Being a Poet Who Can Afford Groceries
First, of course, I fretted over producing perfect assignments. Writing online content with short deadlines brought out all the anxiety and driven perfectionism that characterized my years in school. I created first and second drafts, pages of notes, lists of bookmarks. I probably earned about two dollars an hour for those first few jobs, since I approached them in the same way that I approach my own personal essays—time spent on the writing not even being remotely relevant.
After I recognized that content writing rates would not allow me to hang out in that time-free zone, my speed increased. I learned how to do good research and be fast about it, revising my wording as I went along. Once I’d figured out the basics of the craft, though, I started to wonder if I was destroying—or selling—my purely creative side. If my ability to strive for better short stories, or more edgy poetry, was going to be sacrificed for a paycheck, then I’d have to find another line of work.
I decided to let the dust settle for a few weeks, and just put all my writing time into the paid assignments. It was kind of fun, actually. Researching topics for clients, I was opening up esoteric swaths of knowledge I’d never have chosen on my own, and in some cases developing whole new vocabularies.
Once I felt that the content writing rates (and my speed) were adequate to keep the wolf from the door, I hesitantly opened one of my poetry folders. There they all were; I was in the midst of them again: the spare assemblages of words through which I aspire to literary art that matters. I had a couple dozen, all in stages of incompleteness, because sometimes poems intimidate you in their almost-doneness; you know that with just a few more tweaks a poem might become actually good, but you’re afraid to touch a word of it for fear of wrecking what’s already there.
Something was different now, though; the tension inside me had lowered. Accustomed to simply turning on the spigot and pouring out floods of words as common working material, for hours of every day, I found that the act of writing had become less fraught. Simpler. It didn’t matter that the assignment writing was all bullet points and keyword headers—in some fundamental sense, the poems and stories draw on that same verbal part of my brain, and it’s all still fresh and open. Of course, what I pull from that verbal fountain is different in my own pieces: visual, emotional, a circus with curtains of live butterflies or a young mother wiping steam from the windows of her trailer.
What matters, though, is that it works. In the end, I found that the source of writing isn’t limited, like a piggy bank that we pull quarters out of. Instead it’s additive, the same as other crucial things which only grow and strengthen as they’re used.
Betsy S is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.