The Value of Waiting (Writing)

Note to Self/World: I’m writing this as much for future-me as I am for you, dear fickle Interwebs (won’t you let some of those struggling cocoon-people out of your sticky grasp? No? Okay, well, I tried.) Let’s get right to the chase: I have no patience. Wait, that’s not true – I have patience enough for others, I just don’t have any for myself. I am, in many respects, my generation’s poster child: the early-to-mid 20s Bachelor-of-Arts-toting media professional, suffering from an acute inferiority complex, a paradoxical burning certainty of greatness, and an unfortunate addiction to unnecessary parentheses. (No, really, it’s a thing. Or maybe it’s just me.) Oh, and I just upgraded to a Masters in Creative Writing, otherwise known as holyfuckmoredebtohgodwhy, so there’s that.

Occasionally, I write things and occasionally, I try to publish said things. Now, right there, we have a problem, as nobody ever achieved their insanely unlikely dreams by giving it a go ‘occasionally’. And if you have, fuck you. It’s got to be an everyday grind or at least a dedicated weekly effort. (See what I did there? I also love sliding scales.) This past year or so, I’ve actually been managing that fairly well. I’ve put in the hard yards, worked the 9-5 job, saved, and studied full-time to boot while writing. Things are going OK. Not great, but more than fine. And yet… I itch. Not just because I need to shower more, either, I mean within. I want to move, to see the world, to write novels and short stories and poems and movies and comics and fucking everything. 

I have an insatiable urge to write, to tell stories, and with that comes an equally powerful desire to share them. To connect with people – to give them the kind of release that stories regularly provide for me. The kind that kept me off the streets and saved my life, again and again and again. I’m not alone in this need to connect. Has there ever been a more reflective, multi-skilled generation of storytellers? Even if the stories are only memoirs interspersed through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram – even if the collage is fragmented across mediums and devices, it’s still there, and we are more aware of ourselves and others in the context of narrative than we’ve ever been before.

The desire to be seen, to be heard, is powerful beyond measure. I feel it acutely every day – not because of the internet –  but because my mum was high pretty much every day and I was often invisible to my family. The internet and social media have, however, equipped us with all the tools to readily observe and record our lives in obsessive minutiae; to be, in effect, our own documentarians. Our own historiographers. It both feeds our desire, our certainty of self-importance (not always a bad thing, in and of itself), and leaves us desperately convinced of our own insignificance. Always wanting more. We’re crack-addicts for Likes and Retweets in a social media slum-heaven where the drug is reassurance, the currency popularity.

Fuck, I wish popularity paid the bills. I really do – even though I’d probably still be poor, actually – because then I might have a glimmer of hope that the ubiquitous writer, the digital media clones, might actually get paid a decent wage. Instead, I find myself writing things, stories or articles, not listicles (fuck you Buzzfeed and your many-limbed numerical spawn gradually eating away at the English language until we’re all reduced to nothing more than a GIF of an adorable sea otter sucking on a dildo) without any real means to get them published in a paying market. Now, I have nothing against Buzzfeed really or my delightful digital media clones, but it seems to me that the great content creators that keep this engine chugging are mostly unpaid. A few of these websites have a tiny core group of paid staff and then let the rest of us go nuts in an orgiastic feast of despair and self-loathing.

Case in point: Thought Catalog. Thousands of posts, a mix of articles and listicles, based not on quality writing in exchange for money but a free-for-all in exchange for “exposure”. There have been a whole host of articles recently exhorting the need for artists and writers to be paid appropriately and for young writers not to buy into it, not to undercut their future selves by giving their work away, so I don’t really need to comment on it except to say, actually, I’ve done it before and I may have to do it again. I am a young writer; I’m 24 years old, and I have a voice – a perspective I desperately want to share. Though, deep down, it began from a need to be seen and heard, it has morphed into a critical and utterly necessary release.

Several months ago, I read an opinion piece that lashed me into furious response and immediately sent it off to the Sydney Morning Herald. It was published, and that simple act proved to be disproportionately outstanding in its validation. For once, I wasn’t just an unthinking consumer of the everlasting bullshit of mainstream news media; I had crossed the line. I was being heard and seen, and yes, it prompted truly awful, racist, and personal attacks but it also engaged people with subjects I’m passionate about: education, racism (ending it), community, and the power of reading, of stories. It was unpaid and it didn’t matter. A few months later, I wrote a poem encapsulating how I felt about the rhetoric surrounding Australia’s asylum seeker “debate”. The debate is for show, as both sides have been engaging in no-holds-barred human rights violation for years now, in what may go down as the most depressing race to the bottom in our history.

