When Should I Accept That I’m Not Going To Make It In Journalism?

In this week’s installment of Unf*ck Yourself: getting cut out by a friend, struggling to make it in media, and an update from a past letter-writer.

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of...

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A few weekends ago, I worked Hazlitt’s booth at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto. If you missed it (but maybe you would like to come next time), it is a perfect opportunity to pick up some subscriptions, a tote bag or two, and, if you are me, a stomach flu that will later cripple you and your butt for four days.

For once, though, I am not here to talk about my butt.

Free outdoor festivals bring together a wide selection of people—usually people who all share a common interest. At our booth, we sold copies of our print editions (NOW AVAILABLE!!!!!) and got to chat up readers, new and old. It was a delightful time, and we were all able to meet some of you fine people who read us so faithfully and make it possible for me to make money for writing about my butt week after week.

But any public event can turn into a mishmash of some of the worst types of humans. Consider, say, the older man clad in a red V-neck and a crumpled Alexander Keith’s cap (WARNING WARNING, EJECT EJECT) who ambled over for a chat. Now, I love idle chitchat. This festival is great not just because we get the chance to tell some new people about our little corner of the Internet, but because we get to talk to strangers about books and writing and feelings and how goddamn hot it is, somehow, in September.

This stranger, however, started up with how upset he was that we weren’t giving anything away for free (have I mentioned that you can buy Hazlitt #1 and #2 at Indigo), and it became clear this was not going to be fun chitchat. Too much mish, not nearly enough mash.

I told him I was sorry that we had nothing free, and directed him to the Maisonneuve booth. (I am quietly fostering a blood feud between Hazlitt and Maisonneuve; no one is involved except for me and I am FINE WITH THAT.) Instead of leaving in shame, he learned forward, his eyes now peering down my shirt, and said, “Well, you could always give yourself away for free.”

Look, this is not the first time that someone at a public event has talked to me like I was a gift bag filled with flavoured lubricants. It has nothing to do with the event or the organizers, and everything to do with the fact that a certain percentage of the population thinks they are entitled to treat women (young women, women of colour, women wearing a tank top in the summer, etc. etc. etc.) as if they are in a Lucite case, just waiting for someone to walk by and breathe heavily on the surface. In any other context, I would have made fun of the guy’s shirt and left the scene, but that day, that particular day, I was already feeling beat down from the little bursts of pukey acid emitting from my stomach, and I didn’t want to get blood on the tent we’d rented.

So, what should you do when someone says something sexist and condescending and grimy to you when you’re just trying to sell a couple books (oh my god, have you bought yours yet, I’m really working this hard sell) and you don’t want to cause a bigger ruckus?

Well, for further context, I was, at the time, battling the early stages of some sort of flu and was already feeling too nauseous to really fight with the guy, so I just blankly looked at him until the awkwardness of the situation got the better of him. He first got belligerent at my refusal to laugh at his very funny “joke,” and then muttered an apology before slinking away to bother someone else in another booth.

Later, while our editor-in-chief was getting his car to pack up the booth and I was laying face-down on the pavement, my stomach flu really kicking in, two security guards on bikes proceeded to approach me with, “Hey, baby.” They only left when I started stabbing at their wheels with a pen from my pocket, because even the people charged with protecting you won’t always do it.

Anyway, I threw up 12 times that night, so all in all, it was an okay weekend.

What I’m angriest about, however, is that I went home thinking about how I could have avoided both situations. Did I need to tell them more vocally that I didn’t appreciate them harassing me? Should I have been nicer, since I was representing my company, and it was probably inappropriate to stonewall someone, despite their behaviour? Should I bear any responsibility for handling such a frustrating situation on a Sunday afternoon when I’m just trying to tell people how much I like reading?

I recognize I’m rarely the most elegant writer, and this column often serves as a vessel for some of the crudest material on the site. But with that said: man, fuck that. Fuck those guys for trying to ruin a really nice day and for making a work event that much more complicated. I hope you all work at a place similar to mine, and that when something like that happens—sadly inevitable, since such an astounding percentage of the male population is just itching to make you uncomfortable—you have the freedom to turn around and yell “HEY, FUCK THAT, SERIOUSLY” within earshot of the CEO.

