What My Unpaid Internships Taught Me About Myself

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I’ve always been a writer. Scratch that, I’ve always been a reader. I’ve been in love with the written word for as long as I can remember – I was that kid in the backseat reading Harry Potter, feeling increasingly nauseous but glued to the page nevertheless. I was that kid who won a writing contest in the local newspaper at eight years old, the weirdo who actually paid attention in tenth grade English, who will always swear that the book was better than the movie. Writing of any kind is something that I’ve always considered to be a noble pursuit; I think there’s a certain sort of magic that lives in language – after all, words can start wars, break hearts, change worlds. Whether you’re writing an email or a love letter, an essay or a novel, your words become an extension of yourself; a sort of proof of your thoughts, of your own existence. So yeah, I’ve always been a writer.

But being a writer at twenty years old isn’t exactly easy; the answers to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” questions aren’t as clear, the feedback isn’t as objective, and the internships aren’t always paid. Don’t get me wrong, I knew what I was getting into – I am all too familiar with the struggling writer archetype, and I know that journalism isn’t exactly the sexiest degree there is. What I didn’t expect was how difficult it would be to wake up at 7AM, put on a collared shirt, and work my a** off at a small trade magazine for seven hours without any compensation. What I didn’t expect was how tired I’d be after working back-to-back shifts as a waitress to make money on the side. What I didn’t expect was the loss of my weekends, the loss of my free time, and sometimes even the loss of a byline. But most of all, what I didn’t expect was to persist.

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Unpaid internships are frustrating, inglorious, exasperating, and, utterly, painfully necessary. Working two unpaid internships and one waitressing job this summer taught me that lunch breaks are best taken late in the day, a banana will not hold me for eight hours, and my shirt will not stay tucked in my dress pants all day no matter how many times I readjust myself. I learned how to make cheese boards and talk about the fruity notes of the house pinot, how to interpret Google analytics for a start-up website, and which of my editors prefers the Oxford comma.

“Like all great artists, I found pleasure in creating simply for the sake of creation itself.”

I learned, during late nights of mopping floors and early morning commutes in rush hour, that I am a writer. That despite it all, I continued and will continue until my own words change worlds. Some may claim unpaid internships to be unfair or free labor or a scam (myself included at times), but I ultimately treat them as lessons; as proof that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. Working without pay forced me to place a different value upon my writing. Like all great artists, I found pleasure in creating simply for the sake of creation itself; and I wouldn’t trade that feeling for a paycheck any day.

(Well, most days).

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