I got a check for $100 in the mail the other day. It was for an article that I wrote more than a year ago and which was published in a women’s magazine in the States. I’ve been chasing that check since last February (which was the deadline for payment according to the contract I signed) and I’ve probably (conservatively) exchanged about 25 or 30 emails on this matter since then.
So what’s the big deal about 100 bucks, you ask? Are things really that tight over here in London?
Well yes…and no. I don’t make a lot of money as a freelance writer, so every payment really does count. But not enough to relentlessly chase down 100 dollars over a nine month period. Of course, that’s not *really* why I “followed the money” (to coin a phrase.) I did it because of what the payment represented to me symbolically.
For me, you see, that check was all about legitimacy.
Feeling legitimate can be a tricky thing in the work world, especially for writers, freelancers, and – in many professions – women. (Yikes! I’m all three!) I remember when I was a kid I once went shopping with a friend and her mother and the owner of a local clothing store denied my friend’s mother a credit card on the grounds that she (a writer) was only self-employed. “I’m afraid you’ll need to bring your husband in,” the owner said. My friend’s mother burst into tears. I was eight years old and had no idea why she was crying.
Now I do.
Because writers and other self-employed people frequently lack the formal trappings of an office – e.g., business cards…a regular paycheck…a door (!), it’s often hard to feel “legitimate” in your chosen profession. Under such circumstances, we self-employeds tend to grasp at anything that offers a soupçon of legitimacy…anything…such as, say, a check for $100!
In that spirit, here are five methods I’ve devised for boosting my sense of legitimacy:
1. Call Your Writing Work. As memoirist Louise De Salvo wrote recently in a memorable post about how to find time to write when you have kids, it’s essential that you always call your writing “work” regardless of how much you’re paid for it (if anything): “No one I knows cares if you’re writing. That’s why you have to call it work. Because that’s what it is. Your work. Your life’s work.” Amen, sister.
2. Call Yourself A Writer. This is a corollary of #1 but surprisingly hard to enact when you’re feeling a legitimacy deficit. I frequently find myself alternating between “journalist,” “blogger” and just plain “writer” but find the latter the hardest to actually utter because I think it sounds…[drumroll please]…illegitimate. But the more I do it, the better I feel. Like the alcoholic who must first admit the problem, I sometimes just force myself to march around the house chanting “My name is Delia and I am a writer….My name is Delia and I am a writer…”
3. Titles Help. I posted a few weeks ago on how to manage your title. Right after I did that, one of the editors at PoliticsDaily.com (where I do work…for money!…she added hastily) referred to me as their “London correspondent” when linking to an article of mine. My usual title is “contributor.” It only happened once but, boy, for the next three hours, I was walking on air. (Sadly, I’ve since then reverted to “contributor.” Oh, how the mighty have fallen.)
4. Diversify Your Portfolio. Another thing I find that really helps is to take on additional jobs or activities in spheres outside of writing – to diversify your portfolio, so to speak. Freelancers often need to do this anyway for economic reasons, but slash careers can confer legitimacy advantages as well. I spent all of yesterday afternoon selling raffle tickets at a Christmas fair to raise money for my daughter’s school. Turns out I’m pretty good at it. But in addition to the positive feelings that ensue from raising money for a good cause, it’s always a huge boost to my self-esteem to know that I’m actually good at something else (even something for which I’m not paid.)
5. Find Your Inner Compass. At the end of the day, of course, it’s all about what one therapist I know calls “finding your inner compass.” How legitimate you feel as a writer or actor or any other inherently freelance profession is really about not giving a hoot what others think (or what you imagine – or project – onto their thinking.) It’s about finding legitimacy…(yes, you guessed it)…from within.
That’s hard to do, though. And speaking of which…I’ve gotta run. I have to chase down that other $100 check from last September that they still haven’t paid me. I’ve got some emails to write…
Image: Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash
December 7, 2009, 8:53 pm
I really appreciate this post, Delia, coming as it does in the midst of my own crisis of self-definition: I do write, but am I technically a writer since I haven’t actually deposited that first paycheck yet? Your rubric here is especially reassuring where it calls for me to refer to my writing as what it is: “work.” Fulfilling, rewarding, challenging work. Thanks for this confidence boost.
December 7, 2009, 9:40 pm
Glad to hear that it resonated, Kristen. Have really been enjoying your blog-something tells me that first paycheck may not be long in coming. Hang in there!
December 7, 2009, 10:34 pm
December 7, 2009, 10:45 pm
Thank you Delia. Some day.
December 8, 2009, 2:16 pm
I jumped with recognition at your description.
I recently held a cheque in my hands I received in exchange for writing 5000 words. I don’t think I’ve ever gripped a piece of paper so tightly. It wasn’t the actual £ – it was because it was for something I’d written.
A very giddy feeling!
Your post has made me think about descriptions – there’s something important in how we elect to ‘tag’ ourselves – perhaps more so than in titles ascribed to us by others.
December 8, 2009, 2:30 pm
So glad that it resonated for you, Sally! And bravo! Totally agree about tags….would make for a good post!
December 10, 2009, 2:29 am
January 13, 2010, 2:14 pm
March 23, 2010, 9:25 am
March 23, 2010, 3:41 pm
In the years I’ve been a freelance writer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to hunt down $50 or $100 months after the fact of publishing in print. Then there are the private clients for whom I’ve done promotional writing, essays for catalogs and similar work, and it has also been the case, about 25% of the time.
They don’t seem to understand that the $300 I’m waiting for is money to feed my family. That the services I’m providing require skill and experience.
It is virtually impossible to live on a freelancer’s income, unless you have financial support from other sources. Theoretically, had I started in my 20s before having another career and a family, rather than in my mid 40s “officially,” that may be less the case. But I’m not convinced.
In the States, at least, writers are not valued. Fiction, or anything that is published as a book, even if self-published? Yes. Anything else? Not so much. I’d like to be wrong in this, but I don’t think I am.
I do find that all the trappings of professionalism help: web site, business card, and of course – clips. Unfortunately, the economy is in such a state, professional writers are not engaged unless they reduce prices to a point that is untenable. (My experience.)
March 23, 2010, 8:43 pm
Yeah, it can be pretty demoralizing. I’ve given up on one from about two years ago. The editor simply stopped answering my emails. Pathetic! And agree on freelancer’s income. It really stinks. Oddly , though, it looks like the future of journalism hinges on everyone (just about) being a freelancer. Wonder how that’s going to work!?!?
January 13, 2019, 9:58 am