Ellie Searl Stories


Doesn't Make Cents

Ellie Searl

There is something about asking for money that makes my stomach go into knots. Just thinking about it makes me nervous and sweaty. I’d never make it as a prostitute. I wouldn’t earn enough money to pay for the outfit, accessories, and overhead necessary for success when cavorting with scum: slinky clothes, stiletto heels, cigarettes, whiskey, crack cocaine, rat-infested tenement. Not only would I charge too little for the humiliation of performing demeaning acts with creeps, I’d have to give more than half of my meager take to some pimp, who would most likely beat me up for being a useless earner.

It disturbs me that I’m too shy, or more likely, too insecure to charge for my services. Am I not “good enough”? Is my product not up to the standards of the general public? What am I afraid will happen if I charge too much? Or too little?

I’m a self-taught graphic designer. I design brochures, booklets, all-occasion greeting cards, posters, photograph collages, and other projects. But I’m a terrible judge of my own work. Others have said, “Ellie, this is so creative. It’s so beautiful. It must have taken a pile of time! How do you come up with such clever ideas?”

“I don’t know; it just happens.” Fortunately I have enough self-respect to keep the ah-shucks reply completely unassuming, not accompanied by batting eyelashes and a receding body slump.
This is not to say I don’t like to get paid for my services. I like to get paid - a lot! I just don’t like to charge. Like most insecure people, I want my product to be loved and wanted so much by my clients they will set the price higher than I would ever set for myself.

I want an exchange like this:

Ellie: “Oh, this is way too much; please, just give me half of that!”
Response: “Oh, no, Ellie, I’ll give you even more! You’re so worth it!”

That’s how to get paid in a perfect world.

When Kathy flipped through the pages of my most recent creation, “A Year of Celebration,” a calendar gift book she had commissioned me to make for her friend’s birthday, she exclaimed about its beauty, its creativity, and the obvious pile of time it took.

“So, how much do I owe you?” Kathy took out her checkbook.

This is when the ‘what-am-I-worth?’ ache grabs me in the gut.

It’s underhanded, I know, but blatant manipulation is a good way to monitor someone’s appraisal barometer. I maneuver opinions out of people in order to discover what they really think of my work. If they say “ok” to giving me a free-will offering, that means they’re not crazy about the product, and the initial excited flattery was really just ‘hide-the-disappointment-in-niceties to make her feel good.’ That tells me to back off. But if they insist on a giving me more money than a paltry contribution, well, then maybe, just maybe, I actually made a product they like . . and want to buy.

“Just give me what you want to. I had fun making it.” I wait for Kathy to respond.

“No way! Look what you’ve done here. There are 26 color pages, you’ve included each month of the year, you’ve cloned our faces into just about every picture, and you’ve used tons of ink. It’s wonderful, and I’m going to pay you royally for this fabulous book.”

The most I’ve ever set as an actual fee for any project was for the cost of the paper. I never charged for the price of ink, the time spent working, wear and tear on my computer and printer, the electricity, any traveling involved, not to mention the wine, cheese, gin martinis with olives, coffee, and Alka Seltzer that kept me sustained at the computer until 2:00 am while numbing my butt or freezing my fingers because the heat was turned down to 55 degrees five hours earlier.

Once, I didn’t charge anything. I brought a friend into my home, helped her design thank you cards using my computer, and then printed all 60 cards with my card stock paper on my color printer while we drank a nice merlot. She wanted to pay me, but I lied and told her I do this all the time . . . for the love of it. I know; I’m an idiot. Did I mention it was my merlot?

I tell Kathy, “Ok, How about $50.00?”

“How about I triple that. You can’t do work like this and not get paid what it’s worth! You’re cheating yourself!” Kathy was adamant.

The manipulation paid off this time, probably because she was a friend of mine. The next person will have to be just as good exploitation material if I am to make any kind of living selling my free-lance graphic design projects - or anything else, for that matter.

If I do decide to try the oldest profession, I’d at least have the basic inventory readily available.

EVS / 8/08