A Word on Worth

“The freelance writer is a person who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”

—Robert Benchley

Joanna Trollope said, “Writers who last, the writers whose writing is indeed their monument, not only have an essential benevolence, a fundamental affection for the human race, but also, more uncomfortably, possess a hefty dose of humility”.

I wish this were truer in the world of those who want to hire a writer. Who depend on a freelancer to make dreams happen or meet a deadline, or who want your words to be their words, want their name on the product and who need you, the writer, to get them out of a jam? Sadly, not so.

Six months ago I took a huge leap in my life into the world of Freelance Writing: Highly competitive and a marketing marathon. But I lucked out. I had a unique marketing approach, had published for myself and had a twist to my work in that I had 30 years as a psychologist under my belt and that created a bit of a niche for me. I did copious research on what to charge for a given job and created a middle-of-the-road approach. This was not easy since as a therapist I made $150 and hour. But I was determined to do what I love and the money would follow. Within 24 hours I had my first job offer. Here was my first historical inquiry for ghostwriting a book:

“I have a million dollar story that takes place over 40 years, on 3 continents, will have a sequel, includes famous people in Hollywood, should be made into a movie and I need the entire book done in two months, 300 pages and I can pay you $250 for the whole job. Do you want it?”

I fell out of my chair. Figured this guy was simply pulling my leg until more requests for jobs came in with the same sort of focus: No money for lots of hard innovative, creative blood sweating work. This was my introduction to the world of freelance writing.

My second job offer was from a young group of entrepreneurs who wanted to capitalize on the energy amassing from the book 50 Shades of Grey. They wanted to generate a few full-time writers to write erotic stories to be made into cheap paperbacks. The wanted to pay $.08 cents per…page…I chocked. That must have been a typo but it wasn’t. I would rather work at a car wash wiping down Escalades.

Freelancers have freedom, yes. But they inherit an industry that is much like working building the pyramids. In the world of “internet freelancing” the basic understanding is “get a writer for as cheaply as possible”. No concern for quality. And the reason that hundreds of ‘wanna-be-writers’ flock to signing up for the sites that help them bid on writing jobs is simply this: They have no idea what they are worth and will simply bid on a ten page job and accept a measly, insulting, self-esteem-crushing $25 for their hard work being someone else’s muse. I am here to say to these writers, “WTF are you thinking?” And I know the answer: It’s all about self-worth.

This question “what am I worth” follows us through life in one form or another. We start with the most obvious reason for asking it, which is all about love: Am I worth loving, am I worth knowing, am I worth that gift you are giving me, that smile, that compliment. Then the second string of brutal questions float to the surface of our self concept: Am I good enough, will they like me, will I be rejected? And our perception of the competition being better than us, has us downgrading our dreams, our skill set, and our earnings. In creeps resentment, exhaustion, and the death of inspiration.

Once these questions become a staple of our self-concept, self-worth then gets all tied up with money. Worth becomes all about the dollar. When we take our first waitressing job and see that the guy who ate two breakfasts the size of Texas simply left a dollar and change as a tip we take it personally all too often. Most of us first think to ourselves “Did I give bad service?” before we arrive at the most obvious reason: He’s a cheapskate!!

So, what does self-worth this have to do with writing and what does it have to do with those of us who freelance write, ghostwrite, and generally write for other people or who long to write for a living? Well, it has to do with the issue every artist collides with which: “how much am I worth, what do I charge for a story, for my ideas and my writing?” This question is not only difficult to answer if you don’t believe in yourself, but it is even harder to answer if you are in a growing industry that does not value your craft. The world of the freelancer is currently built on a lack of respect for the writer and his or her craft. But the old adage says: People cannot get away with what they get away with unless we let them.

Self-esteem commands more money and gets it. This is a trustworthy equation. But just as real is the other, more dominant equation: Low self-esteem does not command money and many times you do not get the job or the sale. This truth is another Murphy’s Law: Anything that can happen will. I would add to this, “anything that can happen will and it will reflect what you believe every time, especially about yourself”.

So, let’s say you do some painstaking therapy on self-worth, you forgive your teachers or your country for creating beliefs about what perfect and enough is, or a belief that you should write like Hemingway and Sylvia Plath before you can show your writing to anyone, or paint like Chagall before any of your paintings see the light of day. But what happens if you slog your way through falling in love with yourself, loving the art of writing or self-employment and when you finally are out there as a writer and a creator, you find that the world does not have a reference for the worth of your craft? Now that is where new questions come in.