Again, on writing it, I felt that same powerful need to parachute it into the world – to get it out of my mind, off my chest and into the weightless domain of the internet. I could have waited. I could have sent it to various poetry journals. I looked at a few and the paying journals all had response times of around six months. Six months! That’s an Ice Age in this millennium and my need, my clawing-for-breath had no concept of six months. It had to be now. If ever there was a tag-line for my generation and indeed the next, that must be it: it has to be now. Then, of course, there was the election to be considered, and I thought (in my hilariously optimistic but ultimately ridiculous and depressing fashion), I should get it out there before people vote! Maybe I can make someone think twice? Maybe not.

sent it to the ABC’s The Drum and it was published the next day, to my fevered delight. Responses! Views! Oh, yes, and the racism and the personal attacks. Check, check and check. Still no money though. My urgent impulse faded, clarity returned, and I returned to my usual journal-hunting. Those very same journals increasingly seem to have big name authors and writers on their hands, with even longer response times for unsolicited work, which prompts the thought: but they don’t need those column inches, do they? Surely not… and suddenly, their shouts from high on their published pedestals takes on a different note. Don’t buy into it, they said. They may very well not want to rely on those column inches every bit as much as you want to steal them. But the game is rigged now and we all know it.

Worse, I don’t really see a way out of it. Just last week, I found myself reflecting on death, on my grandmother’s recent passing, and the role and differences in funerals across Western and Islamic culture. It was an incredibly difficult piece, and it spans some 3,140 words. It took several hours to write. Writing it woke the quiet heat of grief within and I wanted nothing more than to get rid of it, to have someone else read it and feel what I was saying. I found myself trawling the internet again. Where could I send it? Could I actually aim to get paid for it? I should, shouldn’t I? I was in a daze. I must have tried a dozen places, and somehow ended up at Thought Catalog. I’d seen a few of their posts come up on Facebook recently – fuck it, I had to do it. So I sent it off.

A few days later, once more becalmed, I rewrote it, and it was much better. This time, I sent it to Overland. I thought, here, I have something substantial. Something I’ve worked on. I noticed that Overland has two categories for its Essays – online and print. Online carried a payment of $50. Print, $400. A $350 difference and I still, still asked the editor to consider it for the online category too. Money didn’t matter. I just needed to be heard, needed to be read – the relief is visceral, a whole body experience. Ultimately, I totally forgot about the Thought Catalog submission until they emailed me to say ‘Congratulations! Your piece is up!’ That came as a bit of a shock, actually. Usually, you get asked if the piece is still available to be published but there it was, just out there on the web.

I’m not shitting on Thought Catalog here, either; ultimately the need I had was sated, and the decision to send it was mine, so it’s all good. However, with hindsight, the placement of my work bothers me. Nothing hit home harder than seeing my work alongside an inane list of 10 Reasons Why Potato is God’s Greatest Creation – made all the more worse by the fact that I read the damn thing because I fucking love potatoes. My 3000+ word piece exploring grief and my own relationship with death and the rituals we have around it was no better than that list. In fact, it was worse, because no one wants to read about death when they could be reading about potatoes. Fact. Also, the sheer volume of content they produce every day is astounding. Be prepared for your work to be buried, fast.

So, I’m left with mixed feelings about the shrinking options that face new writers. On the one hand, you want to build a respectable platform of published work, and the more paid-for work you have, the more credibility you have (also money). On the other, there are times when nothing matters more than being heard, being seen, and expressing your pain/joy/love as fully as you know how. The only advice I have for myself is to think before submitting next time, not just about how it will reflect on me or my future prospects, but to consider how appropriate the platform is for the piece.

Sharing work with friends might be a sensible step to take first, allowing me to think more clearly before I try to publish it.Really though, what I’m trying to say here is that sometimes, it’s more complicated than simply free vs pay, print vs digital or anything in between. It can be difficult for new writers to navigate a viable path through the mire of media these days – I wish I had the answers but I don’t.

If you do, be sure to let me know, because I’m still trying to find my way.

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