November 18, 2021 • Career Advice

What Is Due, And Why Are We Paying It?

How Lifting Up Others Is More Important Than Paying Our Dues

“Long is the way and hard” would be an accurate description of how one became a writer when I started out. This was, practically speaking, before the internet, and the way up involved getting some sort of position at a magazine or weekly paper, in which you were tasked with “organizing.” Schedules; contracts; lunch. Or, maybe you filed paperwork…in an actual cabinet. I once organized the magazine closet in alphabetical order, and then by date.

In my case, I interned for a few months at Talk magazine. I was in my mid-twenties, and this was my first internship (there were no internships in Canada when I was coming up, though there may be now), which I was able to afford (it was non-paying) because I was waitressing at the time. I started out filing contracts — some of which I still remember: Zadie Smith was signed up to profile Madonna, Martin Amis was researching a feature — and it was instructive, in so far as I got to see what people were paid (more than most writers are getting paid right now, is the answer). After a while of doing this, I got to write the captions for the front of book section that featured letters to the editor. This was extremely exciting. Even seeing a few of my own words in print was proof that I might be able to be a writer. Then the magazine shut down.

Most writers of my era had similar experiences. You filed, you wrote bar and restaurant reviews for the Village Voice or New York Magazine. You cobbled together small clips. You called editors and pitched them on the phone. I remember going to some sort of freelance writing seminar where the featured editor, an extremely glamorous woman who looked like the twin of Christy Turlington, gazed out contemptuously at the packed room and told all the people who had paid to be there so they could learn the secret of how to get published, that it was a waste of time to call or send her a pitch letter, she simply wasn’t interested in hearing from up and coming writers. We’d just have to slog it through.

I have thought about this moment more than once over the years. It was so demoralizing and unnecessary.  And I was thinking about it again the other day when a friend of mine, who’s in their twenties and is working their way up through book publishing, was talking about the feedback they’d been getting from the higher ups. Namely that their bosses had to slog so they should too. Never mind that when their bosses were in the trenches, salaries were basically the same as they are now, but real estate prices were essentially one third. Nor that email has increased the workload. Nor that…fill in whatever you want. Just that, they expected my friend to “pay their dues” in a similarly painful manner to which they had.

I am sympathetic to this inclination to a degree. I recall during the years the internet really kicked into high content swing watching young, hopeful writers would land in New York and boom, two weeks later be offered a full-time writing gig. On top of that, they’d dictate the terms. It was extraordinary. More incredible was seeing Instagram influencers assigned cover story bylines by major magazines. It felt unfair.

I wanted acknowledgement of the grind I’d been subjected to; an acknowledgement that I certainly wasn’t getting from my peers or the industry I was in. In other words, “Because I suffered, you should suffer so that you can recognize all the hard, unrewarding, terrible work I did.” As opposed to, “Wow, isn’t it amazing you don’t have to do this,” which is what it should be. What is progress, in theory, if not making things easier for those who come up behind us?

This is a tough leap. It requires generosity and a desire to see things get better even if they don’t get better for you (though they might!). It’s also the only way things change. As it is, I feel like I’m sometimes watching every person I know under thirty buckle under the expectations placed on them and bow out. In a perfect world, the only paying dues people should be doing these days should result in collective action.

Today’s piece is brought to you by Ruth Ann Harnisch, who doesn’t just believe writers should be paid for what they do, but actually makes sure they are.

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