As a freelance writer, which includes writing for others, ghostwriting, writing articles, blogs and web copy there is a general understanding of what to charge. Most freelancers either charge by the hour, the word or the project. The going rate by the word is from $.25 per word if you’re a new and budding writer to $2.00 a word if you are the ghostwriter for the stars or for Clive Cussler as a bestselling author who needs to crank out a novel a year. And a given page of original writing is 300 words, an article is about 1500 words and a full-fledged book is on the average of 65,000 words. So you do the math and see how this shakes out. It looks pretty good in the long run doesn’t it? But there is a kink.

Have you noticed that some of the most important jobs in the world are under-valued and under-paid? Childcare specialists and grade school teachers are at the top of my list for underpaid and in fact two of the most important jobs on the planet. Artists, writers, potters, builders, and fine craftsmen and those who make our lives more interesting and beautiful follow a close second. But, if my web designer fixes some code on my website for a hundred dollars a blink, if my plumber unsticks my toilet handle, or if my lawyer gets me out of a jam, I could empty my bank account. This is now the world of the freelance writer: Underpaid and underappreciated. And we can thank the internet, for those sites promising you a lucrative writing career and who charge you to bid on a job prospect for this growing issue of lack of value for a writer. But in the end we the writers are who sets our own value and should pick and choose who we write for.

There are dozens of sites springing up for getting freelance writing gigs. Outsource and Elance are clearing houses for people needing to find and hire a writer but not before you have to jump in with all the other freelancers and outbid the project to get the job. It is like Russian roulette. Bidding is how it works and you can be the most amazing writer but there is always a twenty-year-old who hardly can write who will outbid you every single time and in the end, for almost all those doing the hiring, money is the object not quality, not originality, not experience. It is all about ‘how cheap can I get the job done?’ (Maybe that is why there is very little good writing out there) Duh.

So, today I got a request for a three-article project for a woman’s business blog. That comes to about nine pages of original writing that needed research in order to write the articles. Although this is not the kind of writing I do, I read her terms and they went like this:

“I need three articles written by tomorrow by 12:00 NOON. The topics are dry cleaning, dryer vent maintenance, and fireplace parts. I can pay $20 for all 3. Contact me to get information.”

Can you even spell slave labor? That comes out to about one penny a word. And words are precious commodities.  But people answer these job requests and crank out something in the middle of the night and submit for their hefty $20 that you hope will be paid on time or at all. What are people thinking? Oh I said that already.

Writing is an art-form, freelance writing is even harder in that you have to get inside the head of another person especially to ghostwrite 250 pages. But, like so many of the arts people want something for nearly nothing. More people will by poster art at Marshall’s than invest in original works.

In the art world when I was selling paintings I was frequently asked to lower the price on an original oil painting, asked to make a deal, asked if the artist could change the painting and add red. The same things happen for writers. We are frequently asked to prostitute ourselves, be less of who we are, write less, write faster, change and change and change copy till the person that hired you in the first place is now happy. This can be a form of prostitution. Writing is a skill that is worth good money and even greater appreciation.

So I wrote the woman who wanted three articles in less than 24 hours, I wrote the man who wanted an entire screenplay for $80, I wrote the person who wanted ten blog entries for $250 total and simply said: “Are you nuts”. They did not reply.

Marketing yourself as a freelance writer first starts with knowing how much you are worth and sticking to it. Learning how to market yourself and not fall into the internet bidding frenzy that will have you wearing shackles and never being able to get up for glass of water and in the end will erode every bit of self-esteem you have fought so hard to retain.

As for me, I take the risk. I ask for what I want only after I am certain how much I am worth. I show them amazing writing that I am proud of. I am prompt, original, a great listener and can interpret what they want and give them more. In the end, a hundred twenty-dollar-jobs drift in and out of my life in a month but the people who know my value, know that writing is an art form, even if it is for the internet, and who value integrity and professionalism will hire me and give me the price I submit. I wait patiently for these moments. And these are the people who pay promptly and with gratitude.