Anyway, I threw up 12 times that night, so all in all, it was an okay weekend.

I am an editor for the website of a well-known magazine owned by one of the most prestigious media companies in the world. However, since I’ve started, the tone of the website has completely changed. I’ve been told point-blank to dumb down my work, and at this point I’m essentially just writing bad service journalism. I have never before observed editors treating their younger staff with so much disdain as they do here.

My editor monitors our personal Twitter and Instagram accounts, so I cannot openly freelance or promote my writing. People on staff are leaving in droves, and some staffers have literally reached out to new-hires to encourage them to rescind their acceptance of job offers (and the new-hires actually have, on a few occasions). All of that is to say, the environment here is toxic, but I cannot for the life of me snag another job. For the past few months, I’ve gotten through several rounds of interviews and edit tests at various publications. But I can never close the deal. One culture/fashion magazine put me through the ringer for weeks. After not hearing from them for a few weeks, I found out via Mediabistro that they’d given the job to someone much more junior than me. When I wrote to the editor asking for confirmation that I was no longer being considered, she hastily wrote back to ask if I’d be interested in an editorial assistant position, which I’m unfortunately too senior for at this point. I am occasionally asked by other publications to do edit tests, but when I send them out I sometimes never hear back from the sites or magazines ever again, even after many follow-up emails. I know what kind of career I want. But I don’t know why it is that I get so close to the things I want and then don’t get them. There must be something that I’m just not doing quite right that the more successful candidates are.

Is it ever appropriate to reach out to an employer who didn’t hire you to ask, politely, what it is that they found lacking? And how long is a young person supposed to work toward a dream career (and believe me, I’m working) before they accept that it just may not happen?

— Did Cronkite Have To Put Up With This?

Movies and parents and aspirational posters have led most people working in the creative field to believe that if you work very hard, and are talented, and are just a little bit lucky, you will wriggle your way through this horrible world.

This is a lie.

Now, you still need all those things, but not necessarily in that order. It’s an unfortunate reality that to be a writer or reporter or essayist or anything that involves words, luck often plays at least as big role in your professional success as skill. And skill takes higher order than perseverance. Frankly, perseverance is the least of your needs. Any writer knows a handful of untalented hacks that have gotten jobs, have prominent bylines, and have gone on to even greater successes. (For some, I am in this list, and they read this column every week and seethe over my perceived prosperity—which is small—and naturally I delight in this antagonism, as the lord intended.)

I hear your frustrations, but I am not going to tell you that you should just keep working, sweetheart, things will work out, just you wait! Because for plenty of people, it doesn’t work out. The most important thing is to determine how valuable a job in this profession ultimately is to you.

First: yes, it is totally appropriate to ask why you didn’t get a job. You might be making a mistake on your applications or in your interviews or your editing test, and I don’t know many editors who would begrudge you politely asking. Suffering in silence is only hurting you. Some editors might not respond, but I bet most of them will appreciate the initiative you’re taking in figuring out how you might improve.

As for your current job: yes, that is extremely awful! It also sounds like many, many, many jobs in the media landscape. I assume you’re working in the US, because Canada has about three magazines and everyone knows each other and loves each other and also is fighting with each other and probably having sex with each other, so it sounds like you have more options than you average Canuck media dope. The solution for your current job does indeed become something more existential.

Do you want to do this for the rest of your life? Do you want to feel like you are fighting with forces unseen, like you are being taken advantage more often than not, struggling upstream against slashed budgets and motherfucking Upworthy?

Do you want to feel like you are fighting with forces unseen, like you are being taken advantage more often than not, struggling upstream against slashed budgets and motherfucking Upworthy?

Maybe you do. But maybe not! Either one is a brave choice. If you want this to be your life, then keep your head down and do your job while quietly looking for another, hopefully better one, for as long as it takes. There is always something else. Somewhere, something new is happening.

