This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Raphaelle Race.
After I finished study, I spent two years looking for work ‘in the industry’. I was determined to follow my dreams and avoid the corporate traps I saw my fellow classmates falling into. My meagre Centrelink income was supplemented by waitressing stints (usually lasting a couple of months, until they found out that my lack of coordination approaches superpower status), and editing jobs for my uncle.
Those two years were probably the hardest of my life – not necessarily because of my rollercoaster of emotions revolving around failure, but more because I actually had to work harder than any other time in my life.
A person completely unused to putting myself forward, I had to work up the courage to call publishing houses to look for internships, to search through every volunteering site for relevant positions, to write cover letter after cover letter ‘confidently’ applying for jobs that asked for 3+ years of practical experience, and to try to keep up writing when my work was so often rejected.
Through two years of pushing every angle that I came across, I managed to wrangle an internship that turned into my first paid industry job (one day a week as marketing bitch at a small publisher), a small gig writing reviews, and an interview for an (unpaid) Editor-in-Chief position at a local newspaper.
As soon as I saw the advertisement, I was exhilarated by the idea of running a small community newspaper. I come from a family of hopeless altruists and the idea of being involved in a community project that encouraged others to write about and engage with the world was (except for the no money bit) a dream come true. I was absolutely determined to get the job. At the interview I was as psychotically positive as I could be, my new interview tactic was to speak exactly like Quinn from Daria to show my enthusiasm.
I’m not sure if it was the high-pitched mellifluous tones that got me the position, my manic smile or my minimal publication history, but a few days later I received a call that boosted my confidence through the roof. I was going to have editorial direction of an entire publication – this would surely bump up my CV to a respectabiggle standard. I saw stars, headlines in The Age, hard-hitting interviews in Al Jazeera.
Community organisations are strange beasts. Those people who become involved in them, be they politicians, socialites, business-folk, odd-bods or concerned citizens all merge into one single organism with an explosively schizophrenic personality. The beast is in so many minds that it can never decide what to do with itself, so the only thing you can really do its keep it alive as long as you can and try to stop it gnawing off its own tail.
My job as Editor was to recruit and train writers, editors, photographers and illustrators to work for free at the paper – and to organise and run meetings, figure out the layout of the paper, edit and write and decide on the editorial direction of the edition. It was a pretty full-on list of duties and I was given what is often laughingly known as ‘on the job’ training, which is to say I screwed up a hell of a lot in the first few editions.
I had two big lessons at the paper. Actually I also learned a hell of a lot about writing, editing, production and news wrangling, but these two life lessons have served me well and will continue to do so into the future.
My first lesson was at the hands of an older woman on the team who I had developed a friendship with. She had a delightfully mean sense of humour and claimed to have studied at Oxford University. We had coffee on a regular basis and she would implore me to turn the paper into more than a ‘community rag’, she had big ideas about the direction the paper should go, what we should work for politically and who we should get rid of in the team (mostly her rivals on the staff in terms of confidence and influence).
As my amused refusals to change the paper according to her rather fascist whims became more numerous, she began to send me spiteful little emails that eventually turned abusive. This continued for a few months until she finally told me that I was unfit to run the paper. She wrote an email to the Director of the community group, demanding that I be sacked and nominating herself as replacement Editor.
At this time, my stress levels were through the roof. I had landed a position that I knew I was still learning, and someone I respected was telling me that I had failed to live up to the opportunity. My boss contacted me to say that he would have to bring her complaints to the board, I was devastated.
My moment of strength came when I had to write a long letter of rebuttal. I read her accusations against me and attempted to look at each of them in an objective light before writing about why I had disregarded her advice or altered parts of her articles. Doing this cleared my head and I realised that I still stood by every one of my decisions. My choices had not been made in ignorance or arbitrarily, I had thought them through, and in some cases agonised about them.
A couple of weeks later, the board completely dismissed her claims, but I already knew that I had nothing to regret by my actions. From that experience I have gained the ability to deal with targeted and aggressive criticism, I know that I can make decisions firmly and with a great deal of thought and hold my ground even if it feels like my knees are made of jelly.
The second lesson was a slow burn. As with any volunteer gig we had a lot of people coming and going or making big commitments and then losing interest, so it can be hard to make connections with people like you do in a regular workplace. But the wonderful thing about community groups is that you can meet people who don’t fit into the stupid round hole of society, you can meet people who exist on the margins and who have to create their own spaces in the world.
So many of my triumphs involved meeting these people and working with them to put together articles on the subjects that they cared about. These articles were often written by people with little-to-no writing background so we really had to work together to bring out their meaning in a way that would engage our readers. So often these articles were the ones that really hit home to our readers, that helped open their minds to the experiences of other people in their community.
Working with the newspaper was an extremely stressful and tiring job, and, frankly, I’ve never had any work come from that section of my resume. But my time spent there cemented my love for working on community and artistic projects. Since that time I have always been involved in local groups, NFP organisations, literary publications and art crowds. These interactions are more than just experience-building exercises, they help to keep your mind aware of the complexity of the artistic way of life. At the end of my two-year stint as Editor-in-Chief, this lesson was at the forefront of my mind.
These are the things that can help ameliorate the heavy soul-sickness that comes when you realise your dream industry is the same as all the other industries you’ve disdained since your first crush at university made you read the Communist Manifesto
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, part of a series where writers reflect on the strange, wonderful or just plain-old terrifying things they've done to keep the lights on. To read more like this, click here:
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Raphaelle Race is a professional writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her fun writing can be seen in Overland, Junkee, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings, Phantasmagoria and Feminartsy, among others. Like many others, she is writing a book.