I drove down to CB South not too long ago to see a friend who’s training to be a life coach. I left the windows down, even on the highway. The sky was a robin’s egg blue, and the aspen on the ridge behind her house showed just the faintest hint of green. Yet all I could think about was money–what I could do to make more.
I wondered if I needed to spend less time climbing and more time pitching. But the thought of paging through magazines to come up with new ideas and clever titles made my throat feel tight. Most of my assignments come through serendipity and chance connections, and I like that. And if I spend more time writing, I want to write stories and essays not assignments.
D zeroed in on this sticking point right away. Any idea that I was simply there to help her fulfill training hours vanished when she repeated my words back to me: “I’m tired of the notion that being a writer means being poor.”
“Tell me more about that,” she said. I proceeded to tell her that I’d never been so poor in my life. It’s nice to make a living doing what I want to do, but I am tired of waking up in the middle of the night worried that my teeth are going to fall out because I don’t have money for the dentist.
“Is that true? You’ve never been this poor?” she asked. Not exactly, I had to admit. There were a few months during my divorce when I was poorer.
Rather than try to change my understanding of poor or tell me I should be happy with my income level, D worked off the notion that I’m not making ends meet the way I’d like. And somehow–in short order and through a sequence of events I can’t really remember–she uncovered the real root of the problem: my trouble is not figuring out how to get paid to write, it’s asking for the right amount of money in return.
That’s right. I’m in my 30s and I still have an f-ing hard time negotiating. I thought I’d learned my lesson during my marketing career, when a colleague and I joked about winning the latest power ball. “That’d be 70 times my salary,” he said. I did some quick calculations–it would have been many more times my salary. My ego does not want to admit this to you, but I was making $30,000 less than my colleagues. (So much for a values-based, women-owned company–be forewarned if you too go from nonprofit to for profit).
I got my raise in the end, but the whole thing left me feeling even more vulnerable about asking for money. Like it was a personal failure. Mix that with one of my biggest passions, and it’s a recipe for doubt. Have I published enough to charge that? Do I write well enough? Will they be satisfied with what they get in return? Can I charge that in a mountain town?
Logically, I know the answer is yes to all of those question. I’m educated, experienced and looking for fair trade. But this isn’t about logic–it’s about self worth.
“Has anyone ever said no?” D asked. No.
“Have they asked for any of those credentials?” No.
“What if they just said no? Would that be bad?” No.
Perhaps, she said, making more money isn’t about working harder. It could be as simple as asking for what I’m worth. And maybe it didn’t need to be complicated:
I know what it feels like to throw out a number that’s too low–before anyone can respond, my throat is tight and I feel tense. So can I learn to check that sensation before I share my rates? I can feel for the opposite–lightness, a sense of freedom–as a cue that I’m asking for a fair value.
As a girl who moved to the mountains because the very idea of it made me smile, that was an approach I could relate to. I immediately relaxed and felt a sense of optimism that hasn’t waned. I wondered how long I’d have to wait before trying it out.
My opportunity came this week. I won’t pretend I felt easy going and free. But I did ask for more than I would have two weeks ago and it felt right based on how the project had grown. There was an audible pause–even surprise. I backpedaled in the discomfort of it all, but in the end the check was written at the amount I’d asked for without begrudging.
It was an awkward moment, but it passed. There’s still room for improvement in the communication, but I left with a new feeling: it was fair compensation for the work I had done, and had I asked for less, I would have felt bad. Again.
It was a small step, but it felt like a step in the right direction.