I spent a few years working in the oil and gas business, and when people asked me what I did for a living, and I told them I was a landman, the reactions ranged from confusion to boredom. Or the always fun joke, “You mean, land-WOMAN?”
Now, when I tell people that I am a writer, inevitably the reaction is very positive. People get excited, ask questions, and tell me how lucky I am to be able to work from home. (And oh, they have a book they are going to write, and could I look at it?)
But the reality of the writer’s life, which first prompted me to change professions a few years ago, is that very rarely can the full-time writer support themselves writing just what they want to write. Friends are shocked when I tell them that article I wrote in blah magazine was not something I chose to write about. It was assigned to me, with a word count and often, specific editorial direction. And more often than not, isn’t what I would write if I had any say about it.
A few months ago I was assigned an article on getting back in shape after having a baby. I don’t have any children, so I decided to ask mothers who were friends of mine on social media to write about their experiences with post-baby fitness. The response was overwhelming, and I was struck by the unrealistic pressures many new mothers experience right after having a baby.
I then interviewed the owners of yoga studios and gyms around town and got some wonderful stories from them about their own struggles and realizations about post-partum fitness. Most of the stories focused on the mother’s need for emotional wholeness more than fitting back into their pre-pregnancy jeans in six weeks. And if anything, these women often resented the media pressure to “bounce back” like so many magazine celebrities immediately after giving birth.
I tell you all that to say this: I didn’t get to write about any of that. My editor wanted a 300-word article listing fitness centers around town that offered post-baby fitness classes. And that is what I gave her. And this story is the same story as so many other article assignments I’ve had over the years.
That is what writing for hire is like. All the stories I want to write remain mostly untold.
Years ago, when I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor, one of my jobs was to interview emerging artists for a short column. For most of the artists I interviewed, I had just 250 words to write about their art and career. I was still a newbie, so I would spend 30 minutes to an hour on the phone with every one of them collecting fascinating stories about why they became artists, what they love about their craft, career setbacks and often, many stories that were personal and that I knew were not meant for sharing.
I didn’t realize at the time how little of those interviews would actually make it into the final piece. Each month as I struggled to cut 750 words down to 250, I learned how to find the essential truth and wonder about every person’s story. It was a great but hard lesson. And I don’t think anyone I have ever interviewed will ever understand how painful it is for me, as the writer tasked with telling their story, to keep editing and cutting down the story far past what I wish I could share. Or worse, I don’t even get to share the story I want to tell at all.
This is the writer’s life. I spend most of day writing about things I don’t care about, or if I do care about them, I can’t write about them in the way I would like. And for this privilege, I am asked to charge less than what I am worth, wait months to be paid and sometimes not even get paid at all. Many times I don’t get any feedback: “Great piece.” “Nice work.” or even “That sucks, please try again.” And some days, like today, I find out something I wrote and am very proud of isn’t going to run at all because of an editorial goof.
So why do I write? Some days I don’t know. Maybe it is the naïve hope that one day, I will actually be able to support myself while writing what matter most to me. (And some days I wonder what it is that even matters most to me. What would I write about if I could write about anything?) For now, I take comfort in the little victories—the interview where I really connected with my subject, the chance to tell someone’s story that needs to be told, or the opportunity to eat good food and get paid to write about it.
Why do I write? I ask myself this question every morning.
I write to connect with people, to understand them, and have the privilege of sharing their stories. I write to connect with you, to understand you and to hopefully have the privilege of writing something meaningful that touches you.