I work at a liquor store, I teach, and I write, and to the degree that recognition or appreciation can be used an indicator of one’s success, that’s how my occupations rank.
Liquor store employee, then teacher, then writer.
Almost universally, the patrons at Eddie’s Liquors are pleasant, sincere, and happy to see me: when I say hello, they say hello, and when I ask if they need help finding anything, they’re thankful, especially if I succeed in helping them. We chat at the register, and I sell them lottery tickets, and they say they’ll give me a ten percent kickback, if this one’s the big winner, and we laugh, and under these circumstances, our relationship has blossomed.
As a teacher, I’ve certainly experienced grand moments, when a student or a parent or a colleague says something genuinely affecting, and when that happens, my sense of self-worth seems limitless. It simply cannot be contained.
But, one day, a 17-year-old called me a dick in front of a room full of students.
And I’ve been called a faggot or a douchebag or an asshole on Twitter more times than you can count, and I’ve come to live my life assuming that — out of ear shot —I’m being called worse than that on a near daily basis from September to June. Even with the Chirstmas time Starbucks gift cards and occasional neckties from foreign exchange students, teaching seems to me a mixed bag, in terms of appreciation.
And then there is writing, where I hear…
Last week, I published a story that had been the dominant creative focus of my life since April: it was a 6,535-word opus about a pub in Ireland, which attempted to contextualize the eccentric beauty of travel’s characters, as well as my adult study abroad, when I moved to Ireland for a summer, fell into something like a life, went back a few months later, then had to leave for good.
It was a wonderful, transient time in my life, and in quiet moments, I still often find myself longing for them, so I wrote about it.
I shopped it around, and it was was rejected no less than eight times, on top of the countless e-mails and follow-ups that went unanswered.
Of course, it’s possible that I missed whatever mark I was going for, but I still believed in the piece — I still do, I think — and thus, I published it here, on Medium, where according to comprehensive stats, it has been clicked 153 times, and read to completion 38 times.
That’s a read ratio of 25%, for those of you keeping score at home.
In spite of this, I doubled down on the piece, and recorded an audio version of the same article, dressed up with accented Irish music. From start to finish, it took close to fifteen hours to complete, and since being released last Thursday, it’s been downloaded 119 times.
From those 119 downloads, I have received 0 pieces of feedback, which is doubly troubling, considering most of those 119 downloads come from family and friends, all of whom have my contact information.
So, again, it’s possible — and growing more likely — that I missed whatever mark I was going for. That’s an occupational hazard of writing.
So at the end of last week, I went in for my shift at the liquor store: I slung boxes of cold beer, reorganized stacks of warm beer, and texted my girlfriend that I was “giving up on all creative endeavors,” because Eddie’s Liquors — not writing — “is my destiny.”
Used to my melodrama — even amused by it — she did little in the way of entertaining this, especially after I was semi-convinced that I had rabies earlier in the week.
She’s heard such declarations before, and seen them pass, as this one already has.
With some distance from the initial post-show blues, I’ve come to quantify my frustration with a more level head, and (think) that my disappointment is two-fold: first, that I’d spent three months working on something that no one gives a shit about, and second, that this was the latest thing in a long line of things that was supposed to lead to a new station.
This was supposed to be the breakthrough, the piece where all the unpaid, hard work pays off.
In that way, this piece shares something in common with everything I’ve published before it.
To my detriment, I often think about my own writing like a heist movie, or the beginning of Unforgiven: “One last job,” I think. “One last ride,” which doesn’t mean that particular article will be the last thing I ever publish, but rather, the last thing I’ll publish before writing becomes my singular professional focus.
“This is the one,” I think. “This is the one gets me the full-time job, or the part-time job, or the occasional paycheck, or makes me feel like I’m heading in the right direction.”
I’ve published writing for almost three years, and along the way, there’s been a laundry list of “last jobs” and times where I truly believed that the levees were about to break.
Every time, it’s “once I publish this one.”
“Once I publish Ireland,” was only the latest.
The first last one was Lake Street Dive, an article that bled over from my first-ever published piece, where I had an interview with the head of a record label and the guitar player of a band who appeared on Ellen, and I distinctly remember typing at my kitchen table all weekend, and having a phone conversation where I said, “This article could change my life.”
