In the introduction to her guest blog, Naomi Elster’ claims that ‘financial payment isn’t the only reward being published can offer an aspiring or emerging writer.’ Perhaps not, but for some of us—as Elster recognizes, to be sure—it’s impossible to write for free. No, like, actually impossible. Like, I can’t do that or I’ll starve, impossible.
Take my life. I’m a master’s student at a university in Berlin. I come from a single-parent, lower class family (bear with me, this isn’t a sob story) and my mother can’t afford to pay for me to be here. Idiot that I am, I’ve chosen to be a freelance writer to sustain myself. Edit: big idiot.
It’s not just about being an idiot, actually. I’m in Berlin, after all, and to get a menial job—bar work, waiting, retail, all things I’ve experienced and loathed by necessity in the past—requires a level of German notably higher than that which I possess. Not to mention the time-investment required to learn a language, particularly one as tear-inducingly difficult to pick up as German, which means less time to work.
And if I were to find myself a job of the aforementioned variety, I would have to fit it in around my master’s work, of which there is plenty, I assure you; I’m reading roughly one 200-page dense theoretical history book per week, something I thought I would enjoy significantly more than I do. (You try reading Reinhart Koselleck in sodding translation.). Oh, and then I’d have less time to write, something I do actually enjoy, notwithstanding the evident bitterness of this piece.
That is, I enjoy it most of the time—when I can write a short story I’m certain won’t see print but of which I’m nonetheless extremely proud, or when I can continue working on the science fiction novella through which I’ve been slogging for six months. It’s not quite as enjoyable, however, when I have to write articles entitled thusly: Ten Reasons Guinea Pigs Make Great Pets, or worse, This Woman Did This Crazy Thing and it Changed Her Life and We’re Not Going to Tell You What Happened for Eight Paragraphs and When We Do it’ll be Disappointing, or—and oh, how my legs tremble—Does Home Insurance Cover Water Leaks? How often do I have to write articles like this, the inquisitive reader may be thinking? More often than I care to embarrass myself by sharing. (Weekly, minimum.)
Enjoyment, unfortunately, isn’t top of the list of priorities. I have to consider the €300 a term I pay for my degree, plus buying food, purchasing the appropriate books for my course, and just generally living life by having a few cheap Pilsners on a Friday evening. I sacrificed my government loan to move to Berlin—and in that sense, yes, it is my own fault, shut up—and if I want to remain in the city in which Mark Twain said you could learn anything except the German language (he really didn’t like German), I’ve got to suck it up.
And really, it isn’t so bad. I do get to do what I love and, most of the time, sustain myself, even if I am living hand-to-mouth while I wait several months for my invoices to clear. What’s tough is that I would love to achieve the things Elster mentions—improving my CV, networking, maybe even getting some exposure from decent blogs and journals. The sad fact of the matter is that I can’t afford to spend—note: spend, not waste—my time improving my future chances of creative literary success (ie. getting a six-figure advance for my debut novel) when I have to figure out how I’m going to scrape together enough for a bowl of pasta next Wednesday.
Does this mean I have to temporarily sacrifice my dreams of becoming the next Ian McEwan?
Yes, it does. But after two years in Berlin, I’ll have a new language, a master’s degree, and a widened clientele—even if they are clickbait websites and insurance company blogs. (Top tip: insurance companies pay well.) And hopefully, one day I’ll make enough from my writing that I won’t have to worry when the next invoice is coming in. Until then, unfortunately, I can’t write for free—however useful it might be.
Illustration by Josh Quick.