Why I Stopped Writing About My Earnings

Aka How I Think I Helped Turn Medium Into The Bad Place

Shannon Ashley
May 3 · 13 min read

CW: This piece references some of my struggles with depression and suicidal ideation.

You might not know this, but when I first began writing on Medium in April 2018, very few people wrote about how much money they earned. I don’t know of any women who did it at all. It was mostly a few men sharing how a single story earned $500, and I had a whole lot of questions about what it took to “get there” as a newbie.

Truthfully, I was on Medium to make money and build a writing career on my terms. When my work-from-home gig in marketing became unsustainable, I turned to Medium as a way out. I was a single mom desperately trying to avoid losing the little bit of normalcy she’d regained by working from home. My daughter was nearly 4 years old, and I decided I had nothing to lose.

This move seemed natural because, during my crisis pregnancy in 2014, I already decided to finally pursue writing — something I’d only dreamed of since childhood. But I settled for a content mill that paid peanuts because I still didn’t exactly believe in my abilities and nobody else seemed to believe in me either.

When faced with the possibility of losing my measly income about four years later, I made another choice. I was going to write openly and honestly and build a better future for both me and my kid.

In those days, a lot of my stories were much more “bloggy.” Just me talking about why I was so determined to make Medium work.

There was this one time I wrote about buying my daughter a rainbow swimsuit, but how it made me really nervous because I didn’t know if that was something I should have done. Money was so tight that I worried about a decision like that if the next month proved to be even harder.

Also in those early days, I was dealing with terrible teeth trouble. (Unfortunately, that’s been an ongoing issue in my life since pregnancy — even today, I have a few teeth troubles I keep putting off). Back in my early Medium days, however, I was facing a huge dental crisis. I went in with a $20 coupon for an exam because I had a broken tooth, and I left fighting back tears because the treatment plan they quoted me was more than $18,000.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been crying in a dental office because I couldn’t afford a root canal. But it was the first time I really felt the weight of my hopelessness since surviving severe prenatal and post-partum depression.

I was plagued by suicidal thoughts during pregnancy and the first few years of my daughter’s life. Although my mental state was improving, I knew it was all still so precarious.

That was really fucking scary.

Now, here’s the thing. Every time I told people that I was finally taking the leap to write for a living, I got feedback that said I was irresponsible and unrealistic. All of the negative stuff people say about writing for a living? How it’s a pipe dream? That’s what people told me about my mission to write.

Even the few people who “supported my choice” seemed… hesitant. I felt awful. On one side, it was like nobody could even imagine I’d write anything worth reading. But another side of me really did think I had something important to say.

I was frustrated and I was sick of people telling me what to do. For years, people kept telling me to get a job in a daycare. Or to work with a crisis center that helps young moms get into fast-food management.

It was infuriating how much people said that sort of stuff to me. Or how they claimed I “just needed a dose of tough love.” The most laughable thing about it was that nobody cared about my ex’s part in caring for our daughter.

People blamed me.

Even when he left me early in the pregnancy, told me I had to leave our apartment, and began openly trolling for women on sites like MeetMe, I was the party most people blamed. Even though he was the father of three who’d just gotten his divorce finalized from his wife of 10 years, people said I should be the one to face the brunt of the consequences when we got pregnant.

Even when folks didn’t know any of the sordid details of our relationship, they assumed I was lazy or a bad mom because I wasn’t willing to work three jobs or do whatever they thought I could do. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a car or license. It didn’t matter that the pregnancy was wrought with complications. When my ex made me leave home, I was suddenly reliant upon others for shelter (since I’d sunk my savings into my life with him).

Here are a couple of the messages I got about discussing my writing ambitions and plans to work from home — when I was on bed rest and unemployed during pregnancy. People were mad that I even talked about pursuing a career I… wanted:

Facebook comment screenshots

While this particular take was… extreme, most folks offered a gentler variation. There was pretty much no understanding from others that I might not even be cut out for the work they had in mind for me (as a neurodivergent person), or that my daughter could suffer if I took on the wrong sort of lifestyle for my skills and personality.

So, I was adamant about working from home as a writer, because I believed it was virtually the only job that wouldn’t drain me too much or negatively impact my ability to be a good mom.

That’s where I was coming from when I first began writing about my earnings on Medium. I wrote about how in my first full month I earned about $750. Back then, my rent was $725. I wrote about how I was taking that as a sign that I was supposed to be here. When I became a top writer in parenting and mental health? Okay, another sign.

Taking such wins as signs helped keep me going despite working at night while my daughter slept and feeling so exhausted that I often fell asleep in my chair or dropped my phone on my face in the middle of writing from my phone. And I thought, they were good for many of my readers too.

