On Ideas

and the business of being an independent writer.

This is the 56th Monday essay I will have written for this newsletter. Since last May, I’ve only taken one month off, during which I had no income but a lot of hope that everything would work out; I just needed a break (this was foolish). I’ve sold my book and attempted to write the first draft. I’ve completed many assignments for other publications. I’ve tested and written recipes for a forthcoming cookbook. I’ve made sure to post to Instagram in a cohesive aesthetic manner. I’ve coordinated all of my press and media appearances, and I’ve fielded the unhinged emails received in the aftermath. I’ve agreed to create a syllabus and teach a master’s level class on voice and representation in gastronomy. I’ve worked and will continue to work my ass off, in short.

It never feels like enough. I always think I could and should take on more. I never understand my brain’s diminished capacity: This work is easy, I tell myself. Maybe it’s not.

As an independent writer making a living off of this subscription-based newsletter, I am beholden to readers. Some readers make this known to me by telling me my work has disappointed them. This makes me quite literally sick to my stomach, especially when they’re a paid subscriber and have a piece of my livelihood in their hands. I could perhaps do a better job if I had the stomach to look at people’s notes about why they unsubscribe. I don’t: This is a business, but it’s also me.

The truth is that no one can write fifty-something really amazing essays in one year and also deliver on interviews, and also do assignment work, and also write a book. Most staff writers aren’t expected to do that much, but this is the creative gig economy, my friends! And I must come up with idea after idea after idea and express each of them in a new and exciting way—or at least try, because I know I fail at that. I don’t have a hard job, as I tell myself. I can admit it is a mentally taxing one, especially when it feels like I am only as good as my latest essay.

Sometimes the work flows easily. That hasn’t been the case lately.

I did make a choice to be a freelance writer, to take on, as Angela McRobbie calls it in her book Be Creative, “risk-laden self-employment.” I had a job as the senior digital copy editor at a very successful magazine, but I left because it made me feel small and stupid, few of the editors were very nice, and my every small oversight was regarded as a massive failure (which was causing me massive anxiety). As I was turning 30, I felt I had to prove I could be a writer. I felt I had to prove that I was as smart as the people whose writing I corrected, who didn’t respect me at all. My Joker moment.

Since then, since 2015, it’s been a precarious road, but I have proven myself; I can be proud of that. But at what cost? Every time some semblance of stability emerges, it is pulled out from under me—whether I’m let go from an editorial job for budget reasons or the newspaper shutters or the tech company pivots. With this newsletter, I have to be consistent in my work, but the pay comes in bursts and I never know when I’ll have a good week. That means I keep taking assignments. I write my book in small spurts.

As chef and cookbook author Jenn de la Vega recently wrote, the payment processes in publishing and media make it wildly difficult to get ahead, ever. “Love cookbooks? I do too,” she said. “But did you know authors get paid by the milestone? Upon signing, turn in X amount of recipes, and when the book comes out. You don’t see that full paycheck for at least a year, sometimes more. People like me take on more freelancing to offset this.” But then it’s 30 days till the money is in your bank account, if you’re lucky.

Writer and editor Sari Botton has been making it work as a freelancer in this field since the 1980s. “I've managed to build a career filled with creative-writing-adjacent work, including being a reporter, editor, and teacher,” she tells me. “But it's been a mixed blessing, because forever, the time and mental energy that adjacent work required has made it hard to have the time and focus to write personal pieces that I was getting paid little or no money for, or didn't know if I would get paid for.”

Right now, she’s taking time off from paid work to finish her memoir, despite receiving a small advance. It’s a leap of faith. “I often wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night worrying whether that's been a sound financial investment,” she says. “I think, ‘I'm 55 and don't have a lot of money! I need to save for my future!’ And then, conversely, I think, ‘I'm 55! I have been playing the longest game, and if I don't do this now, I never will!’ Then I take an edible and try to fall back asleep.” I wake up in those cold sweats, too, and I assume the path I’ve chosen means waking up in them forever.

Alexandra Jones, a cheese writer, has had to compromise on creative vision to ensure financial security, too. “Over my career, I always felt inadequate or like a bad writer because I wasn't some kind of star reporter or hot take writer or putting myself and my beliefs directly into my work with a strong, independent voice,” she says. “I was either hiding behind the story I was writing or writing to achieve someone else's goals or to achieve my own financial goals. What I've figured out, especially over the past year of daydreaming ideas and doing morning pages and trying to access that deeper, singular, more creative part of my identity as a writer while also freelancing full-time with gigs to support my household, is that there isn't enough time in the day or space in my brain to work full-time while nurturing that creativity I haven't yet been able to cultivate.”

