On Patreon and the fine art of "pitching" oneself


As some of you may have heard, I recently launched a Patreon campaign. “Launched” is a strong word, actually; a better word might be “enrolled.” I recently logged into Patreon, is what I’m saying.

“Well,” a colleague DM’d, minutes after the Patreon had launched. “I take it you never heard back from [outlet].” I conceded he was correct.

“Next time,” he continued, “try not to write a five-page resume, maybe.” Right he was, again. (This retelling is only approximate, on account of I can’t bear to look at the exchange again.)

I admit I’ve never perfected the “self-pitch.” As my best friend put it the other day — we were discussing her notoriously messy house — “I find it much easier to clean other people’s houses. It’s like, you’re too close to your own mess.” This strikes me, a few days later, as a pretty decent analogy. When it comes to the art of selling myself, I guess I feel “too close to the mess.”

Meanwhile, I do pretty well with cleaning other people’s houses. If you count only the cover letters I’ve sent on behalf of other people, I have a 100% success rate! For instance, I convinced my first live-in boyfriend to quit his job as a mail clerk, and I wrote his cover letter and resume and sent out all his demo reels, helping him to launch a career in broadcast motion graphics that endures ten years later. I also once wrote a letter of recommendation that got an unproven kid into film school.

In 2011, when my then-boyfriend Derek walked into a talent agency, his interviewers point-blank asked him who had written his cover letter.

“My girlfriend!” he said.

Their next question was, “And who addressed this envelope?”

“My girlfriend,” he said, maybe more reluctantly this time. They were curious about my nice block lettering, which had compelled them to open Derek’s padded envelope in the first place. And that’s the story of Derek launching his voiceover career. He’s SAG now.

I wish I still had his cover letter somewhere, because it was a masterpiece of cockiness. (“Do you remember how you didn’t even ask me on a date?” I reminded Derek. “You just told me which times the movie was playing on a Wednesday, and to pick one? That’s how I’m writing your cover letter.”) I have long tried to force myself to write the same types of cover letters I have already ghostwritten: short pitches, brusque and audacious. I have tried to play-act as myself. It doesn’t work for me.

All of this is just to say,

I’ve decided, after all, to republish the full text of my Patreon page as my first essay to you. It isn’t because I don’t think you, as patrons, deserve better, and it isn’t intended as a cop-out; instead, it’s because I can’t really leave the text up on Patreon permanently, can I? At some point I’ve got to do the hardest thing and write a real, legitimate sales pitch, a page full of “here’s why to do this” and “what you’ll get out of this Patreon,” instead of several uncomfortable paragraphs about my life’s weird choices.

It turns out, too, that Patreon does not do very well on Facebook. It has the unfortunate quality of admitting you are financially floundering before a jury made up of your own hometown, for one.

For another, I think people — especially people who do not work in publishing — struggle with the concept of Patreon itself. (I, too, have struggled with the concept, but I’ve decided to stop struggling and accept it as one of very few viable ways to market and sell “personal essays” directly to the niche reader that might enjoy ‘em.)

Here, then, is the wall of text that will disappear from my Patreon page in the coming days, preserved here for posterity:

My name is Jenn Frank, and this is my Patreon.

Here are some things I’ve written:

My Work History

Since 2005, I have written professionally about video games and the people who make them. I came out of the gates strong, getting my start as a reviewer for Electronic Gaming Monthly. I moved to California to join Ziff Davis as its CM, where some of my writing appeared in the pages of EGM and Computer Gaming World, and on our website, 1UP.com. Other reviews, games criticism, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Kill Screen Magazine and at Paste, Unwinnable, Vice Motherboard, GameSetWatch, Gameranx, 1UP, WIRED GameLife, and the New York Times. Since 2008, in fits and starts, I have also maintained a small presence at my website, Infinite Lives.

I also provided the voice for two video games, Super Hexagon and the upcoming VIDEOBALL, and I voiced an anthropomorphic inhaler in an educational cartoon for kids with asthma. (I also wrote the first episode of a radio drama with its creator; you can read it here and listen to it here, but with the caveat that I wish I could go back and remove some ugly jokes.)

On Patreon

Deciding to launch a Patreon is a tough decision to make for yourself. No, scratch that — it is, in the midst of pure financial panic, a very easy decision to make — but in the days, weeks, or months leading to that moment of revelatory crisis, the decision is harder.

As you turn the idea over in your brain, you wonder things like, Is it narcissistic to go on writing? How destitute, how needy, do I “need to be” before I can launch a Patreon campaign guiltlessly and guilelessly? Am I somehow robbing my talented colleagues, many of them veterans of the games industry themselves, of money or visibility or whatever it is they might need to succeed financially? Am I, in some way, conceding my own failure?

You worry you are somehow cheating the system by asking your readership to subscribe to your articles; you worry that there is something wrong with letting your own readership be your freelance employer. All writing is a hustle, but this feels like a REAL hustle.

