Being a Writer Is Way Different Than it Looks on “Girls”
I’m not usually one of those people who thinks all TV shows need to be 100% realistic. Then they’d just be real life, which isn’t the point.
But as somebody who makes a living writing on the internet, Hannah’s career trajectory on “Girls” makes me want to throw things at the television screen.
While I don’t fault Hannah for enjoying the same level of professional and financial luck that blesses most TV protagonists on shows that take place in NYC, Lena Dunham clearly has no idea what she’s talking about here.
Yes, Lena Dunham is a genuinely successful writer who can and has written a book about how to parlay the privilege you’re born with into something that will make you famous, but she doesn’t understand how Internet writing works.
Now if you’re just a casual “Girls” fan who works in marketing or film, this isn’t such a big deal, but if you want to be a writer and you’re looking to “Girls” for guidance about what your career could look like some day, you’re going to get the wrong idea.
Just like “Sex and the City” spoon fed my generation a lot of unrealistic expectations about what a professional writing career looks like, “Girls” is guilty of all the same crimes, just with internet writing instead of print newspaper writing.
So ladies, if you actually want to make a career writing up on the internet, here’s what Lena Dunham got wrong about what your professional life is actually gonna look like.
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Nobody cares about the first time you did cocaine
Hannah gets her first paid writing gig in 2013 where she gets offered $200 by a fictional site called Jazzhate to try cocaine for the first time and then write about it.
First of all, the days of getting paid $200 for a personal essay about something pretty common (doing cocaine) are out the window. It’s debatable whether that ever even happened for people who weren’t already established writers.
Also, in 2013, this kind of story had already been done to death.
If you’re at all familiar with the internet landscape of the early 2010s, then you probably know all about xoJane, a very popular site which posted stories about taking Plan B as Plan A and finding a hairball in your vagina.
People went especially nuts for young women writing about their drug use. Just look at Cat Marnell, a big-deal internet writer at the time who allegedly got a multi-thousand-dollar raise after snorting a line of bath salts, albeit the non-drug kind, on camera.
It’s possible Hannah would have gotten an assignment to write about doing coke in 2013. But as a completely new writer with literally no previous published work, she probably would’ve been paid something closer to the $50 to $75 range, if anything.
By 2013 the world had already read enough “OMG I did drugs and I felt this” kinds of stories to last a lifetime. By then, the internet had moved on to praying at the alter of the listicle, which Buzzfeed both popularized and ruined.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is when you’re e-mailing pitches to editors, don’t offer up your testimonial about what it was like to do [insert drug here] for the first time. It’s over. Unless you’re doing something novel people don’t talk about like sticking molly up your butt so you don’t get a stomachache, or something.
And then, check to make sure Vice hasn’t written about it first. Bet you $20 they have.
Drug stories had their day and for the most part people don’t care anymore.
Your first paid writing gig probably won’t get you shit
Pretty soon after Hannah’s riveting story about doing cocaine for the first time gets published, she gets commissioned to write an e-book.
Obviously if you watch the show then you know this plan didn’t quite work out, but in real life, it never would have happened in the first place.
The only thing that’s gonna happen after you get your first story published is that you’ll be able to say you’re a published writer and all your friends will comment “congratulations” on your Facebook status about it.
If you’re lucky, whoever you wrote the story for will realize they have a talented writer on their hands and will either offer you a staff job if they’re hiring or accept another one of your pitches so you can continue to get paid, but more often than not, the only thing your first published story will get you career-wise is another bullet point on your résumé. No one’s going to love your personal essay so much that they seek you out and offer you an unrelated paid job.
It’s possible to have a crummy day job and still be creative
In season 3, Hannah quits her day job working in a coffee shop because she got a writing job at GQ.
Only she doesn’t get hired as a staff writer, she gets hired to write paid advertisements that look like news stories, a job which Hannah is initially kind of stoked about because it pays her a decent salary and the kitchen is always stocked with free snacks. (It’s also not a job that’s easy to get with no experience. It’s competitive and she probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.)
But within a few episodes she decides she’s too creative and that if she stays there it’ll be a waste of her talent, so she quits.
Now, nobody ever wants to find themselves working a day job they consider beneath them, but sometimes that’s what it takes to make ends meet – especially when you live in New York City.
Writing doesn’t pay a lot money, especially when you’re just getting started, so unless you have a rich parent who doesn’t mind paying your rent while you “figure it out,” you’re going to need to get creative about how you pay your bills.
While most people work in food service as a day job, there’s nothing wrong with working somewhere where you can get cheap healthcare and grow your savings account.
Sure it’s hard to find time to write after working a 9-5 all week, but if you’re ambitious, you’ll find the time, I promise.
There’s no reason why you have to be a starving artist.
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You don’t make any money as a freelancer
Sorry to keep talking about day jobs, but if you’re working as a freelancer, you’re probably gonna need one.
I touched on this before but I really can’t stress it enough: writers don’t make a lot of money – especially not freelancers.
Just like with all jobs, there’s a hierarchy when it comes to who makes the most money. Internet-writing freelancers are a step above unpaid interns.
Remember that website that paid Hannah $200 to write about doing cocaine?
That’s at the high end of the spectrum of what people would probably be paying her per story, and it’s definitely not what they’d offer for her first story ever.
For relatively unexperienced young writers who do thinkpieces and personal essays, sites would most likely be paying Hannah between $25-$100 per story, or maybe somewhere in the low $200-$400 range once she proved her stories performed well with readers.
So far this season, we know Hannah’s written at least four stories – one about surf camp, one about a sex cult, something about that sus writer who whipped out his penis on her leg, and let’s just be generous and say she got a fourth story out of that woman who told Hannah you couldn’t be a writer and have a child at the same time.
You don’t have to be good at math to figure out that’s not a lot of money.
At the low end, Hannah made $100 and at the high end she made $1,200.
Yes she probably made a good amount of money when she got a story published in the New York Times, but that was a one time thing and rent/utility bills are something that happens every goddamn month.
Bottom line: unless you’re rich or have a sugar daddy, you’re probably gonna need a day job to supplement your freelance career.
Like when I used to freelance for Galore, I worked two days a week in a coffee shop, which meant that I worked seven days a week and felt like I was going crazy all the time, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to make your career happen.
And if you don’t want to have a day job, I’d suggest you try and get yourself on staff somewhere.
You won’t have as much flexibility in your life and you’ll probably have to go to an office everyday, but you know what? Learning to be okay with stability is a huge part of becoming an adult.
There’s only so long you can keep up the act that you don’t mind eating ramen every day because at least you’re living the bohemian artist lifestyle.