Medium comment screenshot

The second month, I made under $450. That’s okay, I thought. I was paying attention to the monthly emails from Medium and saw that the highest-paid writer made thousands of dollars. I decided to work toward that too.

In my third full month on Medium, I earned $1,400, and while there were always going to be ups and downs, once I hit my sixth month, I always earned more than $2,000 a month. At nine months in, I decided to quit writing for other businesses, so I left that content mill and focused on Medium.

It’s one of the few truly scary choices I’ve ever made that I’ve yet to second-guess.

About a year into Medium, I actually did get the highest earnings for one month, and it felt like I’d achieved a good goal, but it didn’t bother me that others came in and surpassed me by miles since then. I proved what I needed to prove to myself and that was enough to keep me going.

For better or for worse, I kept writing about my earnings on Medium. Despite the feedback over the years from folks who found this braggy or uncouth, I thought it was important. Especially as a woman, and especially as a single mom.

My daughter recently turned seven, and people have been criticizing my choices this entire time. When I was pregnant and fighting suicidal ideation, most people wrote me off as being some sort of drama queen. Her dad told everyone I was “crazy” and I got many comments from so-called friends and plenty of strangers that I wasn’t even really suffering.

I just wanted attention, they said.

Ugh. It’s hard to describe just how awful it feels to be that depressed and hounded by thoughts about ending your life… only to hear those words. For me, opening up about such struggles is such a scary and vulnerable thing. It’s always a little bit humiliating just to say the words “I wish I was dead.” When people shamed me for admitting how often I felt it? Oh my God, I just… I wanted to kill myself even more in those moments. Just to make them see, it wasn’t a joke.

It often felt like the only way anyone (aside from a mental health professional) would believe me was if I actually did it. And that feeling was what frightened me the most. I often feared that I would leave my daughter behind by being unable to cope with that urge to prove to the world I was serious.

Maybe that’s what people don’t understand about chronic suicidal ideation. It’s a battle you fight internally. As if you’re just white-knuckling your life and trying to hang on to the end of your rope. You tell people about it because you’re scared that you’re going to let go if you don’t. But then, when you get those sort of responses accusing you of simply seeking attention — it puts you in danger of doing it anyway.

Some of the comments I get in response to my work feel eerily similar. As an aspiring writer, people telling me why I write the stuff I do brings up feelings of shame. I’ve often thought, Wow, maybe I am a shitty writer if people can’t see my heart in all of this.

Over the years, I’ve defended writing about my earnings, though, because I really thought the criticisms missed the point. And I didn’t believe the shame was warranted.

In my mind, I always promised that I’d be open and honest about my Medium journey. It made sense (or so I thought) to tell readers about some of my highs and lows about earning a living with my writing.

Besides, people have many reasons for following my work. For some folks, my journey as a writer is what interests them the most. They might be inspired to take their own leaps when they see me open up about what I’ve been doing. Or they might feel better to hear that I still struggle.

I also think it’s a real issue in our society that we tend to judge men and women differently about what they get to mention. I feel a lot of pushback from being a woman who sometimes discusses success or money even when I try to be honest about the fact that it isn’t all linear, upward growth, and that I still have lots of problems.

Hell, I still have financial struggles. I actually have two toothaches today. One, because I’ve got a crown that needs to be replaced, and then there’s another tooth with an old amalgam filling from childhood that probably needs a root canal (and crown, of course). I’ve been putting those teeth off a bit due to finances. So, while I’m grateful to not be in poverty anymore, I also understand that it takes time — and lots of money — to truly climb out of poverty too. The effects can be long-lasting.

Often, I get pushback that I don’t see a lot of men in blogging get. Multiple writers on Medium have tried to tell me I must be doing something wrong for being a “slow” writer. Popular men here have suggested my only value on the platform is in “teaching other women how to write for women.” And, of course, there’s all of the feedback about how I have “too many issues” to write at all, or how I’m just “cashing” in on controversy.

It grumps me up because it all comes with this underlying suggestion that my stories (which do take me hours to write and are meant to inspire, engross, help others feel something meaningful, or consider an issue in a new way) are far less valuable than the dudes telling everyone how to write faster and make more money.

They’re literally telling you that the stories they write take so little time and effort and then many of them are also selling you courses or ebooks about how you can do the same thing if you give them your time and money.

🙄

Okay, people.

Forgive me, but that seems so disingenuous.

