A guest post by Jaime Lewis
I love the writing life but I’m done gaming this shifting freelance climate.
The last 10 years of my career, I’ve devoted myself to hunting down, pitching, landing and writing stories for newsprint, magazines and websites. The plan was to:
- Pursue a living as a full-time food and wine journalist
- Gain a following
- Eventually write my cookbook-slash-memoir―you know, something with a modest, elegant title like My Life On A Plate.
In essence, I planned to be the next Ruth Reichl. All I needed was more #hustle, more #goals…right?
Earlier this year I won a fellowship to a prestigious writers’ symposium. By attending, I hoped to learn the secret to pitching big national magazines and metropolitan newspapers. But instead I got a reality check.
I sat beside a wine columnist for a major American newspaper at dinner one night. As we became acquainted, I told him where I’m from, and he seemed familiar with my hometown. Familiar with our wine, I asked? No, familiar with your nuclear power plant, he answered. Turns out he works part-time for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when he’s not writing about wine.
That’s right. This prestigious writer has a day job. We’ve all heard for so long that “writing doesn’t pay,” but I’d always assumed it meant writing doesn’t pay at my level; the realization that writing might not pay at any level shook down a couple high hopes I didn’t know I’d had.
The reality check continued during a symposium session on getting paid. An editor of one of the world’s oldest wine magazines shared, somewhat sheepishly, that she pays $385 for a 1,000-word story. I shook my head. For me that could be 30 hours or more of researching, pitching, writing, and editing a 1,000-word story. Moreover, $385 doesn’t cover one month’s grocery bill for my family of four.
The young fellow sitting beside me tapped my shoulder and leaned in. “I’ve written for that magazine,” he whispered. “I can give you tips on getting a foot in the door with her.” He had mistaken my incredulity for awe.
I smiled. No thanks, I thought. I’ll find other ways to spend my time. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.
While I’ll always get a thrill out of seeing my name in print, I’m adapting my goals to avoid the crazy-making of a shifting freelance climate. Here are my new strategies for sanity:
1. Maximize what I already do. Instead of spinning my wheels to entice big media, I will double down on the channels already in place. For years, I’ve mistaken writing for local and regional publications as stepping stones to the “real” writing I hoped to do someday. But I’ve earned enough freedom with my existing editors to try pushing the boundaries a bit, developing the artfulness of my writing where appropriate, and maybe even weaving in more personal narrative.
After all, memoir is a style I’ve always wanted to develop (see: My Life On A Plate). Plus, it aligns with a favorite maxim of mine: Only do what only you can do.
2. Embrace contract writing. With all the time I’ll save not pitching stories to new publications and websites, I’ll embrace writing for food companies, restaurants, farms, wineries, and other non-food-related entities (when no conflict of interest exists, of course).
The truth is, with two children and a California-sized mortgage, I can’t afford to refuse these opportunities. Plus, the perks can be nice. For instance, one of my clients is a salon, and I get all of my family’s haircuts for free.
Do these goals sound like sugar-coated surrender? After all, pitching is the sport we freelance writers live to play. If I’m not hunting down bigger stories and publications, challenging myself and elbowing my way through the industry, what kind of career can I really expect to enjoy?
I’d like to think it will be a more focused one, less susceptible to rabbit holes to fall down, and that shifting freelance climate. Also, it’s likely to be more joyful as I build local connections and readership with the people I see at the farmers’ market, at the cafe, in line at the post office.
At this point, I have no expectations for how long this pitching fast will last, or whether I’ll be able to stick to it. But what I do expect is:
- More time to polish existing projects, making myself positively indispensable to my editors
- More headspace to focus on what’s in front of me
- Greater confidence in taking paths that meander ahead of me.
In a nutshell: I’m going to bloom where I’m planted. I can’t wait to see what spring has in store.
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Jaime Lewis (Instagram: @jaimeclewis) is a food and drink writer whose work has appeared in Life & Thyme, Darling, Vegetarian Times, The Clever Root, Coyote & Oak, Edible Communities and others. She is the managing editor of Edible San Luis Obispo & Wine Country Magazine, the Central Coast reporter for Wines & Vines Magazine, and food columnist for 805 Living and SLO Life Magazines. She lives in San Luis Obispo, California.