Monday, November 23, 2009

The inside story

Hell, it all looks so glamorous but nothing is as it seems

After a fabulous year last year, this year has been one of extreme drought as far as financial renumeration has been concerned. I struggled to pitch stories as a lot of the magazines were doing them inhouse. Thank God for press releases and the work that did come my way. So I started up this blog, just to keep my name out there. Blogs are about what you personally feel about stuff, not necessarily just toeing the official line. So here's the inside story about what it's REALLY like to be a social columnist. Never mind the stuff on the profile, everyone has to work an angle on themselves these days and get onto Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/whatever just to get out there.

Was being a social columnist what I really wanted to do with my life? It has almost been a sideline to what I really wanted to do - which is write. When I first pitched the idea of a social column to the then editor of The Citizen Tim du Plessis over nine years ago, I made a promise to myself. Two promises, actually. Firstly, I grandiosely said: "I want to put out the best damn social column in this town!" and secondly I promised myself that this was not who I was, it was what I did. This was an important distinction. I had to be true to myself in a complicated way.

Weirdly enough social journalism, in fact journalism, was not what I wanted to do with my life at all. Sies, seen through my student eyes journalists were those unwashed types who were always getting arrested and smoking pot. They were scaly, dodgy lowlifes that I wouldn't be seen dead with, and what was worse they always had some sort of agenda or other (I still feel like this about some of them!). Some people know from a very early age exactly what they are going to do with their lives. Not me. My career desires changed like a weathercock from month to month, from year to year, from one stage of my life to another and it all seemed like a natural progression. Twenty years ago I wanted to be a horticulturalist, and studied every botanical name of every plant. I knew them all, in my vast enthusiasm. I still know them, it was a very useful exercise, and my green fingers are still active. Then I wanted to work in publishing but my politics weren't far left enough for Wits, too middle of the road. I kind of "fell into" the social journalism thing. I took to it like a duck to water, and built up contacts and relationships like a pro. I could relate to people, and loved writing social stuff (after all, my Barbies had a social magazine back when I was ten). Nice pictures appealed to me, thanks to an art background, so the layout part was easy. I had always had a sharp tongue and found it was an asset to the job, as was an understanding of people.

I know where they are coming from. People are weirdly insecure and because of that seem determined to make me as a social columnist into what they want, not what I want to be. Some of them live to see their picture in the paper, just for some sort of validation. Is this why they are nice to me? I feel bad sometimes for the things I write, but hope they can see it as tongue-in-cheek, not a desire to be cruel. Of course the corrupt, the rude, the nasty get exactly what they deserve. Some high profile folk live in a world of wealth that is closed off from reality; they have no clue what the man in the street is experiencing nor do they want to know.

It's peculiar how they behave towards me. When I am camera-shy they literally push me into pictures and how I hate it (and untag myself from Facebook pictures! I look like a slug, twice the size I used to be!). Old friends of twenty years introduce me, saying: "Be careful what you say to her". They desperately want to make me into a celebrity, a big frog in this tiny little Jozi pond. They schmooze me and kiss me and tell me I look FABULOUS. God knows what they say behind my back!! Some give me the evil eye, which is very honest of them, to their credit. Some pay compliments which are in fact insults, but more power to them. Of course I love aspects of the job, it would be hypocritical not to admit that. Good lord, I get to meet famous people as a matter of course. I get to be interviewed on TV/radio. I get gorgeous goody bags from time to time. Designers dress me. People mention my name left, right and centre. My picture is in the paper every week! How hard would it be not to get a swollen head?

But knowing that I cant be too egotistical is part of a necessary survival kit. It's the publication that has the power, not me. Look what happened to Jani Allan, look at what happened to Gwen Gill, their publications just dumped them. I know perfectly well what will happen should I stop writing a column. It's happened to me before, after all, so I know. I am a writer, first and foremost, not freaking Hedda Hopper. So knowing who you really are and your own personal power in life is the most important thing. Everything in life is fleeting and momentary, only that knowledge remains for me at the end of the day. When I'm 80 I don't want to sigh sadly and say "those were the days". I want to say: "Today's the day!"

Dealing with my colleagues is progressively more trying. For the past eight years I was left alone to do my job but over the past two years the professional jealousy I have had to deal with at work has been noticeable (isn't it always like that in every workplace? The jealousy just follows you around). I daily hear the hisses: "Who does she think she is? Does she think she's a celebrity?" They make a lot of noise so I can't concentrate on creating my masterpieces and try to create a negative energy force around me. I always call it the "crabs in the bucket syndrome" and think it's quite funny. People don't understand that the more they try to drag other people down for being successful, the more they drag themselves down. Praising other people for their hard work and being inspired by their success is my philosophy. I wish our society would stop hating success and embrace it, on every level. Think of what we could achieve! The dark side is a reflection of the light side, it wants to pull it into itself and vice versa.

The really, really great thing about this job is the people you meet that you would not have a chance to meet as a civilian. I meet amazing people who are an inspiration to me (Arctic explorer Lewis Gordon Pugh, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius, Advocate George Bizos, Sir Salman Rushdie, Bettany Hughes, the former Mrs Sarkozy Cecilia Attias, Nelson Mandela, the list from the past nine years goes on and on). These are the kind of people whose energy I want to encounter, whose positivity and success are an inspiration. Everything else just falls away, all the petty jealousies and other people's insecurities are eclipsed and I feel re-energised and raring to go. Nothing is impossible.

It means I can go back to my little desk in my messy home (oh, the mess! and the papers! I would rather go out than deal with it) and try to get the thoughts which have been playing in my head into some sort of coherent form, my iPod playing something soothing in my ears. Next year and the year after that will improve, the work will come back, the money will improve and hopefully I will have another year to do the things I love.

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