The Widening Gyre: Going Broke in LA

Unemployment statistics are almost meaningless. I’m a software engineer working in LA and I’m lucky that unemployment in my industry is incredibly low. There is a shortage of developers and we’re all being hounded by recruiters. This exists at the same time that other industries are suffering, as the author noted unemployment amongst writers is probably double average unemployment if not more. So, if you are using the 10% number to answer the question “How likely is it that I will find a job?”, it is meaningless. it all depends on what you do. Even if you are using the unemployment number to answer the question “How many people in this city are without jobs?” it is still meaningless as it doesn’t factor in freelancers, which in LA is huge. It also doesn’t factor in people who have given up on finding work and people who work multiple part time jobs.

I wish the author the best of luck in finding full time work.

As another in a business that has undergone dramatic change in the last few years, and as the poster above said, you’ve already spelled out the reasons why your career is never coming back. So what if you finally get that “big break?” In 6 months the contract will be over & in 9 you’ll be right back to where you are today.

I am fortunate, through some re-positioning to be fully employed in my industry, however when things were looking really bleak (thanks Credit Default Swaps) I enrolled in welding classes and got my certification. I found the work challenging, fulfilling, lucrative and thoroughly enjoyable and even though I have no need of the skills I acquired right now, it’s nice to see an inbox every morning with some welding want ads sitting there.

Of course I’m not suggesting you follow my path exactly, but as a previous poster pointed out, don’t dismiss the trades. The guy who never called you back as a writer will be pleading with you to come over as a plumber when hot water is running over his Persian rugs. And some one with your obvious education and articulate skills will rise fast to the top of the field.


My takeaway from this is that LA’s a pretty terrible place to be a writer. If I wanted to write for TV, I’d move to New York or Vancouver - both expensive, beautiful cities.

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I moved to New York without work, and made it work. I moved to SF without work, and made it work. I moved to LA, and it was 5 years of taking 5 steps forward, get pushed 4 steps back and punched in the face.

LA is the single hardest place to have any kind of working stability that I have ever experienced.

I have good friends there, and I miss them. But moving out of LA, and back to a place where work and people are actually respected, was one of the best moves I’ve ever made in my life. Just like moving to LA was one of the worst.

Unless you have a script that was just optioned, and I mean all the way where they’ve taken down your SS# to cut you a check, GET OUT. Life really is better elsewhere. In every single way. Including good new friends.


It is interesting that much of the feedback here is “move elsewhere”. I find myself agreeing with it.

I do I think it’s part of the fine American tradition to pick up stakes and move when things aren’t working out over time. Go, er, not west, young man!

On top of that, the pervasiveness of the Internet means it increasingly shouldn’t matter where you live, if you do work that involves computers, anyway.


From what I’ve seen, LA can be a good place to move if you’ve already made it. Even then, people don’t necessarily. Louis CK moved to NY instead, and then started his TV show and has just continued to blow up since then.

Oh Hell, there are scads of writing jobs all over the effin’ place. Boing Boing is run by professional writers, please note. Damned near all of the Web requires the input of pro writers. What there isn’t are writing jobs where this chap is looking (that aren’t already overrun by a small army of applicants, at any rate).

I work as a freelance editor, among other things, and I’m still feeling my way around what works and what doesn’t - it has changed since the last time I freelanced (during the '80s). The need for locality and personal contact is one of those things. The need for constant contact hasn’t changed, but the Internet giveth as well as taketh away: it’s remarkably easy to remain in daily contact with colleagues and clients now, wherever they are.

