The First Time I Got Paid

My first writing job was as an online writer for Big Brother II.

During each 8-hour shift I was expected to produce daily diaries for half of the contestants, write one feature article a day and one ‘he did, she did’ short per hour. If I was on a day-shift it was my duty to do a poll at a local shopping centre or write a quiz for online viewers, and if it was an elimination Sunday I had to interview the eliminated housemates and family members of other housemates present at the elimination. I also had to capture my own stills from the daily live feed. What a brilliant experience it was and I had great fun making up tittilating article titles and provocative photo captions.

It was chaotic at times and hilarious at others and the writing came easily when the house was full of housemates, each one eager to out-perform their competition. But once the contestants were eliminated, my shift-mate and I found ourselves writing about the house cats because the two remaining housemates slept the days away, and really the writers were forced, as our editor said, to make “koek from kak.”

Towards the end of the event, I was tasked with interviewing the mother of one of the contestants; the press had slated her for being a bad mother and so when I telephoned her, it took a lot of calm negotiating to get her to agree to the interview. She was embarrassed about the way her family had come across in the local sensationalist mag that had already interviewed her and she was eager to minimise her family’s exposure to public scrutiny, even though her daughter had already outed the family skeletons in such a public way. It must have taken me well over half an hour of just listening and reassuring her until she agreed to be interviewed.

Families are not perfect, parents are fallible. When I interviewed the contestant’s mother and when I finally wrote the story, I realised that as a writer I didn’t have to add to her pain and humiliation by continuing to present the hardships of her family in a judgemental way; there is more to a person’s life than some bad choices they’ve made. It was my first interview and an extremely valuable lesson: writing about other people demands respect and an ethical responsibility from the writer.

Since then I’ve written a few profiles of people and I’ve managed to present the people as I found them, allowing their own words and their environments to paint them, trying to minimise my own prejudices or views.

For one of the elective courses that I took at varsity I had to interview someone I didn’t know and I interviewed a biker who trawled our suburb like a contemporary cowboy. He agreed to the interview and all was going well until he launched into a sermon on Krishnamurti and then he reached across the coffee table and pinched me viciously on my arm – to illustrate a point about feeling. I was stunned at how he reached across the boundary of writer/subject; this wasn’t supposed to happen. He then told me that if I had not interviewed him that morning, he had planned to end his unravelling life! At the end of the interview, he gave me his card, I gave him mine, but neither of us ever used each other’s number again and although I wrote the article, I never attempted to publish it. The experience sort of turned me off writing profiles.

However, I’m still a voyeur, what with my Big Brother training and all that; but these days I watch and I write and I imagine and I use all of those imaginings in my fiction. Fiction is a much smarter genre in which to manipulate the lives of your characters without anyone really getting hurt.

For the record, I haven’t watched a Big Brother episode since I uploaded my last story on the Big Brother II website. But, I’m a girl in touch with my roots, and I know that I’m the writer I am today because of the lessons I learned in the green room at M-Net in Randburg.

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