That reminds me of all of my freelance years, where most of the work I was doing didn’t actually matter to me—but I was doing it in the hopes of one day the work that felt like it mattered being everything. I’ve gotten there. I’m lucky. I’m exhausted.

Writing isn’t a hard job, yet isn’t it performing a function? Are you not entertained? I and other freelancers are balancing the need to be an endless font of ideas with attempting to run ourselves as a business. We are the business, in ways a writer with a full-time job is not. The precariousness of contemporary media culture made it this way. When my book is out in the world, I might start selling cakes out of my window instead. Maybe I’ll pursue my dream of having a café. I wanted to work in magazines because I love them. I was young and naive, but I don’t know what I ever would’ve done instead.

We’re supposed to be happy about doing creative work, and believe me: I am. I know what it’s like to have a hard job where you work on your feet, a hard job where people treat you like shit and there’s no prestige attached, just a tiny paycheck. 

In the far more comfortable and prestigious world of the culture economy, I just have to make sure I keep people pleased enough not to withdraw their subscription. I worry maybe I post too many photos of myself; I worry I make jokes people don’t get; I worry that indeed my voice will eventually be too grating. I’ve gotten the emails policing my tone, telling me how I could better communicate my ideas so that they’re palatable to each person’s specifications even if not my own. I worry, more than anything, that I’ll simply run out of ideas—especially right now, because I can’t foresee my next real moment of rest. (Please don’t tell me to rest unless you’re writing me a fat check.)

As McRobbie writes, “Capitalism makes a seductive offer to young women with the promise of pleasure in work, while at the same time this work is nowadays bound to be precarious and insecure and lacking the protection of conventional employment.” 

This is a structural problem and a personal problem. Botton tells me she struggles with the amount of self-promotion necessary to trying to get work to succeed, which is another way we’re forced in the cultural economy to be the work rather than just do it.

“Until fairly recently it was considered gauche to retweet praise for your work, or to promote your work without adding a note of apology for doing so,” she says. “Then we all agreed the world was coming to an end, and we might well all go for broke. As a woman born in the ’60s, I've been conditioned to believe I'm not supposed to seem too ambitious or competitive. So I always feel bad about hustling. But I hold my nose and do it anyway, because I have to.”

I was lured out of stable employment by my hubris, by believing I deserved more than being a copy editor for other people’s work. That led me into an insecure way of making a living, and there is no safety net to speak of—not personally, not systemically. I’m not owed the pleasure of making a living as a writer, but this is the basket in which I’ve put all of my eggs thus far. I often get the feeling from people who are processing my invoices that they think I should be independently wealthy if I want to do this job. I often feel a flush of shame for needing money.

Right now, my brain is spent and buzzing. I’m writing this to buy myself time until my well of ideas is replenished, until I can relax and read. I have an easy job, but it’s still a job.


This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Julia Turshen, the best-selling cookbook author of, most recently, Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food. We discuss using the word “healthy,” her recent writing on fatphobia, the role of meat in her cookbooks, and her recent turn toward farming.

My fiancé is now translating these essays into Spanish. I’ll add a link when they’re up, but I also added a section, En Español, that you can subscribe to separately.

Also! You can preorder the Food System Conversation T-Shirts here. I’m going to order the necessary amount in a month from EVERYBODY.WORLD out of L.A.; they’re made of recycled material in factories where garment workers are paid a good wage. My mom is going to hand screen-print each one; proceeds go to her.

Annual subscriptions are $30. Monthly subscriptions are $5. They provide access to past and future interviews. Recipes will begin this summer.

Published:
I did LIVE radio, talking about the meat wars for 1a on NPR. I have some podcast appearances forthcoming.

Reading:
Revisited Meat, a natural symbol by Nick Fiddes (it’s so expensive because it’s out of print that it’s almost not worth looking up).

Cooking:
Tested oatmeal cookies. Made a lot of oven fries. Made this great basic black bean burger recipe, but added minced and browned mushrooms. I also cut the apple sauce for one tablespoon arrowroot powder; the moisture was made up for with the (Miyoko’s) butter and oil I cooked the mushrooms in.