This month marks a strange little milestone for me: Exactly 20 years ago, I started writing shit for cash.
Which means, in a manner of speaking, I’ve been a professional writer for two freakin’ decades. My definition of “professional” anything is simple: whenever you do something for money, you’ve gone pro. The amount of money doesn’t really matter; it’s that people are willing to part with some of their money to have you do something. Could be anything. Plumbing. Brain surgery. Sex. Whatever.
They cross your palm with silver, you’ve gone pro.
I went pro with a 250-word item called “Philly to New Jersey: Send Us a Bill!” which appeared in the July 1991 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, where I was interning that summer. A very kind editor named Lou Harry gifted me the story idea, complete with sources to call and suggestions on how to frame the piece. The paycheck was modest, but to a 19-year-old aspiring writer interning without pay, it was a psychic windfall.
People would actually pay me for writing shit.
The secret to going pro of course, is that first you need to spend a lot of time doing it for free.
Up until that point, from eighth grade until sophomore year of college, I’d written hundreds of pages—goofy horror stories and grisly satires (usually starring my friends, who would die in spectacularly gruesome ways). I did it because it was fun, and offered an escape from the many not-fun things in like. Such as Algebra II.
As I nearest high school graduation, however, I started to wonder: Could I do this for real? Like, as a job? Would anyone ever pay me to write violent stories where my friends met untimely ends?
No freakin’ way, I figured.
But journalism… now that seemed to be a way to make a pile of cash! (What can I say? I was young and naïve.) So I signed up for a summer job placement service run by the City of Philadelphia.
The counselor asked, What do you want to do?
I said, I want to write.
The counselor looked down at her list of jobs, then after a small grunt of surprise told me, I’ll be damned. Think I’ve got something for you.
“Something” turned out to be an internship at a fashion modeling magazine/modeling agency based in downtown Philly.
Every day I’d report to the office and write newsletters and photocopy stuff and run errands, and, every once in a while, interview walk-in model candidates. At the time I was 17, fresh out of an all-boys Catholic high school. You’d think this would be a recipe for a raunchy R-rated late 80s teen comedy, but you would be seriously mistaken. (This is me we’re talking about here, after all. As Vince Vaughn once memorably remarked in Swingers, I was the dude in the PG-13 movie “everyone’s really hoping makes it happen.”)
Anyway, as much fun as this was, I don’t think a single issue of the magazine appeared during my internship. So two years later, at the wise old age of 19, I applied for the Philly Mag gig, determined to break in and see my name in print. And lo, I indeed tasted the glory of a byline on a small upfront item in the magazine. When my internship was over, I kind of just hung around, taking on a sort of intern emeritus position. I’d volunteer to fact-check, photocopy old articles out of the thick bound back issue volumes, do background reporting, anything to be part of this world.
Two years later, just a month before college graduation, by some insane stroke of luck, a fact-checking job opened up. I was all over it, pretty much wallpapering my resume in the staff kitchen.
I landed the job.
After two years of doing it for free… I’d gone pro.
But my two years of unpaid volunteering wasn’t about angling for a job. I loved being part of a city magazine, and watching how its editors and writers conceived and executed their ideas. If you do anything for free, you’d better genuinely love doing it for free, because there’s the distinct possibility you’ll always be doing it for free.
(While I liked interviewing would-be models for free, I didn’t love it. Which is the only reason I’m not running a large multi-national modeling agency right now.)
And here’s the secret, and the point to all of this: If you embrace doing it for free, then you’ll often be surprised how quick you turn pro.
Flash forward to the summer of 2004, when I pretty much said out loud: I don’t care if I ever get published by a big publishing company. I’m going to write these weird crime thrillers anyway. If my grandkids find a whole bunch of manuscripts in a trunk in the attic, and they enjoy them, that’s fine. I’ve got to write these things anyway. For free, or otherwise. Don’t give a shit, God. Deal with it!
A month later, The Wheelman sold to St. Martin’s Minotaur.
This lesson has stuck with my over the last seven years of my career as a novelist. It’s tempting to be jealous about this one’s deal, or that one’s sales track, or another one’s sweet movie deal. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I love what I do so much, I seriously would do this for free.
The first one of you who tells Mulholland Books this gets a fat lip.
P.S. Speaking of doing it for free, I want to offer huge thanks to Elizabeth White, the infamous APMonkey, for doing this whole crazy “Swierczynski Week” thing for free—out of the kindness of her twisted heart. In the book blogging/social media world, Ms. White went pro a long time ago.