I’d Do Anything for Love—but I Won’t Do That (for Free)

A version of this is available on 2nd Opinion’s website.

​Sometime in July, I was invited by Ana Santos and Nikka Sarthou-Lainez, founders of Writer’s Block Philippines, for the organization’s annual workshop, “Jumpstart Your Freelance Writing Career”. During that Saturday afternoon at Fully Booked in Bonifacio High Street while facing the large group of aspiring, starry-eyed writers, I was suddenly reminded of my younger, inexperienced self.

Back then, all I wanted was to see my name in a newspaper—driven by a maddened desire to affirm my worth as a writer. A bit of context: while in second year high school, my ego was hammered into smithereens by a journalist officemate of my mom (she works for international news agency Agence France-Presse as Administrative and Financial Manager). The surly officemate opined, after seeing my articles, that not only was my grammar atrocious—my insights were also juvenile, incoherent ramblings. (That also was a rude awakening that some people will not hesitate to crush a young boy’s self-esteem, if only because it’s fun to see the world burn.)

Eventually, thanks to my then-editor Rome Jorge, I got published in The Manila Times, the Philippines’ oldest-existing English newspaper. If I remember correctly, I received a paltry 500 pesos for my first contribution (about an art gallery inside a mall, if you must know) but pay be damned—money was still not an issue then. Nothing makes a beginner writer giddier than seeing their own byline.

But giddiness and prestige (or whatever delusions of fame one might experience after seeing one’s name on a newspaper) can only get a writer so far. You can’t pay bills or buy your favorite vegetarian arroz a la cubana at Corner Tree Café by flaunting that you’re a published writer. That truth hit hard when my mom began to pressure me to become a responsible adult by footing some of the household expenses.

It’s a hard knock life, being a Filipino writer (or to expand that, being a part of the creative industry, in general.) A lot of people (editors, publishers, and various other permutations of apathetic employers) manipulate creative people’s fragile egos by hanging carrots that entice them enough to underestimate the value of their work.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a bit of a con. A scam. An elaborate hoax,” says Lind Redding, a former art director who has worked for top advertising agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO. In November 2012, Lind died of esophageal cancer, a few months after he wrote a viral post detailing the agony of being an artist among businessmen.

To quote Lind, verbatim: 

​Truly creative people tend not to be motivated by money. That’s why so few of us have any. The riches we crave are acknowledgment and appreciation of the ideas that we have and the things that we make. A simple but sincere ‘That’s quite good.’ from someone who’s [sic] opinion we respect (usually a fellow artisan) is worth infinitely more than any pay-rise or bonus. Again, our industry masters cleverly exploit this insecurity and vanity by offering glamorous but worthless trinkets and elaborately staged award schemes to keep the artists focused and motivated. Like so many demented magpies we flock around the shiny things and would peck each others [sic] eyes out to have more than anyone else. Handing out the odd gold statuette is a whole lot cheaper than dishing out stock certificates or board seats.

Doesn’t that exactly explain why a lot of writers and artists are willing to endure hardship and hunger, if only to be able to express themselves? The creative person is like the hunger artist in Franz Kafka’s story, pushing himself to his limit just to see until how far he can bring himself to starve, committing himself to his work unto obsolescence for a morsel of attention and affection.

And doesn’t that also explain why a lot of employers think that exposure is more than enough payment for a creative, regardless of experience?

A funny story: recently, an editor asked me to write for their publication. I would’ve done the topic in a heartbeat—and for free even—since it was something that I was passionate about. And because I’d rather it be taken as a favor (she initially offered to pay one peso per word), I said that I didn’t want to get paid for it, but could she consider publishing something about the work that I do for Filipino freelancers through our company, Freelancer.com?

Coldly, she told me that the value of the favor I was asking was way less than the value I was giving them—even ending the conversation by telling me off that they have other writers and editors anyway who can write the article she was assigning me. (Why she approached me first instead of her other writers and editors eludes me.)

I found her approach not just crude, but highly insulting. Not just for me—but for the many freelance writers who I closely work with and help through the workshops, seminars, and various meet-ups we at Freelancer.com sponsor, host, and organize.

(Full disclosure: yes, there are low-paying jobs online, just like there are low-paying jobs offline. But I do not encourage experienced writers to even consider working on those projects. I believe that highly-skilled writers should not settle for anything less than what they deserve. And yes, I also am aware of the unfortunate reality of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which asserts that many unskilled people are very arrogant; while on the reverse, a lot of competent people think themselves as inferior.)

That said, the editor’s belief that my worth was equivalent to the amount she was willing to pay only affirms how one, there are people who do not value experience; two, that the writing industry in the Philippines is woeful, given that the rates being offered to writers, as a journalist I recently talked to pointed out, have not changed much from the industry rates in the eighties; and three, that the Internet can be the best tool to empower aspiring freelance writers, given that peso-per-word articles might possibly be good for someone building their portfolio, but surely are dismally below someone who has beefed up their credibility and clout.

(Let me add a fourth insight: the pay reveals why only rich socialites can survive on the dismal rate. As for the Carrie Bradshaw-wannabes? Go figure.)

In a world of unicorns, fairy godmothers, and Mr. Bigs willing to foot Manolo Blahniks and larger-than-our-paycheck lifestyles, passion and a pat on the back are enough rewards. But to motivate creative people to produce creative work, author and speaker Dan Pink has the best advice ever: “What it means is paying people adequately and fairly, absolutely—getting the issue of money off the table, and then giving people lots of autonomy.”

If you’re not getting that as a creative professional, by all means—please reconsider. #realtalk 

For my freelance creative friends, you can get a chance to win more creative jobs. Create a new Freelancer.com account at www.freelancer.com/promo with the coupon code topjobs to upgrade the Free Membership to a three-month Plus Membership worth US$9.95/month. 
Like my Facebook page, Writer in Manila, and follow me on Twitter: @evanaguilartan

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