Thursday, November 17, 2011

I have a frame around one of the first stories I ever wrote: a tiny tale written in fuchsia crayon on wide-ruled notebook paper, the print of my four-year-old self following the lines until running out of room and squashing the last few words of a sentence into the margin. Aptly titled “A Sad Book,” my first foray into fiction- the story of a child mourning her lost cat- now sits atop my dresser drawers, reminding me whenever I feel discourage or directionless of something I’ve always loved: writing.

The crayon gave way to pencil and pen (and later typewriter and computer) but medium regardless, I’ve been writing since I had the motor skills to do so. When it came time to declare a major at Bowdoin College, I had no doubt in my mind that my degree would be in English; even after the 2 year break between my time at Bowdoin and my transfer to Cleveland State University in 2008, my desire to study literature and writing was unwavering. May of 2012 marks the culmination of my studies, and I will finally graduate with a diploma as evidence of the countless stories I’ve read and written along the way.

While I’ve never had a writing or editing-specific job, I am lucky enough to know a number of people who make a living with their words. I met Michael Gill, editor of Cleveland’s Free Times before it merged with Cleveland’s Scene magazine, through a mutual friend and a mutual appreciation for good coffee. Mike has been generous in sharing his experience in the industry; he’s been involved in writing since his undergraduate years at Hiram College, a student of the English department with a focus in writing. Mike anticipated becoming a professor after earning his MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University, but after working in DC for several years, began freelancing as a journalist. “I didn't have much respect for newspaper writing then,” Gill says, “because I hadn’t seen much besides the Plain Dealer and the dailies in the towns where I’d been in school.” However, DC introduced him to high-caliber news publications, and ultimately, his time with various newspapers led him to an editing desk with two of Cleveland’s most popular free weeklies.

My friend Christopher Maag has, similarly, followed a path of reporting and journalism. He did not study writing or literature as a Grinnell undergraduate student, but writing gradually became his vocational calling and at age 30 he enrolled in Columbia University’s journalism school, recognizing that both the training and the degree would afford him more opportunities as a writer. Chris has, like Mike Gill, a professional history that includes writing for tiny regional papers all the way to freelancing with national publications; at one time, they both worked for the same free weekly in Cleveland.

As far as income goes, Chris has made a living on writer’s wages from 12k to 80k yearly, although the latter is rare. In his experience, Chris has found that “larger institutions do tend to pay better, if you can find one that’s hiring, but even they are using temporary contracts, new job descriptions and click-based incentives to squeeze out more work in return for less pay.” One of the issues with working for a larger company- for example, providing content for a corporation- is the lack of congruency with one’s own ideas and writing aspirations. How does a writer manage to find a sustainable income and a sense of fulfillment from his work? Chris supports the idea of having several writing outlets, not only because finding a full-time position can be challenging but because working on several projects at once allows for some balance between projects that are compelling and those that are simply smart financial pursuits.

No job is perfect. Even the interesting ones can prove trying, whether due to small compensation, less-than-ideal location, or lack of freedom. Regarding satisfaction and creative freedom, Chris has this to share: “I’ve found the single most important key to getting fulfilling, stimulating work is to find an editor who shares your worldview and interests. Or, if you’re really lucky, finding one who just gives you a long leash to do what you want. Both are incredibly rare commodities. I’ve found the former at the smallest paper I’ve worked at, circulation 5,000 a week, and at the largest, The New York Times, and nowhere in between. I have yet to find the latter.”

Erin McCarthy has established herself not only as a prolific but a well-respected fiction writer, contributing her catchy prose to a particular niche in contemporary writing. With her romance-novel series, Erin has built a loyal readership and makes a steady income based on her “model of writing 3 novels per year to build reader recognition.” The serial novel, Erin says, enjoys a healthy popularity, representing “over 40% of all mass market fiction.” That success, of course, was a motivating factor in her pursuit of the genre as she began to consider writing fiction as a career. “The decision I made to write romance novels as opposed to another genre or literary fiction was pivotal in establishing a financially soluble career,” Erin says, although she enjoys writing in many different styles. She also found that while publishers of other types of fiction were not as receptive to new, previously unpublished authors, the romance and horror market was open for fresh voices. Erin approached novel writing without a traditional educational background; in fact, she left Xavier University and her pursuit of an International and Maritime Law degree, turning her attention to the novels she’d been scribing in her head.

Three writers later, I’ve come away with mixed emotions and a similarly jumbled impression of the current state of journalism and fiction. Michael Gill spoke plainly when asked about the ways in which the industry is changing: “When I started working at the Free Times, there were 100 full-timers employed by two alt-weeklies in Cleveland. Now there are fewer than 25 full timers at just one paper.” Chris, too, is realistic in his evaluation of the living writers eke out. “In the last few years the business model of journalism has changed completely. Before it was relatively easy to start at the bottom and work your way up. Now there is no ladder up, because so many publications have either laid off so many people or folded altogether…more and more people are stitching together freelancing gigs, books, part-time contracts and guest writing/blogging.” Chris and Michael have been on both sides of journalistic success; each has, at one point, held a full-time writing position, and each has experienced the let down of being laid off as businesses cut content to stay afloat.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics website provides recent and projected numbers for most types of jobs; in addition to brief description, the Bureau offers data regarding typical salary, number of positions held in the US, and projected growth in the industry of interest. Under the category for writers/authors and editors, the outlook for the ten years projected from 2008 looks relatively hopeful. Anticipated growth rates for writers are positive; for editors, the BLS foresees no change. However, statistics relating to reporters and news analysts predict a less promising coming decade. Growth rates are, while only slightly so, negative- that is, the number of jobs for reporters and correspondents is expected to shrink by 2018. As Chris and Michael can attest, changes in media and news reporting have made the plights of many journalists, both current and aspiring, challenging at best. Even Erin, living a comfortable and relatively stable life as a novelist, has had to make choices about the style and content of her work in order to achieve and maintain career solidity.

Once-booming bookselling giants have, in recent years, graced headlines of similarly-struggling newspapers with announcements of permanent closings. Countless independent booksellers have likewise, albeit more quietly, permanently locked up storefronts, and, like the Cleveland Free Times, all too many small papers have merged, downsized, or folded. The loss of these outlets hurts not only those directly involved with the dying business but the writers whose words used to fill now-empty shelves and newsrooms. My dedication to making a living as a writer is not unmarred by reservation; fear often overtakes my enthusiasm as I realize the limitations and competition resultant of a shrinking industry.

Still, writers like Erin McCarthy- who make a living by making up stories- reinforce the fact that a lucrative career can be built on words. Chris suggests that, for freelancers in particular, now may be a better time than ever [to seek a writing career], because of the explosion of websites, many of which are doing some really great work. It just requires a lot more active pitching and juggling of multiple projects. As long as you know and expect that upfront, I think now is a pretty exciting time to get into writing.” Opportunities are still available, and in many ways- with the popularity of blogging, for example, or the upswing of online news media- increasing in number. The landscape of journalism and writing is undeniably altered, but it has not necessarily devolved. Traditional positions as reporters in newsrooms or prolific literary novelists may no longer be practical goals, but written communication is not extinct. Journalism and creative writing (in professional realms as well as in graduate-level education) are adapting to changes in the technology and absorption of media, thus ensuring a place for the most passionate, dedicated and flexible workers. Potently point-blank was his assessment of those writers when Michael said, “Seems to me you do it these days because you can’t NOT do it.”

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