Should I Be a Poorly Paid Writer or a Better-Paid Publicist?

by The Concessionist

The Concessionist gives advice each weekend about the sordid choices of real life. Trouble? Write today.

Dear Concessionist,

Is there a future in writing? Or in publishing at all? I’m in my early 30s, and find myself kind of unexpectedly at a career/life crossroads. For the past many years, I’ve been more or less happily living some milquetoast version of a professional double life. My main employment has been in communications: publicity, branding, social media, blah blah. It’s not at all terrible work, but it sure can be! The people can be fun and interesting, and you definitely get a kind of thrill from it. Plus the parties are usually pretty good.

At the same time, I’ve also done some writing for a variety of publications. It’s, like, what? A hobby? A creative outlet? Something interesting I do to keep myself sane? A kind of internet cosplay? I honestly don’t know. I have gotten an offer or two to blog on staff for some publications, but they were entry-level jobs with entry level salaries. The kind of thing I’d talk about with my friends, and say, “If I were 25, I would take that job in a SECOND. But now…” Because I’m a bit older, and making a pretty small amount of money just so I can satisfy my ego by being able to say “I’m a writer” at dinner parties seemed selfish and short-sighted. (Plus does that even impress people at dinner parties anymore, or do they look at you like you’re insane and poor?)

Now, however, I’m out of work, and have a few job offers. Some are working as a writer, and some are working as a publicist. The publicity jobs, again, pay at least $20,000 more. Normally, I’d be able to sigh and take the higher paying job — sacrificing my ego to — what? Well, ideas of responsibility, plans for my future, and honestly my own desire to make more money and live the lifestyle and have the self-esteem that go along with that. Somehow, though, this time, I’m having a lot of trouble. It seems like, you know, since I have an actual real offer for a not-insanely low salary to work in publishing, and passing it up is like 100% firmly acknowledging forever that I was always playing at writing, that I wasn’t really dedicated, that I’m a fraud, and that really I’ve been a soulless corporate drone my whole life. I mean, I’ve basically never cared about or been proud of anything I’ve ever done in communications, other than maybe my paycheck. There’s the satisfaction that comes from working out a knotty problem, or winning some kind of bureaucratic battle with my bosses, but nothing that I’d like want to (or be able to!) show my friends or family, or look back on with any kind of satisfaction.

So, is there really a future in publishing? Is there any hope of making a decent living wage? Over the long term? And, on the other hand, would working at some large organization making decisions about the direction of the brand and then implementing them really been all that different than working as an editor at some magazine, should I be lucky enough to get hired doing that as my career progresses? Isn’t that increasingly what it’s going to mean to work on that side of the publishing world? Why kneecap myself and take a big salary cut just to end up doing the same work again in a few years? And how am I going to save money for my climate shelter if I take a low-paying job now?

So, yeah. Should I try this insane thing? Just curious. Thanks!

Confused Chap

Hi Chap.

You and I know, because a week has passed since you wrote, that you’ve already made your decision, or at least, your most immediate decision — although you didn’t tell me what it was. This is such a good question, and so real to so many of us, that it deserves an airing. This is the stuff from which all the panic-nightmares are made!

Speaking of nightmares! I quit smoking a month ago, on New Year’s Eve. I dropped my cigarettes atop a hallway radiator on my way out of a party and threw my lighter in a trash can in Fort Greene. New Year’s Day was the longest I’d gone without a cigarette in almost 30 years.

It’s not only terrible, it gets significantly worse every day! It feels like an incredibly regrettable choice. I feel better in exactly zero ways. Who lied to me about how great I would feel? Fuckers. What’s more, it wasn’t terrible at first at all really. It was strange and outer-spacey, but really not even that unpleasant. They really over-hype the detox thing. But then! Each day is darker than the last. Nothing makes sense. Every feeling and every action seems equally probable — will I get on that subway? Will I not? Will I get out of bed? Will I yell at a stranger? Who knows! I stand in the shower until the hot water runs out. It’s like some horrible line has been crossed permanently, like maybe in Event Horizon. It’s just straight up unpleasant — and, in honor of this coming Monday, every day is like Groundhog Day. Every morning I wake up, feel the same things, see the same things, do the same things. Click the same boxes. Look in the same digital windows. Don’t answer the same emails. Don’t finish the same projects. The cat goes to the same place by the window after his same breakfast. After a long day of this, it gets dark and I want to throw up.

I sure hope the mayor doesn’t kill another groundhog this year.

But this experience I am having really is not about quitting smoking. This is just what was waiting for me underneath all the ashtrays. The big chunk of the raw horror I feel is about choices and about getting older. You, in your early 30s, are at the age where you’re just starting to get an inkling of what a good old age panic feels like.

