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‘Writing is not martyrdom’: Renowned author Jessica Zafra talks about her profession

Zafra talked about experiences such as deciding on studying writing, working for different publications, going freelance, putting up a magazine, and the changing landscape of technology that profoundly impacts writing and being a writer.

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JESSICA Zafra (left) hosting ‘The Sanity Maintenance Program.’ / SCREENGRAB FROM FB.COM/The Sanity Maintenance Program

Author Jessica Zafra underscored the importance of writing in the time of a pandemic and the contemporaneous turmoils in society. The former magazine and newspaper columnist who became a radio and TV host, achieved fame for writing a series of books: Twisted; Manananggal Terrorizes Manila and Other Short Stories; The 500 People You Meet in Hell; Twisted Travels and The Collected Stories of Jessica Zafra. Zafra talked about making a living as a writer in a series of writers’ forums of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) or the Writer’s Union of the Philippines, which tackled theme “Writing (in) the New Normal/Pagsulat ng/sa Bagong Normal.”

She was featued in the inaugural episode of “UMPILan,” which was supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and co-presented by the Ateneo de Manila University Press and the Association of Philippine Medical Colleges-Student Network (APMC). Shown the whole month of August 2020, “UMPILan” presented four episodes featuring four writers. The Zafra episode was streamed online on 5 August and was moderated by Louie Jon Sanchez, treasurer of UMPIL and teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University.

One of the most distinct voices from the generation that grew up from the 1990s to 2000, Zafra aptly titled her talk “Living by Our Wits When Everyone is Scared Out of Theirs,” which recounted her experiences such as deciding to study writing, working for different publications, going freelance, putting up a magazine, and the changing landscape of technology that profoundly impacts writing and being a writer. Basically, these all illustrated how writers earn a living.
Here is the second part of excerpts from her talk:

The sad truth
“Payments for freelance articles have not changed since I started writing in the 1990s. In many cases, the rates have decreased. In many cases you don’t get paid at all. The understanding is that having your byline appear in a publication is an ad for your services so someone else will hire you. Many newspaper columns are public relations vehicles for the author and their clients.

“Sometimes, you don’t get paid for the simple reason that the publication has no money and somehow still running. Say you get an assignment from an editor, the fee is P1,500 for an 800-word article. You incur expenses researching, conducting interviews and writing that article. Sometimes more than P1,500. But that’s okay because you were never in this to get rich.

“You submit your article. And then you have to wait until the article is published. The accounting department prepares the check. The check is signed. The check is released, etc. You get paid at least one month later. For magazines, it takes longer. How are you going to live? Collecting your fees is another problem. It is often humiliating. You call the office of the people who owe you money, get passed around, and after you’ve repeated your request many times with mounting embarrassment, you are told to call again. Why is it that the writer collecting his or her fee is the one who’s embarrassed? Shouldn’t the person in debt be embarrassed partly? Collecting is an admission that you need the money. It’s embarrassing not to have money even if it’s true.”

Putting up a magazine
“In 2000, some friends and I decided to put up a magazine. It would be a journal of current affairs and culture. And we decided to name it after a column I’d written in 1993. In the column I joked that the millions of overseas Filipino workers were an army of world domination. They were working in the houses of the powerful, raising their children and maintaining their households while their employers ran the global economy. If the OFWs went on strike, companies would stop functioning.
“We started pitching Flip, the Official Guide to World Domination, to investors. It was not a good time to pitch a magazine. Every other day, articles came out about impending death of print. But we thought our concept was sufficiently different to survive the change. We asked the investors to fund a monthly magazine for two years, after which we would be able to sustain operations through advertising, sales and retail. We raised only a third of what we needed but we managed to keep going for over a year. Flip folded in 2003.”

Becoming a lifestyle journalist
“I went back to writing columns for a bigger newspaper. The pay was the same but we writers got a lot of foreign trips and gift certificates and swag from sponsors because how could we write about lifestyles without experiencing them ourselves. I had front-seat tickets to the Singles finals at the Australian Open of tennis. I flew business class, wore a Missoni scarf, and dragged a Rimowa suitcase. But I had gotten tired of writing columns. I felt that everything I had to say, I had already said three times at least. It is not a good thing to repeat yourself. And I still hadn’t finished a novel. A couple of times I got commissions to produce books for corporate clients.

“These jobs pay well but there’s lots of better-known competition. Besides, I was supposed to be quirky and angsty and therefore not a natural choice to be writing corporate books. I consoled myself that I was not considered boring enough to write for corporations but I could’ve used that money. The cost of living kept on rising but the pay for writing did not. I had credit card debts.”

Internet and the social media
“Meanwhile, the internet and social media were changing the ways people consumed information. Print readership was falling. Younger readers were getting their news from social media. Public discourse had grown exponentially vicious. And I still hadn’t finish the novel. One day I realized I was pushing 50. I decided to drop everything and write a novel. It was as they say a leap of faith. I had no alternative sources of income. I thought that if I finish a novel everything would fall into place. It didn’t. Well it did actually, but not the way I thought it would.

Zafra calls for decent pay for writers.

“When I was a kid, I thought that I would become a bestselling novelist and live off my royalties. My books sell decently but my royalties are not enough to live on. I knew I could not go back to writing columns. Publications were cutting staff or shutting down. I had to find another way to make a living. My friends started an online channel and were looking for original content. I started writing and hosting a talk show online called The Sanity Maintenance Program. I started giving writing workshops. Today, I do the talk show, give workshops and sell my books online and net events that I organized. I’ve looked into self-publishing and subscription-based platforms like Patreon.

Everyone has to learn to do their own office work in the digital age, and writers had to do their own self-promotion, marketing and sales. We don’t have literary agencies in the Philippines. We have to do everything ourselves. Yes, it seems shameful. Our work should be able to speak for itself. We shouldn’t have to sell ourselves. But it’s the 21st century, and this is how we roll.”

Uncertain future
Zafra ended her talk with a call for writers to be paid decently: “I refuse to see writing as a kind of martyrdom. I like to describe the writing profession as living by your wits. It makes us sound raffish, disreputable and devil-may-care, but you have lived on adjectives for too long. We need money. We need respect. Not the ‘ang galing-galing mo naman’ kind of flattery and passive-aggressive smart-shaming. But respect, as in decent pay and opportunities. The pandemic has upended the way we live and everything must change. How will writers survive in the strange new world?”

The other “UMPILan” episodes featured Jesuit priest, poet and activist Albert Alejo on 8 August 2020, moderated by UMPIL board member Celina Cristobal; former University of the Philippines chancellor Michael Tan on 15 August, moderated by Dr. Joey Tabula; and physician, medical anthropologist, and newspaper columnist Gideon Lasco on 22 August, moderated by moderated by Ateneo de Manila University Press director and UMPIL board member Karina Bolasco.

Last of two parts

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