Being a pen for hire is, like many other aspects of the gig economy, a really precarious existence. Unlike working for a publication as a full time employee (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA that rarely happens for writers anymore), you’re doing your best to stay above water, even when you need a sick day, even when you have to fly across the country for the funeral of a loved one, even when everything in the world is kicking you in the ass. Because you have no other choice and you have no benefits, you only have that keyboard and a lot riding on your not having any sort of emergency ever.
But the problem is that writers are still soft, fleshy blobs of skin and fat and muscle and, presumably, other stuff. We have nerve endings and we have emotions and we have shit in our lives that we have to deal with day in and day out. We live in a high stress world of feast and famine, where the feasts are always too small and the famines too long. In short, we’re all of us living on the razor’s edge between survival and failure.
This isn’t some kind of Bohemian fantasy where there’s redemption in poverty and mental illness. This is real life, where those things can end you up in the street, living rough. This is real life, where that means your kids might not have enough to eat. This is real life, where too much is outside of your control, but you muddle through anyway.
I Get Knocked Down
In real life, there are real problems. The economy the giggers have inherited is a far cry from that of their parents. That’s why you have two part time jobs and ten clients. That’s why your friends are constantly working side hustles and the only thing you talk to anybody about these days is work. We’re all against a wall, but at least we’re in this together…
Being in that very delicate position means that sometimes the wind will blow a bit too much, you sneeze one too many times or gravity shifts just enough that you get hit hard and you go down. For example, I had a major kidney infection early this summer. By the time I felt it, I was running a fever so high that nothing would keep it down and I couldn’t have left the house to get to a hospital even if I had wanted to.
Fortunately, I had just been in to see my PCP and he was more than happy to call in a shitload of antibiotics. I tried to get up and work, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I had a week or two of nothing but high fevers and sweating through my bedsheets. I’m pretty sure my dog was trying to decide how to serve me when I did, inevitably, die.
This is where the razor’s edge comes in. Too many of my clients were ready to jump ship. There was nothing I could do. I could only watch as I was abandoned to my fate.
The tragedy is that this wasn’t the first time I’d had to rebuild. Oh, no. In late 2011, I was very, very sick and I played the same game. That was much worse because I’d never had to do it before. In 2016, in preparation for moving to Texas, I cut my client load back on purpose in order to give myself space to pack (it was self-induced, but still sucked). Then in 2019, the kidney infection.
Life wasn’t an option in any of those situations. There was no sick time, no PTO I could take to handle my own shit, there was survival and there was nothing. But it’s not just my story, it’s the story of so many I know in this industry. It goes like this: bad thing happens, clients jump ship looking for someone who is available today, not in a week when the writer had had space to deal with their life (no matter how long their writer had been working for them). Writer ends up in a bad position because suddenly they have no income.
That’s the getting knocked down.
But I Get Up Again
Getting knocked down is easy by comparison to what comes next. If you survive that kidney infection or you manage to get your head screwed back on after being in a mental hospital or you somehow stare death in the face and regain your strength to carry on, you have to figure out how to move forward.
You are probably, understandably, salty with your former clients. You are probably, understandably, salty with life. You are almost certainly confused, tired and scared, but you also probably coat that thickly with sarcasm and hope no one can tell.
Maybe you apply for a Real Life Job, only to discover that you can’t actually get one because once part of the gig economy, always a part of the gig economy. No one told you that when you fell into it backward in a moment of desperation, but it’s the reality for so many people.
I couldn’t get a job at a gas station in late 2011, when I was still hoping to make an exit from this life. I wish I were kidding. Pizza Hut also told me to go hang. Walmart wouldn’t hire me to do overnight stocking.
This is the reality of being knocked down.
The only option is to get back up again. To the few who have escaped the endless hamster wheel of client work, I salute you. To those of you who love client work and wouldn’t have it any other way, I also salute you. But know that you’ll get knocked down and you’ll have to get up again at some point.
You Are Never Gonna Keep Me Down
We all have a survival instinct, we all have a need to achieve homeostasis. So when we go down, we get back up — eventually. I was pretty sure I’d never be able to get back up after that last one, I was so, so sick for so long. I’m still taking every day as it comes, but with each passing week, I’m a bit improved.
The same is true of you, your friends in the gig economy and those strangers you’ll be meeting soon. You may not be able to get up as quickly as you hope, but you will get up. You won’t lay on the floor forever, just long enough to catch your breath. But it might mean you have to change things a bit.
Maybe you have to move into management because you can’t bang ‘em out like you used to do because that thing caused some kind of brain injury. Maybe you don’t have the tolerance for dealing with clients anymore and all you want to do is bang ‘em out because of the salt. There are gig jobs for all of this. It’s not just driving for Uber and grinding for pennies.
This is my official announcement that I’ve gotten knocked down pretty goddamn far, but I’ve gotten up again. And so can you. And I am here to make sure you do, to be your hand in the darkness, no matter what has you down there.
We, the free people of the gig economy, can’t be killed so easily. We get knocked down, but we get up again. You’re never gonna keep us down.
That’s simply not an option.