So… a few tentative notes of a developing praxis that I would share with this chap:

  1. The world is both a very large place and a very small place now. Develop a network of colleagues around the world. You will probably find that a lot of work takes place as a loose set of partnerships that form and dissolve according to the needs of the jobs at hand.
  2. The corollary is that you have to have something to offer that your partner can’t produce on his/her own. Partnerships are only worthwhile for jobs that pay premium rates. Often enough, even jobs without a partner are only worthwhile at premium rates because…
  3. Rates vary immensely with locale. Thai regular rates, for instance, match the Thai cost of living, and I guarantee you’ll starve in LA on that. I know of a Filipina freelance writer who absolutely insists on Canadian rates (which are very high for the Philippines). She can do that because she produces premium quality writing, both in English and Tagalog, and does so for a market that makes heavy use of English and has a certain level of proficiency, but not the level of a country where it is a native language. That means:
  4. You have to be able to offer premium product. I can see that you write well, but the trick is to know your strengths and figure out where they’re in short supply, much as the Filipina has done. If your clients know they can come to you for something they can’t easily get elsewhere, they’ll be back, especially if you deal with them straight. What defines writing that is worth premium rates is as much scarcity as it is quality, and scarcity can be as much a result of a lack of skill or knowledge in a field or topic in a given locale as it is a paucity of good writers in the language.
  5. Premium rates elsewhere may be just barely livable for your area. If you can stay alive on them, though, go for it, because the reputation for premium quality is transferable between locales.
  6. Payment up front or in escrow. No exceptions. Unethical operators can be found anywhere, but when there are 10,000 km between you and the client, and the local courts may be easily suborned, it becomes very hard to dun the customer for arrears. Good clients may not like this condition, but they’ll respect it.
  7. The field of freelance writing is inherently unstable - it absolutely requires flexibility. If you were able to do it for a couple of decades comfortably, you lucked out - the conditions in LA have changed and are no longer suitable. Move to where you can do the work without LA’s cost of living. Look at niches you’ve never looked at in locales you’ve never looked at. Take up other lines of work when the dry periods hit. You’ll need to learn new fields and new skills as a matter of course, and I mean really learn them.

Basically, if you’re going to do this work, expect periods like this in your life, adjust quickly, and move on. This is work you should be doing because you love it, not because you expect a steady living. I’m currently working with a Thai translator on TV scripts for a bunch of shows the producer is trying to sell overseas - not the best paying work (although very good by Thai standards), but challenging work. I’m having fun and learning, as is my Thai partner. I might even be able to use the (many) Thai honorifics in the right circumstances now. :smiley:

But note that our client is getting background knowledge and a quality of writing in the translations that would be hard to come by in Bangkok, in a field where regular translation quality won’t cut it. That’s a premium niche. Note also the ad hoc partnership involving two different professions.

I sympathise with the disruptions the author is going through - I’m older than he is, so “been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore it out”. It doesn’t get easier as you get older, but making a living in general isn’t getting any easier. What I’ve written above isn’t engraved in stone and is very much subject to change, but I suspect I’m in a better position to adapt because I was out of the field for a long period of time - the habits and practices I was comfortable with when I was freelancing back then clearly don’t apply now. I suspect the author may be in the position of the frog placed in a pot of tepid water - the burner has been lit for a while now and the water is coming to a boil, but the change in conditions has sort of crept up on him…


Same age, skills, and boat. Here’s my $0.02 worth:

You’re not unemployed. You’re self-employed.

And to be brief: The whole Internet is out there. Go for it.

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I feel for you man, it can be tough out there but the amount of time you put into writing this article and feeling sorry for yourself is time you could’ve spent reinventing who you are and what you do.

Yes, everyone is a writer but few are professional and none have the experience that you have. You are unique, your experiences are unique and that is very very valuable.

I’m a year older than you. Freelanced on/off for fifteen years. Went inhouse twice (fired both times) and joined two startups (both failed). I decided to focus on content strategy and content generation in my reboot (six months ago) and feel like there are more opportunities right now than there ever were. But you have to create them yourself. No one is going to create them for you.

Whatever jobs we used to be able to get and live on are gone. They’ll never come back. But the world is desperate for good writers.

There’s some great advice in the replies but you make the choice to see the glass half empty or full.

So, yeah, continue moaning that you’re down (but dude, some UK editor just offered you a gig!). Or, take control and choose to redefine yourself and create something from scratch.

Best of luck to you. Keep fighting the good fight.

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The correct way of looking at it is, “It’s a glass. It has some liquid in it. Is it potable, and if so, are you going to drink it or shall I?”