But if you don’t want to, then stop. If this stress and dissatisfaction is more than you are willing to take, stop. Your skills are transferrable. Almost everyone could use a good writer. There is no shame in leaving the industry—it’s not quitting, it’s finding a better quality of life—and there is nobility in knowing your limit. This industry can be awful to talented people, and you are not the first to be spat out by crummy circumstances. Things may improve, but you don’t know how much or how quickly. Maybe you’ll be where you are for another few months before being rescued by the New Yorker (oh man, do you work for the New Yorker?), or maybe you will suffer where you are for years before anything else comes of it. Regardless, for as long as you have a job, you are always in control of that. Don’t become complacent, thinking you have to wait for people to hand your opportunities or to improve your life or. You will find something else. You will find something else. There is always something else.

I don’t know how long you’re supposed to work towards something. I suppose you do it until you feel like you can’t do it anymore. So, maybe the better question for you to answer: do you think you can keep doing this?

On the other hand:

So I was the guy who wrote about getting lunches made for me by that 60-ish-year-old woman.

Things have escalated into ever weirder territory. One day I went down to get lunch and she—of course— had a little meal for me, all wrapped up. She asked me for my PHONE NUMBER so she could text/call me ahead of time to let me know she had made me lunch. I panicked, and the store was filled with lunchtime traffic, so I did what any guy would do. I wrong-numbered her.

Then I went in the next day and she said, “You gave me the wrong number!” She then basically forced me to give her my number, which sucked. I caved. Now and then she calls me and texts me things like “Where are you?” when I don’t go back for several days. But the worst—the WORST—was when she called me on my birthday (co-workers told her when she asked them where I was that day) and sang me the creepiest rendition of “Happy Birthday” on voicemail. Seriously, it sent chills down my spine.

She’s kind of backed off since discovering that I have a girlfriend, but the creep factor is still there. I’ve totally made a mess of this, haven’t I? I shouldn’t go back, should I? Did this all happen because I was initially weak? If you could replay the scenario, what would you have done?

— Part Two

You wrote back! How nice. It’s like corresponding with an old friend you thought you would never hear from again. Hey, pal. Hey, little buddy.

Before we get into this letter, let’s recap what you told me in your first one: a nice lady who works at your nearby lunchbox was making you meals at home, which you were accepting, but feeling a little weird about. I told you that you could either suck it up and take them (eating them or not), or you could just stop going there if it truly made you uncomfortable.

This was, admittedly, weird from the get-go, but never aggressively weird. When I was in high school, I used to stay late to work on the high school newspaper (and have SEX, ha ha, not really, I was teaching myself how to use InDesign) and the janitor would bring me Cokes on his way through the building. He signed my yearbook in the 12th grade. It was weird, but sometimes, weird is nice!

You did not take my advice, little buddy.

Clearly this woman was making you uncomfortable and you inexplicably returned to the same joint to get your lunch when you could have, oh, packed your own or gone to a different restaurant or chewed on the corner of your mouth until you bled to death. But instead, you went back. And when she asked for your phone number, you gave her a fake one WITH THE INTENTION OF RETURNING THE FOLLOWING DAY, THEREBY OPENING YOURSELF UP TO A LIE THAT ISN’T EVEN A GOOD ONE TO BEGIN WITH.

Well, look, in your defense, I am a woman, so I am constantly waiting for a man to threaten me in some way.

When you go back the next day, she is predictably upset, and then suckers you into giving her your real number, all of which could have been avoided if you recognized that it was strange that she asked for your number IN THE FIRST PLACE. Then you are shocked—SHOCKED—that she used your number to call you—on the phone—to sing you happy birthday because your shitty, shitty coworkers told her a piece of personal information about you.

Now that we’re up to speed, as far as your current questions go:

1. Have you made a total mess of this?
Yes, but only if you want to return to this lunch place, which, I cannot even begin to understand why you would want to go back. (That said, your utter devotion to this place is staggering, so who knows what dumb, dumb thing you will do next.

2. Should you go back?
Okay, what the hell are these lunches made out of? Are her ham sandwiches laced with heroin? NO YOU SHOULD NOT GO BACK. THIS IS THE DEFINITION OF SENDING MIXED SIGNALS. Eat somewhere else. Have you tried just throwing a bunch of vegetables and a hunk of chicken breast in a Tupperware container? It’s called a salad. It sounds more ethnic than it is, and you will lose weight if you eat it every day. If that doesn’t work, just suck on a wet rag until it tricks your brain into thinking you’ve eaten.

