Growing up with an alcoholic mother and an angry father will teach you very quickly to find a way to escape reality. Like most kids before the internet, I gravitated toward books about dragons and space and magic and everything else a boy would be interested in. I didn’t read a lot, though — where my time was mostly spent was in coming up with stories of my own.
Writing has always been a way for me to cope with life’s uncertainties and process how I am feeling. In high school, where the tidal forces of hormones are in full effect, I naturally gravitated toward subjects that forced me to sit and think about my life and who I was becoming. Studying English literature gave me tools like story structure, music, and poetry to add to my creative outlets. The first time my writing was published was freshman year — a short story, which, thanks to the internet, is still online somehow.
Writing was, and still is, the most important “thing” I do in my life. I have become a better person by getting to know myself through journaling for the past eighteen years. I have processed trauma, tragedy, heartache, and pain through both fiction and nonfiction. Even now, at thirty-three with three kids and a wife and a house and the whole American Dream™, I would be lost and confused without the deliberate vulnerability to oneself that writing both forces and fosters.
I joined the Marines straight out of high school, and left my writing along with my sense of self at the yellow footprints at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
Five years later I started college.
Seven years after that it was 2012 and I was back to being a civilian. By that time the intersection of toxic masculinity and white privilege had lurched to the forefront of the American zeitgeist, and my writing helped me navigate the process of unpacking myself, my gender, my race, and my childhood.
Some people say writers shoot themselves in the foot by romanticizing the process, and I couldn’t disagree more. Dismissing the cognitive magic of the written word is less a thesis on how writers glorify something that everyone can technically do and more a reflection of society’s propensity to treat writing as yet another aspect of our individuality that must be commodified.
From Joy to Job
I spent over a year working 16+ hour days as a freelance writer for business-to-business (B2B) and marketing companies.
I thought that writing for companies to sell their products would be just as fulfilling as the writing I already did as a hobby — the writing I came to love like a best friend from childhood that has stuck around all these years.
I was very, very wrong.
In the beginning I thought I would be okay. The first few jobs I took were creative ones; ghostwriting literary nonfiction and fleshing out self-help manifestos for companies that help people build a brand by publishing a book. Since the topics and tone I wrote in were largely familiar, I convinced myself that this was rewarding. Hell, I was getting paid money to sit at a keyboard and type. What could be better than that?
As more business started coming in I grew more and more dependent on my freelance income. I stopped looking for a job and told myself that I was no longer unemployed — I was a “freelance writer.”
Being a freelance writer meant that I had to continue to write for other people. After those self-help books, the bulk of work available to me was ghostwriting for corporate blogs and marketing material. It wasn’t my first choice but business was good, so whatever joy writing brought me when I was younger had to now take a backseat to the trade of writing. This was grownup writing, I told myself. This is just how it is.
I assumed that just because I loved to write I would love writing as work. The painful and hard-learned truth of the matter is that I am not someone who can write about something unless I am passionate about it. I just can’t; the energy is different, and the energy that I want to feel is the energy that’s there when I am pouring my heart out about something important to me.
This is why I love writing and publishing on Medium so much. You can be yourself, keep your authenticity, and write for a huge audience. It’s really that simple. Your writing can be whatever you want it to be because the only business involved is that of being your honest self.
Even Medium editor Stephanie Georgopulos recognizes how different writing is when it’s part of a transaction:
I’ve been a freelance writer before; I’ve written things just to make fifty dollars. So, I understand there can be a different energy that goes into something you’re writing for an assignment versus something you’re writing for yourself.
Some writers are able to cope with both kinds of energies. Other writers, like me, need to have a certain kind of connection with what they’re writing that certain transactional arrangements are unlikely to satisfy.
To make matters worse, the pressure to monetize things we’re passionate about is compounded by an increasing demand for a freelance-based market.
Never before has there been so much opportunity to make money on the side. In America alone, nearly 37% of people have both a traditional job and a side-hustle. As our society embraces the commodification of everything from the mundane (food, transportation, moving, etc.) to the intimate (you can get paid to cuddle with strangers), creators caught up in the hype are taught to forget how important it is to our mental health to have a degree of separation between our work and the things that bring us joy.
