MY JOURNEY into freelance writing started where many others have: oDesk.
For those who don’t know oDesk, it’s a site on which people from all over the world (primarily Asia and Australia, I’ve come to experience) post contracting jobs and writers, digital designers, marketers, and other such unemployed skilled laborers/artists bid on those jobs. If you’re new to a site like oDesk as a contractor, you’ve got to work your way up from the bottom, stealing sketchy jobs from industrious workers living in countries where $3/hour is what people go to college to make.
This is how I found the first paid writing job I ever worked, which followed the first unpaid writing job I ever worked (Mfon, whoever you are, if you’re reading this, you still owe me $40). Someone from Thailand called Rujira hired me to write five 3,200+-word pieces of erotica for $90. Looking to make my degree in creative writing translate into actual money, I took on several orders.
I was trying my hand at publishing “literary” writing and would have been thrilled to get $18 for one of my own short stories. It wasn’t much, but at the least I figured it would be a good chance to get paid to do writing exercises — albeit very sexy writing exercises.
I was substitute teaching at the time and would pound these stories out while on my lunch and plan periods, then pray none of my jackass middle-school students went through my stuff and found what I’d been doing. This wasn’t just “adult” fiction; this was straight-up erotica, like suffering-a-20-minute-erection-while-I-wrote sort of stuff, stuff the client dictated should consist of “60% sex.”
I proceeded to spin out 5,000-word pieces of erotic art that followed characters wrestling with complex emotional baggage brought on by extensive backstories reaching necessary change and enlightenment through having filthy, passionate sex. I had to write long so I could manage to create compelling narratives while maintaining that minimum 3:2 ratio of sex to substance; like an interstate exit sign, the word counter would approach 3,200, hit it, then fade into the distance.
I did the math a week or so into the project and realized I was making about $5/hour. And then I thought about how I’d agreed to ghost-write all this and give up my rights to it, essentially making me a surrogate pornographer. I don’t know that I wanted people to be able to see my name on these pieces, but there seemed a sort of theft in allowing someone else to use the stories I’d taken care in crafting just so countless readers somewhere could get off to them, clean up, and forget about them.
Meanwhile, the stories I wrote in my spare time that I actually cared about were collecting digital dust as I failed to publish them again and again. As for my paid writing, I was just an anonymous eroticist, or perhaps my work was even being labeled as that of Rujira him/herself, but at least those stories were getting read (presumably). But even if that was the sole point of writing something with care and genuine effort, I still couldn’t bring myself to fully accept it.
Part of the problem is that to this day I have no idea who Rujira really is or what he/she did with those pieces. Google searches come up empty. The possibility that Rujira hoarded them to create an expansive library of personal masturbation material is slim; clients from around Thailand rarely spend that kind of money for such a comparatively small body of work ($20 for a 20,000-word e-book isn’t uncommon). My best guess is that this has all gone into a physical medium, possibly even churned into scripts for some kind of porn factory, or that it has been comically translated into a non-Latinate language.
Either way, when I realized there was no possibility of my being recognized for what I was doing, and it became obvious Rujira didn’t speak English well enough to pick up on the intricacies of my efforts, as I progressed through the job I’d try to tone down on the themes, characterization, motifs, and narrative arcs and just make some sex, but it was no use. Word counts still soared beyond the necessary as I wasted time overwriting for no extra pay. I couldn’t just intentionally write a bad story, even if no one would know it was me.
I started to wonder what this all said about art, that an artist is willing to detach himself from it so he can make money. I wondered what it said about the value of art, that some guy with a porn factory across the world could offer to underpay people to write about the most intimate, emotional aspect of human life and artists would take it and settle for $5/hour.
I’ll never know what happened to those pieces, how many people enjoyed them, how many people appreciated their themes and crafting, or how many orgasms they’ve caused people who like reading about fictitious people’s orgasms, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe it should be enough just to get paid to write something I could brag to my friends about after they got off working in retail or putting up with jackassy middle-schoolers for twice the pay. Maybe it was enough just to have a chance to make money doing something that was way more fun than typing reports or writing sales copy. Maybe it was enough that it effectively began what will hopefully be a more fulfilling career. Maybe.
I still write for money, but I don’t write erotica anymore, mostly for the same reason the type of people who manage LinkedIn profiles don’t post pictures of themselves at parties: because I don’t want prospective employers to see that I do that sort of thing. Also, because I can now work for above third-world wages and live in a first-world country.
The tradeoff has been that what I write for money now is far less interesting, but it’s also less draining. It’s ironic that this willing sacrifice is necessary for people like me, people writing anything they can for money as they try to become the Charlie Kaufmans, J. K. Rowlings, or Stan Lees — those fortunate few who get paid to write what they would likely write for no pay at all. I’m tempted to consider this sacrifice another form of reducing art to commodity, a “selling out” that so many other writers have been accused of for works vastly more “artistic” than the sales copy and marketing blogs I so frequently get paid to create.
But then I consider how completely I have to separate that type of writing from the writing I do “off the clock,” how distinctive a process it is, and I realize it’s still an art form of its own. There may not be a character arc, there may be no rhyme or meter, there may not even be a twist ending (in the Hitchcock sense, at least), but surely even the act of creating something that’s worthy of convincing people to pay for it is its own sort of aesthetic.