Like many of us, I look back, quite incorrectly, on life as a series of Last Chance Cliffs. Which year was my last year to have gotten a real job, that great job, the culmination of it all?IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE Which year, way, way back there, was when I messed up my body for good and committed myself to an entire life of inflexibility? Which year was my last chance to have had a baby? It’s a litany of “oh wells” and “oh fucks” that are a fool’s game to rehash with yourself. (It’s not my fault! They just come back and haunt you when you dig up your life a little, like when you quit smoking, or you’re unemployed, or you get dumped.)

And then one’s thoughts turn to the upcoming Last Chances. How many are there before, you know, it’s curtains, the jig is up, INTO THE CREMATION ROASTER WITH YOU?

Not so many probably. But guess what? You’re not there yet.

You have time and room for some really bad choices still. WE ALL DO. BELIEVE IT. But you have time to make bad choices and recover from them even! You have time to start smoking, quit smoking and have a baby or two! You have time to go into six-figure debt to the IRS and pay your way out later! (Trust me, it’s easy!)

I didn’t get paid a dime to write anything till I was 30 or so. I was too busy working for a living at whatever I could get in this big garbage dump we call New York. Then I quit a job that I’d once sort of loved I guess but really totally hated to make like $24,000 a year writing. This was a crazy choice — one of the few choices I don’t regret in the slightest.

Is there a future in journalism and writing and the Internet, you ask? There wasn’t then, that’s for sure. How about now? Haha, FUCK no, not really. It’s a fool’s game to be a writer at someone’s mercy.

And yet, plenty of people are making a living at it now, which is the only time that matters. Fun sidebar data fact: the number of 1099s (that’s the IRS form you have to send regarding any U.S.-citizen contractors who made more than $600 in a calendar year) we’ve sent out from The Awl in the last three years has come fairly close to doubling each year. That’s a very small reflection of a weird temporary boom in work in The Content Mines. Do these jobs out there that’ll have you have room for advancement or promotion, do they provide ongoing training, or offer long-term mentorship? Probably not! But what are you gonna do, spurn opportunities that make you happy because capitalism is so shitty? Well, capitalism isn’t getting any less shitty while you’re alive.

Say no to safety. Say yes to adventure. We’ll all be dead soon. It’ll be fine.

Here’s some whys and wherefores:

• In New York City, the difference between $50K and $75K is essentially meaningless. (Ha ha, I can hear a bunch of 24-year-olds howling right now. Stick around, kittens. Yes, I know you’d love to make $50K right now. You will, and then you’ll realize you aren’t anywhere near Easy Street.) Yes, of course there are some day to day differences. Like, the $70K will allow you to put a little away in an IRA, or live with a less disgusting roommate, or eat more than ramen for dinner. But you’re still a working stiff here. (“Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000,” opined the Times two years ago; now they are literally shrugging.) If you’re not going to be fuck-you, conquer the world, car-and-driver rich, who cares? You’ve already made a choice to live your best life, instead of your richest life, so go for it! Follow your dreams if you’re not going to follow your wallet!

• Request your Social Security earnings statement. I am not even joking about this. I pulled mine recently and I was like, wait, “If I retire at 67, I get $2,608 a month? SWEET, NO PROBLEM.” I know people who live on less than that now! Plus Medicaid at 65? WORD, let’s roll, let’s make some BAD CHOICES.

• Finally, if you’re going to work as a writer in this world, promise me you’ll go hard. Stand for something! Go all in! All the way! You’ve got to be stronger, faster and smarter. Think about what you believe in and stick to it! Figure out who you’re mad at, and don’t lash out at people who aren’t your enemy. Fight the real fucking power, is what I’m saying. It’s easy to make amateur mistakes, and that’s fine. I do all the time! But when you’re on fire, make sure to stop, drop and listen before you go blow up all over the place.

• There, thanks to you, I have talked myself down, and I will not spend the morning looking for apartments in Madrid and cursing all of you.

IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE WE NEED TO PAUSE HERE, BECAUSE THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT. The whole “amazing job” thing is such a fundamental mistaken mindfuck. We think of this mythical job like Carrie Bradshaw thought about men. Mr. Big Job, LOL. The job that fixed my soul! It’s not real. I have met a few people in New York City who have had the ultimate Real Job. Big money, big power, big awe all around them. Almost to a person they have been laid off, or moved to Los Angeles, or quit that job for something that actually fit them, or, in a few cases, fucked up their lives. It is not all we imagine it is from the outside. Entirely release your mind from the foolish made-up idea of a “final fixed state,” in which our job is the Last Job We Will Have And It Will Feel So Right Every Day. Okay carry on. (LOL “CARRIE” ON.)

The Concessionist is an adult human in New York City who is somewhat worn down and willing to make a good number of sacrifices for a peaceful life. Is it decision fatigue? Or just ennui? That’s probably a question for a psychiatrist. Anything else, ask me.