Shit I learned about media, writing and me in 2013

31 Dec

We’ve spent the past few days eating rich food, so why not enjoy this extra slice of self-indulgence as I look back onto 2013 and figure out what I’ve learnt?

Ultimately, 2013 taught me that learning never stops and curiosity is an endless marathon requiring masses of energy.

It’s one of the few truths I can hold to like a mast; curiosity brings untold opportunity and but it is more tiring than any physical activity I can think of. It’s unrelenting exercise, the marathon that tells you to dig a little deeper, to go a little further, get a little better.

There are people who are indefatigable in this respect. Clem Ford, whose friendship, generosity and unstinting challenge and loyalty I’m honoured to know, is endlessly curious. She’s a bower bird on the hunt for links, for stories, for experiences and lives in the ever-present, constantly filtering and connecting.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering when I can have a lie down and a cheeky cigarette so I can sort everything in my mind or let it simmer into a gentle daydream. Having made the shift from desk job to freelance, I’ve had extra time to hang out with my daughter, think about things, enjoy a rather long period of depression and face truths and experiences I’ve long held off.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the chaos and calm.

Freelance: It was a move that felt like impulse but was a slow cresting wave, a thought that I wasn’t enjoying being in offices and wanted quiet, wanted a space away from obligation so I could write and think, though I realise now I just wanted to hide. I started writing more when I kicked out my ex so I could cover half the rent and it got to the point where I realised I could make an income.

Freelance writing, specifically editorial and opinion, is an endeavour that requires far more energy and extraversion than its solitary application suggests because it requires an accelerated sprint to connect random data to impacts for others, the race to pitch, research and deliver before others. This requires curiosity not only for yourself but on behalf of others, spending a life almost constantly switched on and open to an unrelenting stream of emotions and facts all mashed together. Asher Wolf, whom I often describe as Twitter’s sentinel, handles this energy with adept precision and prescience. Also, gathering from the odd hours I’ve checked my phone, blinking groggily at the light wrought from tweets, Asher never sleeps. Seriously, I will pay good money for someone to show me a photo of her sleeping because I’m quite sure it has never happened because Asher is the singularity as activist curator manifest.

There has been constant criticism that modern editorial is an ouroboros of growing manipulable irrelevance, inciting emotion but rarely thought or true exploration, and a major contributor to lack of public thought.

Much of this is blamed on editorial strategies, bad and cynical writing rushed to unreasonable time frames by writers who shouldn’t be trusted as they give their opinion away for money (actual criticism I once read about myself).

Instead, I’d venture that we’re still trying to work out how to cope with the detritus of data that gluts our screens. There is little doubt to me that this overstimulation (the original name of this blog, btw) overwhelms the mind to numbness, breeding apathy and concerted ignorance. We are so overwhelmed with data that not only is the call coming from inside the house, it’s coming from every damn item with a plug.

Modern media, with an emphasis on online, feels like a continual experiment in how to shift and present that data in ways that will move or educate the reader. There’s a heavier reliance on moving readers along subjective lines because that breeds loyalty, something you can rarely get from someone who prefers (however improbably) objective reporting. I feel what is happening in online reporting is less an exercise in writing adapting than humans adapting to how they receive and respond to the data deluge.

To me, that’s been the most interesting thing of all.

Writing: The one thing that has helped my writing this year was curiosity in all its applications: the curiosity to actually write, the curiosity that comes from pushing it through another draft, the curiosity to test your thoughts through research, the curiosity to read and see what others are saying on topics you know either a lot or a little.

Reading widely should be the preserve of both writer and reader alike. There are early traps we all fall for, like the contrarian cosplay some writers employ in an attempt to appear superior or different, without realising how predictably they present themselves as rote peddlers. The wide read means actively exploring the thoughts of others who aren’t necessarily mainstream (i.e. white, generally male and, more often than not, straight) but have different experiences and different resources, making different connections with data to produce results that explain their world. Reading widely will make you a better writer, but it will also make you a better reader and thinker while you actively work at developing your own thoughts, approach and style.

Having distanced actual editorial/reporting from data, there has been no greater indulgence than being able to write for a living and get a good, close up view of the beast.

As someone who views writing as a trade or craft rather than an art, I cannot shake the notion that for me, writing is akin to tetris where the objective is to quickly sort all the clauses and thoughts to unlock the next level. I spend more time focused on arguments and research than I do on expression.

That focus affects the final copy, which often results in dense and sometimes boring writing. On the other side of the spectrum is beautifully euphonic copy which ends up saying or doing little at all than say “I’m a writer”, which will usually impress some but impact readers, and rarely convert anyone of influence. Instead of “look at all the pretty colours”, it’s “look at all the shiny words”. There’s a market for both but their impact can be negligible unless pressed under the fingers of a true master (and, let’s face it, those who think they are most likely aren’t).

Others focus on a smaller aspect of the argument and mix it with beautifully expressed rhetoric. This is the style that resonates most with readers and lends themselves to, that most horrid of goals, going viral.

Personally, I’m rarely able to achieve that because it never gives me the protein I’m after. Like my on-off relationship with philosophy, I have the impatient whine of “really? I had to read all that for a basic truth? Oh for fuck’s sake, I could have made a cup of tea instead of reading this shite.” It all hits the right note marked on our hymn books but it doesn’t truly clamber up the scale.

