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How to make it as a freelance writer on the Internet
The Hairpin’s Jazmine Hughes talks with Hallie Bateman about the young writer’s hustle.
I met Jazmine Hughes, contributing editor for the Hairpin, at a picnic this summer. It was planned for the park, but it rained, so we all went to a friend’s apartment and sat around eating and talking and petting a dog. We hardly spoke; I was leaving as she was arriving. But when she introduced herself, I already knew who she was. She was Jazmine Hughes, she was 23, she was effortlessly cool on a 30 Under 30 list, and she’d just been hired as the Hairpin’s new contributing editor.
When I met Jazmine again, in December, at a pizza joint in my neighborhood, we felt a connection that young creative people experience relatively often. It’s That Thing: two people who have never interacted in land-based reality have a bond through Twitter and each other’s work. We were comfortable enough to skip over formalities and talk about stuff we actually cared about. That Thing is everything that makes working on the Internet less shitty and more magical.
In journalism, every conversation is an interview. Jazmine was here to talk to me about forging a career as an illustrator on the Internet, but by the time our Q-and-A was over, I had just as many questions for her. I wrote them all on Post-it notes, and amazingly, she answered them.
Hallie Bateman for the Daily Dot
What do you love most? You can choose three things.
I love that I’m knitting this scarf [shows scarf] and it’s coming out pretty well. It’s got holes, but that’s the Jazmine touch. I love that I’m not alone in these feelings of confusion or unsureness. I love that I am going to go home after this and feel awake because I haven’t felt actually alive until like noon lately.
What are your secret wishes?
I want to be a managing editor. I think that would be best. I really like to boss people around. I have a lot of questions. I really like to hold people accountable for what they say they’re going to do. I have a lot of sisters.
I think everyone who has a creative process does it for the outcome. I think it’s like having a child—if anyone knew how bad it was gonna be, they’d never do it.
How do you defeat self-doubt?
I don’t know yet. It’s an ongoing process. I guess I just… do it anyway?
“When I was working for New York magazine, the only other black person in my entire first year was the dude who worked in the mailroom.”
This is what I’m in the midst of: The New Republic approached me to write an article for them. Then Ta-Nehisi Coates just published a big piece about how TNR disregarded people of color and treated them as if they were like an experiment or social commentary. Like, “Oh, black people are over there, let’s think about what they do but never really go find out.” So this week I emailed Ta-Nehisi Coates and said, “You don’t know me, you have no reason to know me, and I shouldn’t have your email address, but I do—and I was just wondering if I should do this thing.”
I was very worried that I couldn’t do it, and I was very worried that I would make myself a pariah in the black publishing world. I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates would be so mad at me if I did this, even though I don’t know him. I wonder if there would be similar things for female cartoonists? There are so few African-Americans working in publishing. When I was working for New York magazine, the only other black person in my entire first year was the dude who worked in the mailroom, and that was it.
In recent months there has been a collective of young people who all work at a mag or a TV show or whatever who have gotten to know each other, and it’s really great! So I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I’d lose that sense of community for a byline. So I emailed Ta-Nehisi, and he gave me good advice.
What’s a significant change you’ve made in your life?
In my brain, my friends are divided into my college friends and my new New York friends. My new New York friends are all these crazy people who are doing this amazing stuff. And my college friends all know me, but a lot of them are still trying to figure out what they want to do.
“I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates would be so mad at me if I did this.”
When I first got here and started working, I was very comforted by that—that nobody knew what they wanted to do. And then I started doing things and doing them well, and I felt sort of guilty, that I was doing all these things and everyone else was still working an internship somewhere they didn’t like.
I guess I realized the value of surrounding yourself with people who are doing what they want to do. Becoming friends with smart people just pushed me.
What do you miss?
My senior year of college, I lived with my two best friends in this horrendous apartment on my school’s campus. I went to Connecticut College, which is very small.
“I find myself trying to tap back into that fifth-grader and being like, What would she do?”
So we all lived together, and it was just so comforting and right. I never really questioned anything. Whether it was like walking around in my underwear (which I still do) or sitting on the couch eating brownie batter and watching something terrible (which I still do). I guess for the first time I felt truly comfortable and accepted at my basis. Because you go out and you feel accepted and you put on this external mask, but it’s amazing when you’re at home and all your walls are down, to still really be liked by people! And to know your weirdness isn’t totally off-putting.
I was homeschooled until I was in fifth grade, and I was super-weird. I went to public school in fifth grade and I was 8 and had four teeth and weighed like 50 pounds and was a very small, weird-looking thing. I was so, so weird. The girl who sat next to me in fifth grade became my friend in seventh grade and she said, “Yeah, everybody hated you because you were so strange.” So I remember as an 8- and 9-year-old having to temper myself to be accepted. But now, in the space I’m in at the Hairpin where I can be as weird as I want, I find myself trying to tap back into that fifth-grader and being like, What would she do?
What’s something you give no shits about?
White men on the Internet. Someone got very mad at the Hairpin this weekend and I was like, if this was just a white dude, I honestly would not care at all. But this is the difficulty in having a space that started off so personality-driven with [former editor] Edith [Zimmerman]. People invoke her a lot. And then writing for a woman’s website where everyone is friends in the comments section. So you feel like you’re letting down your friends if someone gets mad about something. But [editor] Haley [Mlotek] is very good about being like, “Stop.”
What’s your theory about where babies come from?
You know what I’ve noticed? In these weird little tree plots in Brooklyn, there are leaves that are like a cabbage that flower out. I thought it was broccoli for a long time.