And why should anyone care? Freelancing is a $4.4 billion market of 48 million people champing at the bit for an opportunity to make money doing something, 25% of whom are there because they couldn’t find any work elsewhere.
The funny thing is that entering this market as a “new” writer was exhilarating for me. It’s mere existence taps into a primal drive to be competitive, and the size of it can only be misinterpreted by creatives honeymooning off of thousands of how-to-get-rich-being-a-freelance-writer blog posts as a system overflowing with economic opportunity — as long as you’re willing to work hard.
I quickly discovered, as many writers do, that I wasn’t entering a pool of competition, I was entering an ocean — and if I was going to survive then I had to stand out. I significantly lower my rate because I was going up against people in far more desperate personal circumstances. I competed for jobs with people in countries where cheap labor relative to America’s cost of living incentivizes companies to expect lower rates from writers — regardless of where the writer lives.
I even started doing free jobs just to get get good reviews and exposure, because without reviews or a good network I would be just another desperate hand waving from a crowd of hundreds of thousands of other freelance writers. These led to paid opportunities, and those to even more, but something was happening inside me.
Competing with other writers for a chance to help a company sell something I didn’t think anyone needed was making me sick.
Freelance writing was changing me as a writer.
I went from writing about things I was passionate about to things that were only somewhat related to topics important to me. Jobs came in. Articles went out. I felt like a factory.
Where was my veracious curiosity about life, my 12:30am inspirations for story, my coffee-fueled sessions of personal and societal unpacking? Where had that emotive and expressive young man gone, the one whose words helped him cope with and understand the world around him?
How had I lost my process of dealing with the difficult task of being human?
I was making good money, but at what cost?
I did not like what the process of writing had become for me. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, longing to keep the act on some sort of artsy-fartsy pedestal; maybe I’m the embodiment of my personality type (I’m an INFP).
Whatever the case, if I was going to save my relationship with writing and get back the one thing that helped me survive through my childhood and make sense of the world around me, then I had to find a way to make it joyful again.
And I knew exactly how to do that.
I sat down at my desk one day and made one final entry in my project planning notebook:
I finished any jobs that were outstanding and then threw my whole book in the garbage can.
I was done writing about things I didn’t believe in.
I had monetized my joy to the point that it wasn’t a joy anymore.
So for three months I spent more time reading, wrote almost daily in my journal, and worked on stories and articles that were fun for me. I even wrote a podcast script and placed in the quarter finals at the Austin Film Festival. My fiction started taking off. My blog subscribers soared to over a thousand people.
It felt like everything was slowly getting back to normal for me — like I was falling back in love with writing. I did take a few commission jobs, but only ones where I could write about something that was interesting to me. I could be myself, and my writing could be what I wanted it to be — a natural extension of my own heart and soul.
Of course, not everyone can just get out of the hustle like that.
I didn’t have any exigent circumstances preventing me from leaving the freelance marketplace, but the fact is that, while people freelance for a lot of reasons, there are even more reasons why people can’t stop freelancing once they start.
I was able to change gears and fall back in love with my joy because I had the privilege of turning down work I didn’t want to do.
The Privilege of Saying “No”
Writers are the only creators who have to deal with this.
Katie, an old friend of mine, used to love designing little logos for people. She told me it was an opportunity to make up cute little animals sipping drinks and sprawling out over the letters of a project or company name. It’s relaxing, she used to tell me, and it makes people happy. It makes ME happy.
We lost track of each other for about a year, then a month ago we got back in touch over email. She had completely transitioned away from graphic design. When I asked her what caused the shift in profession — she’s now working her butt off as a junior web developer — she told me it was when “work replaced wonder”:
Katie still does graphic design, but now she only works on projects that she wants to work on. She realized that doing what you love is wonderful, but doing what you love as a means to an end can be a recipe for a mental breakdown. You’ve got to have healthy boundaries, and some people are better at setting them (and sticking to them) than others.
With her new job, Katie is learning skills to revamp her portfolio and make her web presence about what she wants to do instead of what she is willing to do for money.
It may seem tempting to “do what you love” to earn an income, but the sad reality is that there’s a reason you love your hobbies — they’re hobbies, and the moment they become not hobbies they lose their value to you as places you can retreat to. Freelancing is a great opportunity to bring in extra cash, but not if it means that, when it comes to your creative outlets, you lose the privilege of saying no.