Though this lays a very despairing wreath at the foot of media, we should also look to readers who are increasingly not looking to challenge themselves. They read from the same hymn book, only seeking opposing views for the aerobic opprobrium it brings.

So, how do you make money as a writer in a market where the most popular articles are the ones you don’t want to work towards (remembering that you are not a master)?

When I read this year I shouldn’t be trusted as I give my opinion away for money, I snickered and wondered if they knew just how poorly writers are paid or what kind of cruelly ascetic servitude is expected of writers so they can maintain a sheen of integrity.

It’s an astoundingly facile criticism that displays superficial thought and expectations: we pay writers shit and damn them if they ask for more. The effort involved in drawing anything close to a wage is draining and comes with huge sacrifice for most.

While I freely admit to days of torpor or days where I’ve made $800 for 12 hours of work, I will also admit I’ve spent 24 hours awake writing one article which was then spiked, leaving me $174 dollars or $7.25 per hour. I’ve spent three days interviewing, 4 researching and 5 days writing for which I was paid approximately $0.33 per hour for another article.

For most writers, the latter and not the former is more likely. Work as a full-time writer – which I would argue is imperative if you really want to focus on improving your skill – and you can expect to live relatively close to the poverty line as possible within an urbanised area.

As an adult woman who was earning a six figure salary at certain points in my career, this new existence close to the poverty line is possibly the most demoralising I’ve ever experienced. It’s a place where every dollar is sweated, every call ignored in case it is about a bill, every item in your home up for sale, every trip to the shop tightly tabulated, where $20 becomes an unfathomable fortune and your purchases are judged by people you consider friends.

And when you consider this experience, consider the editors who offer less than $150 for an article or those who tell you that they don’t have the budget but it will provide great exposure for your career or lead to more work (it never does).

It’s at that point you realise you sell your opinion because it’s one of the few renewable resources you have that will continue to feed yourself and your daughter more than an unattainable desk job or callous social welfare ever could.

One of the great unpaid labour achievements of modern media has been accessible writers. Though never fully articulated, we are expected to spruik our work and thoughts, our bylines linked to Twitter and email accounts. In a sense, it works in our favour because we’re able to reach people who enjoy what we do and travel those same avenues in the interest of research.

However, it also leaves us open to an audience who believe we should be instantly available for their every thought and criticism. This can run from the stock sexualised threat of violence, the guttural jeering to a barrage of questions (all preceded by a “.” so others can sit like voyeurs as they attempt to collect you as their troll trophy).

It’s in this culture of expectation and immediacy where the energy drain lies and you begin to sense writers are expected to be badly paid and obligated dancing bears. Clem Ford is called upon by people to immediately denounce every event like some Feminist Metatron and castigated when she doesn’t respond as a dancing Feminist Metatron Bear should.

But conversely, this culture of online hating and trollery raises another area: victimisation as branding strategy. When writers present themselves as hated, contrarian, dangerous, victimised by the ‘bad’ guys and broadcast their scalping efforts, it not only promotes the activity of vicitimisation, it also conflates the ability to outrage people they dislike with being right.

Thankfully, I’m far too irrelevant to generate much blowback and tend to view most online criticism as an opportunity to learn (a piece I did for the Guardian got some incredibly valid feedback about being colour-blind and reminded me to get better with research and another made me realise I need to get better at crafting sentences). Ultimately though, if people are going to hate you or your work, there’s little you can do to change their opinion and giving over energy to them is a waste for everyone.

My greatest fear aren’t the haters, trolls, or conspicuously compassionate over-activists with their mourning sickness and outrage.

My greatest fear is someone who can dismantle my arguments.

Accomplishment & failure: It’s been a spotty year for the ledger. For every success there have been some notable and larger failures which makes everything look like a red mess.

With almost a year spent freelancing, I’ve had the incalculable joy of challenging myself on topics and writing styles I possibly would not have tried. I gained some writing gigs and I lost some writing gigs but feel happy that I kept my integrity along the way.

Thanks to depression and money issues, I subjectively feel burnt out and unable to see all the positive achievement.These are poison for a freelancer, not only because the presence of both will heighten their collected toxicity, but also because they ultimately work against productivity.

Objectively, I should feel happy with about 50% of my work and I know my writing style has improved, I have greater confidence in being able to write with authority, coupled with that diagnostic ability to see what’s wrong with a piece that only comes from working up against your words every day. But I’m burnt out and broke and am struggling to retain that curiosity in my fatigue. I will continue writing (if only to pay those bills) but will also continue my Sisyphean hobby of trying to find a desk job if only to recuperate for a spell.

As a postscript, 2013 would have been utterly bereft were it not for the people I am lucky enough to call friends. With no family of my own bar my daughter, this family of writers and others have shown me greater generosity, loyalty and love than any person I’ve known before.

2 Responses to “Shit I learned about media, writing and me in 2013”

  1. ben barren (@benbarren) May 2, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

    awesome post. if i can use an overly yanky positive term for well described freelance anhedonia u describe. not to mention the rotting corpse of the newspaper.


  1. Standing alone and the spasm of creativity [recent work] | Amy Gray | Pesky Feminist - May 21, 2014

    […] Curiosity – vital for creatives – is notoriously fragile and depleting, and something I’ve written about before. Pure energy for me comes from the realisation there is literally no other job, no other task, I […]

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