The old cliché of a writer produces a visual of beauty and torment, or beautiful torment, a tormented genius, writing as the source of all fulfillment. Anyone who writes today knows that the reality is a little less idyllic, and a lot more of meeting deadlines, refilling coffees and half-baked thoughts.
Perhaps this is one key reason why I’d steer clear of an all-encompassing defence of writing for free. It concocts this image of writing as something one simply has to do, strokes of genius rather than scraps of neo-teenage angst written as half-formed moon metaphors (trust me I know, I’ve written my fair share). Writing as fuel in and of itself makes it seem removed from practical constraints, and from writing as a self-critical process.
Whilst you should be passionate about writing if it’s what you choose to do, I would avoid grandiose statements promoting writing for free such as “I write for the same reason I breathe: to live,”. The idea of writing as life rather than as making a living replaces discussions around material realities with metaphorical notions of sustenance. Material realities prevent certain groups from occupying creative spaces. Black authors revealed just how uneven the playing field really is, a hashtag comparing publishing contracts showing how fraught with inequality the industry is. Writing isn’t always glamorous, and writing for free can delay discussions about equal pay and the status of marginalised writers.
In general, working for free is a heavily gendered territory. Women are more likely than men to participate in unpaid literary writing, whilst engaging in unpaid domestic work as a second job. Furthermore, young women are more likely to engage in voluntary third sector work. These realities cement the gender stereotypes of women as caring and men as powerful, women seeking work ‘because they care’, and men for money and power.
So where does this leave writing for free? Should we all just stop writing unless we can find a paid publication? No, of course not. Precisely because the industries are hard to access, and labour so exploited, we need to carve out spaces that support and allow writers to express opinions that are silenced, rejected, or undervalued. Writing for unpaid publications helps you practice writing regularly, build confidence, and form your own style.
Sidelined groups can use unpaid publications as communities, spaces that work as forms of resistance. The Black Lives Matter protests this year showed how discrimination leaks into every industry, at every level, and when voices are silenced, often the only solution is to write louder. Publications that promote the voices of people marginalised on the basis of gender, race, class, or disability bring groups out from the margins, and into the centre.
If in exchange for writing, the publications promote the authors extensively, give them a space of support and recognition, and help them in their careers, then they are shifting existing power structures that divide. These publications can let writers dabble in different genres, develop digital and graphic design skills, and form content not limited to baring souls for profit, or occupying an incubated space of a newspaper. As Black journalist Niellah Arboine argues, Black people can’t just be presented with performative diversity schemes, but need to be given positions of leadership. Unpaid magazines can be spaces that provide this power shift, with the strength of support, you can more easily tackle the bigger industry problems. It’s not an end in itself, but a way towards creating more hopeful spaces.
Furthermore, writing for profit can have a big impact on mental health. Whilst the phrase goes ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, spending five minutes in the writing world shows how fraught it is with the tension of being the first to come up with new terms, new trends, new angles. This notion of linear progression makes it hard to keep up, and makes me question if I want to, rather than stopping to think about what I am actually writing and what it means.
In lockdown-stricken times, time seemed endless and yet oddly characterized by the need too create, produce, better yourself. The pressure to perform in quieter spaces is deafening, endless options present a continuous stream of thought not mediated by quotidian tasks. As Zadie Smith stresses in Intimations, periods of lockdown make us interrogate our reason for writing as ‘something to do’ as we divide our time. The lack of pretense in this statement helps us to admit that writing is a comforting and enjoyable way to pass the time. Writing for hierarchical industries, rather than for yourself or for supportive publications, dissolves the satisfaction in less formalized writing forms, torn diary pages, five minute poems, articles born out of thoughts trying to escape idleness.
Whilst I want to stray away from any gleaming platitudes about writers, writing for free can be a happy middle that tethers the tremendous gap between those in power and those without a voice. Writing is perhaps the greatest form of a voice, and from my own experience, I know that writing for yourself is a cathartic stepping stone to writing for others.