I want to be proud of my words.
This isn’t a sudden revelation, like an Oprah a ha! moment, but it’s the first time I’ve actually verbalized this sentiment and taken a real stance. I officially started my writing career over 4 years ago after listening to a free webinar hosted by Britni Danielle, former English teacher-turned-journalist-author-speaker, who was testing the market for her paid course, “The Write Pitch.” During the teleclass, she explained how she landed her first byline with no published clips. She assured us that being previously-published wasn’t a requirement. Having a lit pitch was.
A month later I had a paid piece on xoJane talking about how folks love to point out how “skinny” I am as if I don’t already know I’m not a full-figured woman. This piece was republished on Clutch magazine, which prompted me to immediately pitch a piece to the latter about my coarse hair and its addiction to the creamy crack.
Both pieces alone elevated my status from emerging writer to “established” writer, even though my bio was a mere month old. But I garnered some attention in my Twitter mentions with invitations to host an NYC natural hair event and appear on a HuffPost Live segment.
I wanted to maintain the momentum.
But I also wanted to pen more serious pieces – mainly because I’m not as witty as Luvvie Ajayi, and I knew my gift was to write more from a personal standpoint rather than offer cultural criticism or an op-ed. Also knowing that xoJane had a more frequent and established pay cycle (every two weeks opposed to net 30!) and diverse readership, I pitched a few more personal pieces. I was determined to churn out as many essays as I could at $50 a pop mainly because I needed the money, and I didn’t consider my pen game to be Essence- or Ebony-worthy yet despite the few accolades I had already received.
I never got a response on those pitches, presumably because they weren’t written in the same tone as my weight and hair pieces. I was neither talking about myself nor pissing anyone off, although that wasn’t explicitly supposed to be the site’s goal. xoJane described itself as a place where “women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded — regardless of age, size, ability, location, occupation, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, relationship status, sexual preferences or lifestyle choices.” Or at least that's what founder and editor-in-chief Jane Pratt may have wanted us to believe. But as I scrolled through the other published stories to see if a topic would trigger a memory I could expound on, I noticed that the writers weren’t exhibiting brazenness or sassiness. They were submitting extremely self-deprecating journal entries, divulging details that fed the internet trolls and made all of us fodder to xoJane’s commenters and other outlets. Stories that probably put us on writer blacklists of more reputable publications and caused editors to shun us and take us less seriously because we showed no discretion by writing humiliating clickbait for a bonafide content mill that only embarrassed and underpaid us by at least $100.
We showed not only eagerness but also our greenness in the genre as we continued freelancing for the site, actively yet subconsciously participating in some underlying sick competition to outdo the last writer. I didn’t fully understand the game I’d been playing until another one of my stories – one I hadn’t even shared on social media – was cross-published on Clutch magazine’s website. This time I didn’t feel pride. It wasn’t a reflection of who I was as a person or writer. It disregarded the talent I was trying to showcase, especially on a site like Clutch, which represented the readership I was trying to capture.
I partially blamed xoJane’s editors, whose job was to groom virgin writers, but they didn’t. Perhaps it was because xoJane’s editors were really pimping us out in exchange for viral clicks and pocketed revenue.
In a 2015 piece for New York Magazine’s The Cut, former xoJane contributing editor-at-large Mandy Stadtmiller, who aggressively commissioned stories for the “It Happened to Me” column, referred to herself as a first-person human-trafficker. She wrote that she was on the hunt for notable anecdotes, those first-person experiences that were “liberating to read, because often you have gone through the same thing but didn’t feel you could admit it.”
Only they weren’t: I never had a ball of cat hair in my vagina or considered a friend’s death from mental illness a blessing because her life was worthless anyway. I actually cringed when I read those writers' stories. None of them should've been encouraged or told, including some of mine.
Stadtmiller later admitted, albeit indirectly, that those notable anecdotes weren’t necessarily tales of nobility but confessions of notoriety:
"I would greedily scan my Facebook feed, unflaggingly do searches on BuzzSumo (a tool that highlights the most-shared topics on social media) for “women” and “outrage” and “controversy,” and at any moment, I would remain convinced that a 15-second conversational snippet might lead to a first-person story that would be a traffic game-changer for the next 24 hours, which in the world of online journalism is your only reality. So if something publicly fucked up happened to you over the last three years and you are “in my network,” there is a very good chance you received a heartfelt message from me. Sifting through my Facebook outbox now, it reads like I am some sort of pathologically fetishistic lifestyle voyeur or perhaps just an overly aggressive life coach, eager to dissect and thin-slice your life onto wet-mount microscope slides, all while waving the flag of self-awareness and empowerment."
xoJane’s vetting process for a identifying a captivating story was a shrug and mockery to authentic personal essay-writing, which is literally very personal, introspective and retrospective, most times liberating, yet oftentimes emotionally-draining.
Writer and creator and producer of the "Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City” podcast Stacia Brown describes it to Baltimore City Paper as this:
"You’re mining your personal experiences and your heart and trauma for $150. And you have to keep coming up with stuff like that. If you are a personal essay writer, that’s all you’re doing is writing stories about your trauma, your childhood trauma, your college years, whatever you’re dealing with now. I mean, your whole life is being parceled out to people and you’re being underpaid to talk about it. I’m uncomfortable with that."
As the former City Paper’s Associate Editor (now a member of The Baltimore Sun since it just shuttered City Paper), Lisa Snowden-McCray, put it, it’s demoralizing. Especially when you’re exploited for a measly $50.
I often thought of launching my own e-course, one designed specifically for new writers, to teach them how to navigate the freelance writing terrain and not get caught in exploitative traps. But I never got around to fleshing out the details, plus I was torn somewhere between blasting xoJane and covering for the publication that helped to catapult my career. Karma made the choice for me.
Last week, I read that parent company Time, Inc., closed xoJane’s doors December 30, 2016. The site is expected to shut down at the end of this year, ultimately flushing my trashy articles down some black hole of the internet, at least for the most part. Since the rise and tumble of my writing career, I’ve been rather mute, mainly because I’m leery of sharing an intimate piece of myself, especially when it’s rushed to meet an evolving digital deadline. It may not fully convey what I want because I haven’t thought everything through. It takes a lot of time to compose an essay that actually connects with a reader. I like to maintain control of what I write, hence why I’ve chosen to utilize my platform to serve a greater purpose.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll never write for another publication again – I’ve penned a few pieces for xoNecole, and I’ve since pitched Ebony, The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed Reader. It just simply means I’m more vigilant about who and what I pitch and how much it pays. Nevertheless, if the story matters, I want to write it.