Writing for someone else is a relationship, even if it is for a newspaper or magazine. These relationships are what will build your freelance life. These relationships will enrich your life, teach you to be a better writer and in the end pay all your bills. But you need to love what you do, have faith in yourself and know what you are worth. Then ask for it and don’t settle even if you cannot pay the utility bill. The right jobs will simply fall your way and you will be off and running with a life that makes you feel you are worth a million dollars. Because you are.

I read a story about a bestselling author, Mary Higgins Clark. She was turned down more times than I have backbone for, but today she is paid 12 million dollars for three books a contract. She cranks one out every year and says she never thought she would be where she is. It takes starting with that one article, that one blog entry, that one contest and knowing you were born to write. Then the waiting begins.

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.”
—Jim Tully

 

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A Life Well Written

montage of Stewart Stern

The life of a storyteller and writer is different for the writer of books; the writer of articles, the non-fiction writer, fictionalist or historical writer. But in my opinion there is nothing harder than writing a screenplay.   In writing for film, well I have found that writing for film is simply…brutal. It is a sparse, to the point, limiting form that within a confining format has to inspire a director, producer, actor, and cinematographer to throw their lot in with a story that is only 120 tiny pages long, if your lucky, that is, to get it down to 120 pages. Every page equals one minute on the screen. Ugh.

So, when I arrived at The Film School in Seattle in 2011, and had the privilege of working with people like Tom Skerritt, John Jacobson, Warren Etheredge and Stewart Stern, I was the oldest in the class, spent 15 hours a day honing a craft I thoroughly resisted and went home to my hotel every night for a month and crashed on the bed, hungry, exhausted and wondering if screenwriting was for me.

Even before I arrived with an elite few to a screenwriting boot-camp I had two screenplays that made it on the festival circuit. But the form was like sandpaper for me and no matter what I did I could not make friends with the process. Until Stewart Stern stepped into class one day.

Now you need to know that I cut my teeth as a storyteller on movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Cool Hand Luke, Sybil, The Heart of Darkness, Rachel, Rachel, The Ugly American and almost all the movies that Stewart Stern either wrote or consulted on. I had no idea who he was but I knew that every movie he wrote was raw, real and soulful and that is how I intended to write my stories even if Hollywood wanted another Marvel Comic Superhero blockbuster. I didn’t give a shit about Superman.

Stewart Bee Lily and Brando

My time with Stewart was magic as it was for everyone in our class. He would come in with a cane at 90 years old, boxes of memorabilia from the movies, scrapbooks, film clips, letters and love notes from people in the industry. He was armed with stories about his writing career, his friendships with the Newman’s, Sally Field, every important director of his era and then proceeded to mesmerize us with the truth about what it takes to write a story like Rebel Without a Cause. He changed my life. It was that simple. He renewed my courage to write from that place the defied Hollywood and he simply made it possible for me to love what I do even when writing in a straightjacket.

This post is a tribute to the courage of writers like Stewart Stern.

Here is a glimpse into the life of a writer who changed the world with his stories. May we all have courage to be truthful, heartfelt, alive writers, who stay the course.

Paul and Stewart

On January 26, would have been PAUL NEWMAN’s  90th birthday. Lifetime best friends, Stewart so cherished his friendship with Paul. Pictured here is Paul, as Stewart’s Best Man, before Stewart walked down the aisle.

stewart portraitAnd if you want to read writing that will make you weep with it’s beauty and clarity, here is the letter that Stewart Stern wrote upon the death of James Dean.

12 October, 1955

Dear Marcus and Mrs. Winslow:

I shall never forget that silent town on that particular sunny day. And I shall never forget the care with which people set their feet down — so carefully on the pavements — as if the sound of a suddenly scraped heel might disturb the sleep of a boy who slept soundly. And the whispering. Do you remember one voice raised beyond a whisper in all those reverential hours of goodbye? I don’t. A whole town struck silent, a whole town with love filling its throat, a whole town wondering why there had been so little time in which to give the love away.

Gandhi once said that if all those doomed people at Hiroshima had lifted their faces to the plane that hovered over them and if they had sent up a single sigh of spiritual protest, the pilot would not have dropped his bomb. That may or may not be. But I am sure, I am certain, I know — that the great wave of warmth and affection that swept upward from Fairmount has wrapped itself around that irresistible phantom securely and forever.