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Understandably the author might not have enough money for this, but it seems like moving would be his best option. The work ethic and culture in the Midwest and East Coast might be more suited to him and his wife than California.

I’m from the East Coast and to me everything on the West Coast moves so slow. I would never survive out there.

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Ah the old glass half full or empty rhetoric eh. I call it rhetoric because there is a very easy to understand scientific mthod in choosing the correct answer.

Was the LAST state of the glass closer to FULL or closer to EMPTY?

IF it was FULL, and you EMPTIED it to half it is half-empty.
IF is was EMPTY and you FILLED it to half it is half-full.

That’s it!

I’m sorry for all you’re going through. The main thing I take away from your piece is a common mistake I see among my writer friends (and I am one too). You’re thinking like a writing.

Your wife wants to write for TV. You want to do branding work for ad agencies. You’re thinking like a writer: You want to do the fun, glamorous work that everyone wants to do. Instead, you need to analyze the marketplace – see where the demand is, where the opportunities are – are see how you can adapt your skill set to the demand.

And writers hate that, because the work may not be fun or glamorous - but it’s there.
You are trolling job boards and calling ad agencies. Again, that’s how writers think – find the job givers. Instead, think about those opportunities and how to tap into them. The Internet offers writers enormous opportunities to create and sell work, often in non-traditional ways.

Too many writers get hung up on how things used to be (which is how they think things always should be).


Agreed - definitely keep writing, no matter what. But also, really do consider a different place to live than in or near LA. Some places really are worse to live and work than others. LA is one of those places.

I have my own little business and product, and I’ve tried to get a plug on BoingBoing a couple times (HELLO! Cory?).

But the one thing I always remind myself as I tape boxes and haul stuff to FedEx and obsess over the record keeping is that a company does not get built by someone who sits in a coffee shop. I think a lot pf people have an idea for a product and they order 5,000 widgets from China and then they think they’ll sit in some trendy bistro and watch the money in on their iphone. Wrong! People will hate the widget, and they’ll hate you, and you have to absorb that and turn it into something positive that can be relaunched. You have to something out to consumers at the earliest possible moment and harvest the negative feedback. And then work work work for a year to find out if the idea has any merit at all or if someone sends you a cease-and-desist letter.

My philosophy has been that I might not have a “job,” but I’m still going to work hard at least 6 days a week.

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“Thinking like a writer” is not super accurate since this is something that plagues everyone who confuses what their passion is with what gainful employment is. Too many people decide they want to want to be in a very dramatic way that ultimately isn’t fulfilling. I may put a lot of time in in a field that’s certainly not a dream for me, but I make good money and have no issues with employment. My passions get to be my passions, and while I would love to spend more time on them I’m ultimately happy being a weekend warrior.

I think the word has changed a bit, recently and abruptly for writers. I know that because I am one and have supported myself my whole adult like as one. my reply is really best put forth in an animation I’ve placed at I do hope you enjoy it.

a second try to link to my animation

Your failure is that you haven’t made meaningful connections here in LA. With 16 mil inhabitants in greater LA, perhaps you only have yourself to blame. It could be you brought a sense of entitlement with you when you first arrived (often people do), perhaps you believe the city owes you something (it does not). I grew up not far from where you live, on Adams hill in Eagle Rock and that you’re now just “discovering” the cultural gems of LA tells me you probably need some new friends. Don’t be fearful; don’t alienate yourself from those scary minorities at the supermarket–many of them have had it worse than you and have made it just fine in LA. In fact, many of my friends growing up in your hood came from working class Armenian, Filipino, Mexican American, etc. homes and I couldn’t describe how positive, warm, and optimistic their households were. Most (not all) of these friends have gone on to successful lives from very little. Do you know how? Support from their friends, family, community. How well is relying on your words working out for you? If that is, as you say, "all you know"then you need to learn something else. Learn instead to network and be a solid friend. Also, don’t be such a downer. People can smell the negativity and it brings others down.

BTW - You didn’t “discover” the theaters, the staircases, etc etc. those things many people already knew about long before you, and this huge city of endless possibilities will be here long after you’ve gone.