Motivations of a Work-Starved Artist

Why I’m Writing for a Low-Paying, Rejection-Filled Industry

By Sabine Bergmann

I’m propped on a pair of cushioned chairs in the yard, feeling the cool breeze meander over my feet from the arch of roses. I keep looking up from my laptop to ponder how many weeks it’s been since I attended to the jungle of weeds back here, or to watch my 100-year-old Japanese Maple shimmer its leaves. Dragging my eyes back to the screen is more taxing than I want it to be. I’m transcribing an interview and my brain is staging a revolution against the monotony.

I check my email again to see if any of the half dozen editors I pitched stories to last week got back to me; they haven’t. I send the standard “friendly” reminders. Back to the book. I make a mental note of following up with my list of agents. I make a mental note of trying to get a publisher to actually pay me for this. I try to pep myself up with the idea that maybe one day magazines will be paying to fly me to remote jungles or Antarctica—hello, National Geographic—but in my heart I know that the odds are not in my favor. In an attempt to find an “It Gets Better” article on freelancing, I inadvertently stumble on a writer’s account of living off of vitamin packet soup.

Ugh.

I remind myself that I am an accomplished, published writer with plenty of bylines—features, even—in respectable publications. I’ve worked with fantastic editors and seen my name in glossy print spreads with beautiful commissioned artwork dancing around my name. But now I am incredibly stuck, and I can’t stop this nagging question:

Why, again, am I doing this?

* * *

I almost miss my train. I rush through the subway, hopping between the sliding doors, pawing through my purse to find my phone. By the time I reach the bar my friend has already ordered a cocktail. I shimmy over to her, beginning our conversation by dumping a book on the table and saying how I’ve been thinking about the fate of humanity a lot lately.

She arches an eyebrow. “What else is new? Hey, did you get that interview?”

“Which one?”

“The alien guy.”

“The astrophysicist?”

“That’s the one.”

The bartender shows up with a gin and tonic and an old-fashioned. I reach for the bourbon. “He was in China. I told you how he’s working on that $100 million project to find extra-terrestrial intelligence, right?"

“$100 million?”

“Yeah. Financed by a Russian billionaire.”

“Really?”

“Really. And did I tell you about Monday? Monday I’m interviewing the director of the Dalai Lama Fellows.”

“How do you get to talk to these people again?”

I laugh and take a sip of the old-fashioned. “Well, I’m a journalist. And I ask nicely.”

* * *

Back at my desk, I’ve finally got what I wanted: a deadline. I’m a mess; I'm wearing the same pajama pants as yesterday and I'm snacking on pickles. “Can't go out,” I start texting my friends.

I jump five feet high when my phone rings. It’s one of my sources—calling me back from the locker room at his gym. I tell him I have just one follow-up question. Okay, two.

“You know,” he says with an almost audible smirk, “I read a quote somewhere, that the only people who can ask “Why?” a dozen times are scientists, three year olds, and journalists.”

* * *

There’s some exhilaration when a story goes up, or to print. It’s a balloon of accomplishment and self-confidence, but it’s short lived. Immediately afterward—for me, at least—is a bittersweet gratitude. Not for publication (though hey, I’ll take it), but for the opportunity to stick my head through a brief window into the world of a story, where I find sources who take me by the hand and show me around before I have to go.

Back in the garden I pull up the transcript I had been stuck on two weeks ago. My eyes are flitting through it, lingering on certain phrases, stopping completely at others. Questions start to firework in my head, and I get this yawning need to do more research. It doesn’t take long before I’ve found the next link in the puzzle, and I'm interviewing a septuagenarian Mexican fisherman-turned-activist. In Spanish.

I am lucky beyond measure. I get to hear the stories of subsistence farmers or passionate algae researchers or former stage actors who have become Monkeyface Eel hunters I get to describe foreign cultures and vanishing villages and learn about love and failure. And then, by the grace of God—or rather, an editor—I get to tell those stories to the world. But for all the times I’ve gotten stuck I have to remind myself that I’m not doing this to be published. I’m doing this for the curiosity, the quest, the adventure and the knowledge.

Maybe people aren’t as willing to pay to read anymore, but that won’t stop me from writing. The starving artists of this world are gorging on a different kind of sustenance, and it’s been that way forever. After all, mankind invented art before agriculture.

And speaking of agriculture—I’ve got to get to weeding this garden.