How Much is a Life Story Worth?

I just finished Eva Illouz’s Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery, so I’m now obsessed with the idea of narrative as a tool of therapeutic healing. Illouz’s thesis is that Oprah’s stories create a way for her viewers to understand the universe. Suffering is linked to self-improvement. In addition, telling your story is a special act–you can heal your own life through examining your own actions, just as you could in a therapy session.

I’m not reading O: The Oprah Magazine anytime soon, because I think my doctor’s office has Redbook instead, but I’m still on my xoJane kick, into these stories of women’s suffering.  think that these stories are supposed to help heal the storytellers but they provide a model of existence to readers (conduct might be a strong word–a lot of these stories involve how to properly react to things, and “conduct” implies action). So, if you’re writing something like “I Can’t Have Sex With My Husband” or “I Was Raped by My Dentist” you’re providing a service to other readers, who will hopefully learn how to be OK with not having sex with their husbands or at least be a little kinder to them when they do have sex, or learn how to exist in a world in which injustices such as rape occur.

However, for all their supposed emotional value, these articles aren’t financially valuable. In this article about faking cancer (spoiler: faking cancer is bad), commenter “birdbrain” gets upset that her story has been stolen by the author. I want to concentrate not on “birdbrain”’s accusations, but about the amount of money involved. It’s $50. This girl—and all the other girls that write their healing, empathetic life stories—are getting paid $50 per 1,000 words for a site that shills $36 panties. That’s right, if you’re living the life you will be paid a panty-and-a-half for your work.

I know that freelance writing has never been a high-paying market and that the current American economic system depends upon people buying things based on identity and desire and not on need, but it disgusts me when the people shilling this stuff 1. post about how they’re going to make rent, a la Jen Polachek and 2. somehow think that they are participating in a liberating force when the system that they participate in is based on getting wildly underpaid workers to buy wildly overpriced consumables. If you want me to buy things, fine. If you want me to buy things because I want to construct some sort of identity, ok. If my participation is supposed to be based on selling personal information in a cleanly packaged narrative for very small amounts of money, which I am then supposed to spend on overpriced beauty products, then no. Perhaps somewhere out there a woman exists who can eat nail polish and turn her bra-and-panty set into a heated pup tent, but I’m not that woman.

The xoJane model fits into an ethos in which people, mostly women, are trying to earn a living “producing” themselves. Living up to this feminine ideal means that your life story is simultaneously the most important thing you can in produce—by telling it, you are healing yourself and setting a helpful example for other women—and the least important thing you can produce— by telling it, you are earning less than you could get working an 8-hour day at the American federal minimum wage. However, enough Obama voters believe that the minimum wage is unjust that the rates might rise; there’s a higher chance of nuclear war than anyone believing that the women who write these stories deserve more money. Hell, I just wrote all about it and emotionally, I can’t convince myself that these women’s stories are worth more cash.

These women don’t want money, the story is more important, it’s therapy where the patient gets paid. Even if the world shifted its axis and these women were getting paid the equivalent of an article pitched to a non-xoJane magazine, there’s something iffy about living your life as a prepackaged narrative.  It’s sort of like being a guide on a tour of your own life—here’s where I had a boyfriend, here’s where I got divorced, here’s where I was raped, here’s where I dyed my hair and it looked good, here’s where I dyed my hair and it didn’t look good. The readers/tourists come away with a little lesson and the guide gets paid.

However, repeating this life-tour gets boring if you’re just going to keep going over the same sites. Thus the phenomenon of women writers who are constantly reinventing themselves, wringing stories out of their lives for the reward of a bit of money and readers’ increasing scorn.* It’s a limited field—there are only so many stories you can create where you don’t act but are acted upon. At some point you will either run out of lessons or have to put those lessons into action, and then there may not be an easy moral at the end. But is there any other choice? Can you even write a narrative without it linking to her own “self story”? Do we have to live our lives as narratives in order to create narratives?

* The xoJane audience complains when “It Happened to Me” articles are about women who have made choices. The ideal storyteller is passive, or at least can cast her actions as the result of some sort of interior compulsion caused by psychic trauma or addiction. However, somebody who pulls this sort of stunt too often runs the risk of being labelled damaged or attention-seeking and losing their audience–see Elizabeth Wurtzel and Cat Marnell.

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