Despite all of these feelings, I’m also afraid that my stories about my earnings on Medium led to the current cesspool of stories making sweeping assessments about success on the platform. When I first began writing those pieces, I thought they were a good way to offer my perspective without selling some overpriced courses about the platform. I also believed that more women should be talking about money, especially single moms battling the stigma of being lazy or somehow less valuable than partnered people.

I thought that by writing those stories, I would help some of you see that you might be able to accomplish more than you think, but that none of us can actually “control” our success. That’s why I say that luck, timing, and persistence matter.

I also wanted you all to believe me when I said that my stories about my earnings and Medium in general really aren’t my moneymaking stories. I said that because it’s true. It’s always been true. It’s still true. My top-earning stories aren’t always the ones that come up first when you search for me on the platform. I suspect Medium sorts those search results by internal views and claps. But member reading time is an entirely different, more important (in terms of money) metric that others cannot see.

So, I had all of these reasons for writing about my earnings on Medium, and I legitimately thought they were good ones. I also thought I did a decent job of explaining that no two journeys on Medium are ever going to follow the same path.

Even when I’ve written my stories about my stats going down… I hoped to be relatable. I hoped other people would recognize that ups and downs happen. And while I know that plenty of readers have gotten such lessons from my work, it’s been frustrating to see that lots of people have thought, “She’s just feeling sorry for herself,” or, “She’s only seeing a decline in views because she’s a jerk who doesn’t respond to enough of the comments.”

Most of all, though, it’s been devastating to see the trend of stories about earnings and Medium journeys turn into a bunch of, “This Is How You Can Do What I Did and Get Rich On Medium By Hardly Working and Creating Content That Practically Writes Itself.”

Or, “Take My $900 Course and I’ll Show You How to Make $xx on Medium Every Month.”

To make things worse, folks create “How to Succeed on Medium” courses after being on the platform for only a month. Some sell their courses by sharing a month or two of their incomes from past years, not, um, now. Others consider themselves experts on the platform for simply rehashing the same old ideas, same old advice, and same old formulas over and over again. Some even write about making money with this very weird overture that money doesn’t even matter.

If money doesn’t matter, you’ve probably never really been poor. It’s like Dave Ramsey saying he’s been broke when he’s actually only been bankrupt. Poverty is too poor for bankruptcy!

It works for them, though, despite all of the complaints. People just can’t help themselves, I guess. So, honestly, it makes me sad to see that I could have contributed to the current trend of content marketing how-tos by being the first woman on Medium to really be open about her earnings.

This means it’s time to stop. Back in 2020, I wrote a lot less about such topics but I still wrote the occasional piece come out about how I was doing and what you might be able to glean from my experiences. Now, in 2021, I’ve written about the changes on Medium but even those commentaries were sometimes seen as whiny (rather than empowering), and I found myself lumped in with content creators and pyramid schemes — stuff I don’t want to be a part of.

I’m sorry for having any part in all of that and realize that my impact was more negative than my intent.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with being a “content creator.” But it’s certainly not my thing and I don’t want people to be confused by thinking that’s a lifestyle I promote.

I also don’t want to see Medium overrun by content creation that the writers don’t actually give a damn about and people only read because they’re desperate.

Some of you know that I’ve been thinking about these things for a while, hence my post last month about Medium success courses.

However, I must point out that Jessica Wildfire and Felicia C. Sullivan have both written recently about their own issues with the smarmy trend of “get-rich writing” on Medium. Jessica wrote this piece last week and Felicia sent out an email titled “Storytelling is NOT about selling people on a ‘get rich like me’ scam.” It looks like Felicia also published a story on the issue this AM — and she speaks much more eloquently than I can. Both women have sort of stuck the topic back into my mind, so, please be sure to check them out as well.

Back in 2018, I promised I’d be honest in my writing — and not the highly curated brand of “HoNeStY” we see on social media. I’m still committed to that sort of authenticity. I certainly won’t be flawless and I won’t always be right, but you can count on me speaking from my heart and saying what I believe... even when it isn’t pretty.

I’m grateful for all of you who continue to walk with or follow me along this winding path. Thank you for making space for me in your life and for accepting me with all of my awkwardness.

Honestly Yours

Essays with heart

Shannon Ashley

Written by

It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. 🍵 https://ko-fi.com/shannonashley 📧shannon.ashley.medium@gmail.com

Honestly Yours

No topic is off-limits, and nothing human is unmentionable. Read on.

Shannon Ashley

Written by

It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. 🍵 https://ko-fi.com/shannonashley 📧shannon.ashley.medium@gmail.com

Honestly Yours

No topic is off-limits, and nothing human is unmentionable. Read on.

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