But one day the shoe finally drops, and now your panic is perfect and complete. And from the center of that meltdown, some of the guilt and shame of admitting your own poverty must subside, or else. And before you launch the Patreon of course you have already made all the phone calls, you’ve frantically tried to work out a game plan, but now you are desperate to make some more work for yourself and be paid for it. And that is how, in the twenty-third hour, you abruptly make your choice, carelessly slapping up some horrible, graceless plea for a patron.

But instead of it going unnoticed, your readership, friends, and colleagues arrive in full force.

And I am so grateful. In lieu of this gratitude to you, whoever you are — because I really am blown away — I very much owe it to you to do something worthwhile with this page, to further explain my campaign. (Hence this update, this impenetrable wall of text.)

Thank you so, so much.

What You Get

I haven’t actually decided yet, but if you’re located on the left sidebar, you sure have already subscribed to it. Whatever “it” is, it’s got to be really, really good.

I’ve thought a lot about writing something private — not private in the “intimate” sense, but something only a couple hundred people will ever be able to read, in the same way a writer might try to throw her best work into a small-run chapbook.

What I Get

This is a very important supplemental source of income for me. You’re probably curious about what I intend to do with this money.

  • I get to pay all sorts of bills! Mostly taxes and medical.
  • I will honor the amounts my mother intended to bequeath to her loved ones, and then I will shout “consider this estate EXECUTED!”
  • If I work diligently, I will continue to own this house.
  • I plan to pay the rest out in support of some of my own favorite writers.

Part II

This is the part Ted tells me I should take out, but I won’t, even though I’m scared to write it. I am filled with gratitude for my benefactors, and so I really think I owe this to you.

I have tried to write this section out many times over the last several months. I tried, once, to write a thinkpiece about millennials. Once, I tried to write about unpaid caregiving, which is a quiet epidemic here in the US and abroad, forcing people out of the workforce permanently. Once, I tried to write about the Occupy Movement — about the real human cost of healthcare, the soaring price of higher education, and home ownership, which have combined in insidious ways to create a perfect storm of forced poverty. “You want too much,” we tell one another, even as we lose our homes.

Instead of trying to discuss all those things obliquely, I have settled on absolute transparency. And it will be inelegant, utilitarian writing, and I am sorry.

I think, when a freelancer comes panhandling like this, some of her colleagues must wonder — politely, silently — exactly what series of poor life decisions have brought her to this moment. Some salaried journalists may wonder why a person chose the freelance-writing path at all.

Family members, if you have any, might wonder why, in the ten long years since graduating with academic honors from Northwestern with a The English Major in Writing degree (which ought to be competitive, as Bachelor of Arts degrees go, anyway), you’ve never managed to financially secure your own future.

Here is a story about how everything can go wrong.

My Real Work History

Before working in video games, I was a Chicago-based musician and actor. I was excited about my first salary, $30k a year in beautiful San Francisco, and even though I needed to pay for my own relocation, it sounded like a wonderful start. My elderly adoptive parents agreed. Of course I was a failure as a community manager, although I did make a lot of functional and UI changes that went into action after I left.

That was the only salaried position I have ever held in my life. After giving freelance work the college try, I returned to my former job as a retail clerk in a small gallery/boutique. I moved on to work as a blogger for my then-favorite celebrity gossip website. At the beginning of 2012 I committed myself to freelancing full-time.

The strangest thing about enjoying each job more than the last — and I suppose this is the way of things, especially as you begin to enjoy your work too, too much — is how the monetary value of your work deteriorates, so that your financial trajectory becomes a perfect downward trend. Where working in retail can pay just above minimum wage, blogging for an outlet pays much less, at about $8 per post. In 2012, when I transitioned to full-time freelance writing (with, at last, my mother’s blessing), I was prolific enough to enjoy some buzz and acclaim, and so even I was shocked to discover I’d made only $500 from writing that year.

When people say they have “lived on instant ramen” (here they usually mean “in college”), they don’t know what they’re talking about, or else they would truthfully append, “and after maybe the first year of that, you begin vomiting blood.” The work is so fulfilling, but it is also abject poverty. I was happy, but it is tough to live with the knowledge that you are in your 30s and you financially peaked, then blew it, by age 24.

Much of the reason for my checkered work history is because of my parents. This is not to lay blame at their feet — on the contrary, they supported me financially and, by the end, emotionally — but it is true that, as they both became sicker, I found it increasingly difficult to work consistent hours.

I chose freelance writing precisely because it allowed me to be present for my parents, while also giving my work output and CV some semblance of seeming steadiness.

My adoptive father’s dementia was already well underway when, in 2009, my mother went into septic shock for the first time. It was MRSA, they said, and I didn’t know what that was. I took temporary leave of my retail job to be with her in an ICU in Corpus Christi.

My father did not yet have a nurse, I don’t think — with dementia, care is actually “non-medical,” and companions are not covered by any sort of health insurance — and so, in trying to balance the ICU with care for my addled father at home, I think it was the first time I understood the full gravity of having two sick parents simultaneously.

