Last week was my last week, for now, at the part-time job I’ve held for nearly two years. This week, I’m moving on to a different part-time job. When I’m done there, sometime this summer—it’s a maternity leave fill-in—I plan to come back to the first gig. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, I’ll probably have to find another one.
Nearly a decade has passed since I lost my Teen Vogue contract, a slightly belated casualty of Condé Nast’s McKinsey-led 2009 purge. (Belated because they’d held off on letting me go until the day after the release party for The Teen Vogue Handbook, a New York Times bestseller of which I wrote roughly half.) If memory serves, I was fewer than eight weeks into a new year-long agreement when they cancelled it, and they had to keep paying me for several more months, because I’d already done nearly half a year’s worth of work. Which is to say: I wasn’t exactly dead weight. Even after they voided the contract, they continued to assign me lots of stories.
Overall, I’d guess that they saved very little money when they first converted me from a contributing editor to a regular freelancer. But for me, it had a big psychological effect. Suddenly, I became like so many other freelance writers, never quite sure where my next check, or maybe just the check after the next check, was coming from. I love freelancing, but I’m not particularly well-suited to that aspect of it. So, for most of the last nine years, I’ve held some part-time job or another. And for many of those years, I was more than a little ashamed of that fact.
To some extent, the shame stemmed directly from the jobs themselves. True, there have been several semi-prestigious (or at least non-embarrassing) short-term gigs: early on, for example, I did a five-month stint at InStyle.com, where I created a slideshow of Michael Jackson’s “most iconic” looks to commemorate the first anniversary of his death and took a snapshot of an instructional sign that was taped to the wall above the printer and was headlined, “How To Retrieve Your Print Job.” (Of course, I had nowhere to post the picture, complete with jokey, rueful caption, because it was 2010 and I hadn't joined Instagram yet.) But, even as I continued writing for Teen Vogue and InStyle and, eventually, Elle, I earned an increasingly higher percentage of my annual income generating copy for a couple of magazines that were significantly less, um, aspirational.
On a practical level, I was worried that if the wrong person found out that I’d begun moonlighting for a gossip magazine, I might be blacklisted from the other, fancier publications I preferred to write for. (Now, of course, it makes me laugh to recall that I ever thought myself well-known enough, even if only by the publicists of celebrities, to be blacklisted.) But I was also deeply uncomfortable with the content, especially of the first of the two weeklies that I worked for, which was well-sourced enough that at least a few of the negative stories I was asked to write up seemed as though they might actually be true.
Fortunately, I only made it a few weeks before I was taken off the “hard news” beat, because I’d burst into tears while working on an article that would expose a professional athlete’s infidelity. I genuinely couldn’t help it—as I was typing, I kept thinking about how the piece might eventually be read by his wife, a beautiful former pop star. (“He’s the one who did this to her, not us,” my editor said, exasperated. “This isn’t even the first time he’s done it! He got caught screwing their nanny like five years back.”) But the crying, coupled with my congenital inability to go for the jugular, worked out well for me: I felt better about the work once I was relegated to the shorter, lighter stories about various celebrities’ sibling rivalries and birthing plans.
The second weekly I worked for didn’t pay as well, but it was closer to my apartment and, I thought, less ethically dicey, because the “files” I received appeared to bealmsot entirely made up. You know, “Palace Confirms: William & Kate Named King & Queen.” That kind of thing. What I honestly didn’t realize, all through the election of 2016, was that the nasty stories about politicians that ran in one of the magazines’s much seedier sister publications were actually only ever really nasty about one candidate, mine, and in fact were fairly positive about the other. (I know, I know, but why would I have noticed? I never read that rag!)
It wasn’t until a few days before the inauguration—when I saw an article about yet another weekly, one that was reported to be for sale, which observed that it had begun running similarly upbeat stories about our objectively horrible new first family in order to attract, as a buyer, the company for which I worked—that I grasped what was going on. From there, it didn't take me me long to figure out that I, too, might soon be asked to write frothy pieces humanizing a racist would-be authoritarian, and I decided, with only a little hesitation, that I’d rather be fired than do so.
Less than a week later, I was given the file for a feature that described how the First Lady planned to redecorate the Oval Office (never mind that she’d so far demonstrated zero interest in leaving NYC), and I immediately told my editor that I wouldn't write it. Like, until they started running stories that made the Trumps look at least as bad as the Jolie-Pitts, I didn’t want to be involved.
Both my boss and her boss took it pretty well—neither of them tried to argue that my increasingly meager day rate, which had been unceremoniously cut the previous fall, due to the harsh realities of the magazine business, compelled me to create political propaganda for a president I opposed. Instead, they asked one of the other writers to do it. But as the weeks wore on, I began to feel that not working on those stories, personally, probably wasn’t enough; capitalism being what it is, I reckoned that I was worth at least a little bit more to the company than what they were paying me and, therefore, I was indirectly contributing to their efforts. So, to make a long story short (I know: too late), I quit.
Since then, I’ve been working as a fashion copywriter three days a week. And though it’s further, in some ways, from what I originally set out to do with my life, I think I prefer it? I mean, as far as day jobs go. For one thing, I don’t feel like I have something to hide. Obviously, I still fantasize about what I might be able to accomplish if I could spend all my time writing whatever I want to write (or, in darker moods, I wonder if I’m holding myself back with my pedestrian preference for financial stability). But, given the state of the industry that I stumbled into circa the very late 1990s, just long enough before it all went to hell for me to be able to imagine precisely how great my life might have been if it hadn’t, well, I’m doing okay. Like: I think we all know, by now, that I’m not going to retrieve that print job.
P.S. For a less woebegone take on this topic, starring some pals, click here.
P.P.S. Did you see this piece? The working title (in my head) was “Darling Don’t You Go And Cut Your Hair.”