“So I’ll need you to do a travel assignment for like a coupla weeks,” an ex-friend said.
“Well you came to the right guy.”
“I’ll need sixty articles total.”
“That’s, a lot.”
“You’ll need to write two articles a day, about five hundred words each…”
“I guess I can manage.”
“… while on the road, for like eight hours a day.”
“Expenses aren’t covered.”
“Food’s pretty cheap in Myanmar,” Jess said. “So what’s your price?”
I did a quick calculation and quoted the average market rate for 30,000 words.
“We can’t pay you that much.”
I know what you’re thinking. He’d have to be pretty fucking stupid to accept that offer. And you’d be right. But hey, it’s been a while since my last travel assignment, and I’d always loved Myanmar, so why not right?
I went into it thinking they’d negotiate it down by twenty percent. Heck, I wouldn’t even have flinched had it been fifty. So when they said they’d opted for the former, I jumped on it without a second thought.
And away we go
Jess said she’d draft a contract by the end of the week, and until then, I’d do good to start my two-a-day writing schedule. So I did, and I did it well. The week passed, and it was pretty much one-way traffic until then. So I pestered her for the terms.
“Been busy setting everything up,” she said. “I’ll have it for you by the end of this week.”
Another week flew by, and I’d sent twenty articles in by this point (I still had my weekends before I flew to Myanmar). The flight was supposed to be in the coming week, but everything still seemed to be up in the air.
Fine by me. The remaining articles were reserved for when I flew in and gathered the necessary material, so I enjoyed the couple of days that I had to breathe.
Then the message came, as prompt as the deadlines that were proposed: “Trip’s gonna be for 21 days, and your flight’s in 4. Send me your passport details and apply for your visa once I send you the tickets.”
A churn in my gut kept reminding me that perhaps I should sit this one out, that there was something definitely off, something my heart saw that my mind couldn’t. But I was already waist-deep so I sent her a photo of my passport.
Imma stop right there
I like fountain pens. Forgive my ungraceful segue, but I only do this when I have a point to make.
What I think about the hobby is, you never really find your grail pen. You might lust after one, telling anyone who would listen how beautifully-made the body is, how the magnet cap sets it apart from other pens, how this pen would be the last one you’ll ever buy.
Then you get it, and you love using the hell out of it. But after a while, you learn that it only writes well on certain paper, much like how a classic car wouldn’t fare well in a traffic jam.
So you revert to using your older pens that perform better on copy paper at work, all the while wishing that you could just break out that fancy Italian piece and let ink fly.
Life is a bit like that. Extroverts do better at certain jobs—event management, for instance—and non-confrontational introverts like me would thrive better in careers that don’t require talking to more than two people a day, or negotiating better terms.
And with everything going on in this story, you might’ve already made deductions of your own—that me and this assignment didn’t mix.
I sent a message the night before the flight. Yep, you guessed it, still no news about the contract. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and my gut instinct was screaming something fierce.
What would you have done if you were in my position? Would you have hopped on that flight?
You know I did, or else there wouldn’t be a story.
The proverbial straw
So the assignment turns out to be twelve to sixteen hours per day of pure material-gathering. Then it’s back to the room to churn out the two articles I had promised. Oh, and by the way, the articles had to be about eight hundred words instead of five. Yeah, it’s something I’d learned much later as well.
And if you factored in the absurdly long shifts, I was earning eight percent the usual market rate for writing gigs. Eight percent. That’s eight cents for every potential dollar I could’ve earned from writing marketing copy.
I remained faithful to this schedule for about a week, writing whenever I could squeeze in the time—on a bumpy ride in the van, in temples, on a boat in Inle Lake—but after a dismaying display of support, especially from whom I thought was a friend, I decided to stop sending in my work.
I mean, I still wrote, but I just didn’t submit. After my last contract query was met with radio silence, I decided to repay her with some silence of my own. I had no idea what she was doing back in Malaysia. It certainly wasn’t overseeing the project properly.
I couldn’t come back even if I wanted to, because we’d driven to the more remote parts of Myanmar, and I was along for the ride until I could get back to a hub like Yangon or Mandalay. Finally, after two weeks, she got in touch.
A learning experience
“What do you mean you want to stop writing?”
“We didn’t discuss sixteen-hour shifts, and I still don’t have a contract.”
“I’ll mail it in tomorrow. What’s your house address? I need it so I can fill out the contract.”
Now you tell me if flipping them the finger was an appropriate thing to do. I bought my own flight tickets back, and was a coupla thousand bucks short from before I took off for Myanmar.
It took me another few weeks to get over the sting, but after having the much-needed distance from this series of unfortunate events, I’d learn how blessed I was to be on this trip. Despite losing money, I’d gained so much more compared to my previous profitable assignments.
I’d made new friends, experienced life in other cultures, shared moments that I’ll probably never would have otherwise, and I’d even learned a few new things myself.
I’d learned that I could read and write in a moving vehicle, something that I couldn’t do before. I’d learned just how little I needed to live, and how much of my life was actually just distractions and noise.
Another meaningful discovery was my capacity to write 2,000 words a day. In two hours. Every day. When before this I had an equal amount of reasons why I couldn’t write.
Most importantly, I’d learned how to stand up for myself, that perhaps I didn’t need to pigeonhole myself as an introvert, or non-confrontational, or any of those other limiting terms. Perhaps I could just be myself and do what’s best regardless.
I’d learned that who I am and what I choose to do are two totally different things, and that I can determine how my days go, despite the labels I choose to impose on myself.
And that’s worth so much more than all the money in the world.