Love, work, and conflict: thoughts on the Thiel Grant for Online Writing


There are things I do for love, and things I do for money.

Here are some of the things I do for love: cook, sketch, read stories to my child, change his nappy, bathe him, feed him, dance, weave, be constantly interrupted, write.

Here are some of the things I do for money: edit, publish, proofread, write.

Where there's an overlap is where things become tricky. A few days ago I clicked on the link for a new writing initiative - the Thiel Grant for Online Writing. Within a few seconds I had closed the window, disheartened. While one of my goals for the upcoming year has been to get back to writing for love, my small world at the moment is circumscribed by work; and it was clear that the Thiel Grant would not work for me.

Details on the grant page were, and at the time of writing, are, scanty. The main criteria seemed to be that for a stipend of $5000, writers would commit to the creation of 50 posts 'on an agreed concept' over twelve months. The posts would be written on the applicants own blog, "free from editorial intervention" (as Thiel put it later, on Facebook), and without the aid of marketing or publishing support. Each post must include a footer that reads, "this post was supported by a Thiel Grant for Online Writing."

Seven or eight years ago, when I was finding my feet as a writer, I may have jumped at this chance. Blogs were still an emerging platform then, and the idea of being paid for blogging would have been dazzling.

Back then, it wouldn't have bothered me that a private individual was effectively hiring me to write 50 sponsored blog posts for a rate of $100 each, without any editorial or publishing support. Money was very scant - rent, bills and food were all covered, but barely. I was studying, and writing a blog anyway. What harm could it do?

These days money is still tight, but I'm warier. After the birth of my son, my husband and I went into debt as he tried to juggle his Masters with part-time work and I struggled with postpartum depression. It took a long time to come out of that illness, an illness that I am still not fully recovered from, and which ate viciously into my earning ability. The kind of rapid, generative ability I had at nineteen, and twenty, is gone.

Having clawed out of debt, writing is now a zero-sum equation. To find the time to write, I need to put my child in care: simply put, the sum I am earning must outweigh the cost of making work. If it doesn't, I simply cannot work.

It has been beyond frustrating in conversations about this grant to see major industry figures characterise concerns that the pay per post is too low as 'elitism' or 'ego'. I do not think that I am worth more than the writers who may jump at this opportunity, or that I should be paid more than them due to the quality of my prose or my past experience (or whatever). What I am saying is that as I writer, I could not afford to win this grant - and that's a position many writers, particularly women, may find themselves in.

It's exhausting and heartbreaking to live with a chronic illness, or to be a primary carer, to have a sick relative, to work multiple jobs, to juggle work with study, or any of the other factors that make our lives as writers difficult. And yet we write, because we love it - it keeps us going, and it keeps us alive.

But our love of writing shouldn't be reason enough to apply for 'opportunities' that pay less than content-mill rates, and that bind us into working conditions that for many are simply unfeasible.

Many writers have asked Thiel if he will consider any flexibility in the post count; this amount of money could support one amazing net-based work, such as Oscar Schwartz's 'Bot or Not', or five or ten richer or deeper inventive online explorations. He remains firm that 50 posts should be the outcome.

I love to write. I write for work. And sometimes there is overlap; the volunteering with organisations I do, my past time on boards, the extra hours I have put into running literary journals or organising conferences, often for very low fees. I do this because I can write off my time on 'love jobs' - because volunteering for something is a decision I make. When somebody else offers me money and sets the terms, that's work.

I have argued, vehemently, in groups like Pay the Writers, that a grant that offers $100 per post is no prize to win. It undercuts the market, acting less like a stipend than a series of commissioned works at significantly less than MEAA or ASA rates, which, while aspirational, should be met in grants and prizes; it offers opportunity only to those who are desperate enough or driven enough to be making this opportunity for themselves already. I worry that love of writing, for many, may override horse sense; God knows that for me, in the past, it would have.

And what really breaks my heart is that so much good could come out of this. $5000, allocated across a smaller amount of posts or one flexible, innovative project, could support 'inventive' writing in a way that adequately values the writer's time, skill, and professionalism. It would be an inclusive gesture for those who for financial reasons cannot bring themselves to work their guts out on a shoestring.

To give your own money, as Thiel has done, to support the arts, is wonderfully generous and should be applauded. But that shouldn't exempt the conditions of such a gesture from the same sort of scrutiny we would give any grant or prize, and I don't believe this one stands up in its current iteration.

In a blog post purporting to respond to writers' concerns, Thiel reiterated the outlines of the grant, and compared his gesture to a very old school of artistic support. "I [will] be the virtual equivalent of a kneeling donor in a Renaissance painting," he wrote. But patronage can be a straitjacket, and writers do not benefit from a patron, kneeling or not, who closes his ears to the realities of their lives.