Nor shall I forget the land he grew on or the stream he fished, or the straight, strong, gentle people whom he loved to talk about into the nights when he was away from them. His great-grandma whose eyes have seen half of America’s history, his grandparents, his father, his treasured three of you — four generations for the coiling of a spring — nine decades of living evidence of seed and turning earth and opening kernel. It was a solid background and one to be envied. The spring, released, flung him into our lives and out again. He burned an unforgettable mark in the history of his art and changed it as surely as Duse, in her time, changed it.

A star goes wild in the places beyond air — a dark star born of coldness and invisible. It hits the upper edges of our atmosphere and look! It is seen! It flames and arcs and dazzles. It goes out in ash and memory. But its after-image remains in our eyes to be looked at again and again. For it was rare. And it was beautiful. And we thank God and nature for sending it in front of our eyes.

So few things blaze. So little is beautiful. Our world doesn’t seem equipped to contain its brilliance too long. Ecstasy is only recognizable when one has experienced pain. Beauty only exists when set against ugliness. Peace is not appreciated without war ahead of it. How we wish that life could support only the good. But it vanishes when its opposite no longer exists as a setting. It is a white marble on unmelting snow. And Jimmy stands clear and unique in a world where much is synthetic and dishonest and drab. He came and rearranged our molecules.

I have nothing of Jim’s — nothing to touch or look at except the dried mud that clung to my shoes — mud from the farm that grew him — and a single kernel of seed corn from your barn. I have nothing more than this and I want nothing more. There is no need to touch something he touched when I can still feel his hand on me. He gave me his faith, unquestioningly and trustfully — once when he said he would play in REBEL because he knew I wanted him to, and once when he tried to get LIFE to let me write his biography. He told me he felt I understood him and if LIFE refused to let me do the text for the pictures Dennis took, he would refuse to let the magazine do a spread on him at all. I managed to talk him out of that, knowing that LIFE had to use its own staff writers, but will never forget how I felt when he entrusted his life to me. And he gave me, finally, the gift of his art. He spoke my words and played my scenes better than any other actor of our time or of our memory could have done. I feel that there are other gifts to come from him — gifts for all of us. His influence did not stop with his breathing. It walks with us and will profoundly affect the way we look at things. From Jimmy I have already learned the value of a minute. He loved his minutes and I shall now love mine.

These words aren’t clear. But they are clearer than what I could have said to you last week.

I write from the depths of my appreciation — to Jimmy for having touched my life and opened my eyes — to you for having grown him all those young years and for having given him your love — to you for being big enough and humane enough to let me come into your grief as a stranger and go away a friend.

When I drove away the sky at the horizon was yellowing with twilight and the trees stood clean against it. The banks of flowers covering the grave were muted and grayed by the coming of evening and had yielded up their color to the sunset. I thought — here’s where he belongs — with this big darkening sky and this air that is thirst-quenching as mountain water and this century of family around him and the cornfield crowding the meadow where his presence will be marked. But he’s not in the meadow. He’s out there in the corn. He’s hunting the winter’s rabbit and the summer’s catfish. He has a hand on little Mark’s shoulder and a sudden kiss for you. And he has my laughter echoing his own at the great big jokes he saw and showed to me — and he’s here, living and vivid and unforgettable forever, far too mischievous to lie down long.

My love and gratitude, to you and young Mark,

Stewart

https://www.facebook.com/StewartSternDocumentary

Thank you for your interest in this site and in the evolution of story.  For those who are interested I am giving a free half hour consult during the month of February,  for writers and any individuals who are seeing that their lives are something to share.  Please contact me through this site by going to the page that is listed on the home page, “Contact Maya”.  I look forward to speaking with you,

 

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No Plot, No Direction, No Way

“Acknowledge your creativity and genius. The qualities of creativity and genius are within you, awaiting your decision to match up with the power of intuition.” Wayne Dyer

Today I hit a speed bump. I had cruised down the mountain on I 70 here in Colorado to set up shop in the local Barnes and Nobel with a whole lot of other writers, bloggers, emailers, and avid readers to plug into the Morphic Field and write. I am a big believer in Rupert Sheldrake’s contribution to understanding energy fields and how we are affected by them.

