tend to not have access to the same networks that may net us a freelancing assigment. We are more likely to suffer from certain ailments that require long-term care–and long-term money.
dream hampton’s commented on the Facebook page of another artist/activist, who, though wildly rewarded and quite famous for his work, sweated about being two weeks late with his rent, about the “self-determined life” being “humbling.” But it’s not self-determined when the economic forces–complete with its new media-driven fables–are pushing all of us to that professional and financial circumstance, be you an artist or not. And, really, all of us aren’t trying to live like that—and don’t want to.
And we’re too old for fables and fairy tales.