(That statement now seems so embarrassingly naïve that I can hardly read it without shuddering.)
Then it was “The Case for Stephen Kellogg,” a piece about my favorite singer-songwriter, published independently on a Saturday morning in January of 2015.
Somewhere around noon that day, while I sat in the back of a friend’s car on our way to a birthday party, my phone buzzed with a retweet from Stephen Kellogg, and as far I was concerned, I’d broken the internet: the article got something like 6,000 views, was featured on the front page of No Depression, and had me convinced that I’d gotten inside some elusive city walls.
Over the next few weeks, I sent the article around to whoever might read it, watched my inbox, and waited for the inevitable offer to come.
“Why don’t you come to do that for us?”
Nothing. But that piece did lead me to the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, who weren’t huge, but who had a documentary that won a bunch of awards at film festivals around the country. That spring, they gave me my first real stab at embedded journalism, and on weekends away from school, I fancied myself a young Hunter S. Thompson, riding around in a van stuffed with guitars, and drinking beers with musicians after-hours.
I filled up notebooks, took part of a draft to Ireland that summer, and spent the next three months half-writing, but mostly bopping around Europe.
The article was published that fall, and I was fucking proud of it.
Even when that one didn’t lead to the next big thing, I considered it an important illustration of what my work could be, and sent it unattainable artists coming near New England, like, “Have you seen this shit? I could do this for you — only bigger.”
But bigger didn’t come right away, and the winter passed with album reviews and unanswered e-mails, until March, when I got an unpaid gig at a site called Moshery.
No money, but a job title — something tangible that said “writer”— and a column, “Albums I Would’ve Reviewed If I Had a Music Column When They Came Out” — a fucking column! And that felt like making it.
I wrote one a column a week in between classes: my first, a re-review of Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart got a big response. Then Josh Ritter’s Animal Years got a big response, then Will Hoge’s Modern American Protest Music got a big response, and I published a three-part memoir about a weekend on Cape Cod, which proved personally damaging.
Growing emboldened, I asked to be paid, the request was denied, and I decided to stop writing for Moshery.
If the money ($0.00) was all the same, I’d prefer to trade in sites that got more eyeballs.
However short lived, “Albums I Would’ve Reviewed If I Had a Music Column When They Came Out,” led to a full-scale Frank Turner profile: I was backstage, had an hour-long sit-down interview in Brooklyn, and stood side-stage in the pouring rain at a show in Portland.
For some background, Frank Turner has played Wembley Stadium, the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, and nearly 2,000 other shows along the way.
That not only made this feel big, but bigger than me.
…if I pulled it off, though? Doors would open.
A 5,000-word, classic rock profile went up that September. To date, that piece has 9,000+ views, and came hot on the heels of an essay about Tommy Shelby from Peaky Blinders, which was published on Glide, and received 130+ Retweets and 400+ Favorites, by far the most any of my articles have ever received.
So with Tommy Shelby and the Frank Turner in my holster, I applied for a vacant Staff Writer Position at Paste Magazine.
Very literally a dream job, I called in every favor I had, including one from Stephen Kellogg, who wrote to Paste’s Music Editor on my behalf.
In the wake of that disappointment — as I always do, I’d convinced myself that I’d get it — a press person for the Lumineers got me a photo pass to their show in Boston. No interview, but I’d be in the pit for two nights of my favorite band of the last half-decade, and that experience led to a review-turned-profile-turned-rock-and-roll-memoir about the way our favorite music binds us to the people around us, and I thought, “Yup. This is the one.”
It has 390 total views. Not exactly what I’d envisioned at the outset.
That one still stings, and feels like I’d spent a few months shouting into a paper bag.
But my e-mail job alerts kept coming, and in the winter, there was a phone interview for a paid gig at something called Salute Magazine. (Not the one published for the families of American Military Members). It was offered, I excitedly agreed, and the Editor sent me a writer’s guide form 2015 (mind you, the year was 2017), and a rate of 11 cents per 100 views.
I tried to post four days a week, never saw a paycheck, and, again, favored giving my work to sites with more eyeballs, if the end result was all the same.
