This is a post by Lou Heinrich.
It was on the way to a friend’s house that I found out. Yipping like an excited puppy, I stole glances at my cracked iPhone screen while I drove: the email said I was going to be published! On a big website! And they were going to pay.
I could hardly breathe.
The week it was scheduled, I refreshed the site every 30 minutes, my heart flipping. When it was live I shared it on every social media platform I could think of, and begged everyone I knew to read me.
Later when I scrolled through the comments, I expected my carefully selected, slightly bizarre story had given birth to lively debate. A disdainful commenter stopped my joy short and my belly filled with lead.
I. Was. Wrong.
I hadn’t checked my sources; the information I based my article on was secondhand. And mistaken, as it turns out.
I emailed the editor, gushing and heartbroken. A chasm opened up within – my mistake was public. Anyone could witness my stupidity.
Fact-checking is a foundational skill for any non-fiction writer. There’s immense power in being published, especially by a large media organisation, because the information buried within words is certified as truth. I was outed as the nervous university graduate who clearly couldn’t handle the responsibility.
Good news, everyone, the website has published me since. It seems the world is forgiving, after all. But my first major published gig introduced me to the anguish of not being very good.
Discussing getting paid for writing, Andrew Stafford wrote: ‘There can’t be too many rawer forms of growing up in public.’
It’s true, the internet remembers everything. There’s that poorly-worded film review; those student magazine opinion articles dripping with entitlement; jumbling guest blog posts and a furious contribution to the local street press.
We’re all growing; we get better by screwing up then rubbing things out then starting over again. Learning how to earn money for writing is like rock climbing. We keep extending, grappling further than we can see, agonisingly scaling the cliff face (to which there is no end).
People who’ve been working in the field for a while can spot the ignorance of us newbies, and are often willing to give us a hand. Because they know that failure and creativity are inseparable.
Editors can be incredibly generous. They know that cold-calling the heads of magazines can be vaguely terrifying. So after we read up on how to pitch, lovingly sculpt every word of an email, and send it to the boss-lady/boss-man at a self-consciously appropriate time, they generally forgo the sentence, ‘Here’s where you’ve gone wrong’.
In a gift of mercy to emerging freelancers, editors will instead supply us with questions: ‘As you can read on the top corner of each page, our magazine has a specific structure. Where will your article fit?’ and ‘How will your idea follow the major theme of our publication?’
These emails are kind, similar to a year 8 saving a year 3 kid from a bully, just because they’ve got the same hair colour. Because we were all there once, and in some way we’re kind of on the same team.
Alain de Botton, the wise wizard of Twitter, wrote recently, ‘Nothing can really get off the ground without a willingness to lay oneself squarely open to ridicule.’
The philosopher is right (is he ever wrong?) – how can I develop my freelance writing career without throwing myself into it, inadvertently letting my lack of experience show? You can’t reach for the stars without becoming exposed to derision. And golly, it’s hard, the twist of shame when another rejection email comes through, the jolting discovery that my naivety is evident.
But I’ve discovered there’s a certain brand of courage involved in the every day vulnerability of the apprentice-writer. God knows, we learn by doing. And Samuel Beckett’s most quotable words are, after all, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
When my lazy detective work was revealed (by a commenter, of all people!), I wanted to curl into a foetal position and hide from the world. Preferably under my bed. And maybe I did.
But now when I’m researching, I dig a little, for firsthand statements and information, and I go beyond the first page of a Google search. And I go a little further each time. Because failure (and her red-faced cousin humiliation) are excellent teachers.
C’mon kids – listen to auntie Margaret Atwood: ‘Get back on the horse that threw you.’
So we hitch up our pyjama pants, sit at our writing desk (squashed delicately between the spare bed and the forgotten treadmill), and we edge up the mountainside, just beyond the reach of yesterday.