“There is mounting evidence that as more and more people learn or do something it becomes easier for others to learn or do it. Sheldrake postulates that there is a field of habitual patterns that links all people, which influences and is influenced by the habits of all people. The more people have a habit pattern — whether of knowledge, perception or behavior — the stronger it is in the field, and the more easily it replicates in a new person. In fact, it seems such fields exist for other entities too — for birds, plants, even crystals. Sheldrake named these phenomena morphogenetic fields – fields, which influence the pattern or form of things.

I noticed a long time ago that hunkering down in my office at home, alone, and focused on a writing project did not yield the same inspiration, excitement or focus as when I was in a group of people, all somewhat focused on the same thing. So, Barnes and Nobel became that place that I went to be in a “writing field”. I found that I was faster, clearer and more energized when in a field of energy conducive to writing.

I also found that when I had all the alone time I can tolerate, am surrounded by my cat, my tea, my notes and the best music in the world, all of a sudden a million things break in on the process: The laundry buzzer goes off, the phone rings, I remember I haven’t paid that long overdue bill, and the energy it takes to stave off the urge to get up and fold the laundry or make that call, sucks the life right out of my writing moment.

Well, today I got in the car and here I am at Barnes and Nobel. There are at least 15 other people pounding away on their computers and another hundred focused on “words” in books, on Kindle, and there is a great atmosphere of story permeating this teaming box store. I should have just plunged right into the middle of writing with no effort. But alas! I sit here starring at my screen. The muse is nowhere to be found, the words did not tumble out as they always do, I feel bored and uninspired. Holy Moly! I am not accustomed to this feeling of having, nothing to say.

So, I sat for a while and just watched my surroundings. I got a cup of tea, I walked throughout the stacks and stacks of best sellers, and unfathomably mediocre books that someone is buying. Nothing clicked. So, I waited. And waited. This was not an acceptable state to be in and my mind was in a huff. “It’s Sunday for Christ Sake, is my muse on vacation or preparing for the Super Bowl…WTF?”

Then, I just relaxed my churned up state and posed an inner question: “What does my intuition say about this?” Intuition? Intuition is the most powerful voice we have as writers, as crazed journalers, as storytellers. Intuition cuts through the bullshit of how we think we should write or how we think the story should go and allows the story to tell itself.

Deep breath.

There is so much anxiety for the writer to tell the story “right”, to do justice to the idea that set us on the course of writing in the first place. Intuition will tell you that there is absolutely no “right” way, when it comes to storytelling.

I define intuition as the subtle knowing without ever having any idea why you know it, and, Sophy Burnham, bestselling author of The Art of Intuition, tells The Huffington Post. “It’s different from thinking, it’s different from logic or analysis … It’s a knowing without knowing.”

Our intuition is always there waiting for the mind to relax, whether we’re aware of it or not. As HuffPost President and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington puts it in her upcoming book Thrive:

“Even when we’re not at a fork in the road, wondering what to do and trying to hear that inner voice, our intuition is always there, always reading the situation, always trying to steer us the right way. But can we hear it? Are we paying attention? Are we living a life that keeps the pathway to our intuition unblocked? Feeding and nurturing our intuition, and living a life in which we can make use of its wisdom, is one key way to thrive, at work and in life.” And, as a writer.

So, I switched fields. I pulled my energy up and out of the bookstore field and went deep inside. I found a new field to plant my awareness in. This is the field of openness and allowing a story, a moment, a paragraph or poem to float up from the collective field and root in your psyche. Then the ride begins. You put pen to paper, you open a new Word Doc and allow this all-pervasive, ever present energy of creativity to flow through you and take you somewhere unexpected with no map, no direction and no plot.

This surrendering to that which is not the mind will transform you as a writer, a storyteller and as a person.

Stephen King believes in intuition and does not believe in outlines. And he doesn’t much like plot either.

He has this cosmic belief “that stories are like fossils that already exist somewhere, buried deep in the earth, in a lost canyon or maybe in your backyard, and it is the writer’s job to unearth it.” Says Andrea Meyer.

“The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible,” he says. “No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: air-hose, palm pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”, says Stephen King.

So, no matter where you write, what you write, there is the most valuable alliance in the world available all of the time, no matter what your story is: Intuition IS the Muse. Intuition will never ever steer you in a wrong direction but it will most certainly steer you in a direction that may be very unexpected.

(Multi-media artwork by Gerri Proulx)