3. Did this all happen because you were weak initially?
Yes. Remember what I said about the salad.

4. If I could replay the scenario, what would I have done?
Well, look, in your defense, I am a woman, so I am constantly waiting for a man to threaten me in some way. If I went to grab lunch and there was a guy making me meals from his house and asking me for my number, I would assume he was trying to poison me so that he could wrap me in a power cord and force me to host a dinner party for him and his collection of Epcot Center mugs. You, I’m guessing, are not expectantly waiting for doom, so this all seemed more innocent. And maybe it was! But the second she tried to get personal information from you, you should not have returned to a place making you uncomfortable. This was your mistake. This is why I am shaming you.

Look, the past is the past. What you need to get comfortable with now is hurting someone’s feelings, which will absolutely happen because YOU SHOULD NOT GO BACK THERE. Ask your colleagues to tell her that you no longer work in the area or that you bring lunches from home or whatever they need to do to get her to stop asking.

Also, maybe tell your shitty coworkers to not tell her anything about you. (What is wrong with these people? Do you work with Dennis the Menace?)

*

My friend started dating a new guy and I hate him. He’s condescending, he makes me feel uncomfortable, he’s icy to all of my friend’s friends, and worst of all, I don’t think he treats my friend well. He dismisses her whenever she says anything at all, and tells her that he doesn’t want her going out with the rest of us. I’ve been seeing far less of my friend since she started dating this guy, and I don’t know how to tell her I don’t like him. She’s always been the type to stop seeing her friend when she starts seeing someone new, but this is the worst it’s ever been. How do I get her away from this guy, or at least, how do I get her to see me more?

— Getting Cut Out

Have you asked?

Some of the biggest problems can be solved with the simplest solution: talking about it. I know people don’t like talking about it. Talking about things is very awkward and generally, people would prefer that their problems get sorted out on their own. But countless friendships and work relationships and four dates could be rescued from the brink of disaster if people just talked about how they were feeling instead of hoping that the universe would offer some sort of divine intervention.

You say that your friend is the type to fall in love and fall out of favour with her friends, but this one is bad enough for you to actually have concerns about it. So is the real problem that the guy is a dink or that you feel like you may really, actually, permanently lose your friend? Your complaints about him are pretty nonspecific, and it’s possible that he senses some tension from you and therefore doesn’t want to spend his time trying to make you like him. Have you tried getting to know him, or did you maybe walk into this situation with the idea that this guy is taking your friend away and is therefore a jerk? (I could be wrong about this—if he’s abusive or truly condescending or racist or one of those people who perpetually has a runny nose and just snorts all the fucking time, feel free to try to tear your friend from him.)

They weave in and out of your life, needing you for Friday nights out and Sunday brunches when they’re single, and then once they start dating someone, you can only follow their life on Instagram as they take nauseatingly twee road trips and pottery classes.

It might be as simple as a personality clash between the two of you. If that’s the case, telling your friend you hate her boyfriend isn’t going to work. Instead, tell her that you wish you could see her more, that you know she’s in the honeymoon period but maybe you could set up a lunch or a dinner every few weeks or even a phone call now and then to catch up. Surely she is not that busy. Surely she can give you a few nights a month for just the two of you.

Unless she won’t. Some people like to be eaten up by their relationships and there isn’t anything you can do about them. Everyone has this friend: here today, dead to you tomorrow. They weave in and out of your life, needing you for Friday nights out and Sunday brunches when they’re single, and then once they start dating someone, you can only follow their life on Instagram as they take nauseatingly twee road trips and pottery classes. Then, eventually, they find someone who lasts longer than a few months and you stop hearing from them all together. Everyone has (or had) this friend, and no amount of fighting will keep them around.

So: talk to your friend, try to be nicer to her dickhead boyfriend (if possible), accept that maybe you two won’t be best buddies, and if that doesn’t work, accept that your friend is a certain type of friend, and maybe you need to invest in someone or something that will have some more consistency.

Like rickets. I mean, once you have rickets, it is hard to get rid of rickets.

Unfuck Yourself appears every Wednesday. Got a problem? Send it here.

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