A Deeper Societal Problem
In a world where everything seems to keep getting larger — student loan debt, rent, temperatures, societal tensions — the pool of opportunities to work and make a livable wage continue to get smaller. The explosive emergence of companies that fill the gaps left over from an increasingly de-unionized and underpaid job market may have intended to build a new and improved working class, but what they got was a ton of money by selling middle class folks hope with a big helping of anxiety.
Whether you’re able to augment your passions into a sustainable side business or not, one thing is clear: there’s a psychological toll put on creators when our monetization-obsessed culture pushes us to turn our creative pursuits into money-making hustles.
Adam J. Kurtz, a graphic designer and the author of Things Are What You Make of Them, rewrites a popular phrase to reflect these pressures:
“Do what you love and you’ll work super f***ing hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.”
When young working Americans are spending upwards of 45% of their income on rent and are in a constant state of political and social anxiety, it’s often easier to glamorize the grind than sit and think about what we are feeling and why.
If we did, we might realize just how helpless we actually are. As playwright Molly Conway puts it, “It’s easier to stomach needing three jobs to make ends meet if we rebrand ourselves as hustlers.”
This obsession with monetizing joy does not happen in a vacuum. As entire industries start to rely on a gig economy for labor, good jobs with benefits tend to dry up, forcing hard-working people into the uncertainty of freelance income that is only available if the opportunity for those same wages is taken away from another freelancer.
The most depressing part of all this is that most gig-based freelancers only make a few hundred dollars per month competing with other folks for opportunities to work without benefits or stability. On top of that, for most people freelancing is less about making extra income on the side and more about narrowly avoiding poverty.
This is great for the companies who are making billions of dollars off of desperate economic conditions, but it can be detrimental to the health and well-being of everyday folks like you and me — especially for creators, whose connection to this increasingly commodified world is the art through which we tend to express ourselves and, by its very nature, exist.
As creators, we must remember that our purpose in life is to add to the rich culture that defines this and future generations, no matter how small or big our individual contributions feel while we are alive. To do this, we can’t just go forward and hope that we can be as privileged and as luck as the next creator; we have to survive forward.
Surviving forward in a society obsessed with monetizing joy means creative boundaries. It means giving yourself permission to treat your art and the process of creating as personally sacrosanct. Don’t turn your creative pursuits into a job unless that’s really what you want. Frankly, freelancing is a great way to determine that, but remember that the pressure to use your art as a means to an end will only continue to grow as economic and societal circumstances continue to decline.
You will feel pressure to continue, even at the expense of yourself. Surviving forward means that you must take inventory of your relationship with your art. Ask yourself, every day: What is your art? What does it mean to you to be doing art?
What does it mean to be a creator?
My art is my writing. I learned the hard way that not all writing is for me. There’s a huge personal difference between creating corporate marketing material and creating a sociological think piece on modern culture. I was good at both but only the latter brought me joy. As it turns out, I am not the kind of writer who can write about something I’m not personally interested in — in other words, the derived value cannot be purely monetary.
What about you?
Only you can truly know what’s best for you — but plan on tripping over yourself. A lot. That doesn’t make you wrong or any less of a creator, it makes you human. And what is the purpose of creating art if not to reflect the very act of being human?
If my story does one thing for you, I hope it is to remind you that we are all drifting through this life trying to find meaning in the objectively meaningless, to survive one day at a time by turning snapshots of our experiences into works of art just for the sake of creating.
That process is special; you are special. I truly believe that.
If you are absolutely positive that directing your creative pursuits at generating income is your best way forward, please plan out ways to keep your love for and the value of your art intact. Set healthy boundaries. Know thyself, and don’t sacrifice your joy for the sake of a job.
Nothing is more important to the soul of your generation than the art you contribute to it.
The fact that you create anything means that you serve a special purpose in society. Art influences people. It changes people. And it’s just as important to create art that changes the world as it is to create art that changes one person.
And it’s okay if that one person is you.
So go forth, creator, and create. Go forward — Survive forward.
Remember that you are a creator, and above all, remember why you create.
Jesse Lawson is a bestselling author and essayist who focuses on the intersection of psychology, culture, society, and creativity. Find his books on Amazon and his essays on Medium. Follow him on Twitter.