That’s where all the New York assholes come from: sidewalk kale. All the shitheads on scooters in Park Slope. I think they sprout out, there’s a baby, there’s a Gmail account (because that’s what people do when they have a child—make a Gmail account), and then they have a scooter. Brooklyn babies pop out as fully formed assholes. And they’re already screaming and ruining your dinner.
What do you believe in? (God, etc.)
I believe in myself. But I have to keep telling myself that. Which is why I’m telling you.
“My goal in life is to be the black Nora Ephron.”
I believe we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. About God, or about science, or about how tunnels are built underwater. I believe in me. I believe that cheese will always be good. And I believe that if there is one New York institution that will never leave us, it will be Zabar’s.
My goal in life is to be the black Nora Ephron. Which is, really, just to be Nora Ephron but still me, to be able to have this [product] in my hair. But [Ephron] loooved-loved Zabar’s, as any classy Upper West Side woman would. So I went recently, and it was amazing. It was just walls of cheese, which I think is like what my heaven is. And I can’t imagine New Yorkers would let that go. The Met, sure. Because it costs $25 to go to the Met if you don’t read the fine print. But Zabar’s isn’t going anywhere.
Why do you like writing so much?
I don’t! I hate it so much! But I like it enough to do. It’s the only thing I can do. I can write, and now I can knit. This is the second scarf I’ve ever made. Writing always came very naturally to me, as does talking. That’s my real favorite thing: talking endlessly. But since I can’t do that, because I wouldn’t have a voice anymore, I guess writing is the next best thing.
I wonder if you feel this way about drawing—I don’t think anybody likes writing. Like, the process of it.
I don’t just write without images very much, but there’s something so satisfying about when it clicks, and when you can’t stop.
I guess I shouldn’t have such a negative outlook on it. But I don’t write for writing. I do it so it’s done and I can be like, “Look what I made!” Maybe that’s what I’ll be like when I have a child. I’ll be like, “Look what I did and all the struggle I went through!”
“For the next three days, I just sat and watched TV and massaged my toes with my vibrator and weird oils.”
I remember graduating and coming here and taking a long time to get into writing-writing. Everyone was sort of constantly talking themselves up. I remember thinking, How bizarre… But as time went on, I started doing [this self-promotion] too. Not out of pride or anything, but just because I feel like I have to. I still feel weird about it.
It’s weird. You don’t want to come off as self-obsessed, but you shouldn’t try to shoot yourself down. It just frames your work in the wrong way. You want people to read it!
That’s how I feel about selfies. Or about people who are self-deprecating with their selfies.
What’s a memory you’ve blocked?
I like to say that I’m only embarrassed about two things. [One] is my credit score, because I just didn’t pay my loans for a while. [The other is] the premise that someone might hear me having sex. But pretty much anything else, I don’t care. Like, yeah, I had to go to the gynecologist for this weird thing! Or, yeah, that’s a booger in my nose! I’ll get it!
So I don’t really block any memories. If anything, I should block them. Something happened to me junior year and I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. I was telling everyone I knew. And one day my roommate was like, “You should stop telling people that. That’s too weird.”
What was the story?
I was made editor-in-chief of my school paper for the following year in January. It was very cold. To celebrate, we played this game called “Chug or You’re Gay.” Which is terrible. We sat in a circle and passed around a handle of vodka, and I was like, “I’m not gay!” It was atrocious.
“If you fuck up, the Internet will forget. If you succeed, it’ll forget that too. Just keep moving.”
That’s so horrible.
And then I went out, and I was wearing flats. And I lost one of my shoes in the snow. So I was just walking around in the snow, but I was so drunk I couldn’t really tell how cold it was. I walked back to my room and called the campus safety officer and said, “Have you seen a shoe?” and they were like, “What?”
I woke up the next morning and my feet were so swollen they couldn’t fit into any of my shoes. I was afraid I could never leave my room again.
I went to the health center when they opened. They said, “Yeah, it’s too late. You’re going to lose feeling in your toes. You should’ve come to us two days ago. All we can do is massage them to keep the blood circulating. You can wear warm socks, but there’s not much else you can do.”
Oh, and they said, “Also, you have a drinking problem. You have to track all your drinking.” They gave me a piece of paper, and I spilled gin and tonic on it.
So I went back to my room. I was massaging my feet, massaging my feet… Then I realized I had a personal massager that could do this better than my hands. So then, for the next three days, I just sat and watched TV and massaged my toes with my vibrator and weird oils. And it worked! Thanks to my shitty $12 vibrator from Spencer’s Gifts in the mall.
What’s the point of anything?
To talk about. To write about. Nora Ephron’s mother told her everything is copy, and so I believe that. And copy I guess is no longer just the written form. Everything can be a tweet or an Instagram too. Or a drawing. Or an anecdote to tell later. Everything is useable. Everything could be scrapped or put together to make a great monster, whether that’s a book or a cool joke.
What do you think is the best feeling?
Relief. Elation is wonderful and satisfaction is great, but I think it’s the low low low of being anxious and the high of being like, “Oh, just kidding, everything is totally fine.” I love it. I love being relieved.
Lastly, what advice would you give young writers starting out in NYC today?
Don’t. No, really, I’m insecure and you threaten me.
Treat writing as a sport, as a talent you have to develop and exercise. Think of a way to frame a story every day (or every other day), even if you don’t end up writing it—just get in the habit of discerning what’s a story and why. Immerse yourself. Read a lot, listen to podcasts, hang out with other writers. Make the entire practice second nature to you. Remember that the Internet has the memory span of a week, a month, tops. If you fuck up, it’ll forget. If you succeed, it’ll forget that too. Just keep moving.
Read part 1 of this interview series, “How to make it as a freelance illustrator,” featuring the author of this story, Hallie Bateman.
Photo by Akilah Hughes