I returned to retail, but now my days were staccatoed with phone calls from frantic nurses, or from nurses my mother had fired. Sometimes I made serious medical decisions over the phone. The second time my mother went into septic shock, which put her in an ICU in San Antonio, I took an unpaid leave, and I resented myself for having worked through Thanksgiving and Christmas to save vacation days (and then blowing all of them on catching the flu). This time her sepsis resulted in kidney failure: Though she’d survived her MRSA infection a second time, our new circumstances were much more dire.

So I applied to be a celebrity gossip blogger. The job would be low-stress, the daily work would make for a steady income stream, and if my world were to suddenly explode, I could blog straight through the nightmare and none of my coworkers or readers would know the difference. This way, I wouldn’t sacrifice work for each new family emergency.

I landed the job exactly when my father died.

It turned out I was right about the job, because for a few weeks I very successfully concealed his death from my coworkers. No one ever suspected I had flown to Texas, that I was now making funeral arrangements.

It was, therefore, a perfect work scenario, maybe even my dream job; I finally mentioned his death in a post on Father’s Day. (I also really enjoyed my work, and I loved my coworkers.)

I was driving from Chicago toward Texas for Christmas 2011 when, suddenly, somewhere in Missouri, I realized I never wanted to drive or fly toward Texas again. My childhood home had been so changed by nurses, medical supplies, and death. Strangers had been taking turns resting in my childhood bed. And I decided to take the whole week to drive from Missouri to Texas, and I filed my blogs from inside my car at truck stops, and my coworkers never knew what I was doing.

And that was when I realized, for the first time in my life, Oh, my God! I can do anything I want!

And I discussed it with my mother, and we decided we would do her kidney dialysis at home (it puts less strain on the body), and I showed her my first Unwinnable piece, which is about mothers and Sea Monkeys. And she told me she finally understood what I had been trying, trying, trying at all along, and she said “I think I’ve been telling you the wrong thing” all this time, and together we decided I would GO FOR IT, GO, THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH TIME, and she told me to go to GDC in March 2012, that it was the best possible thing for me, that it was finally time to pursue my career, and I said goodbye to her and went to San Francisco, and then back to my apartment in Chicago.

My work history is full of idiotic decisions, but this, this one was the stupidest decision I’ve ever made.

I did not move from my desk for the next six months — that comes to $500 — and now my mother was on the phone, in the Corpus ICU, and she said “I think you might need to—” and the stupid fucking call dropped.

I borrowed money from Stu Horvath, Unwinnable’s founding editor, to drive to Texas. I had just turned 30.

Recently I typed to a friend, “Nothing could have prepared me for this nightmare.” And that was hilarious to me, because it is true that nothing between 2008 and 2012 could have prepared me for what things are like after both your parents die. There is such thing, I have finally discovered, as real financial grief.

The process of dying is ever so much more than the cost of living. And so, with some of my mother’s bills still unpaid, I also inherited my childhood home and other properties that come with exorbitant, relentless tax. We are trying to sell them, but we are simultaneously having trouble keeping up with tax — which is to say, we are having trouble continuing to own everything long enough to sell it.
If losing my mother was my worst nightmare, facing an auction is the next worse.

The other thing is my own MRSA diagnosis, a diagnosis I received right before GDC 2013. Of course I caught it, because of course I caught it. More recently, with a loan from a colleague, I was finally able to see a doctor, who referred me to an infectious disease specialist. I am still waiting for the specialist to confirm my appointment, but I am on the list.

Until then, I am to apply a prescription topical antibiotic to my nostrils, navel, armpits, and any other part of myself that’s scary. I use hand sanitizer before I touch anything, and when I shower, I now use a type of cleanser called Hibiclens, which surgeons use.

End of Sob Story

I know the word “blessed” gets tossed around a lot, but I am. I know what I’ve had. I had two amazing, incredible parents, who rescued and then adopted me, who loved me to their deaths, who aimed to support me even after their deaths. I’ve always known, often grimly, I owe my parents my life.
I am blessed because, even though I have always been poor, I have been able to hold out. And while I’ve never had the money to ameliorate my parents’ burdens, I was able to give them a whole lot of my time.

I am exhausted, but most of the time I am also incredibly happy. I’ve tried so hard to make this all short and fast but, even if I went on for days, I could never begin to describe the fullness of my life.

I have real love in my life, and I have this dog, and even though I hate home ownership, we have this big crappy lawn, and birds, and I don’t have downstairs neighbors who yell at me anymore, and we are the only people in town who don’t use a gas-powered lawnmower. We stroll arm-in-arm through Wal-Mart, and even though I was once an 18-year old who claimed she was never coming back, I did come back, and with Ted it stopped being as heartbreaking as it was at first. And someday we will ditch all this stuff and get a condo someplace, and we can’t wait.

Even though it often pays very badly, freelancing has also been a terrific source of joy for me, and a type of relief, which is why I think I am fighting so hard to not relinquish it. And even though I cried while I was typing this to you, I also felt so happy, just to know you might be here reading this, and I am so privileged to be able to write it to you.

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