You need it to get it: this writer’s struggle

For most struggling artists, the biggest dream they could dream is to make money doing what they love. Most of us yearn to turn our creative work into some form of income. The photographer who longs to book a celebrity session. The sculptor who wants to be hired for a commissioned piece of art. The painter who envisions their own creation as a mural along a busy street. The actress waiting for her big break The author who hopes to have their manuscript published.

Accomplishing any goal requires hustle and baby steps. Breakthrough artists are rare and overnight successes are rarer. Just like any other industry, creative pursuits require practice. Mastery is the result of years of trial, error, failure, rejection, and disappointment.

Some accomplishments are too complex to phrase in simple terms, especially when you have yet to reach them. Such admission is humbling for a writer like me - a person who regularly manipulates syntax and vocabulary to tell stories and communicate ideas. I am not immune to the challenges other artists face. Right now, my biggest hurdle is finding the one person who is willing to take a risk on me.

Eighteen years ago, Common released one of my all time favorite rap albums: Like Water for Chocolate. About halfway through, Mos Def joins Common for a track ‘The Questions.’ Lyrically, the two rappers trade back and forth, asking each other thought provoking questions and responding - usually something like “I don’t know you tell me.” The song is quirky and funky. Now, after nearly two decades, my current plight brings me back to one of Mos Def’s questions:
"Why do I need I.D. to get I.D.? If I had I.D. I wouldn't need I.D."
This one line is one of those odd truths about modern life. It doesn’t make sense but we accept it because that’s just the way it is. You need it to get it.

Which brings me back to today. As a struggling artist, an unpublished writer looking to transform my hustle into a career, I realize the I.D. Mos Def questioned could be replaced by other items.

I’m looking for opportunities to increase my income and it’s not an easy task. I have a steady day job - it’s not glamorous but I’m good at it. It pays the bills and provides medical benefits. My boss trusts me and there’s a couple hundred employees that rely on me. I don’t want to replace my income, just add to it. Between my skill set and lack of fancy degrees, writing is the most practical and logical method of earning more money. Considering the limited time I have outside my office, freelancing seems to be my only option. However, finding a paying gig is harder than you’d imagine.

Publishers looking for freelancers only want to hire writers with previous freelancing experience.

I could rewrite Mos Def’s lyrical musing: why do I need experience to get experience? If I had experience I wouldn’t need experience.

The J Jonah Jamesons of the world tend to ignore new faces. Whether they control the budgets and hiring decisions for websites, magazines, newspapers, or ad agencies, they want writers with proven track records. They would rather poach from a competitor than gamble on an underdog. This is a scary world for up and coming writers looking for their first step into professional bylines. Publishers want a sure bet. They don’t want talented writers, they want profitable writers. If you want to demonstrate your profitably, you must already be profitable.

Which is why you need experience to get experience.
You need publishing credits to get publishing credits.
You need a freelancing gig to get a freelancing gig.
You need name recognition to get name recognition.
You need a fan base to get a fan base.
You need an income to get an income.
You need I.D. to get I.D.

I do have a small army of fans: a few friends and family members who read everything I write. Their compliments motivate and encourage. However, I’m not a fan of nepotism and none of them work in print, web, or broadcast media. Their kind words are appreciated but don’t translate into dollar bills. If interpersonal encomium had monetary value, I’d be wealthy.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers for this phase in my creative journey. This isn’t a testimonial. This isn’t an “I can do it you can too” exhortation. Rather, it’s a call for solidarity. A beacon of hope - if you’re there, I am too.

You are not alone.