In an episode of HBO’s Girls titled “Free Snacks,” aspiring writer Hannah Horvath lands a job producing “advertorial” content at GQ. Characteristically sharp and observant, she immediately brainstorms circles around her coworkers; at this rate, they suggest, she could really make a name for herself. But Hannah isn’t interested.
Hannah: I’m not looking to take Janice’s job.
Karen: Why not?
Hannah: ‘Cause I’m a writer.
Joe: Yeah, we’re all writers.
Hannah: Yeah, but I’m like, no offense, just a writer writer. Not like a corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer.
Joe: Who is? Kevin over here won a Yale Series of Younger Poets award back in 2009.
Chewing the very Clif Bars and SunChips supplied by writing-for-the-man, Hannah’s coworkers reveal their italic-worthy credentials. Karen has placed writing with n+1, Joe wrote for The New Yorker not a year out of college. This moment of their unmasking and Hannah’s subsequent transparent alarm reveals some things: it clarifies Hannah’s myopic self-obsession, whereby she can’t imagine her coworkers sharing any part of her own fervent, and private, artistic vocation. More broadly, we get to see the widely prevalent coexistence of commercial labor and artistic aspiration, even if it’s represented only to be rejected.
The skill set nurtured by a writing-intensive education and practice lends itself to all kinds of writing-based projects paradoxically thought adjacent to “actual” writing, and such a paradox begs the question: What kinds of writing count? Which contribute to, or threaten, the ultimate project of Becoming (/Being) a Writer—and who, if anyone, is served by the mythology of such distinctions?
Some writing-labor can be neatly subsumed under related professionalization: composing syllabi for writing-intensive courses, or publishing book reviews. But it remains that much of writing-while-writing seems to lack the romance of day jobbing in an explicitly unrelated field (e.g. bartending; retail; animal husbandry). The ostensible dichotomy of manual labor versus artistic process is protected by assumptions that 1) each is insulated from the other, and 2) “mindless” work can buy one time to make art. Such a body/mind dualism gets significantly more complicated when one’s day job also, or primarily, consists of writing. If foaming milk is honest work, generating copy is practically cheating on your art.