I moved on, but waited for a phone call, asking why I’d stop posting. It never came.
But just as that fell apart, the next, last thing: one afternoon in the spring, I recieved an out-of-no-where e-mail, asking if I’d be interested in appearing on the Federalist Radio Hour in Washingston, D.C.
I took a day off work, flew down, and talked about new artists, the changing landscape of music, and Josh Ritter.
And I thought, “Momentum.”
I got back to work the next morning, my phone buzzed while my students worked in the library, and I saw that Josh Ritter had tweeted my podcast — “Let’s Drink 3 or 4 Beers and Talk About How Good Josh Ritter Is” — with the caption, “Pretty badass podcast, if I do say so myself.”
And I thought, even more boldly, “Momentum.”
So when school let out for Spring Break, I printed my very best work, burned my very best audio on to CDs, and wrote cover letters: I assembled the portfolio into binders, fitted everything in sheet protectors, made bookmarks out of the laminated faces of the subject of each article, and dressed up the front covers with cut-out, magazine letters, each reading “Dear [Publication].”
That idea — courtesy of an an interview I’d heard with Darren Rovell — was that it’s much more difficult to ignore than an electronic correspondence.
I sent binders to Paste, Salon, Rolling Stone, Hot Press, Noisey, and American Songwriter.
Dear Rolling Stone.
Dear Hot Press.
Dear American Songwriter.
I went to the Post Office, bought boxes, paid for shipping, and waited for a letter, an e-mail, or a phone call.
It’s been four months.
No letters, e-mails, or phone calls.
And that was the last, last job, until Ireland, which was the latest last job.
And this week, I’ve been in touch with the Dropkick Murphys’ people, so if that opportunity comes together, that will be the next last job, and I’ll once again trick myself into thinking that, when it’s published, the flood of offers will roll in.
The Dropkick Murphys’ article will be the one that gets me a full-time job, or a part-time job, or an occasional paycheck, or make me feel like I’m heading in the right direction.
It’s a vicious cycle of delusion.
But my question is this: do other writers not need money?
I’ve been at this for close to three years, and haven’t received a dime for anything I’ve written. By my count, I’ve amassed a fortune of 11 concert tickets, two nights at a Quality Inn and Suites, and a scattered mix of CDs that live on the floor of my 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Writing hasn’t paid bills, and because of that, I am, first, a teacher, then a liquor store employee, then a writer.
I have student loans, and thus, two jobs. I have personal responsibilities and a desire for a normal social life, and thus, I can’t write everyday.
(Seriously, how do people write every day?)
With the constraints of finance and schedule, my philosophy is this: when I write — which I do as frequently as my schedule allows— I’ll publish big, refined work, and hope that people fill in the gaps.
I’ll hope that people see my work, see some inherent potential, and they’ll say to themselves, “If this is what he can do in whatever time is left over at the end of the day, imagine what he’d do if this was his actual focus.”
(A note: this piece is not big, refined work. It’s expository, and cathartic, and what I suppose I’ve tried to say succinctly in cover letters, but can’t seem to pull off to any degree of success.)
Maybe my strategy is wishful thinking, and maybe my approach is wrong, and maybe I don’t work hard enough, and maybe I should publish shorter work more frequently.
Or maybe I should evolve, and start writing articles like, “The 17 Top Hook Up Emojis of 2017!”
The latest last job — the Ireland article — hasn’t hit, and I’ve devised a new plan: I’ll try to release a podcast every week, and in the meantime, write a novel, completed before my 30th birthday next May.
And if no one gives a shit about that?
Well, my girlfriend (poor thing) will receive a novel-length text, announcing my retirement from all creative pursuits.
And she won’t believe me.
And she shouldn’t.
And, like I always do, I’ll give in to melodrama.
And before my head cools, I’ll say fuck Moshery, and fuck Salute.
And fuck Paste, and fuck Salon, and fuck Rolling Stone, and fuck Hot Press, and fuck Noisey, and fuck American Songwriter.
Because I’m good enough, I think.
But, most of all, fuck me.
Because even when I say I’m done with writing, I know I never will be, even if no one is reading.